People are created for community.
Sin, in one way or another, represents a loss of community.
People thrive on emotional connections with others. Sin– in one way or another– withers the connections between the people, leaving them isolated and alone.
Unconsciously people have a sense that spiritual life and death are somehow at stake within their network of relationships. Thus the fear of “sin”– the fear of being cut off from others due to some kind of “moral failure”– is an unspoken, but overriding concern in life.
Everyone knows that the mental distress of social isolation can be much worse than the discomforts of physical separation. Being excluded for not measuring up, involves a kind of psychic pain that hurts way beyond simply the physical discomfort of being alone.
Every community, not just the church, must therefore deal with the reality of sin, its threat to relationships, and the need for a solution within the context of highly charged, emotionally charged human relationships.
The challenge is daunting. Some communities deal with sin in healthy ways. Many do not. This post stylizes three basic approaches.
The Greek God Dionysus with his wine
The Dionysian Approach
The first can be characterized as “Dionysian,” from the Greek god of wine– also call Bacchus.1
The Dionysian (Bacchanalian) approach to sin is to embrace it, to incite it, to revel in it. The motto of the Dionysians could easily be “sin is fun– let’s do it.” The highest values for Dionysians are passion, excess, disorder, and self abandonment.
In the Dionysian approach, anxiety over sin is calmed by denying sin itself as a valid concept. Fellowship is sought via a shared tolerance of sin. Confidence is reassured by the “testing of limits”– by challenging the power of sin– much like a young bully who feels big when taunting a fierce dog tied up on a short leash. Stigma is countered by lack of shame. Moral failure is redefined as success. Sinful acts are matters of pride. Encouraging others into sin is a high calling.
The Dionysian approach to sin is basically lawless. It is a system of moral confusion that easily fits the downward spiral of depravity Paul describes in Rom 1:18-31.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them– NIV
The Greek God Apollo with his lyre
The Apollonian Approach
The second approach can be characterized as “Apollonian,” from the Greek god of the sun, poetry, music, prophecy, healing, and archery. The key concepts in the Apollonian designation are its connection with order, reason, and self mastery over against the Dionysian values of disorder, passion, and moral abandonment.
Most people have probably heard the doctor’s response to a patient complaining of shoulder pain. When the patient complains, “it hurts when I do this.” The doctor’s response is, “well, don’t do that.” Similarly, the Apollonian advice on how to deal with sin could easily be “don’t do that.”
As it turns out though, self mastery (simply “not doing it”) turns out to be more difficult than anyone ever expected. And so not surprisingly, Apollonians tend to do a lot of fretting over sin.
Ironically, the Apollonians often take their cues from the Dionysians. In other words, the “Apollonians” are typically against whatever the “Dionysians” are up to. The Dionysians calm themselves by denying sin itself as a concept. The Apollonians find comfort, in contrast, by championing the concept of sin while rationalizing away the reality of particular sins within their own lives.
The Dionysians challenge boundaries and reassure themselves by pushing outward in excess. The Apollonians, in contrast, reassure themselves by “circling the wagons” into narrower and narrower boundaries of fellowship, reaffirming their own status by denying status to others.
The Dionysians are without shame because they deny any community’s right to call them into account. The Apollonians, in contrast, are without shame in a different sense via their scrupulous attention to always being “without fault.”
A key attraction of the Apollonian approach is the diversion of attention away from judging oneself to judging others. Apollonian rectitude can be a matter of pride. Anxiety over sin is distracted by finding fault with others.
The Apollonian approach to sin is legalistic and can easily serve as a synonym for the stereotypically pharisaic attitude that Jesus so severely critiques in the gospels. In some ways though, the Apollonian approach is a step up from the moral confusion of the Dionysians. But the Apollonians only address the appearances of sin (as manifested in the breaking of rules), not the essence of sin itself. Thus they can only offer a system of moral failure as an alternative to the Dionysian system of moral confusion.
Evaluation of Dionysian and Apollonian Approaches to Sin
Both of the preceding approaches to sin are unhealthy. In their own peculiar fashions, both the Apollonians and the Dionysians deal with anxiety over sin and its threat to relationships in neurotic ways. Put another way, they deal with sin sinfully.
The Christian Approach
A third approach is possible however– one of moral clarity rather than moral confusion and moral failure. Its organizing principle is grace. Its values are faith, hope, and love. And its exemplar is Jesus Christ.
The “Christian” approach to sin is that sin is neither fun nor fatal. Rather, it is forgiven.
It attracts people, not through the pleasures of sin or even the pleasure of judging others, but rather through the call to love others as they have been loved.
For Christians, faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and hope in the salvation He offers makes resisting sin worthwhile even in the face of personal moral failures. In effect, sin for the Christian is like ill-fitting clothes the wearer cannot wait to discard.
For Christians, sin is no longer understood simply as a failure to keep law. Rather, it is seen most clearly as an alienation from God– an alienation that is often ironically manifested in the sincerity of Dionysian lawlessness and the insincerity of Apollonian law keeping.
A key distinction among the preceding approaches is the prominence of sin as a central concern in the life of a community. For Dionysians, it is all-important. Having banished the word from their vocabulary, they can’t seem to think of anything else.
For Apollonians, the situation is the inverse. Having multiplied categories of sin, they seem unable to detect it the grossest kind whenever it’s their own.
For Christians however, sin is no longer the organizing principle of community. Moral clarity has demoted it to a lesser concern where it is neither rationalized away nor indulged.
More to the point, the restoration of divine fellowship through the sacrifice of Christ has eliminated the anxiety that fuels both legalistic and lawless approaches to sin. The “sting of death” and the anxiety thereof have been put to death. The resurrection of Christ means that death itself– the ultimate loss of community– can no longer dismay– can no longer break the bonds of fellowship.
Note that one of the ironies on the summary chart is that most people counter-intuitively find the move from the second approach to the third approach more difficult than going from the first approach to the third.
1 The characterization of cultures in terms of Dionysian and Apollonian comes from Patterns of Cultures by R.F. Benedict, late professor of anthropology at Columbia University.