To err is human: Writers speak up for sinning

Is believing in sin passé? Have we traded fear of damnation for the therapist’s couch and self-help? Even with fire and brimstone preachers, apocalyptic prophets and a healthy, if beleaguered Catholic Church, “sin,” it seems, is slowly losing its clout.
But as UVA Professor John Portmann sees it, the Seven Deadly Sins still serve collectively as the single greatest unifier of humanity. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all share an acceptance of the Ten Commandments, and it’s the lilting litany of anger, sloth, lust et al. that speak to the religious and secular at once.
Sin, writes Portmann in the introduction to a provocative collection entitled In Defense of Sin, “has almost invariably indicated an act or attitude that offends not only God but also the people around us. We might not be able to change God’s mind, but we can and do change the way people around us think.”
Indeed, in exploring the sanctity of the Golden Rule and its cohorts, Portmann offers arguments that have gone about as far as any in history in changing the way people around us think: Oscar Wilde on deceit, Ludwig Feuerbach on idolatry, Nietzsche on blasphemy, and of course Sigmund Freud, who concludes that God’s mandates to love our neighbors and to love our enemies are in fact the same thing, and that they are both impossible for the human psyche.
Leaving aside some of the weightier concepts in western civilization, let’s indulge in some consolations for modern-day naughtiness. From UC Santa Cruz, Richard Wasserstrom weighs in on adultery, open marriages, and “passive deception.” Joyce Carol Oates calls for a reprieve for despair, the “unforgivable sin,” and Seneca is back as a booster for suicide (the proper time to slip the cable). Portmann adds his own defense of lust, in which he reassures us that chatting (read cyber-sex) is not cheating.
Clearly, In Defense of Sin is too slim and selective to satisfy a subject that clamors for more (and more varied) response. An attempt to undermine or overwrite the tenets of Judeo-Christian (not to mention Islamic) morality needs a forum as vast and noisome as its premise. Sounds like a job for central Virginia public radio.
If you’ve ever felt the need to give the Decalogue the raspberry; if you’ve accepted sin into your heart as the real deliverance from evil; if you laugh at the bumper sticker that reads “Eve was framed,” – tune in to “With Good Reason” this week, and regret that it’s not a call-in show.  

John Portmann talks In Defense of Sin on With Good Reason, airing Wednesday, November 27, at 7:30 on WVTF, 88.5 FM and on Thursday, November 28, at 7:30 on WMRA, 103.5FM. For schedules and programs see

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