Writing my last article on the “aesthetic gospel” has made me think carefully about the real underlying issues. The real issue is the notion of humanism – the idea according to which humans are capable of the greatest good as well as appalling acts of evil. Certain tendencies within Christianity maximalise the notion of original sin and actual sin to label our species as immoral, self-interested and thoroughly bad, and to justify force and power as the only way to keep evil (of others) in check. The lives of the saints tell us about another aspect of humanity, and we experience kindness in our own lives. I help someone haul his boat up the ramp and he gives me a bag of his catch of the day, gutted and ready for cooking. It wasn’t an agreed deal, but something spontaneous and beautiful. Acts of kindness and mercy can be much more significant and just as gratuitous.
The balanced viewpoint is to try to work against the negative aspects of human nature and to promote everything that is positive and good. Christianity that sees things in these terms, recognising at least some good in even the worst sinners, is on the way to being balanced. Hellenism, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment believed in the potential good of humanity and a fundamental nobility. Medieval chivalry and modern Scouting also set out to bring out the best of us in terms of altruism, service to the community and kindness to others.
Certain kinds of Christians and political demagogues tell us that such an optimistic view is wrong. According to that view, humanity is fundamentally bad and can only be dealt with through violence and force, and by killing categories of undesirables. Thus we have wars, racism, sexism, genocide, crime, debt and capitalism, political corruption, wife and child abuse and what some call the pathocracy – the rule of the sick, the rule of evil men. If human nature is fundamentally depraved, then there is nothing wrong with the rule of the strongest, the struggle for living space and so forth. Such an idea justifies the strong in its persecution of the weak. Daily life has become a machine, we are made into consumers and everything has its price. We become food for others. That was the message of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Those Christians who think in this way are anxious to maintain the threat of eternal hell. They use church law to maintain people in inextricable situations, since they are only going to hell anyway. Why bother? The notion of predestination in its most extreme Augustinian meaning considers the notion of being born evil, thus justifying vindictive punishments like execution or life imprisonment, without any possibility of rehabilitation and conversion. So, we blame others for being bad, weak, lacking moral values – and therefore think they need to be controlled – by us.
The bloodbath of the twentieth century showed the ultimate consequence of this kind of thinking, regardless of the scapegoated minority on account of their race, creed or culture. The fundamental quality of human nature will determine the entire basis of freedom, conscience and law. If we are fundamentally good, even though we sin through weakness and reaction to the sins of others, we are better governed by our own freedom and conscience than outside constraint, law and punishment. The Royal Navy at the end of the eighteenth century concluded that flogging “broke a good man’s heart and made a bad man worse”. The way to run a ship is to appoint a commanding officer who has both seamanship and the human qualities to be loved and respected by his men.
We should learn from the failures of Nazism, Communism and Capitalism – and a certain type of religion that is increasingly discredited – so that we can concentrate on what make us good, free and loving. The enemy is not humanity or people, but the social forces that seek to reduce us to our possessions and exploitable qualities.
The way we deal with evil and build up good in ourselves is the essence of the Gospel message. We don’t win by rendering evil for evil, but by replacing evil with love, beauty and goodness.
There are evil people, in history and at the present time. Some individuals have no conscience or empathy for others. Psychologists call them psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists. Were they born evil or did they become so? We have to believe in free will and the responsibility we all have for our acts. Most people who commit evil acts do so through poor education, being victims of domestic violence and abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction. Many can be rehabilitated by sensitive magistrates, social workers and medical specialists.
Belief in the intrinsic badness of humanity leads religious leaders to the worst hypocrisy and cynicism (in the modern meaning of the word, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing). If we build on the best, then we look for what is most sublime – beauty, the arts, sublime acts of altruism and self-sacrifice. I seek certainly to preach an “aesthetic” gospel, but more importantly a Gospel of love and goodness, the ability to overcome evil by transcending it and filling the darkness with light.