Original Sin isn't a good idea. Expecting perfection isn't, either.
And that is OK in certain cases and for certain periods. Parents and teachers do need to be examples for young children. Doctors need to be seen as particularly competent. Religious leaders need to demonstrate their faith in people and in life.
But being exemplary and being perfect are quite different things.
We in our culture and society are often taught by peer pressure, by expectations we absorb in our schooling, and by the standards proclaimed at work, that it is less than satisfactory for us to be less than perfect. We should always score in the top 10 percent of every test, make all As, be more productive than our peers, and be right at least 99.4 percent of the time. We face very high and constant expectations to be perfect, when in fact all that any of us can really hope for is to be a good human being.
We Unitarian Universalists gave up our Calvinist forebears’ concept of Original Sin—that humanity was in its nature flawed and incapable of moving toward good. That was a positive step for a prevailing religious understanding that at the time left little room for the worthiness of human aspiration or human reason. But along the way it seems that many Unitarian Universalists and others in our culture have moved to an expectation of the possibility of human perfection that in its own way is as unrealistic and harmful, I think, as was Original Sin.
In the community in which I live, the cultural insistence is always on how close to perfection are one’s children, one’s home, and one’s life. We teach that second best is not acceptable. Our children should certainly achieve much, and do it grandly. And in most of our churches, I sense, there is a similar expectation of the highest levels of achievement.
I’m not suggesting here that we add back the concept of absolute human sinfulness to our Purposes and Principles, but, rather, that we work a bit harder to build into our theology and our lives a deeper appreciation that being human means not only aspiration and hope but also failure and loss.
An experience I can’t forget is my visit one morning to a UU congregation in California. During the cares and concerns section of the service, an elderly woman talked about how afraid she was about her son coming home in the next week after he was released from prison. I loved it that she could bring that very hard part of her life to her church. I was saddened by contrast with the third- or fourth-generation UU woman in a church I once served whose son was in and out of prison on drug charges. As her minister, she could tell me about him and count on me to visit him in jail, but she also made me promise never to tell anyone in the church.
For whatever reasons, and they probably were good ones based on her experience, she felt she could not share that in her church, that life experiences of failure and loss could not be brought to the community. What a terrible loss!
We Unitarian Universalists can handle death well, deal with it honestly, but we have not yet regained the ability to understand and accept human failure as well as the nineteenth-century Universalists did. They understood very well that failure was part of the human condition. But they also believed deeply that God was good enough to save us all. Failure and salvation were both part of the same story.
Twenty years ago, a UU minister proclaimed at a meeting that to be a Unitarian Universalist you needed minimally to have a master’s degree and earn at least $100,000 a year. That minister has died, and so has my anger about what he said. I understand now that he was speaking from a particular analysis of just who was sitting in the pews of the congregation he served. But then, and now, I knew and know just how much that kind of assumption has cost us in our ability as a religion to serve more than those just like us, those others who might just help us to better understand that life involves both achievement and failure and might help us to learn how to deal more honestly with life failures.
My wishes now, as I prepare to retire, and perhaps even my prayers, are:
- That we could spend more time wondering about where humility fits into our theology.
- That we could take the time to talk honestly about our failures.
- That we could consider that in terms of goodness or humanity, the bulk of us, and maybe all of us, are more in the middle of most bell curves than at the upper extreme, no matter what our SAT scores or credit ratings may say.
I hope that we can find a more eloquent way to say that in our UU religious vocabulary and theology, and that we will find both comfort and strength in that.
This essay is excerpted from a sermon delivered to the UUA staff on June 6, 2006.