Posted in book reviews, reflections

The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie

Henry Fairlie

I like the book of James. When given a choice in Greek 3 which New Testament book to translate, James was my pick. Its poetic expressions in the King James Version fired  my imagination, phrases like “perfect law of liberty” (1:25).

One can hardly address law from a Christian perspective without dealing with the concept of sin. When we become aware of God’s law, we automatically realize that we are lawbreakers, or sinners. This is apparent from the classical Wesleyan definition of sin as a “willful transgression of a known law of God “(see 1 John 3:4).

This essay is the first in a series of reflections on sin. To help focus our thoughts, we will dialogue with Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame Press, 1978). Fairlie (1924-1990) was British by birth but spent much of his adult life in the United States as an essayist and journalist. He wrote for various publications, including the National Review and was fond of informal debate with the late Christopher Hitchens.

Henry Fairlie, a non-theologian who called himself a “reluctant unbeliever” (p. 6), entitles chapter 1 “The Fact of Sin.” Let us examine three subjects he raises in the chapter by answering these questions:

1) What is “sin” ?

2) What are the “seven deadly sins”?

3) Can psychiatry explain the reality of evil?

As we look at how Fairlie responded to these questions, it is hoped that we will gain greater insight into ourselves and each other. More importantly, we will more deeply appreciate how God’s saving and cleansing grace is the only solution to our sinful predicament.

What is “sin” ?

Fairlie describes sin in several ways. Simply put, sin entails “lapses in our conduct” (p. 3). More insightfully, he calls sin “an act of infidelity and not only of disobedience”; it is the act of “a traitor and not only of a criminal” (p. 9).

To be a sinner is to be a traitor. Scripture resonates with this, from when Adam and Eve betrayed God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22). Sin as betrayal underscores the relational nature of sin: “Sin is the destruction of one’s self as well as one’s relationships with others” (p. 4). When we ask ” Who is it hurting?” we are asking only a rhetorical question. Do we really want an answer? If we are honest, we will admit that by its very nature, sin is never solitary. Its painful consequences touch both God and other human beings. Accordingly, Fairlie (pp. 17-18) explains his reason for writing the essays in The Seven Deadly Sins Today :

They are written from the conviction that, as individuals and societies, we are trifling with the fact that sin exists, and that its power to destroy us is as great as ever; from the belief that much of the fecklessness and triviality, dejection and faintheartedness, wasting and corruption, which we now feel around us, in our personal lives but also in our common lives, have their source exactly where we do not choose to look.

Henry Fairlie accepts the concept of original sin – that we have inherited a “tendency” or “inclination” to evil from Adam and Eve – as long as this concept never becomes a reason to deny moral responsibility for our own actions. He clarifies (p. 19):

We will recognize that the inclination to evil is in our natures, that its existence in us presents us with moral choices, and that it is in making those choices that we form our characters. We may be given our natures, but we make our characters; and it if is in our natures to do evil, it can and ought to be in our characters to resist it. When we say that someone is a “good man” or ” good woman,” we do not mean that they are people from whom the inclination to do evil is absent, but that they are people who have wrestled and still wrestle with it.

Having tipped his hat to original sin, Fairlie (too optimistically) refuses to connect the dots. For him, sin is a “lapse,”  as if sin is an anomaly in our behavior. Yet Christian theology affirms the opposite. Sin is not a “lapse” but a symptom of a sickness. If we have better moments, these are but a reflection of God at-work in the lives of all through the influence of the Holy Spirit, what Wesleyans call “prevenient grace.” Even in the believer, what is good in me is most decidedly not me; rather, it is Christ shining out from me! All glory returns to God, who alone deserves it.

Nonetheless, Fairlie is correct when he insists that sin is not merely individual; it has corporate elements. It is not only persons that sin. Societies are also capable of sin (p. 25). It will be interesting to see if he applies this insight as he takes up the seven deadly sins in the remaining chapters of his book.

What are the “seven deadly sins”? 

Besides defining sin, Henry Fairlie also explains the title of his book, The Seven Deadly Sins Today. The term comes from early monasticism, specifically from the Eastern church (p. 10). However, it was Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) who saw their value not only for the monk or nun in isolation but for the average Christian trying to live for God in everyday walks of life (p. 12). Proverbs 6:16-19 speaks of “six things that the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him.” Likewise, Gregory identified seven sins (not all the same as the Proverbs list) that could become gateways to all others:

Pride   Envy   Anger   Sloth  Avarice   Gluttony   Lust

All seven sins, importantly, are “demonstrations of love that has gone wrong” (p. 34). Though a complete list of sins would be far longer, it is these that “lie deeply rooted in our natures” (p. 13). In the “Parson’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales of Chaucher, these are the sins from which other sins branch.

It would be a grave mistake to look at this list and say: “My sin’s not on that list, so I’m in the clear.” All sin is deadly, no matter its variety (Romans 6:23), a point that Fairlie fails to draw. On the other hand, he correctly indicates that in the list of the seven deadly sins, no priority is implied. Pride is not a greater sin than anger, for example.

Can psychiatry explain the reality of evil?

Sin in general and the seven deadly sins in particular serve an important role in Henry Fairlie’s investigation. Earlier in the chapter, he alludes to his agenda, lamenting that humanism has made the human being “too mechanical,” that we are “reduced to things of pulleys and levers” (p. 7). He maintains (Ibid.): “But the unbeliever who is modest has the need, and must even be allowed the right, to reach to the insights of his own civilization, not least of its theologies, to express what otherwise he is unable to utter or explain” (italics added).

Later, Fairlie narrows his critique to psychiatry. With vigor, he pursues his purpose (p. 29):

There is in these essays an implicit – at times, explicit – criticism of psychiatry, of the excuses that it finds for us, and of the shallowness of the adjustments and accommodations that it invites us to make. Its explanations are our substitutes for the idea of sin, and in nothing is this more obvious than in the mirthlessness with which it encourages us to be interested in our lesser disorders, while it frees us from the dark night of the soul in which we must wrestle with our evil.

Henry Fairlie’s criticism of psychiatry may be too broad. Depression, for example, can be treated with medication given by a psychiatrist for physical reasons that have no spiritual element. Nonetheless, his critique is not without foundation. A purely mechanistic worldview cannot allow (for example) for the Devil, nor see how the Devil – whom Fairlie (echoing C.S. Lewis) calls “civil” and a “genteman” – has any role to play in the wrestling we do with evil. In a scathing passage evoking Paul’s question, “Shall we sin that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1), Fairlie laments:

As a result of the habits that psychiatry has encouraged in us, endlessly we scrape over our faults and weaknesses…Mirthlessly and with self-importance, we confess to offenses that we know will be forgiven in order to justify the sin which we are about to concede; so we give game, set, and match to the Devil, when he has won only an advantage. He finds a chink in our armor, where we have been found weak or at fault, and when he cries, “Aha! You are already lost!” we lay ourselves open to his much greater depredations.

Here Fairlie has put his finger on an important distinction between secular counseling and Christian faith. Secular counseling focuses on helping us become well-adjusted in our circumstances, as who we are. Christian faith, on the other hand, points out our sinful dilemma and promises deliverance, genuine moral transformation. The “old” has gone; the “new” has come! (see 2 Cor. 5:17). While we must do better to make everyone welcome in the church, it is nothing short of ministerial malpractice to make folks comfortable in their sin, whether that sin is on the list of the “seven deadly sins” or another. As the old adage reminds us, ours is to “comfort the afflicted” but as needed “afflict the comfortable.”


Henry Fairlie intuited what is lost in our society when the concept of sin is relegated to a shelf of dusty theology books. After 9-11-2001, former Education Secretary William Bennett called the terrorist attacks “a moment of moral clarity.”  If he had been still with us on that infamous day, Fairlie would have agreed with Mr. Bennett. Indeed, only sin can fully account for the presence of evil in our world. And as Wesleyans, we would add that only God’s saving and cleansing grace can overcome the diabolical effects of sin in ourselves and others.


Next week, join us as we continue our study of The Seven Deadly Sins Today. We’ll be looking at chapter 2, “Pride or Superbia.”


Photo credit: New York Times


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

2 thoughts on “The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie

  1. Greg, again a very timely article for me as a Prison Chaplain. I am currently putting together a series of classes regarding restorative justice in the ‘Big House’. The section regarding psychiatry reared it’s head from our co-ordinating chaplain (an Anglican), who suggested that I run the contents of the course by our Psychology dept in case there was a conflict…. so far I have resisted for exactly the reason of it often being a science of excuses that doesn’t recognise anything outside it’s own mechanistic constructs…. My response? If we cannot address restorative justice, transformation, and broken relationships in the local and bigger scheme of things then who can?

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