Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Human nature: should we be optimistic?

A recent book called The Better Angels of Our Nature (borrowing Lincoln's phrase) argues that there has been a significant reduction, over centuries, in violent deaths, and that we can take heart from this trend. This optimistic view has been predictably controversial. Without going into details, I would argue in response that societies can indeed be changed for the better, and we should strive for that, but human nature remains the same.

There has been a good deal of protest in recent years about the widespread appropriation of something that Anne Frank wrote in her diary: "In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." That one line has been lifted out of its far more ambiguous context and made into a slogan. Many critics, Jews especially, have mordantly observed that she would not have written that from the camp where she died, but in any case, it sounds quite different in its original context.

I was struck by an interview in the NYTimes today, with the Polish director Agnieska Holland. Her new movie, In Darkness, has received excellent reviews and is nominated for Best Foreign Film. Its plot concerns a Polish sewer worker and part-time thief who takes it upon himself to hide Jews in the sewer during the Nazi era.

She was asked why she had decided to do another Holocaust movie (after Europa Europa), having sworn off the theme, but she changed her mind. This is what she says about her decision to do it again:

"The main character, this Polish guy, was ambiguous, both hero and nonhero. What was interesting was not the mystery that people can be terrible. Humanity has a tendency to be terrible. What intrigues me is that in those circumstances [the extremity of life in Poland under Nazi occupation] somebody acts in a good way who doesn't have deep reasons to do so." (emphasis added)

That is precisely what the biblical story teaches us. (The late great George Kennan was drawn, late in life, to Christianity because of its dark view of unredeemed human nature.) The deeper question is not "Why is there evil?" but "Why is there good?" Optimism about human nature is a dead end. Our undying hope is in the nature of our God, who has "created [us] in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10)