This week, Matt Lauer was the most recent cultural icon to tumble at the revelation that he had offensively coerced women into sexual situations against their will. Lauer, unlike some of the politicians, musicians, and comedians who’ve been accused of similar sins in recent days, was widely perceived as a good guy — upstanding, smart, and friendly. Not the kind of sleaze ball you’d expect to grope a gal in the back room.
The headline has people reeling. What is going on with our culture when one after another of our idols falls? When #MeToo has been retweeted half a million times? Women, so long powerless against this kind of abuse, have linked arms. Revolution is brewing.
A quick scan of the Yahoo news feed reads like a chapter of Judges. Among the first 15 headlines today, there are reports of a 10-year-old’s suicide, a grown man sucker-punching a guy with cerebral palsy, a missing teen who’s run off with her gym coach, and two gruesome murders. That’s not to mention the sex assault stories.
We have a problem. Yes, it’s a sin problem. But it’s also a vocabulary problem. We have no words for this.
Here it is in a nutshell: modern folks can’t abide the idea of sin, and to a point they are quite logical. We’ve discarded the old-fashioned notion along with the (laughable) authority of sacred texts and the (naïve) concept of God. How could an ancient document, written in another culture and handicapped by its uninformed viewpoint, possibly speak to the choices of free-spirited, diverse people today? Absurd! How could any one group’s religious worldview be allowed to dictate morality for everyone else? How could we ever know which perspective is “correct” in a competing marketplace of ideas, especially when all cultures and people are equally worthy of dignity, and each viewpoint, it’s assumed, equally valid?
If there is no morality, there must be no God, at least not a good, or potent, or opinionated one. Those who cling to their deity but dismiss His jurisdiction in our lives play a dangerous game. A God who bows to the sensibilities of human foibles isn’t much of a god by any stretch.
By the same token, if there is no God, there can be no right and wrong. Right and wrong by definition flow from a concept of divinity; to sin is to sin against God. You might protest that still we can sin against one another, but that’s problematic, as we’ll see. The existence of good and evil depends on a transcendent, authoritative, and absolute set of values that could only exist if there were a transcendent, authoritative, and absolute Intelligence lurking behind the universe. If not, the closest we can get to “right” is “right for me,” “right at the moment,” or “right on, man.”
So far, so good — the average American (picture a contestant on The Voice) would concur. Twitter chirps about finding your own truth, and, admirably, living by it. Whether truth is self-determined or imposed upon us, it would make sense to live according to it; to disregard truth is to live in delusion, to live a lie. And that is a wrong worth fighting.
But the next logical leap is not so easily embraced — without an objective right, the closest we can get to “right” is sanctified selfishness. If there is no absolute morality governing the universe, then the best we can do is seek personal fulfillment on our spin around the sun, a cause which tends to put us at odds with others’ ideas of a good time. And so a husband, bored with marriage, has a fling with his secretary; a wife, finding love with her best friend, realizes that her truth requires a brave step from the closet and a new identity. It’s complicated, the carnage that results from broken vows and mangled relationships, but it’s the costly logic of our modern morality.
And to a point, it’s a cohesive morality. The problem with Facebook philosophers is not that they have abandoned ethics. Your average secular American will gladly throw down for the right of total strangers to enjoy freedom and pursue happiness. Attitudes that denigrate others (racism, sexism, homophobia) are the ultimate evils, because they impinge on others’ ability to pursue happiness. The problem is that this modern morality is unmoored, and will logically self-implode.
When autonomous, liberated people, in pursuit of their personal ideal of happiness, and unencumbered by any external requirements for virtue, run smack up against the contrary opinions or desires of others, we reach an impasse. Who wins?
It’s husband versus wife.
Neighbor versus neighbor.
Citizen versus cop.
Politician versus media.
White versus black.
Pick a headline from today’s news, and it will invariably boil down to conflicting visions, the greed or inconsideration or power-grabbing or self-aggrandizement of happiness-seekers. But lacking the vocabulary to call it sin, we run into difficulty. It’s “inappropriate,” “a flaw,” “behaving badly.” The same behaviors that have been tolerated, even laughingly encouraged, for decades, have been unmasked for what they really are — hurtful, even devastating, selfish, lustful, cruel.
And so we lambast the Matt Lauers and the Bill Cosbys, the rogue policemen and the chanting racists. We shake our heads, “Thank you, Universe, that I am not as bad as that guy.” But don’t you see? We are.
The fact of the matter is, there is most emphatically a deep human consciousness of right and wrong, good and evil. Rape and murder and manipulation and greed — these things are wicked, and have plagued us time immemorial. We see the rise of liars to positions of power, see their oppression of the poor and weak, and we know, we know, it’s wrong. And if we follow the logic, it leads us back, full-circle.
There is a right. There is a wrong. It is universal, timeless, and absolute. It did not evolve in different directions on different continents, or ebb and flow with the centuries. It must have come from somewhere, from someone.
And if there is such a thing as sin, then it might be smart to figure out what’s in that category. Not according to whim, not based on my own (“flawed”) logic, but above and beyond me. And then to track the big ones backwards, find the little pebbles that start the big old rock slide, root those out. Little ones, acceptable ones, like pride and lust and laziness. Because nobody sets out to be Harvey Weinstein or for that matter, Idi Amin.
As Trevin Wax so beautifully put it, “So, the offense of the Christian gospel is twofold. We will seem narrow and strict when we insist on calling out sins. And yet, we will seem too generous when we insist that anyone no matter their past can repent and be restored. Our stark vision of sin is grace to the victim; our call to repentance is grace to the offender.”
Sin, y’all. Let’s call it what it is.