Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2023
One of my favorite theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker who died in 1972, wrote a profound little book called Who is Man? back in the 1960s. In that book, Heschel laments the negative view of humanness in our modern world. The human being, he writes, “is being excessively denounced and condemned by philosophers, theologians, and artists.” Heschel asks, what does the modern worldview say about us? “Humans are beasts. The only difference between humans and other beasts is that humans are beasts that know they will die. …You must cling to life as you can and use it for the pursuit of pleasure and of power.” Heschel concludes that human beings have “very few friends in the world, certainly very few in the contemporary literature about them. The Lord in heaven may prove to be humanity’s last friend on earth.”
While some Christian thinkers do agree with Heschel’s own positive humanism, a great deal of Christian theology—academic and popular—more likely reinforces the problems Heschel laments. In its actual view of humankind, Christian thought often has differed little from secular philosophy in its hostility toward humanity.
Hostility toward humanness
The roots of this hostility toward humanness go back a long way, perhaps at least to the fourth century, to the theology of Augustine and his powerful doctrine of original sin. This doctrine evolved into John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity. Human life, in the immortal words of a later Augustinian, Thomas Hobbes, is inevitably “nasty, brutish, and short.” We are born sinful, rebellious, and basically despicable.
It is highly ironic though, that these views commonly led to strong support for violent governmental control over the general population. I have never understood the logic. Why does belief in human depravity lead to trust in people with power? Why do we think rulers will transcend their own depravity and use their monopoly on violence in undepraved ways? Tying together negative views of humanness with support for domination systems has a long and still vital history. We’re all pretty bad, we’re told. That’s why we need so much military and police violence, to keep our human proclivity toward evil in check. But what about the human proclivity toward evil of those building, buying, and wielding the guns?
Continue reading “What does it mean to be human? [Questioning faith #26]”