February – From the Minister

A philosopher has said, the line between good and evil goes through the center of each human heart. Martin Luther said it just slightly differently—simul Justus et peccator. Simul—simultaneously, Justus—justified, et peccator—and yet a sinner.

At one moment we are entirely whole in our beauty and brokenness – the tradition of our ancestors reminds us of our humanity – fully beautiful, fully broken; imperfect and yet proclaimed: beloved of earth, of sky, of God.

Sin is an edgy topic—especially for religious liberals. The practice this month, of turning, comes from traditional understandings of “sin” in philosophy and theology. To sin was to turn away: from the Holy, from the good, to fail to live up to your own hopes. And then to repent, which means to turn, was to turn back toward the Holy, the good, your highest aspirations and your best self.

When I was leaving Lutheran seminary I met with the Dean of the Seminary. I explained I had come to believe that Jesus was one among many mediators of God in the world. He said, “Sure. There are a hundred ways to understand Jesus—that’s not too radical.” I was a bit surprised.

And what he said next has stuck with me since: “I think the major difference we have with the Unitarian Universalists is human nature. We human beings are constantly failing to be our best selves, and regularly drawn to the vices of greed and hatred and division – and unless we name it as something as deep and substantial as sin, I think it becomes quite difficult to respond to it in any constructive way.”

And I said, “Yes, Sir.” And I babbled about each person having the capacity for good or evil; that it’s not “original sin,” and he said, “You know as well as I that original sin is a metaphor for why humans fail to be their best selves all the time. We’re not evil—we are just as flawed as we are good—and yet God always calls us beloved.”

And I said, “Yes, Sir.”

I think I like the edginess of thinking about sin because it forces us to re-examine the overly optimistic view of human nature in liberal religion. It challenges us to look at our language; how do we speak of individual and communal brokenness, wrongdoing, missing the mark, failing to be our best selves? Each day, we experience a world in which there are heart-shattering stories and experiences—loss, grief, destruction of our communities and the planet itself.

So I still wonder, and wrestle with the question: how might we use the language of sin, whether we end up using that word or not, as a gateway to deeper reflection on how to name and respond to our broken world, and our broken souls. Perhaps we can find language that names both struggle, personal and communal, as well as resilience.