Thursday, 21 September 2017

The best basis for cynicism is hope

WE need to talk about sin, and not about sex. Sex is our society’s obsession and so the church only gets headlines when it talks, usually badly, about sex.

But what the church, and in fact everyone else, is aware of all the time is sin, another woefully misunderstood three-letter word.

Look at the news, every day. Hugely gifted people, great dreams and hopes, dismal outcomes. Think Grenfell Tower, think Syria, think every situation where first-class inspirations are met with third-class (or worse) implementation. It was ever thus, but what’s going on?

Christians of my stamp, Calvinist, taking their cue from St. Augustine back in the 4th century, and ultimately from the Bible, have spoken for centuries of the “total depravity” of the human race. That doesn’t mean (as some have suggested) that everybody is as bad as they can be and that humanity is incapable of good.

People are obviously capable of love and sacrifice and wisdom — we all know examples. No, “Total depravity” means that everything is touched and tainted by selfishness and our amazing capacity to mess things up, so that even the good and the best in us can go wrong at times. Anyone who has, with the best of intentions, shot themselves in the foot, will recognise the truth in this.

At the same time, Christians believe that every man woman and child is made in the image of God. There is something divine, something infinitely valuable about every human life. As John Bell likes to say, we are “apprentice angels”, being prepared for heaven. That is true of Bashar al-Assad, the world’s current demon-figure, it is true of the person whom you most detest, and it is true of you who are reading this.

Those two understandings of humanity are combined, on the Christian view, in what Jesus, we think, did for us on the cross.

We are so precious that he was prepared to die for us. And so stuck, so lost, so awful that he had to die for us — nothing else would do the job.

In Jesus we find the deepest possible clarity about human limitations and failure alongside the most profound love imaginable for each one of us. That is why Christians, who try to follow him, can be deeply cynical (which some call ‘realistic’) and yet staggeringly optimistic (on the Christian view that too is realism) about those they deal with at the same time.

You may not follow the Christian line on all this! But in these interesting times, when there is plenty afoot in the world to provoke anger, disbelief, cynicism and even despair, perhaps there is a need for all of us to stir into the mixture of our thinking about the world a little love, a little respect, a little imaginative understanding of those we most dislike? Total cynicism is not only untrue, it is depressing!

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