In early religion, Sin was a Mesopotamian moon god, also called Nanna. His cult was most prominent at the Sumerian cities of Ur and Harran. Bestowing light in the dark, Sin maintained justice through the night hours.
In Catholic theology sin is any thought, speech or action that transgresses the law of God, where one chooses to enact personal will that conflicts with God will. St. Augustine is often quoted by Catholic writers:
Something said, done or desired that is contrary to the eternal law.¹
The Catholic Church breaks the idea of sin up into several categories, the most important being:
The general idea of sin is widespread but understood differently among world religions. There are three main emphases:
- Transgressing God’s decrees (Judaism, Islam)
- Acting against the cosmic order or Will of Heaven (Taoism)
- Harmful action arising from ignorance (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism).
Today, believers in God concerned with ethical action are faced with a dizzying array of prescriptions on how to do the right thing and avoid sin. When all is said and done, it seems the most sensible approach to living right and avoiding sin is to follow one’s own conscience, lived experience and personal reflection.
However, many seem unable to grow into mature adults and prefer to defer to some perceived authority, distant or near, for guidance on how to live.²
This arguably schoolboy or schoolgirl approach to ethics may afford psychological comfort. After all, when you let some organized leader or group tell you what to do, you gain a ready-made personal identity and sense of community (even if the latter is, perhaps, largely imaginary). But for those willing and able to embrace the degree of freedom and responsibility required to make up one’s own mind, off-the-rack ethics just isn’t an option. Prefabricated ethics often seem immature, hypocritical, and arguably fall short of our true human potential.²
¹ St. Augustine, Con. Faust 22.27 cited in Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn, 2009, p. 850.
² Many Christians use the word Sin with pretty clear connotations. But the original Hebrew and Greek terms (that actually occur in the earliest versions of the Bible) are not quite so simple). See Greek and Hebrew words for Sin.
³ See comments on this complex issue.