|Peccantem me quotidie
||Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500-1553)
Peccantem me quotidie, et non me paenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me:
Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei, Deus, et salva me.
While I am sinning every day, and yet do not repent, the fear of death overwhelms me. For in hell there is no redemption. Have mercy on me, God, and save me.
Matins Responsory for the Office of the Dead [nationalcathedral.org]
Sin is a concept that Christians and post-Christians grapple with at all time, but especially during the Lenten season. As UU minister Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis wrote in Why Religious Liberals Need Lent,
The season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, is an invitation to be honest with ourselves about the ways in which our lives, as lived, do not align with the love and compassion and wholeness of which we are all capable. It is an invitation to look at hard truths, to name our mistakes, and make a commitment to real, measurable change. And it’s an invitation to do this not just for a few guilt-inducing moments, but over a significant period of time–a period of time which is culturally mythologized as being long enough to make real progress toward changing something.
The various denominations rooted in the Christian faith have a diverse attitude towards sin — Catholics and conservative evangelicals emphasize personal sin, while differing not only in what are considered sinful, but also how one can be redeemed. Liberals — from Episcopalian all the way to UU — tend to put more emphasis on societal sins. From another Unitarian minister, Rev. Daniel Harper, in Reluctantly reexamining personal sin:
I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.
Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.
It is understandable that a lot of liberals have an allergic reaction to the word “sin”. UUism is rooted, among others, in New England Puritanism; and Episcopalians often defined themselves as “we don’t do Catholic guilt” — the hair-splitting of mortal sin vs venial sin. Yet we need to claim this language. Rev. Harper quoted his liberal friend arguing for the existence of personal sin; Rev. Ellen quoted from James Luther Adams (see linked post) on the hubris that occured when religious liberals ignore the concept of sin, a quotation that reminds me of the naïvité of Voltaire’s Candide.
I’d invite each of us to, instead of the pessimism of puritans and futurist eschatologist, and the unbounded optimism of early 20th century liberals, to adopt, to borrow another homage to Voltaire, pessoptimism (cf. Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist). We are sinful creatures, often putting ourselves before others. Society is broken, in that its rules are often rigged to serve the powerful rather than the dispossessed. But we have to believe, to have faith, in our capacity to better ourselves. To strive towards bringing aspects of the ideal Kingdom to fruition, here on earth. With Christ as our guide — given our limited, imperfect understanding of him, whether as a historical figure, or as the metaphorical embodiment of the transcendent.
Going back to the communion anthem, Peccantem me quotidie, isn’t it the case that, whether there is an afterlife or not, we do care about our legacy — how we are remembered, how we raise our offsprings, what kind of world they inherit from us? Faith does not equate certainty (far from it!), and atheism does not equate nihilism either. There is too much that is sinful and broken; these problems ought to unite us, regardless of creedal differences. You don’t need (to believe in (the same)) God to be good — or to acknowledge that sin exists and to aspire to not be ruled by it..
Read Full Post »