Sin (Phenomenology of)

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Sin is a notion that indicates most emphatically disruption of what is religiously sanctioned or required. Although as a rule the disruption takes place through man, sin always indicates the result of a power of evil that exceeds man's capabilities or it indicates that power itself; hence, special care is needed to avoid or to free from sin (see purification; expiation). Sin implies more or less strongly an ethical notion. Everywhere words for sin occur that denote moral transgressions, and the ethical nature of sin depends on the religious tradition of a community. At the same time, notions of sin imply impurity or religious defilement; "sinful" and "impure" are synonymous concepts in all civilizations with a cultic tradition. The contents of the notions for sin depend on their oppositespurity, justice, wholeness, sanctity, the sacred. Because of their peculiarly religious character and function within a religious setting, notions of sin are, as a rule, more comprehensive than an exclusively ethical notion of "bad" or "unacceptable," or any other specialized concept. This is particularly clear in most primitive religions where the same words can be rendered by "to heal" (a wound) or "to liberate" (from a magic spell), and the evil that makes purification imperative relates to what for us would be distinct realmsthe physical, moral, spiritual.

The polarity between sin and its opposite is related to the inner ambivalence of the sacred itself. Greek γιος, meaning consecrated, pure, or holy, occurs also in the opposite sense of dangerously desecrated, impure, damned. Latin sacer shows a comparable ambivalence. Different, but not unrelated, the polarity of impurity (sinfulness) and purity functions in the Brahmanic ritual; special ceremonies dissolve the sins of the sacrificer, thus preparing him for the sacred rite. Yet similarly, a ceremony takes place at the end for his return to ordinary life, as if it were an equally necessary desanctification.

Origin of Awareness of Sin. Generally held views on concepts of sin in the history of religions have been unduly affected by evolutionistic presuppositions. First, the assumption was too often made that personal awareness of right and wrong and a corresponding consciousness of guilt were late phenomena in the history of man. Secondly, until very recently, little or no sense of sinfulness was ascribed to primitive religions, other than for specific moral transgressions. Both views have proved to be erroneous. The former has been refuted in recent ethnology (especially by Jensen). Many hunter cultures naturally honor the successful hunter; yet the act of killing the game is regarded as a sin which requires special purification. The latter view has been opposed by a more careful study of myths; paradise and fall myths are widespread among the primitives and indicate a consciousness not only of individual wrongdoings, but more generally an awareness of man's sinful state.

Forms and Aspects of Sin. The various concepts and forms of sin in various philological contexts, and on different cultural levels, cannot be distinguished as stages in a historical process. However, we may discern aspects that are of greater clarity in some settings than in others.

Moral Sins. These are fundamental to the religions of most primitive societies because of the idea of physical results. Thus barren women may confess their moral infidelities in order to stop their barrenness, which is attributed to their transgressions. The typically Greek concept of sin, βρις, known particularly as "pride" (or rather "wanton overestimation of oneself" or "disproportionate good fortune") is used also (in Homer and even later, e.g., in Theognis) in reference to moral offenses. Religions that have developed elaborate cults and theological acumen never abandon the religious notion of moral sins. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead (ch. 125) a long list of sins is mentioned, which the (deceased) king declares that he has not committed. Manichaeism also produced lists of sins; they occur in confessional forms used in the liturgy. Here and elsewhere, however, moral and doctrinal transgressions are mentioned side by side.

The Breaking of a Taboo. This is regarded as particularly sinful. The sense of this type of guilt is by no means limited to primitive cultures, in which, for instance, a man is not allowed to speak to his mother-in-law. Modern Western man considers some offenses, such as grave-robbing, particularly heinous, although the moral reason why they would be worse than many other offenses is obscure. The reason for such sense of guilt at the breaking of a taboo is to be sought in a commonly held profound reverence (as expressed by German, Ehrfurcht ).

Mythical and Cultic Aspects. Almost all religious traditions recall in some sense a state of perfection at the beginning of creation; creation myths are often interwoven with paradise myths. Hence the cultic forms in which sins or man's sinful state play a role are connected with cosmogony. A sinful deedor the breaking of a taboois to be understood as the forgetting of the divine, mythical process, which is the model for rightful human activity. Often the sinner is required to perform an expiatory sacrifice, which is modeled on the primordial sacrificein that divine mythical processin order to bring to mind precisely that which was forgotten (Jensen). Likewise, the mythical origin of evil may be related to man's sin or sinfulness. Egypt portrayed the prototype of evil in the harm done by Seth to Osiris in mythical time. This evil (dw-t ) is more than individual transgression, but the same word occurs also in that sense. In Egypt and many other places the ultimate measure of sin or evil is associated with the powers of chaos that are overcome by the creator; this victory is preserved in the justice of the king. For that reason breaking the king's law is a religious and cultic offense. A close connection of religious and moral sin is particularly striking in the cults of the mystery religions (see mystery religions, greco-oriental).

Speculative and Theological Reflections. In religious systems with great emphasis on individual efforts to attain sacred liberating knowledge, sin is regarded principally as obstructing impurity [see asceticism; gnosticism] or demerit (see buddhism; jainism; hindu ism). In classical Indian yoga the aspirant must master first of all five "restraints" yamas (not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, sexual abstinence, not to be avaricious). In all ascetic and gnostic life certain "sins" must be conquered, even if they are such as are tolerated in common life. In all ascetic and gnostic systems, a strong awareness exists of an evil greater than any individual transgression. A precosmic fall is an object of theological reflection both in Gnosticism and in manichaeism. The Indian religions emphasize impurity and its results as a generally human conditioning (see indian philosophy). In Bhakti and other forms of devotional religion in which God's grace is supreme, man's relation to God is sometimes longed for or exulted in to such an extent as to make the sinful and imperfect state seem of no significance by contrast.

See Also: sin (in the bible); sin (theology of).

Bibliography: h. frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York 1948). h. abrahamsson, The Origin of Death: Studies in African Mythology (Uppsala 1951). m. eliade, "Nostalgia for Paradise in Primitive Traditions," in his Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, tr. p. mairet (New York 1960); Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, tr. w. r. trask (New York 1958). a. e. jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, tr. m. t. choldin and w. weissleder (Chicago 1963); "Über den sittlichen Gehalt der primitiven Religionen," Paideuma 3 (1949) 241256. h. jonas, The Gnostic Religion (2d ed. rev. Boston 1963). r. caillois, L'Homme et le Sacré (2d ed. Paris 1953). o. f. bollnow, Die Ehrfurcht (Frankfurt a.M.1958). g. mensching, Die Idee der Sünde, ihre Entwicklung in den Hochreligionen des Orients und Okzidents (Leipzig 1931). h. baumann, Schöpfung und Urzeit des Menschen im Mythus der afrikanischen Völker (Berlin 1936). l. j. cazemier, "Het begrip zonde in de Pyramideteksten," in G.v.d. Leeuw Festschrift Pro Regno Pro Sanctuario (Nijkerk 1950) 101113. É. des places, "Péché. dans la Grèce Antique," Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. 7 (Paris 1962) 471480. h. b. alexander et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 11:528570, old, but still useful.

[k. w. bolle]