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March 21, 2012

When the Good do Bad: David Brooks’ Reflections on Human nature

by quaesitor
Image: Robert Bales

It’s not every day that you find a newspaper column quoting Calvin, C S Lewis and G K Chesterton without odium or censure. But that is exactly what happened in a New York Times Op. Ed. on Monday. It’s even more surprising when you realise that its writer is a Jewish American social commentator, David Brooks. He is a thoughtful writer who seems genuinely concerned to understand what makes people tick, without prejudice or name-calling. Some will only know him for the fact that he was the one who wrote the piece on John Stott back in 2004 (which was arguably the principle catalyst for him becoming one of the 2005 Time 100).

Brooks has been provoked to this piece by the deeply disturbing story of Robert Bales who is charged with going on a murderous rampage in Afghanistan. The act has caused shock waves around the world. How do we explain it? Is it a matter of PTSD and war traumas? Or is there something more going on? Brooks makes some very important points, and draws on all kinds of different sources – including Steven Pinker and some psychological research at the University of Texas. It is worth reading in full.

Of course, his suggestions will not go down well with everyone. But they surely need to be heard. And he is not alone in his grappling with the problem in this sort of direction. Here are a couple of other interesting precedents.

When discussing his famous book, Lord of the Flies, author William Golding, once wrote:

The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.

But it is a disturbing thought, especially for those fed on the 20th Century post-Enlightenment mantras of basic human decency. Os Guinness in his excellent book Time for Truth, notes this fascinating episode in poet W H Auden’s life:

In 1939, WH Auden emigrated to the US. In November, 2 months after the outbreak of the Second World War, he went to a cinema in the Yorkville district of Manhattan. The area was largely German speaking, and the film he saw was a Nazi account of their conquest of Poland. When Poles appeared on the screen, he was startled to hear people in the audience shout, ‘Kill Them! Kill Them!’

Auden was stunned. Amid all the changes of heart and mind he had passed through in his life, one thing had remained constant: he believed in the essential goodness of humanity. Now suddenly, in a flash, he realised two things with the force of an epiphany. On the one hand, he knew beyond any argument that ‘human nature was not and never could be good’; the reaction of the audience was a ‘denial of every humanistic value’. On the other hand, he realised that if he was to say that such things were absolutely evil, he had to have some absolute standard by which he could judge them.

Here Auden realized, was the fatal flaw of his liberalism: ‘The whole trend of liberal thought has been to undermine faith in the absolute.’ Or as he remarked to a friend, ‘The English intellectuals who now cry to Heaven against the evil incarnated in Hitler have no Heaven to cry to.’

Spurred on by the contradiction-cum-yearning, Auden left the cinema on a quest to renew his ‘faith in the absolute’ and began the journey that led him to faith in Christ. (Time for Truth, p109)

The point is never that human beings are as bad as they can be. That has never been the authentic Christian view. Human beings have the capacity for amazing good. It’s simply a fact that that is not our only capacity. And we need to face up to this reality. We fail to do so at our peril.

HT to Drew W for pointing me to the article

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