Deconstructing Sin


Perhaps one of the most common difficulties I encounter in people recovering from religious conservativism is what to do with the notion of sin. Now, while nearly all spiritual traditions are concerned with the human condition on some level, there is a common thread running through those for whom sin is an issue of ultimate consequence, and if today's widespread religious deconstruction is anything to go by then there's obviously something wrong with how this understanding plays out in our lives. This may not interest you, but I think our contemporary issue with sin has less to do with which religion or sacred text we study as it has to do with which tools we bring to the task of constructing our worldview.

Now, dear reader, if you and I are anything alike then we spent our early years in Sunday School where we learned how our tradition understands the human condition. We were taught that while we are good-by-design, we're also sinful-by-nature and in need of salvation. Sadly, we were shaped by this theological mythos that attempted to account for a behavioural reality as a consequence of our tradition's reliance on a single text (the Bible). Thus, core aspects of our worldview were cast with the same tools used to interpret that text (theology), and the popularity of this view has had unintended consequences for our mental health.

Here's why...

In the same way that a screwdriver is the wrong tool for hammering nails, so it is with academic disciplines; not every field of inquiry is appropriate for every area of life (e.g. we typically do not consult physicists for insights into dentistry) and as a discipline interested in what humans think about God, theology can only understand the human condition in light of God ("theo-" comes from the greek theos, meaning "God" while "-ology" comes from logia meaning "sayings" or "discourse"). But while this may be helpful when we wrestle with life's big questions, it also interprets humanity and if the theos of our logia is consummate divine perfection then question is stacked as the formula always produces the same result: humans suck.1

And thus the rub! Theology can never talk about human behaviour on its own terms, and as a theological concept sin attempts to account for human experience by casting it against something outside of human experience. It's a dualistic method! And one with less-than-stellar mental health outcomes as, while external standards can be helpful measures as we grow, the authoritative weight of an all-powerful-all-perfect standard sets the stage for developmental trauma that can't be undone by a [salvation] story.

Only lived experience transforms.

One of my most freeing "ah ha" moments came when I realized that we need not rely on any single interpretation of the human experience for a balanced perspective that holds our beauty and ugliness together. With the incredible advances of the last 150 years in every major field of study into what it means to be human, we need not rely solely on ancient mythologies to tell us who we are or why we suffer. Instead, we can bring together insight from a variety of relevant disciplines to shed light on these ancient stories and help us answer the big questions of life with an approach that's as compassionate as it is wise with each discipline addressing its area of expertise. This way, instead of rejecting our past we can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. It's Ken Wilbur's "include and transcend" applied to our systems of interpretation and belief as much as it is to our personal experiences of growth, healing and transformation.


  1. Questions matter! If my theological inquiry is "If God is so awesome, why do humans suck so much?" then the answer will assume divine awesomeness and human suckiness as fixed variables and provide the only answer it can: "Humans suck (sin) because we're sucky (fallen)." Therefore, my suckiness is a factor of my sucking by virtue of my existing at all. Which, y'know, sucks.