Ethics & Christian living

The ironic consequences of believing we are good

The podcast, The Holy Post gives a thoughtful Christian take on current affairs which is fresh, well-informed, non-tribal and often very funny.

In a recent episode they interview the New York Times journalist and Yale lecturer David Brooks. Brooks is an interesting voice because he is a moderate conservative who spend much of his time in highly liberal environments.

The problem of sin

In discussions about faith, there are few subjects more difficult than sin. ‘Injustice’ is a far more popular topic. ‘Sin’ sounds judgemental, condemnatory and a real conversation-stopper. Most people have essentially abandoned the concept.

But does this shift help us make sense of the world we see around us? What are the consequences of essentially seeing ourselves as good?

Brooks believes that this shift has had a profound impact on our personal and political welfare. I was impressed by how clearly and succinctly he expressed it so I wanted to share his words.

The struggle to be good

“Those who grew up in the church or any religious tradition or frankly even the secular tradition up until 70 years ago, grew up with the idea that we are wonderfully made, but also broken and sinful.

We therefore have to struggle to become good people. And we do that through our spiritual disciplines, acts of Christian formation, or through character building…they believed that you could not have a good society unless people were willing to build character…

One of the things they did was to look at their chief sin, whether it was anger, greed, envy and they worked on it. They tried to diminish the power of their chief sin.

Another thing they did was try to fall in love with the right things. St Augustine is right, you become what you love. And if you love God, you’ll become a little more Christlike. If you love goodness, you’ll become a little good, if you love money, you’ll become a little greedy…so it’s a question of organising your loves. That is what faith, hopefully, give us.

Another view of the human person

And that was the prevailing view for centuries. Then round about 1950 we have another view of the human person which is that people are good inside and all the evil in the world is outside, it’s by institutions . And so you don’t have to do any character formation because you are naturally good, you just have to be free.

And once you start thinking you are good inside, you give your selfishness free reign. And you stop with the act of character formation, which gives you something to do in life and gives you sense of moral meaning.

And so when everyone thinks they are good it doesn’t lead to lots of self-esteem, it leads to a lot of fragility because people do not understand why the world is not working, why they are not living up to their expectations. They feel fragile and as a result you get rising depression rates, rising suicide rates, rising opiate addictions.”

In a good view of the human person, the line between good and evil runs down the line of every human heart. In the political view of the human person, the line between good and evil runs between us and them. You declare yourself innocent and you declare the people who are oppressing you as evil.

Challenging accepted wisdom

Brooks’ words challenge the accepted wisdom of our age.

There is endless talk about affirmation and self-acceptance but low self-esteem and poor mental health are rampant. Social media, which has so much potential to connect people, often fuels divisions through a toxic form of self-righteousness.

Perhaps acceptance of our common brokenness might be good for us? Perhaps its the road to hope?

Ancient wisdom

This morning I read the ancient story of Cain and Abel. I was struck by the enduring relevance of God’s warning to Cain (Genesis 4:7):

“Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

This threat and challenge is a perpetual one.  Cain ignores the warning and murders his brother. History gives us no reason for optimism about the essential goodness of either individuals nor institutions.

Rather than being depressing or making us cynical, a humble acceptance of sin and brokenness is healthy and realistic. Its the fire alarm that wakes us to reality. It prepares and equips us to engage with the world as it really is.

8 thoughts on “The ironic consequences of believing we are good”

  1. Sorry I can find the article when I click on Read more of this post. It just gives me a message “Oops! That page can’t be found”

    Not sure whether the problem is at my end or yours.

    Thanks.

    David Greenfield

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  2. Excellent article Jon. The acceptance of our own brokenness – the sinful nature to a different phrase – is, perhaps, the start of humility. And with humility comes the acceptance of the Father’s love and for other people. Even if they don’t agree with everything we say!

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  3. I did not have enough space to include these comments from David Brooks but I thought these were particularly insightful words about politics:

    “Politics is about deliberating and finding solutions within diverse societies without killing each other…its about compromise and shades of grey most of the time and the practical business of passing legislation…

    If you are looking for spiritual meaning in that then you are twisting politics into something its not, you are twisting it into a cultural crusade, which is exactly what it has become. I am struck by how many people are addicted to politics but they don’t care about legislation…what they want is the cultural performance.”

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  4. Belief in original goodness goes back to Rousseau and probably further, actually it is inherent in our fallenness… it is the danger inherent in the back to nature thought process. But nature is red in tooth and claw and is itself fallen.

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