From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL

The Real Nature Of Man

One of the books I’m reading right now is a collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers entitled The Whimsical Christian. Don’t be misled by the title – Sayers is dead serious about what she’s writing. The title comes from the fact that Sayers was well known as a playwright and the author of the “Lord Peter Wimsey” stories.How “whimsey” fits into her faith is described in the foreword to this book, and it’s a good reminder to folks like me who tend to get over-serious about the faith:

If there were one word to describe Sayers’ view of Christianity, it would be whimsy. Like C.S. Lewis [a friend of Sayers’], she saw that the world was divided, not into many Christian communities, each professing more or less the same thing, but into two camps, the believers and the non-believers. The intellectuals like herself who believed in the Incarnation were considered whimsical, frivolous, capricious. But to Sayers the fact that ‘God…was made in the year when Caesar Augustus was taking a census in connection with a scheme of taxation’ was the divinest whimsy, and the point on which she turned all of her apologetical thinking.

The other night I was reading her essay “Creed or Chaos?” and it struck me as particularly appropriate for Lent. Also striking is the fact that it was written in 1949. I wonder what she’d write today? Let me just give you a couple of paragraphs from the essay and hope that you can chew on this profitably this Lent.

A young and intelligent priest remarked to me the other day that he thought one of the greatest sources of strength in Christianity today lay in the profoundly pessimistic view it took of human nature. There is a great deal in what he says. The people who are most discouraged and made despondent by the barbarity and stupidity of human behavior at this time are those who think highly of homo sapiens as a product of evolution, and who still cling to an optimistic belief in the civilizing influence of progress and enlightenment. To them, the appalling outbursts of bestial ferocity in the totalitarian states, and the obstinate selfishness and stupid greed of capitalist society, are not merely shocking and alarming. For them, these things are the utter negation of everything in which they have believed. It is as though the bottom had dropped out of their universe. The whole thing looks like a denial of all reason, and they feel as if they and the world had gone mad altogether.

Now for the Christian, this is not so. He is as deeply shocked and grieved as anybody else, but he is not astonished. He has never thought very highly of human nature left to itself. He has been accustomed to the idea that there is a deep interior dislocation in the very center of human personality, and that you can never, as they say, ‘make people good by an Act of Parliament,’ just because laws are man-made and therefore partake of the imperfect and self-contradictory nature of man. Humanly speaking, it is not true at all that ‘truly to know the good is to do the good’; it is far truer to say with St. Paul that ‘the evil I would not, that I do.’; so that the mere increase of knowledge is of very little help in the struggle to outlaw evil. The delusion of the mechanical perfectibility of mankind through a combined process of scientific knowledge and unconscious evolution has been responsible for a great deal of heartbreak. It is, at bottom, far more pessimistic than Christian pessimism because, if science and progress break down, there is nothing to fall back upon.

Sayers was writing in the era of Stalin. But truth is truth, and what she writes strikes me as an important illumination on the rise of Iran, the Occupy movement, our increasingly bureaucratic and rule-bound society, progressivism, etc. etc. Seems to me that the “pessimistic” Christian view of human nature is far more hopeful than any “optimistic” view whether secular or religious.

So, as a friend of mine says, “Cheer up! It’s worse than you think!”

For more on Dorothy Sayers, go here.

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