In 1890, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, Herbert Ryle gave a famous speech where he outlined the mood of society in his day. He affirmed, with all his enlightened colleagues, his faith in the basic goodness of humanity, his confidence in the new sciences and industries, his optimism for the future of mankind. And all the indicators seemed to be going his way. Abolition of slavery, the rise of women’s suffrage, the industrial revolution, and the ever-quickening pace of man’s conquest of nature. Little by little every day, little by little in every way, we were getting better and better and better.
Unfortunately for Dr. Ryle and the optimistic idealism of his age what followed his speech was… the 20th century—the most bloody and bellicose century in human history
Welcome back to the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
What the hell is wrong with us? That wasn’t profanity. I meant it as it sounded. Why is human behavior, generation after generation, so infernal? Pick any generation, any decade in the history of the world, and in it you will find every form of predation, degeneration, and brutality. Our own times are no different, from racial violence in America, to religious persecution in Asia, to radical Islamist’s blowing up their own cultural heritage. Every potential golden age degenerates into squabbling factions; every moment of greatness is followed by moral decline. It’s predictable, inevitable. What the hell is wrong with us that we just can’t seem to get our junk together?
Many suggestions have been offered through history. For example Dr. Ryle and his contemporaries gave us the “modern answer,” which was that humans as individuals are good at heart. They are just badly socialized or educated. In other words, we’re not born lazy, self-serving, or racist—we’re just made that way by societal deficiencies. The answer then must be better education, better opportunities, in short, a better society. Now I whole-heartedly agree that bad socialization, bad education, or bad situations make humans far worse than they otherwise would be. Needless hardness makes people hard. Children reared in abusive homes are more likely to become abusive adults. The heavy retributions of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany after World War I, helped create an audience for Hitler’s hate.
That’s the point. This optimistic view of human nature so typical of early 20th century did not survive it. A worldwide economic depression, the human cost of the industrial revolution, two world wars, atomic bombs, genocides, Cold War, the cultural revolution of the 60’s, Vietnam, Watergate, on and on even to the international terrorism that dominates our own day—it makes it increasingly hard to hold on to that bright and buoyant view of human nature. The evidence of history suggests that one badly educated and socialized generation cannot produce a well-educated and well-socialized one. Roses don’t bloom on the stalks of stinkweeds. Sooner or later we have to seek a deeper explanation than that people are unjust because society is.
Some blame religion. Nietzsche thought religion was only embraced by weak people. Christopher Hitchens only by dumb ones. His late-night surrogate Bill Maher actually argues that to be pathologically violent is to be religious. And it’s true that religion has done it’s share to promote violence from the warrior monks of Buddhism to Islamic Saracens, from the Shinto Samurai to the Christian knights and conquistadors.
But this is too simple. Atheistic communism in Russia and China has been as oppressive and genocidal as any religious inquisition ever was. And Bill Maher’s just pandering for ratings when he claims that such regimes are really just “secular religions”—a definition of religion that seems to be any belief system that will get him a cynical laugh. I dismiss this claim as a semi-sophisticated ad hominem that only shows that Bill Maher is as inconsistent to his own moral code as the rest of us.
But I hear the opposite claim on the lips of many Christians. “If only everyone would just embrace Christianity’s moral code, then society would improve.” Whatever the value the myth of the Christian nation has, it need not consume us here. As an explanation for the evils of the world it’s insufficient. The problem isn’t that humans don’t follow the Christian moral code, but that we won’t follow any code. The documents of most religion extol the virtues peace, but its adherents freely brutalize both their fellow-adherents and those they would proselytize… and before you say Christianity’s different, remember, Christianity was complicit with Islam in the religious atrocities of the Middle Ages, and Christianity alone plunged Europe into decades of war after the Reformation. The Christian church condemned American slavery at the same time it was erecting social structures that would maintain separation of the races in Christian worship… separations that exist to this day. If ancient Judaism, Constantinian Rome, Medieval Europe, or Colonial America are indicators, even countries that seek to be “wholly Christian” in their laws would still feature war, abuse, and evil. I mean, have you read the Scarlet Letter?
No, no, for the sake this conversation, I must acknowledge that Christians enjoy no elevated place amid their human brothers and sisters. Whatever this endemic brokenness is that privates our race, Christians often sponsor it.
All of these explanations make fir a single basic point: If Christian’s make lousy Christians, Muslims make lousy Muslims, and atheists make lousy atheists, can we conclude anything but that “humans make lousy humans?” It doesn’t matter what ethic you espouse. Even with the highest of intentions, you’re probably as miserable at living it out as I am.
It doesn’t matter what ethic you espouse. Even with the highest of intentions, you’re probably as miserable at living it out as I am.
But that’s just it: we know we should act differently, yet we don’t. It almost seems like there’s something wrong with us, something right at the core of our humanity—a disease, a dysfunction, or a denial—that predisposes people of every stripe, color, and creed to inflict hurt on themselves and others.
Now if there is a solution to our wretchedness, it will have to wait for another homily. I’m here to talk about causes. Any religion, philosophy, or system of thought that wants to correspond to the world we actually meet, must explain the human propensity to say that certain things are “good” while doing the opposite. So what is the Christian explanation for why humans are so bad at “being good?”
It begins with the idea that people don’t become bad just because of bad socialization, education, or environment. These might make people better or worse, but our problem is deeper than that. It’s a problem of the will. Our wanter—the part of us that desires, evaluates, and chooses—is broken or twisted.
In the Confessions, St. Augustine tells the famous story from his childhood about he and a bunch of his little hoodlum buddies stealing all the pears off his neighbor’s pear tree. As an adult he now contemplates that act of vandalism trying to figure out why he did it. They weren’t hungry or poor, they knew they were stealing and that this was wrong. And there he hits the nerve…of course they knew it was wrong, that’s why they did it. They set out to do evil, knowing it was evil, and desiring the particular tang of that evil act.
Yes, sometimes we are deceived into doing wrong; sometimes we do evil by accident or in ignorance or mistakenly thinking it’s good. But Augustine’s point is that we can also look evil in the eye, know it to be evil, and still desire it—more than desire, even to our own destruction, we often choose it.
This is exactly what scripture claims is our state. The prophet Jeremiah writes [17:9]—“The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick/wicked; Who can understand it?” and in the next chapter [18:12], “But they say, ‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.’”
And St. Paul agrees in Romans 1:21, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, …” and later “God thus gave them over.”
Now I think that every honest and self-reflective person will discover that the evidence from their own heart coincides eerily with this. We don’t’ seem to be entirely in control of our own wills anymore. The free and easy obedience that God intended for Adam and Eve in the beginning has become for me an arduous task—a moment by moment battle in which my innate instincts push me the wrong way. Whence comes this pension for evil that I know deep in my heart?
The free and easy obedience that God intended for Adam and Eve in the beginning has become for me an arduous task.
Understanding this involves two moving parts (more really, but that’s enough for now)—the first is an explanation of why I have so much trouble choosing the good, the second is a description of the exact nature of the evil I end up choosing—what the evil actually is.
The explanation for why I have so much trouble is that I am not, as so much modern thought argued, born into the world with a morally positive slant…I didn’t even arrive with my dials set to neutral. Rather, I came into the world already broken. Even before I got the chance to mess myself up or even before bad parenting or bad society could do its work, I was already broken. Evil is the choice that best matches the default setting of my will. Not that I do it by necessity—not that I can’t help it—only that…well, I don’t help it. I actually do the evil, knowing it to be evil.
So don’t get this backwards. Theologians didn’t come up with an idea about broken wills and on the basis of it tell us we’re evil. It’s the other way around. I myself find myself desiring evil so often and so uncontrollably that the only explanations can be that either God made me this way—which cannot be squared with the Christian creation story—or that something else has gone horribly wrong in me and with every other person. Like a genetic predisposition that draws some people toward alcoholism, or how every child seems born with an innate affinity for sugar. The only explanation that works is that I was born into the world with my will—my “wanter”—already wanting things that will ultimately destroy me and those I love.
Now the theologian’s term for this propensity toward choosing evil is “original sin,” and it means that whatever broke in Adam and Eve’s choice to rebel, it is also broken in me . It’s “original,” not in the sense that what Adam and Eve did was very original (which it was), but that it is part of our origin—it’s there from the start. Now Christians talk about it in different ways—some sounding like almost a biological inheritance—that Adam passes something down to us, others like an act of representation—that Adam chose on our behalf, and still others as a form of mimicry—we all do what Adam did—it matters little here which is right. At the end of the day, the result is the same. The heart that beats in my chest is a broken one—as the old hymn says, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it.”
That explains the gnawing disorder I sense inside that I can’t seem to get a handle on. I have been divorced from myself. Though I often know what is good; I cannot seem to do it. The very part of me that was built for desiring glory and goodness has been twisted to make evil seem like good. That, says Christianity, is the reason why every human life goes south, every human institution becomes corrupt, every great human utopia eventually becomes Animal Farm. My own heart continually defeats me, for I can’t do anything about my basic nature any more than I can change my height. With respect to J. K. Rowling, I have endured a deathly unhallowing of my humanity. The leopard cannot change its spots.
But the particular way this breakage manifests itself is also important. See, as a young man I thought that when I did wrong, I was choosing the opposite of good—that sin was kind of “the other end of the spectrum” from good. But this isn’t exactly right.
When Adam and Evil fell, God didn’t destroy a “good” world and replace it with a “bad” one. The “badness” of this world came about through a cancerous deterioration of the good things God had made. Satan can’t make things out of nothing; he’s not God. And God doesn’t make evil things. So the only alternative understand that works for me is that sin consists of taking the good things God made and using them badly or corrupting them. That is exactly what we meet in the world.
Sin consists of taking the good things God made and using them badly or corrupting them.
- God made food—a great good—you and I use it for gluttony or to cause starvation.
- God made sex—a great good—you and I use it for promiscuity, infidelity, and abuse.
- God made music and dance—we turn them to sensuality, manipulation, and commercial banality.
- God made atoms—we make bombs.
Our greatest achievements become our greatest horrors.
Yes, God gloriously and hospitably made all things good. Yet I, human rebel that I am, have taken these good things and misused them, thereby bringing destruction and misery upon myself and my world. Now multiply what’s true of my heart by a million and you know what’s wrong with my home town, multiply it by 300 million and you know what’s wrong with my country, by 7 billion and you get the morass of sorrow called the world—a frothing sea of humanity each working diligently to misuse all the good gifts of God. I’m reminded of Psalm 2 where the psalmist describes the state of the world in his day. See if you can detect any difference between his world and ours.
1 Why do the nations rage, and the peoples devise a vain thing? 2 The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers take counsel together against Yahweh and against His Anointed, saying, 3“Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!”
Do you get the image? It is the story of Adam and all his children, standing like spoiled toddlers on their two hind legs with their fist in the air, screaming to have it their own way. It’s every Tom, Dick, and Potentate in history marching his armies through devastated country villages where destitute women and children cower in expectant terror. It is every women delighting in the sorrow bourn of her gossip and malicious manipulations. Every man seeking pleasure out of watching a woman be violated & abused on his computer screen. It is the story of the scriptures and subject of every book ever written. Man against woman, mothers against sons, brother against brother, nation against nation, and race against race. It is the cry of the Lord’s prayer diabolically inverted—that in the end, MY name will be hallowed, MY kingdom built, and MY will be done. The story of a race of people who turn to the Only Source of Life and Joy and make that the absurd demand, “Leave us alone!”
Oh my friend, I’m sad to say this is the biblical record. The death in which we now abide found entrance through our rebellion, and it lives and propagates itself through our ongoing rebellion as a race. That it has destroyed our relationship with our Maker, with each other, and even with the very world we were meant to oversee. And based on all evidence to date, it will continue to go from bad to worse, if we are left to ourselves. In the face of this, the apostle Paul throws up his hands in despair, “Oh, Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
Now Paul knows the answer to this, he names it in the next verse. But we must save it for another homily. I must not get ahead of the story. I need to stop here for a bit and take responsibility for my choices, concede just how irreparably lost and broken I am. If we cannot admit that our race is lost, how shall we ever be found?
But lest you think that despair has the final word, remember, I have spoken of our situation “if we are left to ourselves”—and of course that is precisely what God has not done. Yes, God sorrows over our self-inflicted bondage, but that is not God’s only reaction.
Psalm 2 continues after all the raging of the nations, “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” See, God is still God. The whole human rebellion is, when placed before the eternal life, power, and glory of God, a very small thing… not an unimportant thing—for indeed, God will dare strange and awful deeds to see it set right…but a small thing, a thing well-within God’s power to fix.
And for today that is enough. It gives us patience to wait for that answer—like a people abiding in darkness but who long for a promised light. We prepare ourselves to meet the one who alone can “Make all things new.”
Join us next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
 Romans 7:24
The saintly mule would like to thank you for your support of his minor ravings. If you would like to aid him in the production of the Homilies, please visit his patreon page. Also remember to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss any of the new things that are always arriving at the Homilies. May the peace of Christ be with you.