21 March 2007

Sin, Morality, Moral Nihilism

On the plane back to California from Chicago, I sat next to two women in their thirties or forties. We eventually struck up a conversation and I learned that they were Evangelical Protestants coming back from a conference on kids' religious education in Chicago. At any rate, we began discussing various religious topics and I began to question them about their beliefs.

We got on the subject of sin and they maintained that all sin was the same in the eyes of God. Protestants are split on the issue, but the Catholic, orthodox position is that there is definitely some sins are more serious and damaging than others. The Catechism states: "Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience" (CCC, no. 1854).

To those two women, however, stealing a box of Milk Duds was equivalent to triple homicide. My immediate reaction was similar to the last sentence in the portion of the Catechism quoted above—"This conception of sin makes zero sense! It doesn't jibe with human experience."

I think that Protestants who equivocate sin in this way are trying to stress the gravity and seriousness of all sin. What they end up accomplishing, ironically enough, is the introduction of a strange sort of moral nihilism as a bulwark against perceived relativism. Moral nihilism denies the basis of moral truth-assertions and concludes that all moral statements are equivalent. It is precisely in equivalency where nihilism and evangelical Christianity become eerily similar in one respect: just how much it does not matter what moral choices one makes.

The result of both positions is almost the same—in the case of evangelical Christianity, if sin is inevitable, and all sin is equally evil, then it doesn't matter which sin we choose; in the case of moral nihilism, all moral positions are equally groundless and therefore equally meaningless, so (morally speaking) our choice doesn't really matter.

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