A bit more morning music: B.B. King is, of course, a blues legend. This is some of his best work, when he was quite a bit younger.
A bit more morning music: B.B. King is, of course, a blues legend. This is some of his best work, when he was quite a bit younger.
A little ZZ Top with your morning coffee.
The recent arrest of Roman Polanski for statutory rape with a 13-year-old girl has peeled back the veil covering our cultural decay. Numerous artists, directors, and other Hollywood celebrities and powerbrokers have come out and condemned the arrest, while rationalizing his behavior and condemning what they see as unjust punishment. The public response to this has been somewhere between shock and revulsion, with many commentators, even the New York Times editorial page, expressing surprise and dismay at Hollywood’s response to a man who drugged and raped a minor.
Yet in the midst of the outrage about the crime and the response of media celebrities, there have been few if any who have grasped the implications of what this event and its response have uncovered. One can sense this confusion in the many commentaries speculating about the motives of an entertainment industry which seemingly approves and applauds such heinous behavior.
In our postmodern and post-Christian culture, we yet collectively retain an innate sense of wrong or evil behavior, while often being unable to define exactly why we find depredations such as Polanski’s reprehensible. We become even more bewildered when we encounter large swaths of seemingly intelligent individuals embracing and rationalizing such behavior. Remnants of a common moral and ethical framework for society remain, but significant segments of it no longer ascribe to the premises upon which it is based. We are faced with a new religion; a secular faith, morally amorphous and maddeningly incoherent. Yet it is rapidly becoming the dominant denomination and worldview of much of our culture.
It seems perhaps odd to describe a philosophical worldview which rejects any notion of God or moral absolutes as religion. Yet it is very much a moral and ethical framework, albeit one with considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, intellectual incoherence, and moral confusion. This growing secular orthodoxy finds its roots predominantly among those whose political leanings are leftist or progressive, although it is by no means exclusively confined to them, and may be found in its variants among libertarians and even conservatives.
What then are the doctrines and dogmas, if you will, of this rather confusing and contradictory confession?
In traditional religious understandings, especially that of the three great monotheistic faiths, the moral framework resides in absolutes established and communicated by a transcendent Being. While the specifics of what such absolutes entail and demand vary from one religious tradition to another, they all share the precept that human behavior is judged against the standards of a God, and that these standards exist above and apart from man himself. They are by their very nature transcendent. The behavior of man is judged against these unchanging principles, and resulting shortfalls ultimately must be redressed, either by compensatory good works, judgment, or by forgiveness and grace.
This secular religion, in contrast, posits the moral compass within the mind, exclusively. It is fundamentally Gnostic in nature. The morality of a given behavior is no longer judged based on a transcendent standard given and administered by a divine judge, but is rather graded by the knowledge or beliefs of the individual (or group) in question. Simply put, it is the belief system of the individual rather than his or her behavior which is the ultimate determinant of good or evil.
This core conviction gives rise to what appears to those who do not ascribe to this worldview to be a rather stunning propensity for hypocrisy. The identical behavior of two individuals, one of whom believes the “right” things, the other of whom believes the “wrong” things, will be judged in diametrically opposite ways. Those whose beliefs and politics are “correct” will have their errant behavior minimized, rationalized, justified, or ignored, while those whose beliefs are “incorrect” will be viciously condemned and castigated, despite high motives and noble intent. Our instinctive inclination to judge behavior against an unchanging moral absolute finds such arbitrary precepts irrational and frustrating — as indeed they are not really absolutes at all. What we are observing in practice is a guiding principle far removed from our instinctual dependence on moral law. That which is contradictory, hypocritical, and irrational when viewed from a traditional moral framework is in fact entirely predictable once we understand that the seat of moral judgment resides in what the individual believes, rather than what the individual does.
Postmodernism posits the notion of “narratives”, which are an understanding of culture and society largely determined by those in power. It specifically rejects the notions of Divine lawgiver or transcendent moral absolutes as mere narratives of religious power centers whose intent is to control. For the postmodernist, all behavior will ultimately be judged against their own narrative rather than an absolute which transcends culture and time. What the religionist views as a transcendent absolute is seen as nothing more than another narrative by the postmodernist — a narrative imposed by religious and paternalistic authority solely for the purpose of controlling the flock. The intersection of these two radically different worldviews makes compromise and communication virtually impossible between them, since there is no common framework of understanding or language to bridge the gap.
Even seeming linguistic commonalities lead to confusion in the interface between these cultures. For the traditionalist, the concept of evil, for example, represents a violation of moral absolutes, by individuals ultimately held responsible for their actions. In the postmodernist vocabulary, evil is corporate, embodied in institutions and groups, and is a social construct rather than a moral one. The rejection of absolute truth, and the resulting repudiation of reason as a basis for judgment, creates an exasperating comfort with contradiction, where cognitive dissonance is the norm, and that which is emotionally compelling or strongly believed becomes Truth by the mere force of conviction driven home by relentless repetition and coercive groupthink. The term “evil” thus no longer serves a universal meaning across the culture, and its use sows confusion rather than commonality. One could multiply examples without end from the linguistic miasma of politically correct speech, politics, and the mind-numbing inanity of popular culture.
The postmodern philosophy, now thoroughly inculcated throughout the culture through the vehicles of media, academia, entertainment, and politics, has created a fertile soil for the disintegration of a culture based on Western values of rationalism, moral restraint, and the sanctity and dignity of human individualism. Postmodernism is ideally suited for two outcomes: the acquisition of power, and libertinism. Power is acquired through the ruthless dismissal of all moral restraints in the achievement of pursued goals (morals serve only to advance the narrative, and may be redefined as the need arises); through the reinvention and redefinition of language to deceive and confuse; through the demonization of all who oppose the goal as the embodiment of evil; and through the erosive and relentless undermining of the traditional societal and moral constraints which oppose the desired cultural and political changes.
While at the cultural and political level this bequeaths a brutish and divisive social milieu, enforcing a collective coerced conformity of thought and speech, at the individual level, paradoxically, the very opposite occurs. Non-conformity becomes the norm, as radical individualism and autonomy breeds a disdain for restraint in appearance, behavior, and speech. With the loss of the notion that man is a reflection of a divine Creator, and accountable to a higher Being or Law, the individual must compensate for his devaluation (for we are, after all, just cosmic accidents) by becoming ever more outlandish and outrageous in ways self-destructive, offensive to others, and hideous. Michael Jackson becomes our Dorian Gray — as the rotting necropolis of the spirit seeps through the grave clothes we have so carefully wrapped, having whitewashed the entombed soul with plastic surgery, slick production, Photoshop edits and high fashion. Our Ferragamos and facelifts, our tattoos and painted toes, are but weathered signposts on the rutted road to the expansive wasteland of our inner desolation.
In this postmodern desert, where higher purpose and divine restraint are nowhere to be found, all behavior becomes subject to the self-referential and self-justifying emotionalism of self-gratification. Tolerance becomes the standard by which we increasingly accept the intolerable; only restraint, tradition, and religion remain as worthy of contempt, bigotry, depreciation, or outright hatred. Since there is no evil, evil thrives, ever becoming the norm in a cultured stripped of decency, respect, modesty, and self-sacrifice. There is but one fixed point on the postmodernist’s map: the self. With no true North to fix its moral position, the compass needle swings wildly in every direction, resting only on its own center.
The ironic truth of godless postmodernism is that its gods are legion — and they are merciless. The cruel god of Age destroys the fatuous goddess of Beauty. Gaia, worshiped in rituals of trivial privations by pitiful men and the emptied treasuries of nations, hurtles her planet relentlessly to chaos and destruction, in turns by heat or cold, despite those proffered drink offerings. The god of Human Progress weaves delusional hopes of Utopia as humankind bewitched by her visions hurtles violently downward toward Hell. The deities of science and technology deliver not sought-after salvation but ever more frightening sorcery whereby man may be enslaved, devalued, depraved, and destroyed. The worship of the trees, the sycophantic paeans to science, the lugubrious celebration of joyless lust, do naught to appease the gods: the world remains utterly beyond our control, dangerous and unpredictable and profoundly unsatisfying.
And so we turn back to the Dream: the Utopian vision of a world at peace, unified and prosperous, where all problems resolve propitiously as Mankind becomes One, while religious bigotry, ignorance and superstition fade to black. It is always but one more revolution away. But the ethereal vision remains just out of reach, its ephemeral promises an illusion. As we grasp at the shadow in the mists, rather than finding hope we find hatred; rather than finding tranquility, tyranny; rather than finding Paradise we discover a sordid pit of perdition, as our promised deliverance devolves into deviancy and our perceived blessings into barbarism.
It is a dark road down which we travel, made the more frightening by the delusional grandiosity of those whose vision propels us forward. One wishes, were it possible, to stand astride a generation gone mad and scream, Stop!! — in hopes that even some might heed, and awaken to the disaster before them. But even such might prove to no avail; the delusion is powerful, and obsessive, and intoxicating, and relentless.
And the road ahead seems likely to be littered with extraordinary wreckage.
The following essay was originally posted in June 2005. The story is a true one, although the names have been changed.
They say that hell is hot. Sometimes, however, it is very, very cold.
Jim loved Alaska — it had been his home since birth. God’s country: wild, unpredictable, spectacular in beauty–there was no place like it on earth. Cities were a necessary evil, with their services and surliness, but out in the wild was where life could be found. Out among the glaciers, the ragged mountains framing the endless blue sky like jagged, broken glass, out where grizzlies snatched salmon from raging rapids, shortening their march to death as they fought wild currents to reach their spawning grounds. Out where eagles graced the sky, soaring above green fir spires and spotless snow fields. Out where God lived, where a man could see His hand, and hear His voice.
Jim lived a simple life of simple faith. He loved his wife as he loved the land, and together they were blessed with six children–three older girls, the twin boys, and a baby son their most recent gift. Each was a treasure greater than the next. Their lives were story book: The lodge they owned nestled near the shores of Lake Clark, a large inland glacial sea, mirroring the snow-peaked mountains surrounding it. Summers were busy–hunting and fishing tours, visitors from afar seeking trophies and photographs, decked in newly-purchased gear from REI in the lower 48. Jim loved to fly–the float planes lifted gracefully from the lake, carrying their awestruck passengers over endless miles of breathtaking beauty to some far-away stream where tied flies touched water and fish broke airborne for their last meal.
Out in the bush, relationships were few in number but rich and deep. Church was more than a Sunday obligation–it was a place where life was shared, joys celebrated, suffering comforted–a place where faith begot works, where love put on snowshoes and helped stack the winter’s wood. Family life was alive, ripe with blueberries picked, hikes to the falls, and quiet nights beside campfires. Summers passed quickly at Bible camp, concentric ripples of cannonballs and giggles of joy rolling across the lake from the old dock. Dates with dad and high tea with mom found no competition from mindless cartoons, and bedtime prayers thanked Jesus for His goodness and God for His gifts.
Winter was time for quiet reflection, as the short days and deep snows kept sportsmen far away, and school and indoor chores made the time pass slowly but with purpose. The plane was their lifeline: what few roads there were became impassible in deep snow, and flights to Anchorage a necessity for supplies and health care. The girls came along often, although the younger boys stayed with friends and relatives for lack of space.
Jim had tens of thousands of hours of flying experience, a skill which paid rich dividends in the harsh, capricious winters of south Alaska–there was little in the way of flying conditions he had not challenged and mastered. So this flight to Anchorage in February was a pleasant surprise: the low gray skies broke open to display the rare winter glory of sunshine on pristine snowfields, the glorious tinted rim of Alaska Range peaks and deep seas of Cook Inlet. The supplies garnered and the girls’ dental care completed, they took off for the return flight to home and hearth.
The storm struck without warning, a white she-devil blown in from the Gulf, the Cessna buffeted by sharp, hard winds as visibility and ceiling dropped precipitously. The instruments held true, and countless hours of difficult flying forged Jim’s nerves steely and his focus intent. Mom held the girls’ hands, distracting them from natural fears with songs and stories and heads held to breast, her own pounding heart betraying her calm demeanor. “Will we be OK, mommy?” “Jesus will bring us home, honey.”
The GPS told Jim they were indeed near home–the lighthouse in space beaconing safety and rest. By reckoning they should be near the lake, just a few miles out from the landing strip. But Nature had not finished yet, her rage reserved for one final blow.
A whiteout in a small plane is dreadful beyond imagining. Suspended between earth and sky, with no point of reference, no sense of up or down, sensory deprivation in a aluminum rocket. Your training trusts your instruments, but instinct and eyes scream for visual confirmation. There! On the right! Through a brief window in the suffocating white blindfold, a dark line: the outline of the lake shore. Jim banked the plane toward this beacon of hope. “Are we home yet, daddy?” “Almost there, honey.”
But wild Nature held one last vengeance: an atypical winter thaw had opened a long dark crack in the ice, normally frozen solid in February. The line Jim saw was not the shore. The plane hit water at airspeed.
The prop and windshield exploded. The cabin filled instantly with icy water, as Jim craned his neck to reach the fast-retreating air, still restrained by his harness. Years of wilderness training sprung to life, as without a thought he grabbed his Bowie and cut free the webbing. He struggled with the girls’ restraints, hopelessly locked between seats crumpled by the impact. His wife was nowhere to be seen. Time was up–the air was gone. He broke from the cabin, gasping for air at the surface, hoping to dive and try again to free his treasures. It was not to be: the plane sank like a millstone, 600 feet to the bottom of the frozen fjord, entombing the family he worshiped.
In shock, he looked around. His wife, by some miracle, thrown from the plane at impact, had struggled to the surface and clung to a floating berg. Spared from a frigid tomb, they stood on a fragile shelf of thin and breaking ice. Over two miles from the shore, clothing soaked through in sub-zero temperatures, their survival was still a loser’s bet. Slowly they worked their way shoreward, breaking through the ice at times, body temperatures dropping despite their exhausting physical efforts. Guided by some hand unseen, they finally fell exhausted on shore, finding shelter in an empty lodge. Blinded by cold and head trauma sustained in the crash, Jim was led into the cabin by his wife, who cut off his frozen clothes and started a fire.
Friends awaiting their arrival grew anxious, and the Air National Guard was called. A Pavehawk helicopter–battling the same merciless weather–located the crash site, and ultimately reached them at the cabin. Even then, they could not be evacuated, as conditions grounded the rescue helicopter until morning. A friend flew a Piper cub–braving the same horrendous storm–to bring arctic sleeping bags and warm food. Bravery, love, and duty had spared their lives.
Months passed. Physical healing came quickly, but the rawness of heart wept like an open sore, gently salved by friends and faith, prayers and potlucks, tears and thankfulness. The boys were precious as never before, but the emptiness of heart left by a lost child cannot be filled. The rage at God passes–slowly–as strength flows from trust born of countless old decisions to set aside self and act in faith. But the memories remain–the laughter lost, the peace of a sleeping child, the love of a flower picked, the unexpected hug. There is no answer to “why?“–only time, and trust, and talk, and the tender whispering of a gentle Spirit. Yet one haunting regret refused to die: the vasectomy Jim had undergone after their last son–expeditious at the time, financially prudent–was now a self-imposed prison in a home filled with people, yet achingly empty.
And so they sat in my office, seeking my skills to restore what no man should be asked to provide–hope and happiness. And they told their story, my heart aching with each small detail disclosed. Jim was a man of enormous character and strength, his wife still bearing the unspeakable pain on her face–yet there was no shame in the tears that welled up in their eyes. As I gently probed deeper with almost unseemly curiosity, I was drawn in by the most remarkable revelation: these two would stand. Theirs was a strength not merely of hardiness, or training, or steely denial hiding a dying heart, but of power beyond the means of any mortal. They had faced the hell that men fear even to consider, and conquered it. There was glory in their weeping, victory in their agony. They would never be alone, and never be defeated. I, the proud expert, felt strangely insignificant in their presence.
The surgery went well, and early recovery smoothly. As I spoke with Jim before he left for home, he talked about the girls who had loved their daddy and whom he still loved so deeply. “You know, if I could fly to heaven and bring them back, they would not want to come. Their happiness is complete, ours still unfulfilled. Jesus has indeed brought them home.”
Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:
We struggled through some intimidating “God-words” — justification and sanctification — in my previous post, and in the process I lost both of my regular readers, leaving but a few wandering insomniacs whose Ambien prescription had just run short. For those now drifting back, whose eyes are just now unglazing, I touched on something of how Christianity works — or doesn’t, for many who have tread its well-worn path.
If nothing else, I hope for those who endured that irreverent review, that there arose at least a glimpse of the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Christianity is not merely another framework of moral codes by which to live. It is not comprised solely of the teachings of a charismatic leader, urging compliance to please or placate God or promulgating some hidden wisdom. It asserts at its very heart an outrageous claim: that those who relinquish their right to self-centered autonomy by submitting to God through the specific and exclusive portal of Christ will become judicially guiltless before their Creator. It further claims — perhaps even more outrageously — by this act to re-create the person so submitting, in a manner so thorough and profound that the individual can no longer be thought of as the same person who existed prior to that moment of choice and submission.
Yet if these claims are true, if this transformation be as radical and profound as its teachings and proponents assert, why then are those who lay hold of this conviction seemingly so little different from others who have not undergone this metamorphosis? If Christians are utterly transformed in the depth of their beings, why do they struggle and fail so often to be outwardly transformed as they should inevitably be by such a tectonic shift of the soul?
I was afraid you were going to ask that.
And I would be presumptuous and foolish to pretend that I have simple answers; I do not. What I do have is experience — the experience of many years of walking the Christian life, with stunning successes which proved all too fleeting, and disastrous failures which made a mockery of the high calling and lofty precepts of the convictions I hold dear. And I have shared this journey and experiences with many others, both past and present, whose path while wildly different in particulars is indistinguishable at its core.
What exactly is the nature of this transformation, this re-creation, which lays claim to a man in such mysterious manner? It is perhaps best described by what it is not.
It is not simply a change in thinking, a new perspective, a different set of opinions or a new worldview. If anything, the mind is the last bastion of resistance to its influence, and often the greatest enemy of the very change needed to transform the whole of one’s being.
It is not simply an emotional experience. Although emotions may be powerfully affected, emotions often serve to inhibit or distract from true progress, and are notoriously unreliable guides to its course.
It is not simply a change of the will, a setting of a new direction and discipline to achieve new goals and improve one’s life. The will, indeed, must be conquered, shackled, broken like a wild stallion to suit the purposes of this new Master. The will becomes but servant — rebellious, recalcitrant, resistant, remorseless, fighting its new overlord at every turn.
It is not simply a change of heart — although the heart lies closest to the seat of change, and senses its arrival before all else.
It is perhaps best described as a genesis; an arid fountainhead bursting forth with fresh spring water; an ancient stygian chamber shot through with dazzling shafts of light; a Phoenix arising from the ashes of the heart. There is a primordial recess in the soul of man, a silent sarcophagus unheralded and unseen, which springs to life like the burst of new flora at winter’s demise, when this dawn first breaks.
Thus is the experience of this new creation — but it is far more than mere renewal. It is as well — unexpectedly, surprisingly — a force of sedition with an unassailable foothold in a hostile land, seeking to undermine and overturn the tyranny of self with the sword of grace.
We are now at war. “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.”
Its effects are immediate, and often profound. There is a new vision, a grasp of things formerly hidden, a new light disclosing much which was cloaked in darkness, a profound and unbounded joy of discovery, and purpose, and optimism. We glory in the glint of sunlight reflecting off the helmets of our soldiers, marching in perfect unison, their colorful regalia stirring our hearts with visions of triumphant victory.
The reality is soon discovered to be starkly different. The cratered carnage of the battlefield, littered with the detritus of battles fought bravely but foolishly, sobers the spirit and saps the strength. The victory we hoped to be swift and painless now seems pyhrric if not pointless. Yet the failures are themselves at the point of the sword — they are, paradoxically, the means to triumph.
When a man becomes new in his spirit, he has engaged the very power of God in an irrevocable union whose outcome will be the full restoration of the purpose and relationship intended — by design — between the Creator and His creation. But the love which such a relationship demands must be utterly free, and hence the will and actions of man must be left unfettered and without coercion. This will, long subsumed to the service of self, must ultimately be turned to harmonious submission to the will of God, which desires, in freedom, the full integration of the new man into the wholeness and purpose of God’s design.
Though the inner change brought about by submission to God and our judicial pardon is profound, the mind and the will are steeped in a toxic brew of lifelong slavery to self. We have years of destructively pursuing that which seems right to us — of deceiving ourselves and others about our true thoughts and motives; of addictions and obsessions and hardened habits which have served to mitigate the pain and emptiness which our ego-enlargement have ultimately wrought. We lie to cover the shame; we react in anger, and resentment, and rage to cover the fears: fears of exposure and moral nakedness; fears of rejection; fears of failure; fears of existential insignificance. The sex, the booze, the pursuit of money and prestige, the materialism — all are exploited in search of integration and meaning, all leading only to more emptiness, more pain, more meaninglessness — and more of the same behaviors, over and over, endlessly.
Before our transformation, we are in a sense of one mind: this is the only life we know, the only tools we have at hand. Our inner and outer selves are on the same page, though the story is going nowhere and the final chapter looks bleak.
After our inner selves are transformed, however, the old contrivances no longer find consonance within; they find, instead, dis-ease. Our spirits are forging forward on a separate journey, and there is increasing tension between a mind and a will committed to failed, destructive solutions and an inner being seeking truth and wholeness.
We react to the inner discord our old life engenders with the tools we know best: we try, using knowledge, and effort, and will power, and discipline, to change the thoughts and actions we now know to be destructive. And we succeed — at first.
The behavior changes, but the thoughts and desires linger. The appearance improves, but the inner demons remain — if anything, they grow stronger, as each failure is a new victory for an old life. The struggle is draining and painful, disheartening and exhausting, as old habits persist and even prosper. With each failure, renewed commitment; with each relapse, new resolve. With each sortie, stalemate. Again. And again. And again.
And this, surprisingly, is exactly as it should be.
The mind and the will, unaided by grace, have no power to conquer the forces which bind them. They must be broken. There can be no resurrection of the dead until the dead be shown incapable of resurrection.
At some point in this long and fruitless journey, a juncture is reached. The wheels are coming off the car, and we’ve tired of pushing the pedal ever harder. It is a moment of choice: to resign ourselves to our old life, embrace our failure, and drown out the quiet pleadings of that inner voice; or submit, yet again, broken, falling headlong into the arms of grace, which alone can conquer that which is vastly larger than our feeble wills and darkened minds can overcome.
The sword of grace has slayed yet another stronghold of the old life. Another small parcel of the tyranny of self has been repurchased. We have been given what we could not gain by our own efforts, regardless how determined.
Cheer up. There are many more such battles ahead.
How then do we appropriate this liberating grace, this victory through surrender? There is no formula, for formulas are the haven of fools. But there are answers. The answers, I have found, are always simple — and never easy.
But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.
This essay, the second of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
In my previous post on guilt and shame, I discussed their nature and differences, their impact on personal and social life, and their instrumentality in much of our individual unhappiness and communal dysfunction. If indeed shame is the common thread of the human condition–fraught as it is with pain, suffering, and evil–it must be mastered and overcome if we are to bring a measure of joy to life and peace to our spirits and our social interactions.
Shame is the most private of personal emotions, thriving in the dark, secluded lairs of our souls. It is the secret never told, the fears never revealed, the dread of exposure and abandonment, our harshest judge and most merciless prosecutor. Yet like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain is far less intimidating than his booming voice in our subconscious mind.
The power of shame is the secret; its antidote, transparency and grace. Shame thrives in the dark recesses of the mind, where its accusations are amplified by repetition without external reference. Shame becomes self-verifying, as each new negative thought or emotion reinforces the theme that we are rejected and without worth. It is only by allowing the light of openness, trust, and honesty that this vicious cycle may be broken.
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – II”
This essay, the first of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
A wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.
My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.
While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often.
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – I”
Today is the fifth anniversary of the massacre at Beslan. The following post was written shortly thereafter. Michelle Malkin also has a remembrance of this horror.
David Brooks, in his NY Times Op-Ed piece, Cult of Death, says the following about the Muslim terrorists and the Beslan school massacre:
We should be used to this pathological mass movement by now. We should be able to talk about such things. Yet when you look at the Western reaction to the Beslan massacres, you see people quick to divert their attention away from the core horror of this act, as if to say: We don’t want to stare into this abyss. We don’t want to acknowledge those parts of human nature that were on display in Beslan. Something here, if thought about too deeply, undermines the categories we use to live our lives, undermines our faith in the essential goodness of human beings.
It should come as no surprise to me – yet it still does – that people have any confidence remaining in idea of the “essential goodness of human beings.” Yet this is perhaps one of the most durable myths of our modern secular age. It underlies both public policy and private perception, and forms the basis of many failed government and social programs. If you have the stomach for it and the honesty to look objectively, even a brief glance at human history both ancient and modern reveals vastly more evidence of the depravity of man than his essential goodness. Consider briefly the following examples: the Inquisition, slavery, Ghengis Kahn, the Holocaust, the Bataan Death March, the Cambodian killing fields, Rwanda, Idi Amin, Columbine, Saddam’s rape rooms and shredders, suicide bombers on school buses and in pizza parlors, the rape of Nanking, the gulags, and Wounded Knee. And these are only the large historical events, easy to bring to mind. Left unmentioned but vastly outnumbering these are the countless murders, rapes, child molesters, serial killings, drug dealing, and any number of other smaller – but still profoundly evil – events which now barely if ever make the news.
I am not a misanthrope, and am fully aware of the potential for man to achieve great goodness and nobility. From the selfless volunteer at an inner city school to Mother Theresa, countless examples of such goodness and nobility exist, often hidden and far less noticed than deeds of evil. The issue is about the natural inclination, the deep inner nature of man – is it toward good, or rather toward evil? Your answer to this question profoundly affects your worldview.
By taking the position that man is essentially good, you are left with the problem of understanding inexplicable evil, such as torturing school children and shooting them in the back as they flee, as occurred at Beslan. In evil of lesser scope, psychology and social theory are often recruited for this task: the child molester or rapist was abused as a child; inner city crime is a result of racism; the root of terrorism is poverty, injustice, and the oppression of the Palestinians by the Jews. Even there the answers fall short. But could any such combination of social liabilities give rise to such extreme evil, as seen at Beslan or Auschwitz – particularly in beings whose natural bent is toward goodness?
The Judeo-Christian viewpoint on man’s essential nature is that man is fallen: created by a good God to be by nature good, but given free will either to submit to the good or to choose evil. Having rejected the good for personal autonomy independent of God, the natural gravity of the soul is away from God, not toward Him. In God is an unspeakable and unimaginable goodness; in His rejection is the potential for equally unimaginable evil. The Judeo-Christian solution is redemption, not psychology; inner transformation, not social programs.
To resist evil, you must know the face of evil, and recognize the face of good. The secularist denies the existence of God (or counts Him or it irrelevant), and therefore all goodness must have its source within man. The religious liberal believes God is good, but impotent, and therefore man is responsible to do the heavy lifting of all good works. The traditional Christian or Jew understands that man, created by God with enormous potential for good, but corrupted by failure to submit to God and therefore by nature far more prone to evil than good.
Religious affiliation is an unreliable indicator of good or evil behavior. The combination of evil motives with the compulsion of legalistic religion is a potent and dangerous mix, where men pursue their evil goals under the lash of and laboring for an angry god of their own making.
Man’s tendency to evil can be restrained, either by force of law, by force of arms, or ideally by inner transformation, repentance and submission to the power of humility and service. Wishful thinking and false assumptions about the goodness of man will prove woefully inadequate for the encroaching and fearsome evil of our current century.