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Taming the beast within

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 1 November 2010

"Our sins are stronger than we are, but you blot them out" Psalm 65 vs 3. BCP (American)

What would it mean to believe the first line of this verse? For it is so subversive of our understanding of what it is to be human, that to believe it will lead us to a place completely strange to us. That is, after all the point of biblical literature, to encounter it is to encounter strangeness and to be changed. The point of preaching is not to tell the congregation how terrific God is but to be discovered by the strange, the apocalyptic, and to be taken to a new place.

We in the modern world have decided that the pinnacle of human endeavour is to be a rational individual imbued with the right to choose. We must be rational in that we must have definite reasons to think what we think and do what we do. We must be individuals because we cannot trust the authority of others but only our own authority. We have rights because we have done away with any idea of community justice or duty to others. These rights are directed towards the ultimate freedom, the duty and ability to choose.


But what if our sins are stronger than us? By that I mean, what if the forces within our personality, our desires, our ambitions, our greed, our lust for power, our envy are stronger than we are. If this is so then the modern project that outlines human being as the rational individual who has the right to choose falls apart. The whole modern project is forfeit.

If our sins are stronger than we are, we cannot trust our choices. One of the choices we make seems more important than any others, the choice of a mate. We are horrified by the idea of an arranged marriage. But how many of us, at some time in our married life come to the conclusion that we have married the wrong person?

It seems that exercising our right to choose often comes unstuck. How rational are we when we choose a mate, how rational are we when we are in love? The facts of courtship are that we bump into another person and something happens that we cannot define and things go on from there. Something deeper and more mysterious takes over that cannot be defined by rationality.

The idea that we are rational individuals imbued with the right to choose becomes unstable when we put it to examination. Indeed, when we find someone whose life does play out according to this paradigm they seem less than human, too intentional, cold, isolated.

The fact is that we court in dreams and wake in marriage and that our choices may be way less than rational. It is also apparent that rationality does not live up to our expectations. The world is a trap for logicians. We need much more to navigate through our lives. The idea that our thoughts can be divided between the rational and the irrational and that the former is good and the latter is bad just does not add up.

One of the reasons some kind of science education is handy is that it protects us from the kind of gross irrationality that looks for impossible cures and believes every advertisement for a new medication. It will help us to discern the reasonable from the hocus pocus. Some scientific training will make us more rational, but that is of little help when we are negotiating the complexity of adult life. That requires a deeper wisdom gleaned from all kinds of other sources, especially the arts.


Yet modern ethics is built on the paradigm that understands the pinnacle of human achievement as being the rational individual imbued with the right to choose. We claim the right to choose whether to kill the child that we did not choose to conceive but accidently did. We want the right to choose when and how we will die. At a conference for church schools I heard a principle give as the rationale for having church schools was that they provide choice. But choice is ephemeral, particularly if our sins are stronger than we are.

How would we know if they are? This is not about petty morality or even about compulsion but what things are closest to our heart. Modern liberalism tells us that it is up to each individual to choose and that we have no right to make judgments. After all, they have the right to choose even if that choice is the most deadly to their humanity. We say, "whatever floats your boat."

But is it not obvious that some locations of the heart dehumanise us? When our desire is towards the ephemeral, that which satisfies for a time but then grows stale we reach for the new desire that will promise to fill our lives. One of the least worst outcomes of this is that it will make our lives banal. "Where your heart is there will your treasure be also." Idolatry is boring. It is when we worship something other than God. It is the root of all sin and it is proof that our sins are stronger than we are.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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