This is a personal exploration of the concept of Sin from a Christian Existentialist viewpoint. I freely borrowed, reinterpreted, and repurposed many ideas from Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness Unto Death,” translated by Alastair Hannay. In addition, while the arguments below are ascribed to Kierkegaard himself, it should be noted that the book itself is written under the pseudonym of “Anti-Climacus.” For the sake of simplicity, I have combined the views of Anti-Climacus and Kierkegaard.
Sin is such an ugly word, there’s no other way for me to explain how I feel about it. It’s a word that I’ve wrestled with throughout most of my life, that I’ve struggled to make sense of and find a place within the network of concepts that I operate under. To be quite honest, I’m still not even completely comfortable saying it out loud. It may as well be a dirty word.
Part of the reason why the word Sin bothers me so much is because of how I think of it, as a crime that one commits against, not another human being, but against God, against the divine order of things. And, even if you are not of the theistic persuasion, I’m sure you can admit that designating something as a Sin is to ascribe a deeply severe negativity that surpasses ordinary moral transgressions. Pretty much, if we’re calling something a Sin, we probably think that it’s pretty bad, bad enough to warrant some sort of divine retribution.
It is not a pretty thing to be called a Sinner either, and it’s equally horrible to actually think of yourself as having committed a Sin, to have passed that sort of judgment on yourself. That’s why, in my younger days I always tried to downplay the idea of Sin in my life: ‘Oh, Sin is not a real thing, it must be an invention to keep people in check. Someone says this or that is Sin, but that’s just their point of view, that’s their own prejudices, their own ignorance talking.’
In this way I had usually been able to temporarily evade thinking about Sin, by dismissing all Sin as comprised of nothing but the little sins of a collective morality. And the thing about little sins is that, for the most part, I thought I could get away with those, that they weren’t of such severity as to set the world on fire. And if little sins weren’t so problematic then Sin itself shouldn’t be either. But despite my attempts, I have to admit that even to this day, Sin itself persists in its insistence that I take it seriously, that I try to make some sense of it as a condition of this oh so human reality and not just as a mere human invention.
In this very specific philosophical sense then, I still don’t care about little sins. I’m interested in Sin itself, that from which these little human sins derive some of their unnerving force. I want to know what makes the word Sin so powerful still, even when I’ve come to work out that most of the things I’ve heard people in my life call sins really aren’t sins, at least in the metaphysically catastrophic sense that Sin seems to embody for me.
Chalk this up to my Catholic upbringing, or an overly inquisitive philosophical attitude, but I must let Sin have it’s day. I have to try to figure out, as best as I can, what Sin is by itself, divorced from any collective rulebook of ‘thou shalt nots.’ I have to explore it, not as a matter of doctrine of this or that established orthodox view, but as a matter of what my individual experience has given me. Yet, I’ve delayed. I still continue to circle around the question of Sin because, for myself at least, I can’t divorce the idea of Sin from the idea of God.
For me there is a relationship between the Sin and the divine, and if I’m going to inquire about Sin in the way that I want to, I’m going to have to talk about God. In short, I can’t keep it completely secular, and it’s just going to have to be that way. In this regard, I’ve been helped out immensely by the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is one of those philosophers who I admire because, he somehow sits atop this precarious ledge between secularism and faith, although you wouldn’t know it upon first glance.
Don’t get me wrong, Kierkegaard, once your really dig into his writings, is blatantly pro-Christian, but he’s a very interesting sort of Christian, at least I think so, because he acknowledges that the modern human condition is primarily characterized by despair, anxiety, boredom, and alienation. Kierkegaard writes almost as if under the assumption that we will never have access to anything like knowledge of God. All we really have immediately available are our finite human categories of existence and nothing else. And so when Kierkegaard writes about Christian themes, such as Sin, he makes use of this existential vantage point.
Sin & Despair
To begin with, Kierkegaard, in his work, “The Sickness Unto Death,” doesn’t immediately lay out a strict definition of Sin. He actually uses up about half of this work trying to develop a seemingly secular or quasi-psychological classificatory scheme of the concept of Despair. Basically, he approaches Despair as if it is a sickness, a disease who’s symptoms and treatment must be worked out. I’ve written previously about Kierkegaard’s analysis of the many ways that Despair manifests in our everyday experience, and that article can be read here.
But to keep it short and sweet, Kierkegaard initially approaches Despair without any explicit religious component attached to the concept. Despair is a disorder wherein the self wishes to not be itself, where the self retreats from the possibilities that are in front of it and chooses to hide, to remain in a state of hopelessness. If this sounds like something close to depression, that is not surprising. I’ve had many many bouts of depression over the years and many times when I read Kierkegaard’s description of the different ways that Despair manifests itself in daily life, the way that it whispers into our ears that we are simply not good enough to be worth fixing, I am surprised at how close he seems to get to describing exactly what I’ve gone through.
One particular illustration of Despair that Kierkegaard provides is that of a homeowner choosing to only live in the basement of his home, even though, as the homeowner, he has the right to live and move throughout any room he pleases. (P.73) Similarly, in my lower moments in the past I’ve often questioned why I deserve to be happy, or hell, why I should even make any attempts at improving my situation in life. In those times, my inner monologue has usually gone something like, “this being alive thing isn’t for me, I seem to fail constantly, what’s the use? I should just hide away from others, from the world. Maybe it would have been better if I had never been born.”
But of course, this is the wrong way to look at things. I do deserve more out of life, I do have the right to move through this world freely and to make something of myself. I have the right to become authentically human in whatever way works for me. So, Despair is something like a disordered desire to reduce myself to nothing, to give up everything that life has to offer. But what does that have to do with Sin?
Sin & Hopelessness
Sin, once Kierkegaard actually tries to make some sense of it in the latter half of “The Sickness unto Death,” is, the intensification of Despair. It has the general texture of Despair, which tells us that we are not even worthy of being alive, of self-improvement, but further developed so that it is no longer just mere hopelessness, but a compounded hopelessness, It is a sort of hopeless hopelessness. This is because in Sin, Despair is conjoined with a conception of God, the absolute, that which, for Kierkegaard, is fundamentally essential for authentic human existence.
So, to give a fuller definition of Sin, we can say, along with Kierkegaard that, Sin is, “before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself.” (P.109) Sin is essentially a doubling down of Despair, it is my having a solution consciously presented to me for becoming my authentic self (the presence of God) and further sticking my head in the sand. But this sticking my head in the sand can go two ways, that is. I either choose not to will to be myself, or I choose to will to be myself irrespective of the presence of God.
What exactly is this presence of God though? Is it something like the heavens parting and some ethereal light descending with trumpets and angels and the whole shebang? I don’t think Kierkegaard is really thinking only of this kind of ‘presence of God,’ maybe that is how the God-presence manifests for some. But for most people it can also be something like the conscious recognition of something greater than oneself, something which, when properly related to, gives authentic meaning and direction to human life. For Kierkegaard, that presence is the Christian God.
So, for Kierkegaard, there are two options available to me, the Sinner. First, I can choose not to will to be myself. The God-presence is in front of me, and the option to engage in some sort of relationship with this presence, and to dig out of Despair, is in front of me, if I so choose it. But I choose to not believe that I have any sort of relationship to this God-presence, and, under the fog of Despair, this presence even appears foreign and alien to me, it’s too good to be true, it can’t be true, I won’t believe it to be true. So I further recede into Despair, into hopelessness on top of hopelessness.
On the other hand, I might choose to will to be myself despite this God-presence. I look at the relationship available to me, a relationship with the absolute and, I am offended at the idea of having to put up with it. I can do this myself, I don’t need to depend on something else, my despairing pain is mine and mine alone. In this regard, I lack a certain sort of humility. I would rather remain in Despair so long as it is my-Despair because at least my-Despair is something recognizable, something that in many ways I find safer than developing a relationship with the divine. Attempting a relationship with God, having faith, would be like throwing myself from a cliffside not knowing if I would survive or not, and who would want to risk that?
In both of these ways, willing to either be or not be myself in the face of the God-presence, I transform my Despair into Sin. I choose to not treat myself, to not take any medicines to remedy this illness. In this way, Sin can only be, for Kierkegaard, the intensification of Despair and all of the little sins, those actions which I engage in that seem wrong in some strange metaphysical way (whatever they may be) could only really feel like sins if they derived their power from this initial moment in the doubling down of Despair.
Sin & Ignorance
Kierkegaard’s approach is also a rejection of the assumption that ignorance is what causes Sin. If I think that Sin is a product of mere ignorance, then, like the Ancient Greeks, I am of the mind that human beings fundamentally want to do good, that we are naturally inclined to desire it. But just because I want to do good, that doesn’t mean that I know how to go about doing it. So on this picture, I sin, or go wrong, because I haven’t remedied my ignorance. If only some piece of evidence, a syllogistic argument, a little bit of knowledge was available to lead me out of ignorance, then everything would make sense, then I would not be a Sinner. Then I would do the right thing, I would not fall further and further into inauthenticity.
But for Kierkegaard, ignorance isn’t really a problem. After all, I already have the God-presence available to me. Maybe the God-presence hasn’t manifested itself as a burning bush or an angel of light, but it has manifested in some way, either as a thought, or as a general knowledge of the existence of the Christian viewpoint. In either case, the God-presence is there, it is ready for me to dive into some sort of relationship with it, to try to make sense of and gain an authentic sense of who I am as an individual. Yet I still choose to defy this possibility, the possibility of faith in God. I am not lacking in understanding, in knowledge, what I am lacking in is a will to make the attempt to understand, and so, by extension, I am unwilling to do what is right.
A more philosophical formulation of what Kierkegaard is getting at can go something like this. Say, that Sin is just ignorance, or a product of it. If it is just ignorance, then ignorance is something that primordially belongs to me. It is in my nature to not be able to know things now and forevermore. Yet I act as if I can know, as if understanding is something that I will arrive at someday. Then perhaps my ignorance is only an acquired sort of ignorance. I have become habituated to being ignorant, to ignoring truth (in this case, the truth of Christianity, of a relationship with God). But habits can be broken, they can be surmounted by my willing otherwise. In that case, I am unwilling to understand, I am choosing to be ignorant of what is good and proper. More importantly to me, I am choosing to ignore my relationship with God.
As Kierkegaard puts it, the Ancient Greeks assumed, in a child-like way, that if a person knows that they are doing wrong, then they will refrain from doing that wrong thing. (P.120) How could someone defiantly do the wrong thing if they were aware that it was the wrong thing? To put it another way, how could I choose to not become my authentic self if the option was made available to me?
It could only be because my will was defiant, and so, ultimately, Sin has nothing to do with whether or not I have the right sort of worldview or knowledge (whether it is a philosophical argument, a set of doctrines, or some empirical data) available to me. If I received information today that conclusively proved without a shadow of doubt the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, I would still not be saved from Sin. Really, the route out of Sin has everything to do with whether or not I choose to have a relationship with God. Because, for Kierkegaard, this is the only way to really achieve authentic selfhood.
Sinning as a Way of Life
So on Kierkegaard’s account, what actually happens if I choose to reject a relationship with God? What if, instead of allowing myself to have Faith, I choose, in defiance of the God-presence, to compound my Despair? To live in Sin? To choose inauthenticity?
Surprisingly, Kierkegaard doesn’t really make an attempt to draw up a list of small sins which follow from the primary Sin of choosing to reject a relationship with God and remaining in Despair. This is something that I’ve always found very interesting. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Kierkegaard doesn’t think it is a free for all in the small sins department, that so long as I choose to have a relationship with God, collective morality goes out the window. No, the problem is Sin itself, it runs deep and disperses itself throughout the whole of the individual human life. It is Sin, not the little sins of collective morality, which is at the root of inauthentic existence.
Sin is compounded Despair, it is a disease which I have chosen not to treat. I have dug my heels in, I will not take the medicine (a relationship with God). I will curl up in the corner and put up with this sickness even unto death. Even worse, I will become so accustomed to this sickness that I will think it’s completely normal to live this way. My Sin will become something habitual, something that lessens my ability to lead a positively meaningful life. Inauthenticity will seem like something normal.
As Kierkegaard puts it, “Sin is a reality that on its own develops by itself an increasingly affirmative continuity,” (P.139) so, as I remain longer and longer in Sin, on Kierkegaard’s account, I eventually start to exhibit more and more particular forms of sin, what I’ve been calling little sins. This isn’t completely Kierkegaard, this is mostly my own interpretation, but these little sins, I think at least, should not always be thought of on the basis of collective morality.
The problem with collective morality is that it is subject to the whims of culture, history, and human prejudice. Some things we called sins in the past, we don’t consider sins anymore. In fact, something I think is a sin for myself, that action which causes me to shudder as if I have offended the heavens, may not be a sin for another person. This is because Sin is an individualized affair and if there is to be anything like a general rule to follow when assessing whether an individual action is truly sinful or not, at least on Kierkegaard’s view, it must have something to do with whether or not the so-called sinful behavior stems from inauthentic selfhood.
A relationship with God, that is, faith, is difficult for even myself to comprehend sometimes. I’ve written about faith before and that article can be found here. Faith clearly isn’t an intellectual enterprise. Kierkegaard’s objections to the Ancient Greek way of thinking about Sin on the basis of ignorance make that clear enough. Faith resides in another category from knowledge, and it’s not really something like a belief either because belief is just a few steps removed from knowledge anyway. No, faith is a matter of choice and choice seems to be a priori to intellectual deliberation, at least, if I’ve read Kierkegaard correctly.
If I don’t want to be a Sinner anymore, if I want to make the leap and actually have a relationship with this God-presence, a relationship which guarantees an authentic human existence, what, in actuality is stopping me then? What keeps me stranded in the mode of sinning, in the mode of inauthenticity if not my assenting to some set of propositions about the nature of reality? I could affirm the truths of Christian Doctrine, (which in my personal life I do) but I might still be inauthentic. I could still not be honestly relating to God in my heart of hearts. In Kierkegaard’s view, I could still claim to be religious, but be completely hollow as a human being.
So, even if I recognize that I am a Sinner and affirm Christianity (an individual decision) there is still a danger then. There is the danger of despairing even further about the fact that I am a Sinner, of fixating on my Sin-hood to such an extent that a relationship with the divine is always precluded. When I do this, I fail to allow myself to be a human being, fallible, and prone to making mistakes. It is as if I am situating myself in the place of God and passing judgment on myself, telling myself that because of my Sin-hood, I shall not be allowed to enter into a relationship with God, I shall not be allowed to work on building an authentic meaningful existence for myself, whatever that may look like. This, Kierkegaard refers to as a product of a “hidden self-love and pride.” (P.145). In essence, I self-sabotage myself.
So really, the way out of Sin is something like a two-fold forgiveness. First, I must be able to set aside my pride and look at myself squarely in the face and forgive myself for the ways in which I have failed myself. I have to allow myself to be a human being and everything that is entailed in being a human being, which includes not always getting this whole ‘being alive’ thing right. It also includes acknowledging when I have done wrong, when I have hurt others, or participated in injustice, or when I have failed to practice compassion for my fellow human beings. These little sins are what matter to me, they are the ones that truly unnerve me. And so when I fail, when I do wrong, I have to be willing to allow myself to make amends to myself, to have another go at doing the right thing. I care for myself by first forgiving myself.
Second, I have to have the strength to admit that I am a Sinner out of my own choosing, out of my own refusal to acknowledge the God-presence when it has already been made available to me. And I say this as someone who is continuously trying to make room for the God-presence in my life, who tries to practice my religion. Even in practicing it I stumble more often than I succeed. And yes, many days it seems like Despair will have the final say. But I have to remind myself that although Despair may weaken my resolve, that resolve is still mine. I alone am the one who ultimately chooses to sink further into Despair, to cut faith and authentic selfhood out of my life. The sooner I admit that, the sooner I can get back to it and continue putting the work in to becoming whatever it is I’m supposed to be.
So I have to be willing to ask continual forgiveness from God when I stumble because only in asking for forgiveness can a relationship be mended, can the distance between the mortal and the divine be annulled. It is in the nature of God to forgive, at least I think it is, but forgiveness is a two-way street. I have to give up my pride and regularly assess and own up to my choices.
The possibility of a relationship with God is always available then, but I have to want it. I have to want to forgive myself and allow that God has forgiven me too, not primarily for the little sins of collective morality, but for the foundational Sin, the one that truly matters. Does this mean that once I do that, wham bam, everything is fixed? I have become authentic and all of my actions going forward are pure and without stain? Far from it. Attempting to lead an authentically meaningful life, whether it is one founded on secular or spiritual ideals, is difficult and not always traversed in a straight line, don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s easy.
But I owe it to myself to make the attempt. My attempt has included wrestling with the God-presence and making room for it in my life. I don’t and should not expect it to be the same for everyone, and, as Kierkegaard stresses throughout many of his writings, it is an individual’s decision if they want to commit to this sort of life. So I willingly and continuously keep taking the risk and putting my heart into it, lest I one day look in the mirror and see a phantom that was presented with the option of living, I mean, truly living, and yet could not bear to take the leap.