The Oasis

Writings from the ministry team

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Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent (19/02/17) at Gratot and Virey


“Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Why does Jesus tell the crowds not to worry in his Sermon on the Mount in our gospel reading, and what does it have to do with the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis?  A great deal, as it happens, and this morning I would like to explain what the connection is with the help of a man by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Let me introduce him to you.  Reinhold Niebuhr was American.  He was born in Missouri in 1892 of German descent and he died in Massachusetts in 1971.  He was a theologian and he had a great deal to say about human nature in general and evil in particular.  Now when I say he was a theologian, I don’t want you to think about someone living in an ivory tower surrounded by books: because he was a pastor in Detroit during the First World War – he had his own church.  And in Detroit he witnessed some of the worst aspects of human nature at first hand.  He saw the demoralising and dehumanising effects of the industrialisation and mechanisation of the workplace.  There were the motor manufacturers: Austin, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler; Dodge; Ford; General Motors; Packard; Pontiac.  There were lots of them - around 170 in total - and that’s not counting any of the other industries.  He spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan at the height of its influence during the 1920s - which was huge in Detroit - and he visited occupied Germany in the aftermath of World War One.  So he knew about the darker side of human nature. 

Niebuhr saw western civilisation as a ‘battleground of two opposing cultures’.  In the red corner, he said, is the classical Greco-Roman tradition, which sees nothing fundamentally wrong with human nature.  Think of William Shakespeare’s famous monologue from Hamlet and you’ve got the idea: “What a piece of work is a man!  How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!  In form and moving how express and admirable!  In action how like an Angel!  in apprehension how like a god!”  Niebuhr disagreed with that view because it not only went against the account of the Fall in Genesis, which comes after our first reading, but it flew in the face of his experience: that evil is real, it does exist.  And it not only exists but its commonplace because it is committed by ordinary people.  The people who don’t believe in evil either dismiss it as wholly exceptional and out-of-the-ordinary, or they make fun of it.  No-one is really like Darth Vader or Ming the Merciless – come off it!

In the blue corner is the Christian view of human nature, which originates from the Hebrew tradition and it’s come down to us from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine (354-430 CE).  When Augustine read Paul in Romans 5:12 he thought that Adam’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden created a fundamental change in human nature that was then transmitted to Adam’s descendants – all of them.  It is a very pessimistic a view of human nature, and Reinhold Niebuhr also disagreed.  He thought Paul’s argument in Romans was flawed because on the one hand Paul argues that humans are responsible for their sin because they have free will; but on the other he says that they aren’t free because they can do nothing but evil.  And that makes no logical sense – it’s a contradiction.

Niebuhr pointed out that that these two views of human nature – Classical and Christian - are fundamentally incompatible with each other and yet both of them lie at the heart of the self-understanding of Western civilisation and culture – they’re both in our DNA.  The West, in short, is schizophrenic – and when you look at the world today, it’s very hard to disagree! 

So having totally discredited the underpinnings of Western civilisation, surely it would only be good manners of him to suggest an alternative.  Well he did.  And what he said about human nature is that we are not born ‘in sin’ but in God’s image, and that we have the gift of free will which enables us to live according to the will of God should we choose to do so.  He would have therefore said a very loud “amen” to today’s collect:

Almighty God,

you have created the heavens and the earth

and made us in your own image:

teach us to discern your hand in all your works

and your likeness in all your children…

Niebuhr thought that sin was acquired by imitation and continued by habit, and that takes us seamlessly to Genesis; because when he looked at the account of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, he saw a profound spiritual truth.  That we are creatures of nature, but that we also transcend it (because we are made in God’s image) and that creates a contradiction, a paradox, and that leads to anxiety, and that is why he sees anxiety as our inevitable spiritual state.  Anxiety, he says, is the soil in which the tree of evil grows because evil arises when we try to escape from our finite condition.  Anxiety is not evil in itself, but it gives rise to evil as surely as night follows day, and I think this is why Jesus warns against it in our gospel reading so strongly: “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Anxiety is inescapable because we are part of nature but we strive to rise above it.  Niebuhr said that it is like ‘the condition of a sailor climbing the mast [of a ship], with the abyss of the waves beneath him and the “crow’s nest” above him.  He is anxious about both the end toward which he strives and the abyss of nothingness into which he may fall.’ [1]  And anxiety can arise from many things: from our vulnerability to the powers of nature and history; from the inevitabilities of aging and death; from the fragility of the material possessions and social successes on which we depend; from our weakness, not only in the face of external threats, but also from the internal forces of fear, self-contempt, and rage against others.  It’s these things that cause us to bring down on ourselves the evils we most wish to avoid.[2]  You see, anxiety only becomes problematic when we cease trusting in God; when we can no longer pray the words of Psalm 136: “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”  And that lack of trust breeds anxiety not only at an individual level but also at a national level.  If Brexit and the rise of populism throughout the western world isn’t a product of anxiety, I don’t know what is. 

What happened in the Garden of Eden – the Fall – has come to be known as Original Sin and Reinhold Niebuhr wanted Christians to think of it, not as a single historical moment, but as something that affects each and every one of us at each and every moment, so he described it as original sinfulness because he didn’t want us to think of it as an act – the taking of the apple – so much as a condition: the reason that the apple was taken.  And he said that it was important to think this way because we could then become aware of what he called “original perfection”, which he thought was also part of human nature.  And in order to explain how good and evil could exist in the same person he used the metaphor of a diseased body.  If you fall ill, the fact that you continue to be alive points to the existence of residual health, even though you can’t pinpoint exactly where the health is. 

Now I’ve mentioned the Garden of Eden a number of times and it’s where I want to end, because Niebuhr thought that the account of the fall of humankind in the Garden of Eden was the ultimate description of the human condition.  Unfortunately, he said, the Church has insisted on seeing the Garden of Eden as an historical event and this as prevented it from seeing the greater truth: that we cannot save ourselves from ourselves.  We are simply too proud to accept it, too proud to bear its burden, too proud to tolerate its shame.  Only Jesus can save us.  The one who says “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.  … Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  And that truly is good news.

Yours in Him


Martin Dryden 19th February 2017

[1] Niebuhr, Nature & Destiny, p185

[2] Robin W Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, (Cambridge University, England, 1995), p140-141