It would be hard to pinpoint exactly when American society began referring to desserts as “sinful” and divorce as “no-fault.”
In changes so gradual that they seem revolutionary only in retrospect, classical Christian ideas about sin - like long lines at confessionals and preachers fierily challenging their congregations to mend their ways - have fallen by the wayside in many churches.
In his new book, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” published by Erdmans, theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. says: “To put it mildly, modern consciousness does not encourage moral reproach; in particular, it does not encourage selfreproach.”
What Plantinga and a growing number of other scholars are trying to recapture in the churches is a biblically based notion of the inevitability of human sin and the need to repent and accept grace.
Even into the 1950s, a heritage of taking sin seriously passed down by theologians such as Augustine and John Calvin was still evident in most Christian churches. While growing up among Western Michigan Calvinists in the 1950s, Plantinga said in a recent issue of Christianity Today, he would hear as many sermons about sin as he did about grace. Today, he said, the accusation that you have sinned, which once had the power to jolt people, is often said with a grin and a tone that signals an inside joke.
“Don’t go to church if you want to hear about sin,” agrees the Rev. William Willimon, Duke University chaplain. “But go to a movie or pick up a book and you’re more likely to hear about that.”
While churches tell their flocks they are good people and mean well, Willimon said in an interview, authors such as Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood will discuss the human capacity for evil.
Plantinga said in an interview that both liberal and conservative churches share guilt over the trivialization of sin. In some mainline Protestant churches, sin is generally spoken of only in corporate terms, and largely on social issues, Plantinga said. In evangelical congregations that have church growth as their primary goal, the uncomfortable topic of personal sin also is avoided.
There are some signs of change. A summer 1993 issue of Theology Today was devoted to a serious discussion of sin, and the cover story of the January issue of U.S. Catholic - “Don’t Cancel That Guilt Trip” - talks about the tendency of “therapeutic religion” to talk people out of guilt and sin.
“If I’m OK and you’re OK, why should we seek to journey anywhere, discover anything, seek anyone?” writes Christine Gudorf in U.S. Catholic.
Plantinga says confessing sin is not only religiously important but psychologically important.
“What happens otherwise is we start to close wounds that we haven’t really healed,” he said.