(The following article was originally published in May 2014 on the American blogsite We Occupy Jesus. Here it is again, with a few revisions).
My goodness! Your goodness! In fact, everyone’s goodness… The goodness of man – something worth celebrating. Worth talking about.
All around me I see people trying to do the right thing. People displaying kindness and thoughtfulness.
A colleague going the extra mile to get a homeless person rehoused.
A friend spending scores of hours and buckets of energy raising thousands of pounds to help a paralysed boy learn to walk.
People speaking out against racist and discriminatory politics.
A relative inspiring others to support fair trade.
My work colleague who died suddenly in 2014, who had spent years providing humanitarian aid overseas, then using her nursing skills to volunteer with homeless people.
People of all kinds of theological persuasions – atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc, filled with a warmth towards other people, driven with a social, ethical conscience, bearing concern for equality and relief of poverty, and in many other ways being ‘good citizens’.
Man’s capacity for altruism is remarkable.
“I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying ‘I love you’… And I think to myself: What a wonderful world” – Louis Armstrong.
The Goodness of Man
A member of my family, who’s not a Christian or religious, commented on how amazing man’s capacity for forgiveness is. I think he’s someone who’s both received and given forgiveness and realised you don’t have to be religious to experience this.
Christians have an unfortunate reputation for emphasising the badness – or sinfulness – of man. Show people how sinful they are, how much guilt and shame they should feel, so they can better understand how much they need Jesus as their Saviour.
So the theory goes. Well, that might work for some people. But it doesn’t seem to be how Jesus went about doing things. That approach seems to be more in line with Pharisees than the Messiah.
People were drawn towards Jesus for all kinds of reasons, and followed him for all kinds of reasons. And Jesus seemed to make people feel better about themselves – and become better people.
I was initially drawn to Jesus not so much because I felt I needed saving, but because I became convinced that he was the Truth. I’m now convinced that he’s not only the Truth but the best thing since unleavened bread – and he’s saved me as well, in all kinds of ways.
Working as I do with broken, vulnerable people, I see all too well the effects of a sinful world – the products of abuse, poor choices, injustice, inequality, selfishness and downright evil. In order to help these people effectively, I need to believe what the Bible says about them – not just about their amazing potential, but about their actual, immeasurable goodness and worth to the Father now.
I believe what I read in the book of Proverbs, and in Matthew 25 (the sheep and goats parable), and in the letter of James, that ‘the poor and the marginalised’ somehow represent God in our society, and that how we treat them is the measure of how we treat God (someone please tell this to our Government, by the way).
I believe that God sees these people (and all people) as special, wonderful; often through tear-stained, longingly affectionate eyes. That he sees them as good.
By seeing them that way myself, I may be able to divulge the Father’s irrepressibly passionate heart; I may be able to instil in them some self-belief, some hope for their future, maybe even faith in a Higher Power.
So obsessed have Christians been historically with the whole concept of sin, that theologians have all kinds of terminology to explain it. Terms like Original Sin and – here’s my favourite – THE TOTAL DEPRAVITY OF MAN!!! Isn’t that wonderful (he says with an ironic smile)?
The term, ‘the total depravity of man’ doesn’t mean that everything about mankind is bad; it describes the idea that everything we do and think is tainted by sin; that nothing ever comes from totally pure motives.
‘Original Sin’ refers to that first act of rebellion against God, involving a tree and a snake in the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve (either allegorical characters who represent the rest of mankind or the first real, historical people, who handed down a sinful nature to all their descendants).
Personally I take it as allegory, but whichever way you interpret it (if the Bible has significance for you), you’ll probably agree that before Original Sin was ‘Original Goodness’.
Adam and Eve were good before they were bad.
God made man and everything else, and saw that it was very good: mankind in particular, because we were made ‘in his image’. Mankind was made to reflect the love and creativity of God as his children on planet Earth – and we still do, in our imperfect, marred kind of way.
Although Original Sin and the Total Depravity of Man have some biblical basis, they’re not biblical terms, even though historically they’ve been so accepted and deeply interwoven into evangelical thinking.
And yet when did you last come across terms for equally biblical concepts like Original Goodness or the Total Goodness of Man in a church or Christian book?
(You may have come across these if you read books by writers like Steve Chalke or Rob Bell).
Humanism and Christianity
Christianity and humanism seem to have always been in opposition: humanism suggesting that mankind is basically good and can get better with the right kind of education and development; Christianity asserting that man is basically bad and can do nothing to resolve the problem without help from above, from a higher power, from a Saviour called Jesus Christ.
What if the truth is somewhere in the middle? What if Christianity has so emphasised sin that it’s (we’ve) neglected to affirm the goodness in all human beings?
What if God looks at people’s hearts and loves it when they act in selfless love because, despite their faults, they’re still reflecting who he is – because they’re a chip off the old block?
The Evolution of Empathy
Now here’s a thing:
Modern evolutionary biology has struggled to comprehend why humans display any sense of altruism; and yet it’s found the inescapable fact that people are naturally, instinctively altruistic and empathic.
An article in the New York Times, for example, describes the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, who has for many years studied the cooperative side of primate behaviour.
“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”
(The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths).
De Waal emphasises that human empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed.
Like Dawkins perhaps, he argues that “biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”
Despite de Waal’s rejection of religion, his biological claim neatly (and unsurprisingly, in my view) converges with the Bible’s assessment of man as being essentially good.
I don’t know about you, but I love it when science, philosophy and the Bible all concur. In those points of convergence lie some deep, exciting and important truths.
Goodness Over Evil
Don’t get me wrong: I do understand and adhere to the importance of sin as a Christian concept. Like a sickness of the soul, we do need to face our need for healing and to allow Jesus, who died and overcame suffering and death, to embrace us with his healing arms.
But we’ve under-emphasised how wonderfully good we are. We’ve under-estimated how crazy God is over all the people he’s made, and how much he enjoys all the ways we reflect him in this world.
I think I’m a pretty self-aware person; and being a Christian, the Holy Spirit living in me gives me a sharpened conscience. But I’ve given up beating myself up about my faults.
If I dwell on my sins and shortcomings, I miss out on the power of God’s smile to change me. If, instead, I believe that my Father sees me as good, as someone incredibly appreciated and valued, then I don’t take myself or my mistakes too seriously.
I laugh at my faults and discover that the hilarity of God’s grace gives me the power to trample them into the dust.
Well, goodness me…….
(Love always looks for the best – 1 Cor. 13 The Message)