The collapse, since the 1920s, of the British Establishment’s commitment to Christian belief has led to a profound and fundamental set of changes in the doctrines of human nature that underpin UK policy debates, which have in turn driven significant and visible cultural changes. This affects many areas, but the one I want to address here concerns the malleability, or otherwise, of people’s character and conduct.
The account of human nature of the mainstream Christian churches includes the following elements:
- In our natural state, everyone is wicked. That is to say, our nature is corrupt or corrupted in ways that incline us towards evil deeds. We are inclined to theft, murder, adultery, the disrespecting of parents, the pursuing of irrational empty idols, the invoking of God as if performing magic, the making of false accusations, envy, avarice, sloth, and many other behaviours that damage ourselves, others, society, and nature.
- We are not obliged to act in accordance with our inclinations, and our inclinations describe neither our essence as people nor even the essence of our characters. No-one is tempted beyond his ability to bear it, and everyone is personally responsible and accountable for his deeds. We are creature of will and reason whose will and reason can dominate our natural inclinations if we choose to do so.
- Our errors may take us down bad paths and mark us, but no-one living is ever beyond redemption. Anyone can be born again, transformed from the blackest indulger of his sinful nature into the most productive servant of Goodness, Truth and Life.
- All of us are victims of the sins of others, and our own sins may mark others, but no-one living’s scars are eternal. God’s grace can transform the victims of sin as well as the practitioners.
- Partly as a product of the above, humanity is a continuum – we are one family, one tribe. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, man nor woman, slave nor free. All are souls accountable to God, merely with differing, though similar, mortal challenges – indeed in heaven we will not even have sexes (Matthew 22:30 says we will not have husbands and wives but instead be “like the angels” – i.e. have no sexes).
As Christian commitment amongst the Establishment has shrivelled, the above picture has been replaced by something closer to the following.
- Each individual’s natural state is defined by some combination of genes and history.
- Our behaviour is the product of our natural state – either we must act according to our natures; or (alternatively) for us to ourselves choose not to act according to our natures is a more-or-less futile exercise in “repression” and for us to urge others not to act in accordance with their natures is to “oppress” them.
- For many of us, core aspects of our natures do not change. If you were convicted of cottaging 30 years ago, that tells us something important about you today, even if your behaviour since then is apparently impeccable and you have become a bishop. If you ever claimed expenses you were later found not to have been entitled to claim, that means you shouldn’t ever run a bank, even 20 years later. If you were convicted for a minor assault as a teenager, that means you can’t ever be a police commissioner. If you made racists tweets when you were 13 that should prevent you from being a youth advisor when you are 19.
- Related to that, our scars last forever and define us. If your breasts were fondled by an old man when you were 15, it should be assumed that your life is ruined. If you were a Dunblaine survivor, people still wants to ask you about that even if you later become Wimbledon champion.
- Humanity is not a continuum. We are divided into like-groups – only women can understand what it is to be a woman; only ethnic minorities can understand what it is to be an ethnic minority; only Northerners can relate to coming from the North.
In summary, whilst in Christianity we are all naturally wicked but can be changed to be good, and all damaged but none beyond saving, nowadays folk think your nature is given by your genes and history, your deeds are inevitable given your nature, the scars of others’ sins against you are everlasting, and there are many folk fundamentally un-like you and just a few like you.
The above change has a huge impact for our culture and for policy-making. Our general faith and trust are significantly eroded. We do not think of strangers or people we know just a little as in essence much like us, with similar human challenges, so although they may slip up occasionally they can probably be trusted at least to the extent others would be prudent to trust us. Instead we assume the world is populated with folk that cannot help but behave in ways that might hurt us or those we love, and who are taught that even to attempt to constrain their natural instincts is futile or wrong.
Similarly, we no longer assume that if we conduct ourselves properly then justice will out in the end, even if by bad luck something occurs that, looked at unsympathetically, might make us look in the wrong. Instead, we assume that if we are male and middle-aged and want to be scout-masters or primary school teachers, we will generally be considered weird, the slightest whiff or allegations of impropriety will see our careers finished and polite society shun us forever, and if yobs looking to be self-righteous drag us out into the street and beat us to death, everyone else will look on and cheer. Oddly enough, middle-aged and older men no longer volunteer to be primary school teachers or scout masters.
The cultivation, even as adults, of good habits, the gradual development of moral conduct, the striving to be that little bit better each day – what adult does that stuff any more? That’s so 1950s. Indeed, it’s gone beyond the point of being old-fashioned now, so it’s probably not even “so 1950s”; it’s more “You what??”
The admiring of “try, try, and try again” has been replaced with rules that say if you screw up, you will be disbarred from ever being a director again, and if you screw up in charge of a bank then you will go to jail and any contracts entered into over pay or bonuses or pensions are void.
The instinct for forgiveness, the sacrificial commitment to the belief in personal transformation, the belief that just because someone got fired for having porn on his work computer that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t run a bank, or that someone who fondled a choir-boy could be a good priest if he could be kept away from the boy in question, or that a husband who cheated once won’t cheat again – these instincts and commitments are now considered reckless and irresponsible, indicative of flawed judgement, crimes themselves for which the forgiveness-perpetrating fools must pay.
Instead of teaching people to choose well and to build character bit-by-bit, we seek to mould them from the outside with role models who look and speak like them. Instead of our diaries being filled with our beliefs and aspirations, they are filled with our self-expression and our fears. Instead of vaguely admiring the prophets who denounce our wickedness and call us to repentance, we either laugh at them or curse them for being “censorious” or arrest them for “hate crimes”.
Personally, I regret that. But I don’t think you can tack on the faith and hope without the “God and sin” bits of Christianity. So we’re probably stuck with what we’ve got for now. This is therefore a rather depressing blog, offering no solution, just analysis and comment. Oh well…