A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Howard
A personal reflection on the nature and history of the concept of “sin.” Rev. Gwendolyn Howard is a Community Minister at First Unitarian Church of Providence.
To listen to the sermon by Rev. Howard, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box
Years ago, I served full time as a parish minister. Within a few months of starting that position, panic set in. I started to fear that I’d quickly run out of things to say on Sunday mornings. A colleague suggested I ought to create a sermon series – that is, a whole group of sermons on a related topic. This suggestion helped relieve my anxiety. The next year, I had my first series. I was serving a small-town Universalist church and, while they were quite liberal theologically, they still maintained some traditions, such as including the Lord’s Prayer as part of the worship service. There was my opportunity: I decided I could preach on one line of the Lord’s prayer every month and I’d be set. My first sermon didn’t get any further than exploring the words, “Our Father.” That, in itself, was a rich topic.
For whatever reason, another year, I thought I might preach on the seven deadly sins. There certainly ought to be a lot to say about each of those, right? It was only at that point I realized I couldn’t even remember what they were (as today’s sermon title suggests). So I abandoned the idea. But, over the years, I’ve thought that exploring the idea of sin in a Unitarian Universalist context might be worthwhile. After all, sin as a religious concept was been with us for a very long time.
For centuries, Western culture was dominated by Christianity and so our understanding of what sin is (or isn’t) started there. A common definition for sin is that it is a violation of God’s law. I already see problems here. What might we mean by God? What are those laws? Who gets to be the spokesperson to say what they are? I understand a desire for order and clarity in life – life is a very messy, often chaotic, business. And I can appreciate the need some may have to find rules which plainly delineate what to do and not do. In a way, I guess, it could take some of the hard work out of day-to-day life. Here are the laws, follow them and all shall be well, don’t, and everything goes to hell (or at least, you go to hell).
Violating someone’s view of God’s law, when those “someones” were powerful, has sometimes had horrible consequences. Heretics (those who may have disagreed about what the divine laws might be) were imprisoned or killed. There’s the bloody record of the Inquisition in Europe, and on a smaller scale but nonetheless deadly, the Salem witch trials closer to home. Certain peoples’ ideas of sin have also shaped out culture at various times: Prohibition, Sunday blue laws, even censorship of the arts. (Back in the days when all movies had to be approved by the Hayes office, there was actually a rule which read as follows: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”)
On a personal level, I usually don’t give much thought to the idea of sin. I accept that life can be unpredictable, complicated, and messy. For a number of years, I taught classes in ethics, and, believe me, if all we needed was a list of the laws or rules we were supposed to follow, I would have been happy to hand them out on Day 1 instead of a syllabus, and then tell my students: “Read these, follow them, class dismissed.”
While sin is never the first thing on my mind, it has been coming up, whether I care about it or not. There are some folks in this country, for example, who seem to take pride in publicly decrying the sins of others and are still trying to make civil law conform to their own notions of divine law. (Though, we’ve had the opportunity to see how they react when one of their own political heroes is seen as committing what they would call sin, and, somehow, it can be excused by declaring “Well, we’re all sinners and need forgiveness.” Apparently hypocrisy isn’t a sin.).
Before the last presidential election, there was a priest in San Diego who published a notice in the parish newsletter that anyone who voted for a certain political party was committing a mortal sin and would be condemned to Hell. It just so happens that I was among the people who have voted for the party of the damned. Fortunately, I take my Universalist heritage seriously, and do not believe in Hell, so, hopefully, I’m off the hook on that one.
I have actually been told that by being myself, I’m not only committing a sin, but I’m encouraging others to go down that dark path, as well. Pope Francis deserves credit for calling out this particular sin with an especially colorful turn of phrase. He said that transgender people are as dangerous as nuclear weapons. (I thought he was supposed to be the “good” pope.)
Despite the ways in which some others may spend much time and energy on sin, whether their own or the sinful lives of those whom they dislike, as Unitarian Universalists, we tend to not put much effort into worrying about “sin.” But reacting to ideas about sin had a great deal to do with the foundations of Unitarianism and Universalism, and still has an effect on our contemporary ethos (even though we might not be conscious of it).
This is probably more obvious with the Universalists. Nineteenth century Universalists had a penchant for arguing – with their contemporaries who held different views, and sometimes with each other (I wonder if we’ve inherited some of that, as well?). Lots of these disagreements were published. If you read them, you quickly find common themes. Often, the more orthodox would challenge the Universalists about the nature of sin. They would argue that people have a sinful nature and would easily give in to the temptations to violate God’s law. Only the fear of eternal punishment in Hell, might sometimes help restrain people from their natural, worst impulses.
The Universalists would usually respond by saying that this view of God paints a picture of a very angry creator who will not tolerate any defiance, but God, they believed, was loving, and that a caring God would not give up on any of us so easily. Instead, such a God would want the best for all of us. They argued that a God who is love, was encouraging – trying to lead us forward – rather than striking us down in retribution.
When I’ve asked UU’s about the history of Universalism, if they know much at all, I find that many have been taught that John Murray is the founder of the denomination. But the person who really deserves credit for popularizing the faith, helping it to develop into a real denomination, and for giving it a real theological foundation is Hosea Ballou. I want to read part of a paragraph from what’s probably his most famous and influential work: The Treatise on Atonement (written in 1805). As you might expect, he suggests that fear is a terrible motivator, instead, he says we should be looking to our own happiness. Please bear in mind that this was written over 200 years ago:
“The objector will say, to admit that our happiness is the grand object of all that we do destroys the purity of religion and reduces the whole to nothing but selfishness. To which I reply, a man acting for his own happiness, if he seek it in the heavenly system of universal benevolence, knowing that his own happiness is connected with the happiness of his fellow-men, which induces him to do justly and to deal mercifully with all …, he is no more selfish than he ought to be. But a man acting for his own happiness, if he seek it in the narrow circle of partiality and covetousness, his selfishness is irreligious and wicked.”
In other words, instead of doing what’s right out of fear of God’s wrath, we should be working for out own happiness. And our greatest happiness is found in working for the good of all, in seeking justice and practicing mercy.
But Universalism only represents half of our tradition. Given the name Unitarian, it would be easy to assume (and most people do) that the origins of the other part of our historic faith were centered on denying the need for a trinitarian conception of God. For Unitarians in Europe, that is certainly true, but as with many things, here in America, it gets complicated. There are some ways in which our Unitarian forebears were interested in the idea of sin long before they were concerned about a trinity.
(By the way, when I started writing this part of my sermon, I thought about calling it: “An Irish monk, a Dutch minister, and a Unitarian walk into a bar.” You’ll discover why in a moment or two. Fortunately, I resisted that temptation to do that.)
To understand where the early American Unitarians were coming from, I first have to talk about original sin. The idea behind it goes something like this: Adam and Eve disobeyed God (and ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil). They became aware, and mortal, and all their descendants (i.e.: us) inherited their sin. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to God to make up for this terrible sin. Even so, all humans are born with it and by implication, are inherently sinful and need to be saved from their natural sinfulness. At the time of the Reformation, John Calvin added a further wrinkle. He argued that the only way we can overcome our sinful nature is the grace of God, but we are only given that if God already knows in advance that we’ll actually use it. So, basically, it’s all out of our hands.
One of the first important objectors to original sin was an Irish monk named Pelagius. He lived toward the end of the 4th century. He preached, among other things, that Adam was always mortal (just like us) and didn’t lose immortality through committing sin, and we’re born, not inherently bad and in need of being saved. Pelagius was controversial in his lifetime, and, after his death, he ideas were declared heretical.
Flashing forward twelve hundred years later, there was a Dutch minister. His name was Jacobus Arminias and he was born in the middle of the 16th century. Like Pelagius, he took issue with the doctrine of original sin, suggesting that humans were not necessarily evil by nature. He also reacted to Calvin’s insistence that the cards are stacked against us by God. Arminius argued that we aren’t predestined to be saved or condemned, but rather, we have a free will. We can choose.
We can disobey divine law, or we can do good, and it’s our responsibility to make that choice.
Some of Arminias’ beliefs would go on to influence later religious movements, like the early Methodists. He certainly had a large influence on the folks who would eventually become the first Unitarians in this county.
The people behind the religious movements that would form Unitarianism started out in the Calvinist traditions, but like Arminias, they came to accept that we have a free will. We can choose. In fact, it is our responsibility to do so. These early New Englanders also came to believe (like Pelagius) that we are not born sinful. Rather, they firmly believed in the dignity of human nature.
This New England Arminianism led directly to the birth of Unitarianism (and its rejection of the trinity). The logic of it is simple: If you believed that humans aren’t born into sin and so all humanity does not require being saved by someone dying on a cross, then you open the door to questioning what Jesus was all about.
If you believed that humans possess free will and make their own choices, then you might start to think that we would benefit from lots of good examples to point us in the right direction, to make good choices. And for the early Unitarians, that’s where Jesus could fit in. He didn’t need to be thought of as part of a complicated view of God, nor a scheme of saving all humanity by sacrifice, rather, he could be seen as a fantastic role model.
Conrad Wright was a professor at Harvard Divinity School, and the leading historian of Unitarianism and congregational polity during the 20th century. Let me quote one sentence from him: “The Arminians believed in the determination of character by environmental influences on a plastic original nature.” [The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America] In other words, it was believed that humans aren’t inherently good, AND they aren’t inherently sinful. Rather, the kind of people we become is molded and shaped by lots of external forces. And for the early Unitarians, those shaping forces include role models and communities of people working for the good.
I began this morning by suggesting that we don’t talk much (if at all) about sin. And, to be honest, most of us really don’t care. And, trust me, I’m fine with that. And yet, I think that it’s worth revisiting sin, at least once in while, because who we, as Unitarian Universalists, have become today, is a direct result of our forbears’ responding to the idea of sin.
Today, I believe we have a firm consensus in seeing the value of working for the good of all, of seeking justice, and of practicing mercy in our lives. We don’t think of humanity as lost and inherently bad, rather we share in hope – that all persons have worth and are deserving of dignity. In our own lives, we know that we aren’t pre-ordained to take one particular path, but we can choose to do the right. And the examples of our lives, and the communities we are part of, while perhaps not perfect, can serve as guides for others, helping them find their way. Who we are today, is because those who came before us rejected prevailing ideas of sin. And they have brought us to a very good place. Amen.