Hugh Baker inveighs against the Enlightenment doctrine of The Essential Goodness of Man and exhorts us to remember the naturalness of sin and the pervasive ease of its addiction
‘I would be invidious to single out I the play of any particular gentleman when all did well, but we must give the palm to the Sheffield players as being the most scientific and also more alive to the advantage of upsetting their opponents.’
Thus, the Sheffield Examiner of Boxing Day 1860, in the first known newspaper report of a football match. Reading this on the train while armed with an electric dictionary, I had time on my hands, and so bothered to nail ‘invidious’. It is one of those words you come across at regular intervals, and if you cannot be bothered to look it up, you pick up its meaning (which turned out to be ‘likely to cause ill will or envy’) from the context.
I must confess there are passages of Scripture which, like half-understood words, I need to spend time and effort nailing down. Reading them, I get the general drift, but their particularities evade me. Take, for example, one phrase from Romans 7:1 would not have known what sin was except through the law. Such an observation is based on a different view of human nature from that which naturally occurs to us. Madeleine McCann’s mother, interviewed three weeks after the child’s disappearance, stated ‘The great majority of people are good.’
Not only does this statement pay tribute to the lady’s inner charity in what must be a very difficult time for her – it also shows how much we have all taken to heart the Enlightenment doctrine of The Essential Goodness of Man.
The supposed goodness
It is through this filter that we see life. The more obviously evil an action, the more we turn cartwheels to try and explain it away, as if it were something essentially aberrant. Young Muslim men blowing themselves up and taking totally innocent bystanders with them? Order a study into the effects of unemployment and/or alienation on alien newcomers: there must be some reason why they behaved this way.
When the next wave of bombers turn out to be medics, all of whom came here as escapees from the throes of the very violence they tried to inflict on us, the proponents of Essential Goodness are strangely silent. No one can grasp the truth which no longer dare speak its name – that this is how human nature is. Like a bowl finding its way across the green to the jack, there is bias in human nature. It is a bias towards evil.
As our church follows our culture in this confusion, we collapse under the belief that ‘what comes naturally’ is what will do us good spiritually. What we now no longer grasp (and put down to a kind of self-punishing masochism on our forefathers’ part) is that the practice of Christianity is not natural. It is far more natural to stop at home and watch Songs of Praise than it is to go to Evensong. The fact that one maybe bored rigid at Evensong (and I am, regularly) does not constitute an argument for not going. The whole structure of church life – offices, Communion, seasons, fasting, ceremony, and so on -though it may have links with, and resonance with, our world and our society, is an artificial thing. It is an attempt to mould, channel and modify the human heart – albeit, it will fail without the Holy Spirit indwelling it and mediating God’s salvation to us.
The slide to addiction
The more idealistic of our Christian forbears believed that the Kingdom could be established by throwing all the furniture out and just getting down to the real thing’ – as if New Testament Christianity were something essentially simple, and only unnecessarily complicated by generations of rascally clerics. The results were not, and are not, encouraging. As the Commonwealth proceeded, even its stoutest proponents became alarmed by what came out of the closet, dressed as it was in millenarian protestant clothes. The fiercest critics of ‘denominational’ religion in America crystallized as the telly evangelists: high-flown and optimistic in their rhetoric, they fell into financial and sexual sin by the cart load.
Human nature is attracted to the apple, and without a large world view that takes into account the long term, including what lies outside this sorry scheme of things entire, we’ll bite it. Gluttony, dishonesty, drug dependency, binge drinking are what happens when people decide they do not need the means of grace and the assurance of pardon.
These things give short term pleasure, and easily entrench themselves in us as habits. This is so because human nature is sinful, and sinfulness inevitably leads to some kind(s) of addiction, be it purely chemical, financial, psycho-sexual or whatever.
What is natural?
I am arguing here that sin is natural, and that there is a sense in which Christianity is unnatural. Having touched on Romans, chapter 1 verses 26-27 may come to your mind: Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way men also abandoned natural relations… We need to realize that Paul is arguing here not from what is – the fallen world that we know, but from what ought to be – the world as God would have it be.
It is for this reason that we should not be dismayed if respectable science concludes that all the things we may deem to be ‘wrong’ are performed by humans without difficulty: they ‘come naturally’ to us. What we need to warn our fellows of are the consequences of sin, not only in the next life but in this. Aids got going, not by the sin of Western homosexuals but by the sin of African adulterers – people whose culture easily trades wives like second hand cars, and sees no harm in giving a prospective new owner a trial ride.
The snare is a recurring picture in Scripture which describes the result of giving human nature its head. Proverbs 5.22-23 warns us, The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly.
May God raise up a church that can give witness to the long-term effects, here and hereafter, of disobeying the bumper sticker ‘If It Feels Right – Do It’.