David Brooks Laughs With The Sinners, Cries With The Saints
In Lutheranism, we say we are "Simul Iustus et Peccator." This means we are simultaneously sinners and justified. Sometimes we translate it as "simultaneously saint and sinner."
Through faith in Christ sinners are declared forgiven and perfectly right with God. This declaration has to do with God's goodness, not ours, though. Unfortunately, we continue to be sinners. We don't believe that once we become Christian, we stop sinning. And this relates to why Christianity is so focused on forgiveness. "Forgiveness is needed constantly," says Luther in his Large Catechism. "Because we are encumbered with our flesh, we are never without sin."
I mention all this to explain that Lutherans believe we sin and that we are sinners. This always seemed like an obvious point to me so I've been surprised to find it so controversial among some of my non-Lutheran friends. Usually that means people outside the Christian faith but it also means some who identify as Christian as well. They are shocked to hear how often we confess our sinfulness in our liturgy.
David Brooks looks at people's discomfort with identifying themselves as sinners in his New York Times column today. Even better, he identifies a problem without offering a big government solution! Win-win, in my book.
He begins with many examples of how people justify their sinful behavior in various creative ways. He goes on:
I was struck by what you might call the Good Person Construct and the moral calculus it implies. For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer — part of a daily battle against evil.
But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.
Of course, dieting itself is usually considered to be really harmful or merely ineffective. I'm inclined to think the same about moral diets.
Brooks notes that unlike with more traditional dieting, there's no ability to measure one's results and if we could measure ourselves, we'd deceive ourselves. Either way, I'm curious how this (false) belief in our inherent goodness affects our politics and outlook on the culture.