Have you watched the news lately? I notice something interesting when I turn it on (rarely). We seem to be engaged in a new/old discussion about human nature. Is man essentially good? Or Fallen? Do we have inherent dignity and worth? Or are we little more than animals indulging our appetites whenever and however we can?
A few weeks ago, Time magazine featured on its cover the question of whether there is a “Hell”. It’s not a new debate in theological circles, but it’s gained some traction with the public thanks to the writings and teachings of popular pastor, Ron Bell, who suggests that God by the nature of God cannot condemn mankind to suffering and that ultimately everyone gets to Heaven whether they meant to or not. This entire argument springs out of the humanist position that man is good. There is no fallen nature. There is no sin. There’s only “healthy” behavior or “destructive” behavior and if we just all link arms, we can lift each other higher and higher. No need to involve God in the process and by the way, even if there IS an afterlife, there’s no judgment. It just is what it is and it might as well go by the name of “heaven” because “hell” as a concept is simply repugnant.
The Times article was followed by a brilliant essay in the New York Times in which Ross Douthat said that if there is no Hell then there is no choice. If humanity truly possesses free will, it must be possible to choose a real alternative. And by the way, there are certainly people who reach the point at which the choice may theoretically be possible, but there’s no room within the personality to make it. (He uses Tony Soprano as his example and I can’t see arguing with him. Tony may have the freedom to choose, but it’s hard to imagine him ever wanting to be “good”.)
With this as the background noise, the news of the head of the International Monetary Fund’s arrest on charges of rape and the confession of Arnold’s infidelity evidenced by the 10-year-old son of his illicit relationship with a member of the household staff isn’t so surprising. There is a body of work decades old and consistent in it’s findings that if people believe there will be no consequences for their actions, they will lie, cheat, steal, rape, pillage, and eat their share and the cookies that belong to their roommate, too.
We want to look good. We want to be seen as the flawed (and therefore likable) but essentially worthy hero of the story of our lives. We want to believe that we’re the “good guy.” Spiritual teaching challenges that view. Wisdom traditions hold that we miss the mark, sacrifice the greater good for private pursuits of immediate gratification, and we get caught in the endlessly repeating cycle of lessons never learned. The oldest stories of humankind resonate with us because those ancient people aren’t aliens or even less evolved humans, they are just like you and me. They fall to pride, lust, jealousy, greed, anger … and even though they lived in a world without Twinkies or Nacho Cheese Doritos, gluttony was a problem back then, too. I think the ancients might have to adjust to a few technological adaptations, but all in all, if they were to meet us, they’d know us and feel right at home.
There’s a bit of graphic language in the Bible that says the best form of righteousness man is capable of is about as appealing as a used tampon. Having met a few people who were willing to tell me about their achievements in the righteousness department, I get where the author of that passage was coming from. It’s not that humanity isn’t capable or doesn’t have the option to choose, it’s that we need an encounter with something transcendent like … redemption, salvation, or enlightenment; we can’t get there in our natural state.
News of our brothers’ failures shouldn’t surprise us, but I hope we’re sober minded about it and remember that “there but for grace, go I.”