Medicalizing the Absurd
In 1973, Karl Menninger wrote Whatever Became of Sin? He was responding to a cultural move away from any concept of moral transgression. The sociologists and psychologists of the day redefined what Western Christianity had always considered as sinful fruit of dark and hardened hearts. Instead, they argued that those effects, whether individual or corporate, were due to physical hardwiring, societal conditioning, or poor childrearing.
New Classification for Old Sins
Menninger’s concerns were fully justified. Since then, our culture has rapidly medicalized sin. USA Today published an article by Caroline Simon entitled, “Sex addictions are deeply misunderstood. A new classification could change that.” That “new classification” is the World Health Organization’s definition of sex addiction as a mental disorder or a “compulsive sexual health disorder.” This disorder is defined as a “persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.” The diagnosis is based on several characteristics: “repetitive sexual activities becoming the focus of a person’s life, numerous unsuccessful efforts to reduce sexual behavior and continued sexual activity despite deriving little satisfaction from it.”
Simon understands the motivation behind this redefinition. “Experts also hope,” she writes, “the new classification will chip away at a larger goal: destigmatizing sex addiction.” The key is to change moral perceptions. Simon cites Robert Weiss, an addiction specialist and author of the book Sex Addiction 10: “There was a time when alcoholism was a fatal illness, and there was no cure, and you were going to die of alcoholism because you were a bad person.” Today, in what can only be taken to be an improvement in perspectives, Weiss say, “We don’t look at alcoholics and drug addicts and say, ‘You’re a bad person,’ we say, ‘You have a problem.’”
An Error Too Big to Miss
The argumentation used in this process is the last stop on the path to morally deviant behaviors. It consistently de-moralizes any human choice. Let’s take another look at the World Health Organization’s definition of compulsive sexual health disorder: It is a “persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.” This definition is so problematic that it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could miss it. The problem is clearer when we remove the specifics of sexual addition from the definition, getting down to the structure of the definition:
A compulsive ___ disorder is a persistent pattern of failure to control ____ impulses or urges resulting in repetitive _____behavior.
Now the problem becomes clear: The structure of this definition provides the grounds of removing moral evaluation from any morally deviant action (sin) whatsoever.
Let’s frame a few sins by the definition offered by the World Health Organization. This search-and-replace approach demonstrates the over-reach of this definition.
- Compulsive pornographic viewing disorder: A persistent pattern of failure to control the impulse or urge to view pornographic material resulting in the repeated behavior of watching pornography.
- Compulsive human eating disorder: A persistent pattern of failure to control the impulse or urge to eat humans resulting in repetitive cannibalistic behavior.
- Compulsive untruth-telling disorder: A persistent pattern of failure to control lying impulses or urges resulting in repetitive lying behavior.
- Compulsive life-taking disorder: A persistent pattern of failure to control murderous impulses or urges resulting in repetitive homicidal behavior.
Note what I’ve done. I have only switched out the key terms. The same can be done with the criteria: “repetitive _____ activities becoming the focus of a person’s life, numerous unsuccessful efforts to reduce _____ behavior and continued _____ activity despite deriving little satisfaction from it.” By force of logical consistency, if the stigma of compulsive sexual health disorder should remove through this medicalized redefinition, then so should the stigma be removed from pornography addiction, cannibalism, lying, and murder. There is no other way around this.
Biting the Bullet
The tragedy is some gladly follow the logic and bite the proverbial bullet. As an example, take Mirjam Heine’s recent TEDx Talk, where she claims, “pedophilia is a natural sexual orientation, just like heterosexuality.” Furthermore, she adds,
We should accept that pedophiles are people who have not chosen their sexuality… We should accept that pedophilia is a sexual preference, a thought, a feeling, and not an act. We should differentiate between child sexual abuse and pedophilia. We shouldn’t increase the suffering of pedophiles by excluding them, by blaming and mocking them.
Madeleine van der Bruggen, in her April presentation at TEDxSittardGeleen, makes a related case. Unlike Heine’s view, Pedophilia is not “natural” so much as a mental health issue to be destigmatized. The claim is nearly parallel to the form above. The moral disapprobation of pedophilia should be lifted because those with this disorder experience a persistent pattern of failure to control pedophilic impulses or urges.
The Real Disorder and the True Remedy
This is the latest chapter in a cautionary tale of rebellion against the commands of God. This is what happens when a society is given over to its commitment to suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18, 28). The true disorder is a heart disorder, one turned away from the source of goodness, righteousness, and holiness. This is practical Oneism at its core- no standard over, above, and outside one’s subjective experience to challenge, correct, or counsel. When Creator and Lord is removed from a culture’s collective worldview, we are left with disorders, sicknesses, and neuroses.
Two problems remain. First, Oneist medicalization leaves us with mere tautologies. Disorders are mere descriptions of a patient’s symptoms, but they are couched in language that makes it appear as if the condition causes the symptoms.
Second, and more importantly, defining away sin is tragic, since it cuts sinners off from the opportunity to experience true freedom. The only true relief from these destructive behaviors is found not in downplaying the severity of one’s moral crimes against God, but in acknowledging their foulness and clinging to the wrath-exhausting cross of our divinely appointed sin-bearing substitute.