Whatever Happened to Sin?

Karl Augustus Menninger (1893-1990) was an American psychiatrist and a member of the Menninger family of psychiatrists who founded the Menninger Foundation and the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He wrote many books, such as Man Against Himself , Love Against Hate , The human mind , etc.

He wrote in this 1973 book, "In all of the laments and reproaches made by our seers and prophets, one misses any mention of 'sin,' a word which used to be a veritable watchword of prophets. It was a word once in everyone's mind but now rarely if every heard. Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles---sin with an 'I' in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything? Guilty perhaps of a sin that could be repented of or atoned for?... Anxiety and depression we all acknowledge, and even vague guilt feelings; but has no one committed any sins? Where, indeed, did sin go? What became of it?" (Pg. 13) He explains, "'What WAS the sin that no longer exists?' ... I have in mind behavior that violates the moral code or the individual conscience or both; behavior which pains or harms or destroys my neighbor---or me, myself." (Pg. 17) He adds, "although it has disappeared from serious use in our workaday vocabularies, perhaps it has not gone from the back of our minds. We shall see." (Pg. 24)

He suggests, "I believe there is 'sin' which is expressed in ways which cannot be subsumed under verbal artifacts such as 'crime,' 'disease,' 'delinquency,' 'deviancy.' There IS immorality; there IS unethical behavior; there IS wrongdoing. And I hope to show that there is usefulness in retaining the concept, and indeed the word, SIN, which now shows some signs of returning to public acceptance. I would like to help this trend along." (Pg. 46)

He argues, "The use of diagnostic labels in a pejorative way is a sin of which I have myself been guilty. I began to see how much harm is caused and consequently I have discontinued it. Dr. Thomas Szasz of New York State goes even further than I; he will not even concede the existence of ANY 'mental illness.' He believes this to be a mythical, political, and damaging designation. I have myself proposed that we speak rather of 'Personality Dysorganization' of various degrees rather than 'mental disease,' psychosis, neurosis, and the like." (Pg. 171)

He asserts, "The assumption that there is sin... implies both a possibility and an obligation for intervention. Presumably something is possible which can be reparative, corrective, meliorative, and that something involves me and mercy---we want them, too. But we want to think we can help ourselves and our fellows if only a modicum. Hence sin is the only hopeful view... Therefore I say that the consequence of my proposal would not be more depression, but less. If the concept of personal responsibility and answerability for ourselves and for others were to return to common acceptance, hope would return to the world with it!" (Pg. 188) He concludes, "If we believe in sin---as I do---we believe in our personal responsibility for trying to correct it, and thereby saving ourselves and our world." (Pg. 220)

Despite the lapse of 40 years since this book was written, Menninger's proposal for a return to responsibility and the corresponding possibility of redemption still has a strong resonance with the modern temperament.