Sins Old & New
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 18, 2008
Within our particular Unitarian Universalist movement, it seems to me that we are particularly sensitive (I would say “over-sensitive”, but what do I know?) about religious language at times. It has been said (often, and sometimes by me, I know) that the only time you’ll hear the name “Jesus Christ” uttered in a Unitarian church is when the custodian falls off a ladder. Now, that may be something of an exaggeration, but like many exaggerations, it contains at least a bit of truth. There is a whole array of religious terms which don’t get used in many (maybe most) of our churches—terms which carry along with them too much “baggage”—too many “negative connotations” from the restrictive religious past some of us are trying to move beyond. So, rather than “offend” with the use of certain terms, we just avoid them; we don’t them in our religious discourse. Which I, for one, think is unfortunate sometimes, and cuts us off from the general religious conversation in our culture.
One of these terms is the word “sin”. “Sin?” some of our fellow religionists might ask. “We’re Unitarian Universalists. We’re too smart, too enlightened, to think about such an outmoded religious concepts. We UUs don’t do ‘sin’.” (Some Unitarian Universalists don’t do “humility”, either, I suppose, but that’s a different topic.)
I am a firm believer that we in this new age don’t need to recast our entire religious lexicon every couple of years in order to remain spiritually relevant. Indeed, sometimes I fear that a mad dash constantly to “modernize” and “update” the way we “do religion” actually hurts us more than helps. By constantly trying to express our faith in language that is always different and something new, we tie it too closely to the shifting sands of current social practice; we affix our wagon to a passing fancy, and not to a true and abiding star.
Traditional religious language can be helpful because it ties our spiritual search with that of those who have come before us. It gives us a vehicle to engage the past in dialogue—and out of the interchange of past and present, we can hope that a deeper, truer, more life-giving and life-affirming synthesis can result.
So maybe this sermon should have been called “In Praise of Sin” or something like that (which, actually, might have been a little bit catchier than what I did title it). Actually, of course, it’s not “sin” itself that I’m advocating, but rather, the use of the term “sin” in our religious conversation.
The term “sin” itself was originally derived from the Old English word meaning wrongdoing or injury. The New Testament word usually translated as “sin” is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark” or “to miss the target”, which was also a term used in ancient archery. In traditional Christian theology, sin is defined as disobedience to God; refusing to do God’s will; turning one’s back on God—as Adam and Eve did in the myth of the Garden of Eden (the “Original Sin” in the minds of some).
Now, the topic of Original Sin is not one I am inclined to take up this morning. It is a difficult concept, and I don’t think a very helpful one. I am ready to admit that we human ones are capable of committing some really crappy deeds sometimes. But I don’t believe that means there is some kind of evil taint upon our human nature; that we are irreparably bound to sin; that there is in our very being a deep alienation from the Source of Life that made us. More helpful, to me, than any idea of “Original Sin” is the concept of “Original Blessing”: the idea that in our very makeup, we are bound as one with all Creation—that we share a common creation story—and that this radical interdependence with all life is that, truly, in which we live, and move, and have our being.
Sin, in this context then, means forgetting about our interdependence; it means turning our backs on that Spirit of Life which made us and which holds us close, bound together in a single, awesome history of cosmic evolution. It means forsaking the ties that bind—that bind us to one another; to all people everywhere; to our planet; to all life.
These sins can be deadly, indeed—on a physical level, no less than on a spiritual one. Indeed, the “seven deadly sins” were originally called “deadly” because they murdered the spiritual life; they cut one off from God, and in so doing, they doomed the sinner to eternal punishment in Hell (as good Universalists, we don’t do Hell either, and that is, in the main, a good thing, I think).
The original Seven Deadly Sins aren’t in the Bible; they don’t emerge out of holy scripture; they weren’t delivered by Moses as an appendix to the Ten Commandments; they certainly aren’t part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Scholars don’t know for sure where they did originate, though it seems to have been sometime in the very early Middle Ages. Already by the very early seventh century, Pope Gregory I (or “the Great” as he came to be known) had drawn up a list of them. These were later popularized by the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, which quite imaginatively shows how different kinds of sinners are to be punished for such “heinous” crimes.
Gregory’s list of “Deadly Sins” was as follows:
It’s interesting, I think, that “Pride” is up there at the top of the list. “What’s wrong with having pride in oneself, in one’s accomplishments?” you might well ask. “What’s wrong with pride? How is that a sin?”
I don’t think that “pride” here means a good, honest sense of accomplishment; it doesn’t mean knowing that we’ve done a good job at something, and feeling good about it. There’s nothing wring with that, at all, I think even Pope Gregory might agree.
This “sinful” pride goes deeper. It’s the sin of putting ourselves—our own little, prone-to-error selves—at the center of the universe. It’s forgetting that we human ones did not weave the web of life, but are only strands in it—and that what we do to the web, we do to ourselves, and to one another.
Lucifer’s sin was that he wanted to be like God. So, we are told, he was cast into Hell. The sin of Adam and Eve was that they wanted to know like God. So, we are told, they were cast out of the Garden. The sin of our age is that we have forgotten God—forgotten about that force of life greater than us. And so, in the name of “human progress” all sorts of crimes have been committed against the interdependent web of creation—and so we may well be creating a living Hell—the source of our own extinction-- by our own hands.
The second Deadly Sin is wrath, anger. Righteous anger can be an empowering force, and God knows, sometimes people (and whole peoples) have the right to be angry. We should be angry in the face of injustice. We should be angry in the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other grave social sins of our time. If we repress our anger—or constantly live in denial about it—and always cover it up, and put a “happy face” over how we really feel—then we can become depressed and ill, mentally and physically. But a life based on blame and anger alone is a joyless life. It creates within us a desolate, infertile domain; and we have to move beyond our anger if the Spirit is ever to have a chance to flower within us.
Third—greed. We want, we want, we want. The more we have, the less satisfied we are. “Poor man wants to be rich; rich man wants to be king; and the king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.” Such is the dynamic of human life sometimes; and a compassionate society and a caring world it does not make. Will there be any hope for peace in this world unless we understand that the treasures of the world are not possessions to be hoarded, but gifts to be shared?
The fourth deadly sin—envy—divides us from one another, and from all life, as well. When we are infected with envy, then we look out at the world and everyone, so it seems, is better off than we are. They have better jobs; bigger houses; spouses who love them more; better-behaved children. And we want those things, too! Wisdom, of course, (not to mention reason) counsels that in almost every area of human endeavor, there will be people better off than we are, and those who are worse off. Wisdom also reminds of the joy of living content with small means. Envy poisons human relationships, and distracts us from the bigger work that is ours to do.
The fifth deadly sin is lust. Not lust as good, honest, committed sexuality, in whatever wondrous away that sexulaity manifests itself. Lust is not about enjoying the gifts our bodies offer, or feeling empowered in our embodiedness. There is no need to draw a strict line between body and soul; or to denigrate human sexuality as inherently “unclean”; or to deny the importance of physical intimacy in the development of a healthy, whole being.
But lust is about being tied too closely to the pleasures of the body alone. Lust is about forgetting the spiritual side of one another, and treating other living, breathing human beings as mere objects, as things.
Sixth: gluttony. A very real sin in a land where more people are dying from eating too much than from eating too little. A very real sin in a world where people are starving to death every day. But gluttony is not just about being addicted to food. It’s about addiction, period. We can get addicted to almost anything, and addiction is a sin because it kills the spirit and cuts us off from feeling the genuine joy and pain of life. When we’re addicted to something other than life, we forget that the Spirit of Life is the true Bread of Life.
Then, finally, there’s sloth. Sloth isn’t just physical laziness; it originally went deeper than that. The original Latin word for it was acedia, and it meant a kind of lolling-around when it came to life. It meant a deep despair in the face of life; a deep inner apathy toward life. Sloth is presented with the miracle of being, and it responds: “I don’t care. No big deal. Whatever.”
Sloth comes in many sizes and shapes: It can be a lack of life force; a lack of ambition; a refusal to accept mirth and joy; idleness of mind or body; a retreat into mere escapism. Sloth is never happy; never rested; never hopeful; it doesn’t care about injustice or suffering in the world; it rejoices not at beauty. It just goes along to get along, in a perpetual state of lukewarmness. The slothful measure out their lives by coffee spoons, as T.S. Eliot put it, in a sort of living death.
Now, I know that the “Seven Deadly Sins”, as they’ve been passed down to us, have not always been used as helpful tools along the way of our common religious journey. All too often, they, too, have been used as weapons, as cudgels—forcing people onto a particular religious road. They’ve been used to limit discussion, and cut off inquiry.
The invocation against pride became an excuse to keep those out of power down and out; to keep them as bathmats, in service to the high and mighty.
Anger deferred can lead to bottled-up rage, all too prone to explode in the most violent and awful manner.
Throughout human history the commandment “Thou shalt not covet” has been translated in practice as “Keep your hand off of my stuff,” and “Keep your hand off my pie.”
Likewise, “Don’t give in to envy” was often the motto of those who already had power and position and prestige, and weren’t about to share it.
Seeing lust as a sin can lead too readily to an unhealthy loathing of the body.
Gluttony and addiction might well cut us off from the spirit. But sometimes, we ought not to be satisfied with what we have. We need to seek more, experience more, and work harder if there is t be hope for us.
But not being slothful doesn’t mean becoming a workaholic or a perfectionist, either.
As with any religious doctrine or idea, we need to weigh the Seven Deadly Sins in the light of our own experience, before the tribunal of our own consciences. Sometimes, too, “new occasions teach new duties,” and lists written in one age need to be updated.
And whatever list of sins—or commandments—or suggestions for spiritual living—we use, it has to be written ultimately on our hearts if it’s going to do any good. There is, of course, a social dimension to sin. But ultimately, it is within each individual human heart that the world will be transformed.
“We are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence,” Mahatma Gandhi said soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, “But I maintain that far more undreamt-of and seemingly impossible discoveries are yet to be made in the field of non-violence.”
Or as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote:
It takes great souls to have such great hope.
May this be our prayer:
Until that hour arrives, we each have our own work to do for justice and for peace.