The internet offers a definition of sin as ‘an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law’. The implication is that moral and immoral authority has a divine origin, that God tells us how to behave, but this does not make sense. To behave in a moral or immoral way is a product of human decision based on a certain way of looking at the world. That way of looking can be explained in terms of information and attitudes (what we might call moral intelligence) which are features of human consciousness and are implicit in moral behaviours.
If we say that we identify immoral acts by reference to divine law then the question arises as to what is the information and intelligence that guides this law. Since we are told that divinity is ineffable (unknowable) the consequence is that we cannot know why actions are good or bad, simply that they are a product of divine will. This might be regarded as an act of laziness. In explaining why behaviours are right or wrong we are simply passing the buck. When seeking to morally educate children it is is no good to simply say ‘it is the law of God’. The questions of what is and why we should be good, still stand.
Plato offered an interesting simile regarding the origin of ‘sin’ that helps to explain the Judeo-Christian concept of original sin. He argued that the human soul or person was like a charioteer trying to steer a chariot being pulled by two contrary horses. One horse (the black for Plato) represented human appetites and passions. This was the horse of the material body in which appetites and passions are seen to arise. The second (white) horse represented the ‘destiny’ of the human mind that is presented in terms of a search for truth and beauty. The black horse continually pulled the charioteer downwards towards the earthly pleasures of body while the white horse drew him to the higher realm of ideas and contemplation. This inspired theological understandings of original sin insofar as sin arises in the context of material bodily interests whereas goodness arises from spiritual inspiration. Since we are all born into bodies we are inevitably drawn to sinful temptations of appetite and passion and not one of us is perfect in this respect. Sin is therefore original to material existence. It is unavoidable to our fleshly natures. For Plato the way to escape this material destiny was to make the most of our intellectual and contemplative capacities and seek to either control or deny our fleshly ones.
Plato’s simile has been immensely influential not least in the Freudian tripartite personality in terms of the Id, the passions and appetites, the superego, the disciplines of reason and morality and the ego, struggling in the middle trying to reconcile the other two parts.
Plato’s image is attractive and potentially inspiring but it raises many philosophical challenges not least to our understanding of the nature of truth and beauty itself. Where we might find ourselves in agreement with Plato is in the view that ‘sin’ is largely shaped by human passions in the form of the desire for power, pride and the impulse to aggression and in the form of human appetites in the form of material greed and lust.