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
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that the whole idea of sin is out of date.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
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
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 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.