I think we’re pretty amazing.
It may sound like a weird thing to say but we seem to live in a world where we paint ourselves as the bad guys. Being a documentary fan I watch my fair share, and it’s very rare that you get to the end of a doc these days without being reminded that WE are the problem.
We are little more than usurpers.
I know what they mean, and there is a lot of truth in it of course, but this attitude which tells us we are only destructive, evil beings can’t be healthy.
I’ve been watching a BBC series recently called ‘Human Planet’. This series shows how humanity lives in the harshest environments on the planet; from the deserts of the Sahara, to the frozen wastes of the Artic Circle; from the flooded rivers of South America, to the barren tundra of the Mongolian steppes. We are the only species on the planet who has come up with so many varied solutions which allow us to exist where little else can.
As I sat through each episode the self-hatred of our species began to slip away and I realized we’re not evil. Watching the way mothers love children, and fathers risk their lives to feed their families the world over, you have to adjust your thinking and wonder if we aren’t in fact imbued with the spark the divine. We’re making some big mistakes to be sure, but it’s certainly not enough to write us off as a species.
In fact I felt proud of us, which isn’t usually something we’re allowed to do. It’s now much more trendy to beat ourselves up.
And where as this may be a new trend culturally, our self loathing has been around a lot longer in the church.
Our evangelistic routines, for example, usually begin with telling people they are rotten in one way or another. Words like ‘fallen, depraved, wicked, corrupt, sinful, and evil’, get banded around… and that’s just you’re opener with the person. I took a group of young people to a camp a few years ago where the speaker got up on the first night to tell them that (and I quote) ‘all humans are dead, demonized, deranged and demented without Jesus’… and he took 50 minutes to yell that at us! It makes me so mad, and bears no resemblance to the way Jesus interacted with people.
Even once you’re ‘safely in the fold’ you are regularly reminded of your wicked state and how close to being completely corrupt you are. I was sent a tragically funny Youtube clip the other day of a famous preacher screaming at his congregants because they weren’t behaving as he thought they should. I couldn’t believe the haranguing they were getting, and wondered if any of them left church that Sunday considering themselves of any worth at all.
I was listening to a speaker recently who said that the problem is that people like this miss the beginning of the story. They are really into the bible, it’s just that they start telling the story from Genesis 3, and seem to forget there was a Genesis 1. They begin by telling us that we are fallen beings, rotten to the core; but Genesis 1 seems to suggest that our core is actually good, that we are made in the image of the divine, and that when God took a step back He was pretty stoked with what He had created.
The message is clear whether you read Genesis literally (which I don’t) or not: we are good. We have our problems, but if you peel the layers away to the very center of the onion you will find goodness. Any message which starts with anything different is manipulative in my mind, akin to using a marketing tactic to make someone feel their lack, and see your particular sales pitch as the answer.
This may seem like detail, but I think where you start the story, and what you think is at the core, effects everything!
And I think a lot of the theological disagreement we have today comes down to this one question: do you think people are inherently evil, or good?
I suppose the most famous example of this debate, and the one which has had the most far reaching consequences, is the showdown between Augustine and Pelagius.
Pelagius was born in 354 AD in the British Isles and became a Celtic monk. You have heard me speak here about the Celts and their open-ended, life-affirming spirituality. Well this stuff leeched into Pelagius over his years of training. At some point, as was the fashion, he opted to travel to Rome on pilgrimage, but when he arrived he was fairly shocked at the state of the city and, in particular, the way people treated each other. Crime was rife, poverty was pervasive, and morality seemed absent.
In response to these issues he began to travel around the city and teach people that they had a choice, that they could chose how they lived. He even accused those forming the theology of his day that their talk of ‘Grace covering all sin’ had just given people license to live completely morally bankrupt lives as long as they attended mass and got baptized.
Lucky that particular problem is a thing of the past (please read laced with sarcasm).
One of the big messages he sought to teach was that human beings are good! At their core they are beautiful, because that’s how they were made, and so they need to aspire to more. He told the story from Genesis 1.
This flew in the face of the religious establishment, particularly a celebrity Bishop from North Africa named Augustine, who had just published his ‘Confessions’ which were big on this idea of ‘Original Sin’. Augustine said that all human beings are born inherently evil; in fact he went so far as to suggest that you should baptize your new born infant immediately after birth because if it died, even on that first day, without being baptized, God would send it to hell.
That is how evil he believed mankind to be.
Wicked from the moment of birth.
This renegade Celtic monk from the misty isles at the end of the Empire was ruining everything with his ‘humans are good’ talk. So Augustine decided to take him out. He called a council of church leaders and had Pelagius branded a heretic. They accused him of completely denying God’s Grace and suggested he was preaching a salvation separate from God (the theological equivalent of pulling yourself up by your own boot straps).
Pelagius fled to Palestine where he lived out his remaining days, and his ideas were anathema. If you were caught spreading his teaching then you would be in big trouble with the powers that be.
It is doubtful if Pelagius was a real heretic of any sort. In a book I read recently by Ian Bradley, called ‘The Celtic Way”, he says of Pelagius:
“Recent analysis of his thinking suggests that (he) was, in fact, highly orthodox, following in the tradition established by the early fathers and in keeping with the teaching of the church in both the East and the West. … From what we are able to piece together from the few sources available… it seems that the Celtic monk held to an orthodox view of the prevenience of God’s grace, and did not assert that individuals could achieve salvation purely by their own efforts…”
But of course history is written by the victorious, and how dare this little British upstart suggest that human beings are good!
Of course because Augustine bullied Pelagius into submission, the Augustinian view point has dominated the thinking of western Christians through the ages. Calvin borrowed most of his ideas from Augustine for his work during the Reformation, and these ideas form the basis of much mainstream theology today. The likes of John Piper and Mark Driscol (the ‘Neo Calvinists’ or self proclaimed ‘Gospel Coalition’) are todays loudest voices pulling this bad theology through the ages.
The popular mindset is that we are born ‘evil’ to the core.
The popular leadership mode in churches is to bully people with a ‘lets make them feel bad so they behave themselves’ methodology.
It constantly surprises me how many churches today find this stuff captivating, and follow it without question. Maybe it’s popularity is down to the volume and vigor with which this message is delivered, because the theology seems well off the mark to me.
A case of the ‘loudest person in the room’ perhaps?
I would obviously agree that we have something in us that needs to be rooted out; a propensity to destroy in order to gain, a greedy desire to take more than we need, or hurt to get ahead (and call this evil ‘sin’ if you like, I just think we’ve ruined that word). And this isn’t a case of EITHER ‘we are sinful’, OR ‘we are deeply valuable’. It’s has to be both/and. But most of our telling of the story focuses on how rotten we are.
But that isn’t where the story starts… and it isn’t where it ends.
Our view of humanity can’t just be that we are these ugly, dirty, naughty things who have to find Jesus, say we’re sorry, and then live the lives of repressed puritans until He comes at some future date to snatch us from our own mess. I won’t suggest, as Augustine did, and as many Evangelicals would begin their evangelistic spiels, that “all humanity is depraved”. The story I read begins in Genesis one, and there we are made in the image of God, and given the breath of the divine to make us live.
As St Iranaeus of Lyons apparently once said: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” In other words, crank our core essence up to 11, and we are the ‘glory of God’.
Human beings are fascinating, capable, brave, ingenious, precious beings.
Mark my words, someone who believes this will move very differently in the world to someone who believes we are fallen, depraved, wicked, corrupt, sinful and evil.
We will look at ourselves and others differently.
We will treat this planet differently.
We will pass the story on differently.
I love the story of God destroying Sodom if only for Abraham’s response. He doesn’t agree with God and just sit down to watch Him kill them all for their debauchery, but instead he engages with God by begging for the lives of the people in the city… because he values humanity. He believes people to be good at their middle, and worth fighting for.
I think God wants us to do the same.
The story is more hopeful than you can imagine. We are good, but have gotten into some bad ways of dealing with God, each other, and the world at large. We have gotten off track from our God-given purpose, and we have to be better than that, because our core is Godly. And we WILL be better than that, because God is out to redeem everything, and everyone who is willing. Perhaps it’s time to drop our obsession with managing sin (we were never meant to be the world’s moral police anyway), and start by becoming champions of humanity, telling the story from Genesis 1 again, and reminding all of their worth.