Friday, December 30, 2016
Perhaps one of the most unpopular spiritual teachings in the world is the depravity of human nature. Not only do secular people reject it but even many devoutly religious persons categorically deny it. I would suggest that this both naïve and unwise.
For example, those who affirm that everyone makes it to the eternal heavenly state, regardless of whether or what was believed and done in this life (“universalism”). These people have to affirm that human beings are not depraved by nature—otherwise they must embrace some version for how God saves people from themselves. There are many today who affirm this and categorically reject the notion that anyone would be eternally lost because of his or her sin.
I respect such persons for their consistency. But to maintain “universalism” one must simultaneously reject human depravity. The evidence for depravity of human nature is overwhelming. The only way around it, as far as I can see, is to redefine evil in psychological terms and classify every problem of human behavior as pathology or mental illness.
Part of the reason why people shy from affirming human depravity has to do with the exclusively negative meaning of the term. People do not want to think of themselves as inherently evil and certainly want to think the best of others. This makes sense and is in a way sensible. For who wants to assume that the person who just served me a cup of coffee is perverse and intends to use others for evil purposes? And as the saying goes, “Aren’t most people basically decent and wish the best for themselves and others?”
I grant that this objection does have some force and my assertion that human beings are depraved does not require anyone to deny the obvious: People generally do not want to intentionally inflict harm on their neighbors. Some do to be sure—Jihadi terrorists, murderers, those who have embraced sexual perversions that involve others persons, government leaders who terrorize their people as a matter of policy. There is a process of moral degeneration and demonic deception that is inherent in the human embrace of such evils.
The simple dodge for admitting to depravity is this: I am not like “those people who do (you fill in blank).” The flaw of this objection is that human depravity is not limited to instances of one person intentionally harming another person for the thrill of inflicting harm or behaviors that top most people’s for reprehensible actions. We can all think of and name many instances of specific persons or whole groups who have systematically ridiculed (dehumanized), physically harmed and even tried to kill others simply because of who those persons where or the group was. In the case of groups we call this discrimination, persecution and genocide. In the case of individuals we call this insults, violence and murder.
The modern attempts to explain why one person would hate another person usually focuses on psychological problems, mental disorders and sociological conditions. These certainly are legitimate factors in many cases. However, rather than disproving that humans are depraved they tend to confirm the profoundly broken condition of human nature (which depravity is one expression of). For even the “best” of us when we are honest must admit that we could do harm to others—even if our only motive was to be self-serving and to get something we want.
The Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5, when taken seriously, erodes away all the excuses and self-justifications we can invent to help us think our behavior, thoughts and motives are right. So long as we are ignorant of the God’s highest standards of righteousness or we have found creative ways to dumb down the application of those standards then the illusion of our basic goodness can remain. Thanks be to God that that Holy Spirit does not allow us to live in illusion forever.
This is the truth: We human beings are depraved. Relationships with others are severed, resentment and bitterness grow in us to feed bigotry and anger which builds to rage; dishonesty characterizes our responses to others and we refuse to squarely take responsibility for our own choices and behavior. When faced with the existential truth about our true motives and the consequences of our actions we instinctively avoid responsibility and try to blame others; more than that we invent and insist upon absurd reasons for why others are to blame for all our problems. We may even lash out at others with words or violence or turn on ourselves to invest our energy in self-destructive behaviors. And all this is the expression of the human heart (see Matthew 15:1-20) The real question is what can be done for us to change us?
The general answer given by the major philosophic and religious groups comes down to this: Get educated in God’s way (or the “spiritual path to enlightenment”) and learn to be self-disciplined and commit to a group of devoted followers under the teaching of a teacher, guru, or organization. For those who are honest with themselves this search ends in the awareness of one thing—I cannot keep my own high ideals of being a spiritual person and to do good. The answer most give to this dose of reality is usually to try harder to improve oneself (utilizing whatever practices are deemed necessary or useful) and to redefine downwards the stated goal for spiritual enlightenment.
What I would assert is that believing in human depravity is good news. For one need not pretend any longer that the high standards of practicing integrity of goodness and upright behavior is within reach. I cannot attain to my highest and best aspirations to be a good human being with the resources and power of my human nature and intellect.
The truth that I (or we) need another to enlighten, empower and transform us will either bring offense or bring gratefulness from within. These are the two basic responses to what the Gospel promises. This is why the Lord Jesus will be ultimately repudiated by some or eagerly loved by others. There can be no middle ground on this matter. If anyone thinks so it is either because that person has already decided to ignore what the Lord said (and mold some other more convenient image of him) or is ignorant of the Lord’s teaching.
Yes, we are depraved. We express that basic depravity differently, based on multiple factors. But depravity is a fact of life for us human beings. The question is how will that be explained and how will it be remedied. Any other line of reasoning misses or dismisses the first point of enlightenment under the Holy Spirit’s influence in the human heart. And all sociologically informed remedies for societal reform will falter if human depravity is not considered; for the very people who are reforming are themselves in need of inner change. Theology has consequences that impact far more than an individuals’ doctrinal affirmations and behavior. For human behavior has profound effects on the multiple networks of relationships and social development that we call “civilization.”