“The Moral Crisis: The Rediscovery of Sin”

The Moral Crisis: The Rediscovery of Sin

By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
February 26, 1950

In times of stress, people do strange things: useless things, futile and unavailing. A drowning man, we are told, will grasp at a straw. He is unable to help it. He knows perfectly well that the straw will not keep him afloat, but his hand goes out compulsively. He cannot keep it back. In the same way, he is likely to handicap a rescuer. Instead of cooperating intelligently, which requires restraint and must be more or less guided by reason, he acts instinctively. If he is physically strong enough and the rescuer unwary, this may mean that both of them go down together–because the drowning man is controlled by panic and cannot bring himself to let go.

It is much the same with other sorts of panic. People who feel themselves threatened by events refuse to think about the events that threaten them. Like the fabled ostrich, they bury their heads in the sand. The sand, after all, feels solid. Perhaps it will protect them. Perhaps dangers that are not looked at will disappear. Close your eyes! Burrow you head in deeper! Keep perfectly still and maybe your enemy will think you are not an ostrich at all, but just a tree that looks like an ostrich. Who knows? Maybe everything will come out all right in spite of everything–provided that nothing energetic is done–and that nothing unpleasant is thought about.
All of which, of course, describes the prevailing behavior pattern of the modern world for almost a generation, and particularly the behavior of the people of the United States for the last five years. People have been willing to go to almost any length to avoid looking at realities…

What I wish to speak of, this morning, however, is not the strangeness of this total situation. Or at any rate, not that in the first place. I want to say something about the prevailing straw-grasping by those who are currently drowning in the turbid stream of popular religion. There has been something of a revival of orthodoxy, lately. Not quite in the old form–nothing as substantial as that. No one could call it a revival of faith–no, it comes closer to despair. And one of its manifestations is a growing preoccupation with sin.

Now, this could be a good thing, for sin is certainly something to think about. I have never agreed with those who tried to tell us that the whole idea of sin is out of date. To the best of my observation and belief, sin is highly contemporary and we are all up to our necks in it.

But this doesn’t mean that to avoid drowning in sin, we must clutch at theological straws. It doesn’t mean that we must surrender all attempts at swimming our way to shore. Nor does it mean that there is nothing left to do but call on God for a miracle. It doesn’t mean despair.

Not that I think we can afford to be unqualified optimists about human nature. Far from it. I don’t quite know what optimism might be at the present time. Somebody once said–I have forgotten who–that an optimist is a person who believes that the future is still uncertain. That is about as grim a definition of optimism as anyone could imagine. But useful. It implies at any rate that the future is not closed against us: that we have some power over it. Which I believe to be true. When we are told, however, that nothing that we can do will avail, that we must cast ourselves upon the mercy of God because we are too sinful to do anything effectual on our own behalf, I believe that we are being offered nothing but an escapism–an escapism which conceals surrender–and that this is the most dangerous escapism of all.

It is not an escapism confined to theology. It has two forms, one which makes appeal to God, and another which makes precisely the same appeal but to a sort of blind fate or destiny. Let us look at them in turn.

It is not unnatural that theologians should concern themselves with sin. It is part of their special province. Moreover, sin has to do with reality–not necessarily with escapism. Evil in human life is not a fiction; it is a very somber fact. The popular psychologists–not the serious ones, not them for the most part, but the popular ones–did us a great disservice by making light of sin. It is true that guilt feelings are often obsessional–and we shall come to that in a minute–and it is also true that psychology has done much better than theology in dealing with these guilt feelings. But there is also guilt which results from actual evil–evil which is entirely real and for which the evil-doer is responsible. It is this evil which is properly called sin.

For a long time, theologians–and indeed all serious thinkers about the spiritual life of man–have concerned themselves with the fact of this evil. Something was always upsetting the human plan. Something kept withering our better hopes. Something was always getting in our way. As the apostle, Paul, put it, “When we would do good, evil was present with us.” And this evil seemed to be something in man, not just something in his circumstances, or his conditioning, or his environment. It seemed to be in man, himself.

For a while, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even theologians hoped that they might be wrong about this. Perhaps after all, it was something in the environment. Let the social circumstances be improved, let education become wiser, let a more progressive attitude be taken, and possibly man would lose this tendency to evil. This was the optimistic hope of early liberalism. Then came the First World War, and fascism, and presently, Hitler, and the Second World War with all the depravity and corruption that came with them. Clearly, said the theologians, we were right the first time: man is a creature of iniquity. What else can he be? Sin, even original sin with its transmission of guilt from generation to generation, is entirely real. We are under a curse, and we cannot get out from under it…

And so the theologians rediscovered sin. At first, they were rather sorry about it. It seemed a pity to be bothering with sin, again. Then, when they began to get used to the idea, they stopped being sorry and became thrilled and excited. They began to feel like full-blooded theologians once more. And important–very important. For here was sin, coming back under its own steam and bringing a salvaged cargo of obsolescent dogmas with it. It was just as though the theologians, having been working in a desultory fashion for a sort of theological WPA, were suddenly called upon to be highly-skilled tool-makers for total theological defense. They tried not to show it but they felt fine. Their heavy investment of study in out-of-date dogmas of which they had long despaired, would now once more pay dividends. Sin was back again! Hurrah! Good old sin! When it came to giving theology something to work with, something that it could get its teeth into, there was nothing quite like sin.

So they began to poke fun at their former selves. And with even more satisfaction, they poked fun at liberals–and at psychologists who were laboring to find the facts about human evil the hard way, and whose first faltering footsteps were bound to be unsure. Not only so, however. Between the two World Wars, these theologians reduced European Protestantism to almost complete impotence. That was the contribution of Karl Barth of Switzerland and Germany. Belatedly, Barth renounced a good deal of his own theology, which placed his followers, particularly in America, in a rather disagreeable situation. But this was no amends. For what the European theologians had done was to produce a feeling of moral helplessness in the people of the churches. That is why these people made so ineffectual a protest against Hitler in Germany. They had given up directing the impulse of their religion towards the political realities of the world they were living in, and hadturned instead to despair about human society and to a plea to God to intervene to save their souls. It was done, of course, in a way that was intellectually very impressive; and those to whom it was done were morally too weak to resist it. But it was done! And thus religion undermined its own moral authority, and left the way open for monstrous scavengers of human depravity like Hitler.

Just as the way is still left open on the Continent of Europe for the guilt-vendors of communism. So deeply is the feeling of human helplessness–helplessness and guilt–imbued, that there is scarcely the moral hardihood left to resist this greatest evil of all–the organized evil that is spreading from land to land and infesting, like a social cancer, the nations which have not yet succumbed to it.

Not that all of this was theological. As I say, there is a secular counterpart. The mystical atheism of Spengler gave it brilliant exposition in Germany: a formal exposition. But mostly, its expositions have not been formal. They have been communicated in novels, on the stage, in all the manifestations of a decadent culture. People had given themselves up. They had surrendered to fate–to “the wave of the future.” They did not call it sin, as the theologians did, but it was the same thing. It was evil within them and around about them against which they would no longer struggle. They were self-pitying about it, or at times cynical. When Hitler entered Austria, the Viennese quipped that of course, it was disastrous but not serious. Nothing was serious. Life was a comedy, and the hand of fate would presently ring down the last curtain on it.

It is probably chiefly in the countries to which communism has come that there is the beginning of a moral revolt against this defeatism. Just as it is chiefly the converted communists within the free countries who are militantly fighting it. Fighting it, I mean, with an absolutely all-out resolve. For they know, at last, that if this fight is lost, it will be a long while before there are any other fights that can be won.

In the United States, the condition has never been as bad as on the continent of Europe. Nor has it in England. But it has beenbad enough. And still is. It is responsible not only for moral apathy–the strange, pervasive moral apathy of the years before the Second World War–but also for the guilt feeling that makes Americans, because of their own sins, unwilling to face the greater evils which are threatening them. This guilt feeling is very very strong in many of the churches. It is responsible for a great deal of the quasi-pacifism and pro-Sovietism to be found in churches. We, of the West, are so steeped in sin that we must not dare to save ourselves–or even save the rest of the world from unspeakably more serious evils. We must not admit that these other evils are more serious. We must keep looking, helplessly and hopelessly at our own sin, and call upon God to save us by a miracle, or Stalin to bring his vengeance upon us because God has given us up.

And this obsession with sin within the churches has its equivalent, as I have already indicated, outside the churches. It is the text upon which the obsessive-compulsive rebel preaches all his sermons. We are too evil to do any good; too evil to save ourselves, too evil to deserve to be saved. We must look, if not to God, then to the avenging barbarism which it is our duty to invite to overwhelm us.

Perhaps, as you hear me say these words, you think I am preaching right through the church walls into the world outside: that it cannot apply to you. I am doing nothing of the sort. It does apply to you. We are all to one extent or another afflicted with it. And it is weakening us. Weakening us in subtle and elusive ways.

And I want to say some very simple, plain things about it. We are sinners. About that there is no possible doubt. We have done badly. There is not much doubt about that either. But it is absolutely not true that we are nothing but sinners, or that we are drowning in sin, and cannot be saved. And it is absolutely not true that we have done nothing but evil and have proved incapable of good. We are good people as well as bad people. And we do good deeds as well as bad deeds. We have done evil things in the world. But we have also done some very good things, even some rather magnificent and generous things. The confession in the Book of Common Prayer that “we have done those things we ought not to have done and left undone those things that we ought to have done,” is a large part of the truth. But not all of the truth. And the final clause of that confession which says that “there is no health in us,” is just a mean-spirited lie. There is health in us. And our hope is not in a miracle from the skies, but in the health that is in us! We shall not be defeated by fate; no, if we are defeated, it will only be by letting the health that is in us decay and become a mortal sickness.

What we need, right now, in America is not so much repentance as some common sense. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against repentance. I am heartily in favor of it. And we have plenty to repent. But I’m sick and tired of mush. I’m sick and tired of people repenting and repenting and repenting until there is nothing else they can do–except agitate for things that they don’t expect to happen. When we repent, the thing is to do it thoroughly and get it over with. Then go ahead and make amends. Go ahead and put some wrong things right, not weep over them.

Yes, and open our foolish eyes and look at what is coming upon us–coming daily nearer. Look at it and recognize it for the evil that it is. I repeat, we need most of all some common sense just now here in America. And I think that is what God wants of us, too; not prayers of confession. If we are a nation of sinners, it is reasonable to hope that God will forgive us, but why should he save a nation of saps? We are committing, even now, the worst sin of all: the sin of not using the brains that God has given us.

So far as I can see, we are in a bad way. Our national defense seems to be in a bad way: or at any rate, not in a good way. We are slipping to the edge of disaster; yet, what we chiefly want to do is maintain a prosperous economy. Whatever may be said about sin, folly has more punctual consequences. For folly like ours, if it continues much longer, there is no forgiveness. And the communist text-books of the future will describe how we brought upon ourselves our own downfall through escapism, obsessional guilt-feelings skillfully worked upon by our enemies, and an indomitable resolve to die like sheep!

But then, says the theologian obsessed with sin, to say things like these is to sin the sin of pride. Do we not realize, do we not understand that we of this age, we poor pitiful creatures hoping for good but chained by evil, are unequal to such things? Do we not see that this is our pride fighting against God? Surely we must be humble. We must submit. We must repent and bow low. We must wear sack-cloth and ashes.

When I hear these admonitions, so full of exact knowledge of what God wants of us, and yet so urgent in demanding that we give up every vestige of human self-esteem, I am reminded of the story of the Catholic friar who belonged to one of the lesser orders. “Yes,” he said, “in piety the Dominicans may surpass us, and in service the Franciscans may excel, but in humility–ah! in humility!–we lead the world!”

Well, I for one am tired of these people who in humility so arrogantly want to lead the world. I see plainly that they will lead the world to hell if they get the chance. I don’t know whether God is tired of them. I’m not so sure as they are about the will and ways of God. But it stands pretty strongly in my mind–stands there, too, in rather good conscience–that the most religious thing we can do about evil, right now, is fight it; fight it and keep on fighting it–everywhere we find it. When we are knocked down by it, don’t lie there, wailing, but get up and fight some more.

That is what God told Job, in the Old Testament–after his sackcloth-and-ashes advisors had kept him repenting for so long that he was toppling into a moral and spiritual breakdown. “Deck thyself now with excellency and dignity! Pour forth the overflowings of thine anger! Then will I confess of thee that thine own right hand can save thee!”

We are sinners. Not a doubt of it. And we are in a bad way. But we are good people, too! I say that very simply, because it is the truth. And if we want to, we are good enough to get out of the bad way and into a good way.

It’s about time we stopped moaning and groaning that we are helpless, hopeless, unworthy, unprofitable servants and only God can save us. Why should he if we’re telling the truth about ourselves? I ask the question seriously. Why in the name of anything, anywhere, that makes the slightest vestige of sense, should God save a pitiful mass of broken-down whiners? If that’s what we are, then the sooner the better we’re incinerated and the universe made more sanitary.

I ask god to save us because we are worth saving, and because I believe such a prayer is answered not by miracles but by the use of the powers that God has given us to save ourselves. I protest that in spite of all the evil man has done, there is good in man. And I say without hesitation that there is more good in free men than in slaves and that free men are worth saving. I say as one sinner to other sinners, that I freely admit my sinfulness but that down to now, sin hasn’t got me down. I’m still on my feet and the fight I’m putting up may not be heroic but it is respectable.

And I say with the dreamer in O’Casey’s play, “Within the Gates,” that the people for whom there is no room left in the world are the spiritual down-and-outs. Those who have “but a sigh for a song and a deep sigh for a drum-beat.” Let them make way for stronger life.

“Life that is stirred with the fear of its life,
let it die.
Let it sink down, let it die, and pass
from our vision for ever.
Sorrow and pain we shall have
and struggle unending:
We shall have courage with pain
and fight through the struggle unending.
Life that is stirred with the fear of its life,
let it die,
Let it sink down, let it die, and pass
from our vision for ever.”

That is how sin will be conquered! By sinners! Sinners who refuse to smother the flame of life that God has put into their souls. Sinners who do their best. Sinners who never surrender–never abandon their faith and hope that good will prove stronger than evil and that God is on the side of courage, not dejection, and will give the victory to those who never desert him but stand beside him in the fight.

If the world is saved–so it seems to me–it will be by those who bring to God their sweat and toil, not by those who have nothing to bring but their tears.

Prayer: O God, who art in us to save us, whose breath is our life, whose courage is our endurance, be with us in the kindling of a new and stronger hope. Amen.

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