Sermon
March 30, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

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Sermon: A Fundamental Question

I want to talk about something that is quite personal today and frankly I don’t know exactly where to begin. It is a bit of a controversial subject, an age old question, something which affects each of us personally but also plays a role in world events. What I’m talking about is - how do we understand ourselves - how do we regard our neighbors -what is our view of human nature?

Human nature seems sometimes like a thing apart, a force that is us, but at the same time greater than us. Henry Miller once wrote: Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything-except his own nature.

Virginia Woolf - who has been recently reincarnated in the unlikely form of Nicole Kidman with a puffy prosthetic nose on screen in “The Hours” - Virginia Woolf gave us a somewhat similar pessimistic view when she said: Really I don’t like human nature unless all candied over with art.

Writers, artists, scientists, theologians. politicians, poets, and philosophers have all pondered the nature of human nature, and their points of view have been as varied as the points on the compass, with nobility to depravity as north and south and unlimited possibility to predestination as east and west.

Now I hope that I’m not losing you because you think this is too much of an abstract question. Let me tell you what two things brought it to mind and why I think it is worthy of a few minutes of examination.

The question of human nature was first raised by a resource we were using in our Adult Class on Islam. It was a comparison of the basic beliefs of Islam and Christianity side by side that was published on an Islamic web site. The comparative views of human nature generated the most discussion - and the main problem was not the Islamic view, but the Christian view, the doctrine of original sin.

The traditional Christian doctrine of original sin is basically this: humanity was created good and upright. Humanity knew nothing of desire, the will was good, there was true freedom. Humanity served God, the physical body served the soul, and reason ruled. But Adam lost all of this in the fall. In transgressing the commandment of God the will became evil, the flesh ceased to serve the soul but became the slave of desire, ignorance ruled, and mortality of body and soul become a reality. This fallen character of Adam is now passed on to all human descendants, human nature has changed, and the human family condemned to death and destruction.

The Muslim view, at least as reported on this web site, was actually more attractive to our class because it rejects original sin and says humanity is created by God destined for heaven unless they choose to disobey Him and refuse His mercy. God is quick to forgive and generous in rewards, and to achieve God’s rewards each person must find faith and do good works.

Doesn’t it sound like the Muslim view is much more in line with the modern temperament than that archaic notion of original sin? It makes you wonder why a notion of original sin would even enter the human imagination.

I think the notion of original sin entered the human imagination is because people experience that there really is very little that is original about the sin or stupidity that seems to afflict every generation of the human family. The same patterns of misery spun out of pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth seem as certain as brown eyes, blue eyes, death and taxes.

By the way, that was the traditional list of the seven deadly sins, but did you know that Gandhi had an updated list of the seven traits most spiritually perilous to humanity.
Wealth without Work
Pleasure without Conscience
Science without Humanity
Knowledge without Character
Politics without Principle
Commerce without Morality
Worship without Sacrifice

The fact is that those who look at the world with any kind of a morally sensitive eye can easily see that something is not right. The question is, is that something which is not right rooted inside, in human nature or something outside, like technology, economics, social conformity, racism, sexism, etc. etc.

We wondered what was the quote “official” view of our own denomination might be. And fortunately for us one of the main authors of the confession of faith of the United Church of Christ, Dr. Roger Shinn, lives in retirement in Southbury, so I gave him a call and asked him the question.

Dr. Shinn pointed out that the confession of faith of the UCC is primarily a statement of praise to God for what God has done, and so no direct mention is made of original sin. He also mentioned that within our church there is great freedom of interpretation, and that in the Preamble of Constitution of the Church, which he also helped write, it states: (The United Church of Christ) claims as its won the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers (and) affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own.

Then, with an author’s modesty, he also suggested I refer to his book, Confessing Our Faith, which examines each declaration of the UCC Statement of faith. In reference to the second declaration of the statement, You seek in Holy Love to save all people from aimlessness and sin, he has written a chapter entitled: The Human Problem:

Between our creation in God’s image and our present existence, something has gone wrong. In the Great Story the problem is identified with “the fall.” Christians, especially in the modern world, have sometimes rejected the story of the fall. If it means that all of us are in deep trouble because of acts not of our own doing - mistakes of Adam and Eve long, long ago - the story strikes us as rationally ridiculous and morally offensive. But if we understand the fall, in a phrase of the psychotherapist Rollo May, as “a snapshot of personality,” it may guide us to self-understanding. It tells us that we are created for love and that, when we fail to love or when we love possessively, we violate God’s will and our own deepest selfhood.

Well, I think Roger has rescued something of value from the doctrine of original sin, but I don’t think it will be enough to convince those who feel that the human problem stems from low self-esteem, from a plague of self-condemnation brought on by priests and clerics who want to burden their flocks with guilt and shame and who cause nothing but harm and trouble with their demands for confession and their rites of reconciliation. And I’m not sure this problem is easily resolved - it’s sort of I’m OK, You’re OK meets Lord of the Flies, and the battle rages on.

And it’s not simply an academic battle. I said there were two things that brought this question of the nature of human nature to mind, and so far I’ve only mentioned one - the comparison of Muslim and Christian beliefs. The second thing which brought this to mind was a book, An Autumn of War, by Victor Davis Hanson. The book is subtitled: What America Learned From September 11 and the War on Terrorism.

I have to admit to you that I have not read this book from cover to cover. But I did read about the book in the latest edition of Newsweek, and what sparked my interest in it was this passage from an article “The Road to War” by Evan Thomas:

Dick Cheney likes to read history, especially military history. He disappears into his well-stocked library at the vice President's mansion for hours at a time, reading about Churchill and World War II or other war leaders in other crises down through the ages. Last fall, the vice president read "An Autumn of War" by Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist who lives on a farm in California. In his book… Hanson writes that war is the natural state of mankind. Great leaders understand this, according to Hanson. They are not fooled by utopian visions about world peace; they face evil and deal with it. Cheney told his aides that Hanson's book reflected his philosophy.

Before Christmas, Hanson was invited to dine with Cheney and talk to his aides, who also read his book…. Hanson was impressed with Cheney's "tragic view of mankind," akin to the ancient Greeks.

When you or I have a certain view of human nature it might affect our personal or business life, but when you’re in a position of power like our Vice- President, that view moves world events.

Lent is traditionally a time of reflection and self- examination; perhaps in this season of Lent we need to look beyond the self and examine the species. How do we understand our own human nature? Do we share a tragic view of mankind? Does human nature inevitably bring us to battle, or can we overcome with peace, love, and understanding? Does it need affirmation or redemption? How we view human nature not only affects our vision of the world and our politics, but it profoundly influences how we understand and experience the need for salvation, the cross of Christ, and the pain of all who suffer.

But that is another sermon, a sermon set for Palm Sunday. Until then I take you back to the opening question: how do we understand ourselves - how do we regard our neighbors -what is our view of our own deepest self?

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