Social media is a strange animal, especially for members of the clergy like myself. Some days I am amazed by what is read into the things I write that were never intended. Yesterday was one of those days. Since all or most of the participants in a recent facebook encounter read this blog from time to time, there is a certain risk involved in what follows, but I feel it may continue to open dialogue between people with differing theological opinions.
It began with my posting a link to a friend’s blog who has been engaged in a dialogue with his students as to whether people are basically good or basically evil. Mark contends that people are basically good and is willing to put it to the test by seeing if he can travel to another country relying only on the generosity of others. He has set up a blog called Traveling Teacher 2010 to see if his theory is correct. Mark is nearing the end of his self imposed deadline to gather enough support and so I thought a post on my facebook page to share the idea with others might gain him some needed help with his endeavor. Little did I realize the online conversation that would ensue.
By the end of the day, five others and myself (each with varying viewpoints) had weighed in about whether or not we believed that people were basically good or basically evil. All but one of the people involved I have known for many years, and all are people I have great respect for. It began with a simple statement from a former minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who said, “Interesting. I am trying to convince people that they aren’t good, and thus, need Jesus.” While this would not be my opinion at all, I very much value those who are able to remind me that my opinion on things is most certainly not the only one to be had, and even though I very strongly disagree with the sentiment expressed in this statement, I can respect the fact that the person who made it cares enough to try to show me where I might be wrong when it comes to my own religious beliefs. He has always done so in a respectful and loving way. I have found that it is a rare person who can value relationships enough to put the other person first and one’s opinion, however strong that opinion may be, second.
My response was to use one of the words that in my opinion most differentiates Catholic and Protestant theology, the word and. “My take is that they (people) are good and they need Jesus.”
The next person to weigh in was a former fraternity brother, now a Presbyterian minister. He added, “If they are good, then why bother with Jesus? Oh, and I am curious to what you do with Paul when he says in Romans (quoting the Psalms) that no one is good, not even one?”
Good question. The difficulty with this kind of question for Catholics in particular is that Protestants and Catholics have a fundamentally different approach to reading the Bible. Catholics would never simply pick one or two verses from the Bible and present them out of the context of the whole as this can easily skew the meaning. We also place them in the context of the whole of Christian tradition. However, this did not stop my attempting to respond in a respectful manner to the question by saying,
They are good because God created them good, in fact, very good. Why be connected with Jesus? Mostly because he is the source of all life and goodness. Was there a Fall? Yes. It doesn’t take away the fact that God created man and woman good and ultimately through Christ has given us the grace (a theme found throughout the Letter to the Romans) to be restored to the image and likeness of God. So….it can be that people are actually restored by Christ (not simply having their wickedness hidden from God by Christ) and that we need Jesus. I personally would be of the opinion that we would need him even had the Fall not happened since it is through him that the whole of creation came about and is being sustained.
Here is where I thought the conversation would either end or get interesting. It did indeed get interesting, but not in the way I would have anticipated. Soon another fraternity brother joined the conversation by weighing in on fundamentalism and his understanding of what I might say to him about how good people do bad things.
This is what I’ve found.
If I go to one of my myriad relatives who are fundamentalist preachers and ask them what my nature is, they’ll tell me I’m a sinful worthless evil piece of pond-scum in the hands of an angry God who is dangling me over the fires of Hell, just waiting for me to slip up so He can get a good belly-laugh from watching me fall in and deep-fry.
If I ask Fr. Christian what my nature is, he’ll tell me I’m weak.
Given the option of being worthless or weak, I’m going with weak.
Having experienced many a fundamentalist preacher, I can’t argue with Tim on this one, and I have never understood how their description of God would be something I should see as Good News. Weakness I can understand. Weakness can explain how I continue to choose to do the thing I don’t really want to do, instead of living the life of holiness God desires me to live. And it is appropriate that it was here that one of my brother priests chose to weigh in on the conversation with these words.
I don’t think most Christian Fundamentalists would agree that God wants us to go to Hell. The Church has always taught that “being bad” means behaving contrary to our essence, which is always “good”. We have to be essentially good, since God made us. Right?
Good point. “Being bad” only makes sense if it is contrary to our nature, which I would argue that Christian tradition (including the Bible) would teach us that people are essentially good.
Of course there is one more opinion left to be expressed in this facebook conversation. My brother also wanted to weigh in with the sentiments of so many in our modern society today.
I think it depends on the observer. Let’s assume that the devil is real and is watching people being tortured. With this example bad is good. Bad is what the mind considers bad only until it finds it good one day. Good, bad, who knows, who cares. It’s relative. It just is.
His words express, in my opinion, one of the biggest errors of our time, that error known as relativism. It would be much easier for me to accept the tenants of another world religion than the claims of relativism. My brother and I continue to disagree on this basic premise due to my inability to accept rationally that there is no ultimate truth. I could much more easily accept that what I believe to be true is false, than I could accept that there is no such thing as truth.
All this being said, it still leaves me with a dilemma. How can six people come to six different strongly held opinions on truth when it comes to something as fundamental as whether human beings are good or evil? Perhaps you readers will have some insight to add. I hope to hear your thoughts.