1 min read

Reverse psychology: understand goodness then sin

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

Psychologist Roger Bretherton concludes our series on the seven deadly sins with a subversive proposition: we don’t understand sin because we don’t understand goodness.
An abstract shadow of a human reaching an hand skyward is overlaid by a trace of orange line that becomes a circle
Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

Over the last month or so, here at Seen & Unseen, we have been writing together about the seven deadly sins: greed, lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, anger, envy. If you have seen the David Fincher film, you probably have the grisly murders that illustrate them etched on your retina. But if there is one theme that comes up in all our articles on the subject, it is the fact that sin as a concept no longer carries any weight in our culture. A word that once bore all the heft of heaven and hell, is now the branding for a mildly indulgent discount day at the local health spa.  

One way of responding to the downgrading of sin as a meaningful and useful term, is to argue that we need a return to sin. Sin needs a come-back tour, a conceptual rehabilitation. We need to re-populate the word with meaning to make it current and plausible again. Without a consistent shared language of moral failure, of falling short, of ethical deficiency, it is difficult to imagine how responsible human community can be viable. Alasdair MacIntyre, the virtue ethicist, suggested that the problem with our culture is that multiple ethical games are being played. We are not just disagreeing about what the rules should be, but moreover what game it is we are meant to be playing. Our culture is a babel of voices, proposing conflicting versions of what a good life looks like. Consequently, in moral dialogue, we often fail to understand one another. As MacIntyre puts it: ‘my move to queen-bishop-three, is countered by your lob over the net.’

The etymology of the word sin is that it is an old English word originally derived from archery, meaning to miss the mark.

I am no etymologist. Very occasionally I dabble in a bit of New Testament Greek. But to be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing, and whenever I pronounce Greek root words they sound like items from the IKEA stocklist. And, given my tendency to talk to myself when I write, it’s almost inevitable that sooner or later the ever-attentive Alexa will accidentally order me a bedside lamp in response to what I thought was the Greek for bowels. That said, my understanding of the etymology of the word sin is that it is an old English word originally derived from archery, meaning to miss the mark. Miss by an inch, a foot, a mile – it’s all called sin (assuming archers in Old England preferred imperial units of measurement). Shoot the entire quiver in the opposite direction – that’s sin too. Linguists may tell us that this is an apocryphal origin myth, but it doesn’t matter. Whether in archery or ethics, the point remains the same. Sin is a relative term. It is relative to whatever it is we wanted to do, or aspired to become, but missed. 

Could it be then, that the root of our current cultural anomie is not so much that sin as a concept has been emptied of meaning (though it has), but that we no longer have any consensual agreement on what a good person should look like? We have no shortage of imagination when it comes to inventing new contents for the empty container of sin, but our thinking about goodness is woefully uninspired. Without a target to aim at, sin becomes vacuous. To illustrate this point, I’d like to tell you about two of the most eminent psychologists of the last hundred years. 

Hobart Mowrer and the psychology of sin 

Let’s start with a history lesson. O. Hobart Mowrer (1907-1982) is perhaps one of the most eminent, innovative and bemusing contributors to the short history of academic psychology. At the pinnacle of his career in 1953, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest and most esteemed society of psychologists in the world. But as a life-long sufferer of recurrent depression, the announcement sent him into a deep psychological crisis that left him incapacitated for nearly four months. In 1959, he addressed the APA convention in Cincinnati with one of the most unusual and controversial papers of the decade, Constructive Aspects of the Concept of Sin in Psychotherapy, in which he argued that the euphemisms for sin preferred by psychologists (wrongdoing, immorality, irresponsibility etc.) were not sufficiently powerful to convey the distress of a guilty conscience. He had an ambivalent off-again/on-again relationship with institutional religion, but he was nevertheless impressed with the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that we should do our good deeds in secret. This principle – you are your secrets – became central to his development of Integrity Therapy, a group approach to psychological distress through confession. In the 1970s, the tide of cultural opinion turned against Mowrer, his Integrity Groups were accused of brainwashing their participants, and their popularity waned. Some say he subsequently retracted his views on sin. His episodes of depression continued to dog him, and in 1982, at the age of 75, he died of suicide, having long advocated this as a reasonable course of action in certain circumstances.    

This thumbnail sketch hardly does justice to the sensitive suffering genius of O. Hobart Mowrer. There is no space to recount the academic innovations that make him still one of the most cited psychologists in history. He coined the term ‘pathogenic secret’, the idea that sin – by which he meant the things that secretly bother our consciences – makes us sick. I think he was probably right about that. Take for example a freely available open-access list of what might be considered sin. It includes sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, intoxication, orgies, and things like that. It is not a particularly systematic or comprehensive list. It just happens to be the list of examples that Paul the apostle came up with in a first-century letter to residents of what is now central Turkey. They hardly make pleasant reading, but they make a great episode of Succession. 

Paul called these ‘works of the flesh’. Works, because they are things we do, situations we manufacture.  Flesh, not in opposition to physical pleasure, but because these kinds of responses (strife, envy, rage etc.) seem to be patterned bodily reactions, part of our conditioning, written into our muscle. The fact that Paul refers to them in plural (works of the flesh) is more significant than it initially appears. For him the unethical life is an incoherent ragbag of reactions, a series of plays and tactics designed to gain immediate personal gratification. As long as we come out on top, or at least think we have, they have done their job. But if we live by them, if we hand ourselves over to the universe of their self-centred cynical logic, our identity fragments, our sense of coherence shatters. We can no longer imagine who we would be if our greed, pride, lust or whatever, was taken away from us. Our appetites become our identity.  

This is why I tend to think that the instincts that led Mowrer to develop a therapy emphasising integrity was right.  Provided of course, that we embrace the full definition of integrity, rather than simply taking it as a synonym for honesty. The integrity to which Mowrer’s groups aspired was not just the truthfulness that comes from the disclosure of secrets, but the inner harmony that comes from the restoration of wholeness. What looked superficially like an unhealthy preoccupation with sin, was in fact Mowrer’s pursuit of the unified state of self that accompanies goodness. A sentiment that leads us to psychologist number two.  

Martin Seligman and the psychology of goodness 

Fast forward four and half decades from Mowrer’s election as APA president. It is 1998 and another newly-minted APA president, Martin Seligman – arguably the most famous clinical psychologist in the world – is making his inaugural address. Seligman is unique among world-famous psychologists in many ways, not least of which being his claim that he was ‘called’ to be a clinical psychologist. He later told a conference at Lambeth Palace that as a young research scientist, during his deliberations on whether to follow the path into clinical practice, he woke one night from a dream of visiting the Guggenheim Museum in New York. As he admired the architecture of the iconic building, God himself – a giant bearded old man – lifted the roof and boomed: I want you to be a clinical psychologist. Of course, as a secular Jewish academic, Seligman doesn’t believe in God, but this doesn’t deter him from openly admitting that his vocation in clinical psychology was not wholly chosen but issued from the unspoken depths of his being. 

This deep-seated sense of vocation may go some way to explaining why his 1998 inaugural address has gone down as a turning point in the history of psychology. His central assertion was that up until then psychology had been obsessed with the negative (what’s wrong with us) and that it was time to rebalance the discipline with a refocus on human flourishing, which at the time he formulated as the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life. This is viewed by some as the birth of Positive Psychology, which according to Seligman was a corrective to the ‘rotten to the core’ view of human beings that had dominated the discipline since Freud. It is difficult to imagine a proposal more diametrically opposed to that of Mowrer. While Mowrer argued for a renewed awareness of ‘sin’, Seligman asserted to the contrary that it was the vast ignorance of goodness that bedevilled contemporary psychology. We already had a rich, ever-expanding science of what was wrong with people, what we needed was an equally detailed, every bit as expansive science of what was right with us. The explosive growth of positive psychology over the last few decades has been a response to that call, to develop a full-blown science of goodness. 

In the years that followed, Seligman revised his idea of the good life multiple times, perhaps his most ambitious proposal being the concept of Prospective Psychology; the idea that we as a species are best defined not by our past but by our future. He held this future-orientation to be so characteristic of human nature that we could name the species after it- homo prospectus.  We are defined not by what we have been, but by what we are yet to be. It is an insight he shares with many of the thoughtful people who have pondered ethics over the years. Take for example a freely available open-access list of what might be considered virtue. It includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. It is not a particularly systematic or comprehensive list. It just happens to be the list of examples that Paul the apostle came up with in a first-century letter to residents of what is now central Turkey. I often feel better about life, just reading it. 

Paul called these beautiful qualities, ‘fruit of the Spirit’. It is significant that in the original New Testament Greek, the word fruit is singular: καρπὸς (No! Alexa! I don’t need garden furniture!) He doesn’t write fruits, but fruit of the Spirit. He points toward some kind of unity, harmony, consistency in these qualities. Mowrer no doubt would have called it integrity. Goodness is much more than the avoidance of naughtiness; it is the restoration of wholeness to our shattered and divided selves. Sin is much more than the cheeky indulgences we succumb to at the end of a bruising day at work; it is the misdirection and derailment of all we could become. And this is where the tale of two psychologists terminates. Contrary to what the marketing executives may have conspired to tell you, sin is not your friend; it is the enemy of your genuine divine magnificence. That’s what makes deadly sin so deadly. 

7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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