Human Nature

On opening Facebook this morning, it reminded me of a link I had shared a couple of years ago. It is still there: I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it. It’s not something I would want to do myself, but I sympathise with those who want to do their “own thing”. This lady gives her reasons, like her reaction from – always the same bloody thing – consumer capitalism. The prime example is anything mechanical, designed to last and be repaired – or thrown out because it cannot be repaired and replaced with a new one (to the advantage of the manufacturer). We are taught that money is everything and that this marks the end of history, the proverbial boot stamping on the human face forever. There are signs that it will also fail like all the worldly empires that have passed away.

What is most poignant in this story of a couple living the (neo-Victorian) life that enables them to blossom as persons being themselves and not harming anyone else – is the abuse hurled at them by “normal” people.

We live in a world that can be terribly hostile to difference of any sort. Societies are rife with bullies who attack nonconformists of any stripe. Gabriel’s workout clothes were copied from the racing outfit of a Victorian cyclist, and when he goes swimming, his hand-knit wool swim trunks raise more than a few eyebrows — but this is just the least of the abuse we’ve taken. We have been called “freaks,” “bizarre,” and an endless slew of far worse insults. We’ve received hate mail telling us to get out of town and repeating the word “kill … kill … kill.” Every time I leave home I have to constantly be on guard against people who try to paw at and grope me. Dealing with all these things and not being ground down by them, not letting other people’s hostile ignorance rob us of the joy we find in this life — that is the hard part. By comparison, wearing a Victorian corset is the easiest thing in the world.

This is why more people don’t follow their dreams: They know the world is a cruel place for anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant culture. Most people fear the bullies so much that they knuckle under simply to be left alone. In the process, they crush their own dreams.

Last night, my attention was attracted to the plight of Pitcairn Island, one of the most remote places on this planet where Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers on the Bounty took refuge to avoid being taken back to England and the gallows. The story is fascinating, and now the population is down (as of a couple of years ago) to 49. In the early years of this century, there was a disgusting revelation that nearly all the men living on the island were pedophiles, raped and abused children and kept pornography representing sado-masochistic fantasies. One of them was the Mayor and a descendent of Fletcher Christian. The population seem to have a kind of omertà in place and would be hostile to anyone coming to live on the island. One suggestion has been made that the British Government remove the population, relocate them elsewhere, turn the island over to UNESCO and make it accessible only to professional scientific researchers. Perhaps there are some nice people living there who fear the bullying and tyranny. The story rather reminds me of Lord of the Flies by William Golding in which a bunch of schoolboys are plane-wrecked on an uninhabited Pacific island, all the adults were killed in the crash, and the boys gradually revert to a state of savagery. Two films have been made of this story, but I prefer the older one:

What can we understand of this aspect of humanity, what Calvin called total depravity? Is this within us all? We read about murderers and child rapists, among others who commit evil in different ways, and wonder if this is something normal. Would it be better to wish for the extinction of humanity like what happened to the dinosaurs millions of years ago?

In scientific terms we read of personality disorders of persons without any moral conscience or sense of right and wrong. Some have come up with theories of about 5% of true psychopaths in society and the way that ordinary people can follow them and be “infected” with their evil. The prime example of this was Nazi Germany, something that can happen anywhere, given the rich culture of Germany and its technological and scientific prowess. The phenomenon of the schoolyard bully is particularly relevant, children who seem to be born to victimise other children.

My last posting attracted the comment – Amongst some conservative Christians the Faith has been reduced to smugness about ones own salvation and a moralistic crusade against divorce, abortion and homosexuality. My own reaction is to ask myself whether I am happier in the company of atheists. Perhaps not, since atheism doesn’t make a person immune from ignorance and becoming bullies. Christianity is almost completely covered by this ugly coat of paint that chokes it to inexistence!

I have written quite a lot on the mystery of evil, but I have no more insight than anyone else who has tried to study it from a point of view of theology or philosophy. Have we to knuckle down and accept it as normal, contribute to it, be even nastier than “them”? Hell is an image of many ideas. Probably, the most credible notion is a state of darkness, senselessness, absolute boredom and isolation of one’s sinful ego. George Orwells 1984 dystopia is an image of hell on earth based on the Hitler and Stalin regimes made so much worse by the imagination. The Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky was essentially one who wanted to bring about good by the repression of human freedom which is the seat of evil – and thus himself emerges as an evil atheist in spite of his appearance as a priest of the Church.

Evil is essentially something with no ontological existence, something like darkness where there is no light. One of the finest philosophers I have read on the mystery of evil is Nicholas Berdyaev.

God is not culpable in worldly evil, God is not all-powerful in this. He does not rule within the world, but He conquers the dark chaotic principle, which is co-eternal to Him, having been always.

It is a terrifying mystery that we will never comprehend. I have tended to believe that God created us in his image, and therefore we can deduce that the divine image is as tarnished by the principle of evil as we are. The Gnostics saw original sin not in man but in God, somewhere between the “God above God” and the creator God of the Old Testament. Speculation is always possible, but can be no more than analogy. Perhaps good is only good in relation to evil as light to darkness, white to black.

I believe that we are called in life to be aware of this mystery and do all we can to be good and confront evil with good and love. It’s much more easily said than done, and we all come short. The more I go on in life, the more I notice that Christ ministered to the marginalised, downtrodden, poor and maimed. Those who best understood him in history were the victims of the official establishment, but also of the ignorance and cruelty of the mob. This is something beautifully understood by the most unlikely candidates for canonisation by the official Church – St Francis of Assisi, St Benedict-Joseph Labre and others who would have been vilified and punished in our own time.

I don’t think I would want to live like in the nineteenth century or any other time in the past. However, I am attracted to marginal people and those who can slip under the net. This theme has preoccupied me for some time. However, there is a warning. The people of Pitcairn are marginal, and the devil built his “chapel” alongside the marvellous opportunity those folk could have had to construct something fruitful based on relationships of love and a social contract built upon a rock of justice and forgiveness. It is also the mystery of totalitarian cults and sects. Flee away from those who claim to have all the answers, those who are “always right” and live on the unhappiness of others. Evil is not always in the mainstream.

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

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7 Responses to Human Nature

  1. J.D. says:

    A sober reflection on a rainy Sunday here in Florida Father! Evil is real, and it’s within us all. I have seen the evil within me, or at least the tendency towards it.

    Personally I’m in sympathy with some of the Reformers on their dim view of human nature. Without grace most men are capable of the most sadistic cruelty and evil, and sometimes it’s even done by those who wear the garment of religion.

    If we take Christ as our exemplar we can take comfort in the fact that He suffered the full brunt of death and evil for us, and since He is both true God and true man He understands us and helps bear the cross with us.

    Where I disagree with the Reformers is that I believe human nature can be and will be restored by Christ in the end. This side of eternity we only glimpse it sometimes when we see selfless sacrifice, love and altruism, or when we read of the saints.

    Evil ultimately loses. This is really only something we believe on faith though.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’ve finally got round to reading (a translation of) St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, and (as far as I’ve read) it seems to be paying profound attention to possibilities of human nature being restored by Christ even during this life (combine with a very realistic sense of abusive human behaviour).

  2. Ft. David Marriott says:

    You mention Pitcairn Island: my late friend, Fr. Peter Price, was priest on Pitcairn for several years. From England, he trained as priest when the Vancouver school of Theology was sound. Later, he and his wife returned to the UK, and then to Pitcairn for a time. Many years later, he left the CofE and joined the TAC church in the UK, with two small parishes of, as he called them, ‘survivors’.

    • I have read that the entire population of Pitcairn Island is Seventh-Day Adventist, no Anglicans. Perhaps they got proselytised at some time after Fr Price. I find it fascinating that only 49 people have some form of economy and can pay for imported food and consumer goods coming on a ship from New Zealand.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Some random thoughts and observations…

    I like that first film of Lord of the Flies so much, that I have (so far) refrained from seeing the second. I remember Ray Winch being interestingly attentive (in book and film) to the heroism of Ralph which emerges in the same circumstances and under and against the bullying tribalism of the majority.

    I never made a connection with Pitcairn, but there is food for thought, there. (Interesting, too, it springs to mind, to compare the behaviour of various of the shipwrecked characters in Shakespeare’s Tempest.) It strikes me that it is also interesting to compare Golding’s imagination of the behaviour of the majority of the choristers when unsupervised with Lewis’s account of so many of his classmates at ‘Wyvern’ some 40 years earlier, in his book published the next year after Lord of the Flies, Surprised by Joy. I also need to reread the Narnia stories (of roughly the same period) and surviving notes to test my memory that it is groups of shipwrecked or marauding people who somehow find their way into Narnia and form the basis for the oppressive Telmarine society and even more oppressive Calormen one (!).

    What you say of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor reminds me of the temptations of the One Ring for various largely good characters – Gandalf, Galadriel, Boromir, Sam Gamgee – in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: a temptation to impatient authoritarian short-cuts to good order.

    • There is a very interesting story about Lieutenant William Bligh in Righting a historic wrong: the real story of the mutiny on the Bounty. Basically he was not the flogging and keelhauling villain portrayed by the films.

      Anyone who can navigate across 3,600 miles of ocean in a 23-foot open boat with 19 men aboard commands my respect. There was no greater seaman. He was one of the kindest commanding officers of his day.

      The Bligh and Christian families seem to have buried the hatchet, but I am not impressed on seeing videos about Pitcairn and the sick story of nearly all the men having been found guilty of raping young girls. It sounds a miserable place to live, and perhaps it might be better for those people to be taken off and rehoused in somewhere like Australia or New Zealand, unless they can afford housing in England. I used to be influenced by the films of 1935 and 1962. The film of 1984 gives a more nuanced approach. A skipper has to be able to trust his crew. Most recruits in the 18th century Royal Navy were former common law prisoners and drunkards from the taverns, filthy and disease-ridden. How do you get coordinated teamwork with such a bunch of trash?

      Bligh died an honourable Naval officer and Christian was murdered by his own men on Pitcairn in obscurity.

      I have begun to read about the attempts in small alternative life communities to overcome this kind of corruption. It can be done by authority, if that authority is based on good and is respected. Otherwise there are various ways to create a governing body of community members in such a way as agreement is obtained and no authority vested in a single person is necessary. The authority model can easily become a sect / cult when the leader has a narcissistic or sociopath personality. Some communities have succeeded in having a democratic system that works, depending on good debating and ability to listen to others. When it goes wrong, it goes wrong big time!

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you for the link! What an amazing achievement!

        I suppose I have always been quite influenced by the films of 1935 and 1962 (I somehow never saw the 1984 one) – though I think I must have read one thing and another to encourage a more critical attitude, too – though I’ve never got round to looking into it properly. (I have vague memories of all sorts of terrible stories about Pitcairn down the centuries, too.)

        It would be great to catch up with that film to which the linked article refers, some day.

        The External Links at Bligh’s Wikipedia article led me to Fateful Voyage and what I suppose to be a written-up version, Dangerous Voyage of Captain Bligh, in an Open Boat, Over 1200 Leagues of the Ocean, in the year 1789.

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