It’s popular in some spiritual circles to act as though humans are just slightly flawed (if that) and that our little missteps are just that; little. One little writing from yesterday by Mark Sandlin of “The God Article” perfectly sums up this “feel good spirituality.” To make matters worse, Sandlin is a pastor and was his blog was named one of the top 10 Christian blogs out there. Yet, his advice is that we’re not broken, not fallen, not sinful, just a work in progress. But his argument not only misses what Christianity actually teaches, it misses the human experience.
A theology of, “You’re not broken or fallen” might work for the average middle-class person of Western Society who’s never faced the evils of this life, who has the luxury of believing that this world is soft, but for the rest of the world such a theology is astonishingly ignorant. A woman drugged and then raped can’t look at the rapist and say that he’s, …”so deeply invested in life that [he] can, at times, deny the larger good for the experience of the moment.” Such a theological viewpoint doesn’t really address the carnage of this world and truly makes Christianity a “pie in the sky” religion. It ignores the realities on the ground, that people are murdered, that people are cheated, that evil occurs at the hands of these so-called “investors in life.” A man who murders women and children hasn’t missed the point, a CEO who cuts his employee’s salaries so he can increase in wealth isn’t invested in life, and a mother who looks to her own interests before the interests of her children isn’t misguided by love; such things are sinful and are evil. Superfluous evil does occur and that it occurs is central to the Christian message.
The flaw in such humanism is that it ignores reality. Just as a belief that humans are totally depraved and nothing good can come from us looks too much at our sin, Sandlin’s view doesn’t look at our sin enough. The flaw between both views is they can’t accept the paradox of humanity, that we are capable of both great good and great evil, often from the same person. Stalin wasn’t invested in life when he ordered the deaths of millions, he didn’t just temporarily ignore the greater good.
A great quote from the movie Spanglish is when the grandmother addresses her daughter, who’s been cheating on her husband and acting selfishly. The grandmother says, “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.” It’s not that we ought to think of ourselves as dirt, but that sometimes we shouldn’t esteem ourselves. Sometimes our problems are our own doing. Sometimes we have to admit that we are actually broken, that we are fallen, and that we are sinful. After all, that is central to any Christian message lest Christ’s Incarnation be pointless.
Christianity does teach that as humans we are fallen. While some take it too far to say we are guilty or sinful by nature of being human, even within the Orthodox tradition the belief is that our wills are fallen. From birth our wills are turned from God. We freely choose to run away from him, to act on our own, and as such beget more evil into this world. This doesn’t make us evil by nature, but it does make us evil by choice. If Christianity left the story there, it still wouldn’t be wrong; how absurd to deny the one absolute, empirical, unquestionable fact of Christianity, that we are fallen and sinful. Thankfully, the Christian story doesn’t end with us being fallen.
A robust view of humans is that though fallen, by nature we are good. What that means is that we are made in God’s image, that is what separates us from the animals. God, of course, is good; therefore his image is also good. Sin is any act that goes against our nature and intended purpose, that is, sin is anything contrary to God and goodness. We choose to engage in sin and become sinners (we are not sinners by nature, as this creates quite a few problems with the Incarnation). As such, we are fallen, we are broken, and we do need to be saved. God the Word took on human flesh and took on our nature while retaining his own and redeemed our nature. To quote St. Athanasius, “God became man so that men might become gods.” The point being that Christ paved the way for us to not only reunify with our Creator (through Theosis), against whom we rebelled, but that we might actualize our nature of good and live holy lives.
Salvation and the necessity to live holy lives makes absolutely no sense without sin. While I believe the fall of man was not necessary – Christ could have shown his love to us even in a perfect world, albeit in a different way – it did happen and therefore this is the world we’ve inherited and in which we abide. We are broken and we do need help. Such an admission is a sign of tenacious humility, the kind needed for salvation. To say that we’re not flawed or broken is not just ignorance of the world around us, but a form of arrogance to say that we just need God’s help a little, that we’ve got it from here. But the greatest of saints had one thing in common, that they constantly sought after God’s help and realized they were nothing without him.
We do the world no favors if we try to remove the idea of sin and brokenness from our language and theology, for to do so makes Christians look even more out of touch with reality. Evil occurs and in order to understand the greatness of what Christ did, we must understand the breadth of the darkness into which Light came. Only by acknowledging the dark can we then begin to seek and appreciate the Light.