By Judy Chicago
And then all that has divided us will merge
and then compassion will be wedded to power
and then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
and then both men and women will be gentle
and then both women and men will be strong
and then no person will be subject to another's will
and then all will be rich and free and varied
and then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
and then all will share equally in the earth's abundance
and then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
and then all will nurse the young
and then all will cherish life's creatures
and then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth
and then everywhere will be called [the Garden of] Eden once again.”
“Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways…
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.”
We are rapidly approaching the time of year when the Christian tradition engages with those “foolish ways” and that “haunted sleep” – the misdeeds, failures, wrongdoing, crimes, failings, weaknesses, flaws, corruption, immorality, degeneracy, wickedness, decadence and dissipation of humankind. In a word, sin.
Lent begins a week from Wednesday and a major focus of this 40 day period of prayer and abstinence is repentance for sin. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, in particular, embraces this task as Christians seek to cleanse themselves of sins at the beginning of Lent.
But lest we get too down about the season, there is a sweetener. Just preceding Ash Wednesday is Shrove Tuesday, also known sometimes as Pancake Day. In many parts of the world, it is called Mardi Gras – or fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras, as you know, is often the opportunity for all-out debauchery – getting it in just in time for the solemnity of the beginning of Lent.
They are an interesting pair, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday… If Unitarians have to choose, I think we’d go for the pancakes over the fasting nine times out of ten! We don’t spend much time on sin, do we? But, sin is very close to the centre of much of Christian theology – which holds that God took on human form in Jesus of Nazareth and died on the cross as the only possible means to wash away the sins of mankind.
And so today seems a good time to consider sin.
Unitarians grew out of Christianity to become the radically diverse faith we are now. Early Unitarians gave a lot of thought to sin. What do Unitarians think of this topic today? Perhaps a good indication is this: if you look up sin in the index of readings in the current American Unitarian hymnal, you find – well, you find nothing. There is no listing at all. Dig a bit further and you might notice a section called “Failings and Frailties.” I get the idea, but it certainly lacks the punch of the real thing – sort-of like alcohol-free beer or decaf coffee.
Fair enough though… Many Unitarians have abandoned the concept of sin, with its associations of original sin – the stain upon humanity since the expulsion from the garden of Eden – the sense that we are all – not just capable of sin, but sinners, sinful through and through. To me, this seems like labelling all cars as “crashers” or “crashful,” because they are capable of crashing – ignoring the fact that most of the time, they are remarkably good at avoiding crashes.
I can’t resist offering a quote from John Calvin – a champion of the theory that humanity is despicably and sinful – known, charmingly I think, as the doctrine of total depravity. Here’s Calvin:
“...our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive. Those who have called it concupiscence have used an expression not improper, if it were only added, which is far from being conceded by most persons, that everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted and engrossed by this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly, that man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence.”
Concupiscence is, of course, lust. You just know that Calvin was a lot of fun at parties, don’t you?
With Calvin in the background then, it seems have very good reason to turn away from the notion of “sin”, replacing it with a more charitable understanding of “failings and frailties.” It comes down to our view of human nature. Are we sinful and depraved and in need of supernatural salvation or are we basically good with a few failings and frailties here and there?
As optimistic bearers of the banner of the liberal religious tradition, we usually reject the notion that human nature is bad and embrace the promise that we can turn to the good on our own. Unitarians have liked to cite a phrase from the New Testament book of Philippians “work out your own salvation.” In place of salvation from an external force, we understand that power to be held within each of us.
So, shall we throw out the whole notion of sin, then? Might not there be a value to a word so powerfully charged - so deep in its resonance and so strongly tied to the notion of evil? Can there be for us a way to interpret and use the notion of sin in a liberal and liberating sense?
The notion of sin preceded Christianity and, if we find something valuable in this concept, we need not be bound by any particular traditional view of it. And so, if we adopt the notion that we can work out our own salvation – that we can receive forgiveness without something like a divine sacrifice on the cross, then maybe we can take another look at sin. What might we think of the notion of sin without the condemnation of sinfulness and the stain of original sin?
What might sin mean to a Unitarian?
I think we can most easily say how we would not use the word sin! Sin is not simply a synonym for wrong or bad. We would certainly not define it by the lists of sins offered in various scriptures or religious traditions. Envy, gluttony, sloth, pride, greed… These don’t fit for me. Even some of the Ten Commandments would not meet the grade – coveting? Graven idols? And what if your parents don’t deserve to be honoured? Eating meat, drinking alcohol, having milk and meat together, eating pork… For Unitarians, these are just not taking us in the right direction for a useful understanding of sin.
Sin has often been defined by the punishment connected to it. If you commit a venial sin – not so bad, though you could end up in purgatory if you’re not careful. But, commit a mortal sin – well, then you’re headed to hell, my friend. If the concept of “sin” is to be valuable for us, it must be useful – not by creating lists of forbidden actions, feelings, and words – not by generating a fear of punishment, but by guiding us in being the people we aspire to be and to create the world of our vision.
A phrase coined by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr tells us: “sin is man's rebellion against [the will of] God.” There is something useful here. I like it even better when Niebuhr goes on to say that “The moral and social dimension of sin is injustice.” This is a view that moves away from the seemingly arbitrary lists of personal sins and punishments that can seem so unreasonable toward a notion of sin as what takes us away from a happier world of justice and peace.
But wait a minute… God? Which God? What God? Some of us don’t believe in God and those that do, don’t necessarily believe in a God that has a will – at least not a will we can understand. And how would we know God’s will anyway?
What is “the will of God” then?
This is where Unitarians and most other people of faith part ways. In most religions, you would be told what the will of God is – like it or not. Here, we understand that each of us is capable of discerning that will and that each of us may sense it and understand it very differently. Here, we are convinced that this process of discernment happens not only alone, but amid the support and challenge of spiritual community.
However we each understand God, this is the question with which each of us must wrestle. If the particular language of “the will of God” is not right for you, remember that God may be best understood metaphorically. Maybe the question that best suits you is “in what direction does the spirit move?”, “How do we arrive at the Beloved Community”, or “what does life need from us?” However we phrase it, this is the basis of our ultimate religious duty – to participate in the very human task of remaking of the world.
The will of God is not something we are likely to be able to put completely into words. Judy Chicago’s poem, “And Then,” paints a picture of the kind of world that the will of God might lead toward. It is a world of compassion, equality, freedom, justice, and harmony.
One of my favourite phrases, and you have heard it from me before, is that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr. used it in the nineteen-sixties, but it was coined by our 19th century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker. “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If there is a will of God, no doubt it is what – through the power of human hearts, minds, and hands – shapes the course of history ultimately to turn as it does.
I am not, of course, going to try to tell you the will of God and then give out a list of what to do and what not to do. If you’re good Unitarians, you wouldn’t listen anyway! And while I can’t give you the answers or even your answers, I can share with you where my discernment has led me so far.
The will of God, as I believe I sense it, is toward deep connection amongst all beings. It is a quiet yet powerful rumbling that moves us in the direction of understanding one another – of seeing through each others’ eyes – of knowing each others’ hearts and of seeing there a spark of the divine that abides in all of us. And this deep connection leads necessarily to kindness, to justice, to respect, and love.
I want to reclaim the word sin, and to me, sin is anything that works deliberately against this movement toward connection. Sin includes closing our minds and hearts to other perspectives. It is a sin to hold onto prejudice and bigotry. It is a sin to enter into relationship with mistrust. It is a sin to make unsupported assumptions about the intentions of others. It is a sin to engage in “us and them” thinking.
We heard earlier “Only the sinner has a right to preach.” Well, if Christopher Morley was right about that, I’ve certainly earned the right to stand up here before you today!
I have often acted often in ways that are counter to what I understand to be God’s will and, many more times, I have failed to act when I could have furthered this forcein the world.
I call this sin – not because it fits someone else’s definition or appears on some list written thousands of years ago. It is sin because it is contrary to the direction that life must flow – contrary to the will of God as I understand it. I am confident that I will not be punished for these sins in some future world after death, but I also know that all of us suffer right here in this world for such sins. This is a concept of sin that guides me toward right action – not away from hell – but toward creating heaven right here.
We sin, but we are not sinful. We are each imperfect but possessed of a divine spark. As people of faith – as people of hope – as people who dream of a world of justice, let us once again listen to God’s will and act to further it in this world.