When the coronavirus outbreak restricted us to our homes and threatened various shortages, some of us in our subdivision launched a small-scale communication network (called a “block party”) to make sure no neighbors or their needs slipped through the cracks. This was promoted through the “Nextdoor” app and garnered quite a bit of affirmation. One resident commented on how efforts like this had restored her faith in humanity.
Local and national media have spotlighted countless inspiring humanitarian efforts, especially during times of crisis. From front-line personnel and food bank volunteers to MIT’s humanitarian innovation project, we can see creativity and sacrifice in every direction; efforts not limited to the current pandemic. Inspiring indeed! Examples like these provide a welcome and refreshing counterweight to the corruption and narcissism that so often dominate the news. The notion of humanity’s basic goodness is undergoing a revival of sorts, as if it were ever in serious doubt among contemporary, well-resourced Americans.
For those of us who have anchored our lives in historic Christian faith, this may chasten an imbalanced view of human depravity with a reminder of God’s common grace, still powerfully evident to and through all people. Even John Calvin, the theologian often blamed for the most dim and despondent view of humanity, insisted that there are “vestiges” of God’s image in all people. The travesties and tragedies that brand human history have often been the foil for these vestiges of goodness to arrest our attention and inspire us. I suspect that will continue through the duration of the coronavirus and its ripple effects.
With all of that genuinely and gratefully admitted, the gospel is the good news because it diverts our attention away from illusory faith in humanity. We can marvel at humanity without having faith in humanity. We cannot have faith in humanity simply because humanity (or, more honestly, to move from 3rd to 1st person – “we”) displays darkness just as predictably as goodness. In fact, vast anecdotal evidence suggests that the impressive evidences of human goodness can dissipate quickly when pressures continue or get worse.
Landon Gilkey, longtime professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, reflected on a jarring shift in his perspective as a result of his years in a Japanese intern camp during WWII (read his published journals, Shantung Compound). Gilkey admits that he entered that period inculcated with the humanistic optimism of his privileged, early twentieth-century, liberal Protestant upbringing and education. To me, one of the most striking comments is his observation that anyone can be so optimistic about human nature when conditions are only modestly or temporarily stressful. His understanding of human nature was dramatically altered by observing the conduct of his fellow Western interns whose self-protective and territorial instincts often carried the day under conditions of protracted deprivation.
In one of Fleming Rutledge’s many published sermons (“A Better Bet,” in Advent, 328-36), she recalls accounts of how the atrocities of genocide in Ruwanda destroyed some people’s faith in humanity. Interestingly, and of more substantive hope, that is what clarified and intensified those people’s faith in God in some cases. When I read this it struck me as a surprising reversal of the common question, “Why does God let things like this happen?” That is a haunting question, I admit. Yet, it may be the wrong question. Should we rather be asking, “Why do people do things like this?” and “How does God deal with this?” The biblical storyline seems relatively silent about that first question and far more clear about the latter pair of questions.
Rutledge spotlights Jesus’ crucifixion as God’s response to the human condition, to all that emerges from it and to everything at its core that gives rise to that evil. God’s common grace and all vestiges of goodness notwithstanding, the core condition of humanity is such that it must be redeemed and healed, and that it cannot redeem and heal itself. The facts that God still grants common grace and that there was an original goodness that continues to emit strong echoes offer compelling evidence that humanity is worth redemption; not deserving of redemption, but worth redeeming because God has unilaterally loved us and bestowed that worth. Deserving and worthy are not the same. We are not the former; we are the latter.
The difference has profound implications (including formational and therapeutic, but that’s another conversation). It allows me to acknowledge both the glory and the depravity of the human condition without playing them off each other in simplistic, binary fashion, without diluting either reality, and without placing them on an equal plane. It gives me cause to celebrate, encourage, and practice acts of love and sacrifice without over-interpreting those acts. It points me to a better (and more answerable) set of questions about God’s presence and involvement in human life, and God’s redemption of the human condition, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
While I sincerely celebrate the many noble aspects of humanity, Christ’s death and resurrection restores my faith; not in humanity but in the God who redeems humanity, and in the fact that we need such redemption no matter how much good we do.