C. S. Lewis: Modern Ignorance of the Sense of Sin

After I published my post of yesterday (in which I wrote about the tragic consequences of Original Sin and the equally tragic embracing of self-will that often stems from it), I came across a passage in C. S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain which seemed applicable to what I had discussed. In this passage, Lewis points out that the Apostles (and every other generation of Christians after them until very recently) could assume that their audiences had a keen sense of having transgressed the moral law and were, spiritually speaking, ill. Nowadays this sense of sin has largely been either repressed or explained away, and Christianity must ‘preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure.

The question of whether we can meaningfully talk about salvation or redemption without any sense that we have so transgressed – that we have gone wrong and are deserving of condemnation, correction or punishment – is one that I have explored in an earlier post here, and the results of our repression of that sense is something I have also written about here. Today though I would like to focus on Lewis’ words alone, in which he gives an insightful account of how this ignorance has come about, based on the way his own age conducted itself and spoke about such things. What he wrote then seems to be even more relevant to our own age:

There are two principal causes. One is the fact that for about a hundred years we have so concentrated on one of the virtues – “kindness” or mercy – that most of us do not feel anything except kindness to be really good or anything but cruelty to be really bad. Such lopsided ethical developments are not uncommon, and other ages too have had their pet virtues and curious insensibilities. And if one virtue must be cultivated at the expense of all the rest, none has a higher claim than mercy – for every Christian must reject with detestation that covert propaganda for cruelty which tries to drive mercy out of the world by calling it names such as “Humanitarianism” and “Sentimentality”. The real trouble is that “kindness” is a quality fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds. Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment. Thus a man easily comes to console himself for all his other vices by a conviction that “his heart’s in the right place” and “he wouldn’t hurt a fly”, though in fact he has never made the slightest sacrifice for a fellow creature. We think we are kind when we are only happy: it is not so easy, on the same grounds, to imagine oneself temperate, chaste, or humble.

The second cause is the effect of Psycho-analysis on the public mind, and, in particular, the doctrine of repressions and inhibitions. Whatever these doctrines really mean, the impression they have actually left on most people is that the sense of Shame is a dangerous and mischievous thing. We have laboured to overcome that sense of shrinking, that desire to conceal, which either Nature herself or the tradition of almost all mankind has attached to cowardice, unchastity, falsehood, and envy. We are told to “get things out in the open”, not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the ground that these “things” are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them. But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one; and even Pagan society has usually recognised “shamelessness” as the nadir of the soul. In trying to extirpate Shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit, madly exulting in the work as the Trojans exulted when they broke their walls and pulled the Horse into Troy. I do not know that there is anything to be done but to set about the rebuilding as soon as we can. It is mad work to remove hypocrisy by removing the temptation to hypocrisy: the “frankness” of people sunk below shame is a very cheap frankness.

A recovery of the sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about.

The Problem of Pain (1980), pp.43-46, Fount Paperbacks.

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2 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis: Modern Ignorance of the Sense of Sin

  1. That passage of Lewis’ is quite depressing really.

    I might have to read the rest to see if he went on to suggest a remedy, ie. how we might re-introduce a sense of sin and shame in order to evangelise?

    It’s true people in general respond not so much to the language of sin and redemption, but we hear much about brokenness, trauma, scars etc. and needing to be healed which still provides an opening for Christianity. The emphasis is different though (external rather than internal) which is a problem I guess.

    • Thanks for your comment! Yes, he certainly does go on to suggest the remedy, so not to worry there 🙂 His point really is that it is very difficult nowadays to convince people that they actually need delivering from the patterns of self-destructive behaviour and rebellion (whether consciously so) against God that we call sin.

      I agree that redemption is not solely about being saved from condemnation, and certainly includes the healing aspect (especially as we believe that sin is not just about doing ‘bad things’ but things which ultimately do not lead to our own happiness but contribute to the amount of brokenness in the world). However, evangelisation that focuses solely on the need to be healed seem to (in my experience anyway) turn the Faith into a kind of therapy, which tends to water down the wider scope of the Gospel and to make it hard to offer something to people that is truly distinctive (as opposed to other kinds of therapy, useful as they are in themselves).

      Leaving sin out of the equation completely seems to me to render the Gospel at best equivalent to other kinds of therapy/healing programmes, and at worst make it irrelevant, given that it makes a lot of demands that other alternatives do not. There is certainly no problem with emphasising both sin AND brokenness, and showing people how they relate, but the problem today is that the former is almost anathema for many people, so needs emphasising a bit more. This is, I think, what Lewis is getting at.

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