A friend has recently decided to apostatize from Christianity and has repeatedly said/written, "I don't believe in sin." While I respect her path and her process of exploration (far too few people ever examine their beliefs), I just can't fathom what she could possibly mean.
A pretty standard Christian definition of sin is "that which separates us from God." So, okay, if one no longer believes in God, nothing can separate one from that which does not exist, ergo no such thing as sin. But God is so much more than the monotheistic, trinitarian, Christian God. There is divinity in each of us, whether we choose to recognize it or not. There is divinity in the natural world. There can even be divinity in the manmade world. When we live well, we are connected to the divinity within ourselves, and we are able to recognize and reach out to the divinity within others and the world around us. Behavior that is amoral/unhealthy/sinful (in essence, don't they all mean the same thing?) separates us from this divinity.
Another standard Christian mantra on the topic of sin is "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Fiery evangelicals from Jonathan Edwards to James Dobson will tell us that the Apostle Paul is, of course, referring to the gnashing of teeth and weeping among the sulfurous flames of hell. Fiery brimstone, however, is not the only death. I don't know how to be in the world without connection to the divinity in all things around me. That would truly be a walking death.
The biggest problem with the word sin is the desire to define it for the group. Every religious tradition gives a litany of sinful things: eating meat, eating pork, eating meat and milk together, drinking alcohol, working on the Sabbath, shopping on the Sabbath, tearing or tying on the Sabbath, uncovering your head in public, wearing a hat in church, swearing, having sex outside of marriage, having sex the wrong way, having sex at all, questioning authority, wearing pants, wearing jewelry, listening to certain music, reading certain books, talking to certain people. We humans want it to be easy. We want a do list and a don't list. We don't want to think about what separates us from the divine within ourselves and others. We definitely don't want to consider that what separates us from the divine might not be the same as what separates our neighbor from the divine.
Take gardening for example. For some people, the weeding and watering are chores to be borne and dispensed with as quickly as possible. Gardening is work. So, if they want to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, they probably shouldn't be doing this work after church. For others, though, the garden is a place of meditative and prayerful activity, where the care of the ecosystem is an act of worship. Why shouldn't that person worship this way after church? The sin here is not the activity, but the attitude toward the activity. Granted, this is a pretty simplistic example, but do you see what I'm getting at? Clear as mud, right?
I realize these thoughts are less than coherent, and I'd welcome your thoughts. I am grateful that my friend's apostasy got me thinking about my own faith, so I'm paying the intellectual challenge forward.