Monday, 11 December 2017

Less cynicism will help our thinking

AS I write, the Today programme is talking about a huge IT shambles, with £34million in investment written

AS I write, the Today programme is talking about a huge IT shambles, with £34million in investment written off as the Government tries to implement its universal credit proposals.Yet another example of first-class aspiration met with third-class implementation. There have been many.

Meanwhile, there is the Lobbying Bill aimed at limiting corrupt practices and HS2 (potential disaster or inspired plan?) while nation after nation debates whether to work for peace by bombing Syria. Hugely gifted people, great dreams and hopes, dismal outcomes. 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, 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 sin 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 a little love, a little respect, a little imaginative understanding of those we most dislike, into the mixture of our thinking about the world. Total cynicism is not only untrue, it is depressing.

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