Robert P. George on Sin & Psychology
Both the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Greeks saw the distance between man and the divine, but they described it in very different ways. The Greeks lowered their deities by ascribing to them human passions and failings. The Hebrews articulated an elevated view of man, as sharing, to some extent, in the powers of a transcendent, omnipotent, and benevolent God.
Of course, the biblical view of man is that, while he is made in God’s image, he is, unlike God, highly imperfect. Indeed, he is fallen. His passions are, to a greater or lesser degree, disordered by sin. But sin does not obliterate his God-like powers of freedom and reason. “Man is said to be made in God’s image,” St. Thomas Aquinas explained, “insofar as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement.” Human beings can, by God’s grace, understand what is good and choose to do what is right. Indeed, the powers of freedom and reason are conditions for the possibility of sin. Lacking freedom and reason, men would no more be capable of sinning than, say, sharks or cobras are capable of sinning.
This sense of sin has been lost in our culture, and even in the Church, as has frequently been observed. Academic and clinical psychology has encouraged this loss. Many chosen behaviors once considered sinful are now treated as elements, even constitutive elements, of legitimate lifestyles. Other behaviors once understood as unjust or otherwise immoral are now deemed merely socially undesirable. In the case of such behaviors, immoral choices—failings of character—are treated as pathologies to be cured or at least managed by therapeutic interventions. The need for repentance as a condition of reform is cast aside.
The loss of the sense of sin has been advertised and sold in the name of human liberation. The biblical view of fallen man, it is alleged, mired people in guilt and shame, and encouraged those exercising authority, whether civil, ecclesiastical, or familial, to punish rather than to understand and heal. In short, the biblical view was dismissed as inhumane.
It seems to me, however, that this is the very reverse of the truth. An authentic humanism depends vitally on the recovery of the biblical view of man and the toppling of reductionistic forms of psychological theory that deny the reality of sin or leave it out of account.
The dignity of the human person is rooted in his capacity for the exercise of those powers in virtue of which man is, indeed, made in the divine image. In his possession of the capacities for reason and freedom, man is like God and unlike all other creatures save the angels. Man possesses an inherent dignity, and enjoys a moral inviolability, that animals do not. He can even be said to possess moral rights, considered as the benefits to him of moral obligations falling upon others—including governments—to honor his dignity and respect his inviolability.
Of course, each human person is both a bearer of rights and the subject of moral obligations—at least in cases where a person’s capacities for reason and freedom are sufficiently developed and in good enough shape to be exercisable. And irrespective of the nature of the obligations, the culpable failure to fulfill them is the reality of sin. Philosophical and psychological theories that deny the reality of sin undermine the concept of moral obligation by denying, if sometimes implicitly, the human capacities for freedom and practical reason that are its pre-conditions.
Such theories are the opposite of humanistic; they are dehumanizing. They treat human beings—creatures made in the image and likeness of God—as if (depending on the theory) they were sharks or cobras—or as if they were guppies or koala bears. In their effort to eliminate guilt and shame, those who deny sin necessarily deny human freedom and practical reason. Man is reduced to his appetites and instincts.
On a pessimistic account, these appetites and instincts are depicted as violent, aggressive, shark-like, and therefore in need of strict social control. On an optimistic account, they are presented as comparatively mild and guppy-like, requiring only the elimination or effective management of external factors—poverty, abuse, what-have-you—that allegedly “cause” good people to do bad things. The history and sociology of human behavior falsifies both views, of course, but the more fundamental point is that there is nothing humanistic, or particularly humane, about any such view. To reduce man to a set of appetites and instincts is to rob him of his humanity, even if the appetites and instincts are more those of guppies than of sharks.
To the objection that the biblical view of man is inhumane inasmuch as its premises justify the punishment of certain forms of wrongdoing, I would reply that retributive punishment, properly measured, is indeed humane—precisely in its respect for the wrongdoer’s powers of freedom and reason. Indeed, it is humane in a way that the manipulation of human beings by methods of behavior modification to prevent socially undesirable behaviors rarely can be.
What about guilt and shame? Feelings of guilt and shame are natural and inevitable affective responses to the self-critical recognition that one has chosen to do wrong. They are critical emotional components of repentance and the resolution to reform. Without them, one can, in certain cases perhaps, be conditioned by external forces to behave differently, but one cannot reshape one’s character by exercising one’s powers of reason and freedom in the cause of personal reformation.
Someone thus conditioned is, for better or worse, the subject of manipulation; he is not treated as a free and reasonable agent. He is treated as one might legitimately treat a shark or a cobra; he is not treated as one should, ordinarily, treat a being—even a wrongdoer—who is made in the image and likeness of the divine ruler of the universe.
Am I denying a role for psychology, at least in its clinical dimensions? Not at all. Human beings possess emotions as well as reason; their freedom can be shackled, sometimes by their own free choices (that is what St. Paul calls enslavement to sin), sometimes by other causes.
Either way, emotions can be disordered. Not every problem is simply spiritual or moral, and not every spiritual or moral problem lacks specifically psychological elements. What I urge is a theory and practice of psychology that is in line with a recognition of, and respect for, the spiritual capacities by virtue of which human beings are persons—that is, creatures made in the image of their divine Creator—sharing, by his gift, his powers of freedom and reason.
A sound psychology is, indeed, humanistic. Its end is the well-being and edification of the human person. It proceeds from a rational affirmation of the status of human beings as possessing the powers of freedom and reason, and it gains profound illumination from its openness to what God reveals about man’s nature, duty, and destiny. A sound psychology does not reduce man to his appetites or even his inclinations. Because it takes full cognizance of human freedom and reason, it proposes no autonomous account of human behavior. On the contrary, its insights are integrated with those of philosophy, theology, and related disciplines to disclose man to himself.
A sound psychology takes sin seriously, but does not suppose that man’s sinfulness abolishes his dignity. Even in our fallen state, we remain God’s image. Our wills are weakened; our reason is darkened; yet by God’s grace, the image is not destroyed. Rather, as sons and daughters of God, we are called to repentance and reform. By God’s free act of self-giving in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of his Son, we are redeemed from sin, empowered to live in a state of grace, and offered the gift of eternal salvation. Jesus himself makes it possible for the Father to see and love in us what he sees and loves in Christ.
God has fitted us out by nature and grace to receive his blessings and, ultimately, to share in the divine life of the Trinity. These fittings—including our freedom and reason—are facts about man. It is an irony, and a shame, that so many psychological theories that have advertised themselves as relentless in their realism about the facts of human nature have ignored and even denied them. A psychology that truly aspires to factual accuracy will place them at the very center of its inquiries.
This article was adapted from the author’s commencement address for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, given in Washington, D.C., in June 2002.
Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!
Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
more from the touchstone online archives