Over the past year we’ve been flooded with bad news. News of ISIS. News of plane crashes. News of corrupt governments that all work together to trample on humanity as if we are our own worst enemy. The shock of evil however, seems to be short-lasting, so we refuse to learn from history and hastily repeat the errors of old.
Over the past few months I’ve also been shocked at the world is bent on violence, and that violence becomes us. I have been politely waiting for a service technician to come in and service my AC, but in what I interpret as act of violence, neither the technician nor the store that sold me the AC unit considered it responsible to do what they promised to do. Their passivity was a form of violence. Not doing what they could have, and should have done, was an act of violence. Only after I had to resort to the tool of violence (reporting them to Headquarters) did things get resolved.
So in all this violence, whether it’s active violence or passive violence, it seems the worst of us surfaces… surfaces to such extreme that sane people cannot avoid the question
Why would God care for us, why bother with redemption… why offer salvation to a kind such as ours, who seem to be incapable of doing anything right?
BUT… things got a drastic turn as I took the afternoon off and just watched youtube videos from young people competing on the X Factor. Read on and you’ll be surprised of the aftermath as much as I was… and that surprise got me to sit down and share some thoughts with you today.
Are we fully dead in sin?
After watching Simon Cowell for 3 hours, this isn’t a time to get all pedantic and theological about stuff… but since our thoughts are framed by our vocabulary, and the words we use derive meaning from history, we just cannot avoid touching on age-old questions that many generations before us struggled with. This question is quite unavoidable when we want to talk about humanity and human worth. So bare with me.
Some wise folks say that we are fully dead in sin, that we have a complete inability of doing anything good on our own. This idea isn’t so much to diminish humanity’s capacity of good as much as it is geared to point to the disproportional grace that God bestows in the very fact that we are alive, and that human history didn’t end in Genesis 3.
Other folks say that as we bear the image of God (whatever that may mean), that we have an ingrained capacity to create, to do good, to be good. The idea here is that humanity isn’t utterly dehumanized by sin, that despite God’s disproportional grace, there still is a spark of divinity within us. That us being alive is in fact a dimmed evidence of that light that isn’t ours, but yet we have it by the very nature of being human.
We can debate about these two different points if we want to. Which we don’t. These ideas served a purpose, and today, for us, looking on them in retrospect, we can pick parts of these ideas and move on, party because we are aware that these opposing ideas have occupied centuries of debate, and partly because in the real world, nuance seldom mater as much. Suffering runs rampant, and most of it is inflicted not because of necessity or inevitability, but by idiots. No need to add oil to the flame of stupidity… not now at least.
Yes humanity is bent on violence, but every once in a while, there is a spark. A spark that reminds us all that we are created in the image of God… whatever that means. Not all is lost.
A different kind of reality
Despite suffering and evil, there is something in the world, a stream of energy that pulls us out of the mud of the inevitable suffering toward a perspective of optimism. This isn’t a reckless, careless peace-love-rock n roll type of thing though. It’s a reasonable, tangible, brimming type of optimism that not all is lost with humanity.
As I was watching those people on X Factor, going against the grain, ignoring all the naysayers and against all odds stepping onto the stage, something changed. I had a change of perspective, something that I haven’t experienced in a very, very long time.
As I was looking at the young people stepping up to show their talents, I realized that those people, from different cultures and backgrounds, all had something in common. They focused more on the dim light than on the loud darkness of fear, shame and suffering. I realized that those people chose to believe a different reality and test the waters.
Suddenly, people weren’t only instruments of self-infliction. They were young, creative, talented individuals sharing what they love with the world. Yes, yes… we could say they are all after the big prize, but for so many of them the prize was such a distant concept that they only focused on that first initial step of standing before an audience. They were honest. Vulnerable. Scared. But not paralyzed.
I think this was one of those rare moments when I appreciated art for being… so expressive, so defiant to entropy. Regardless of humanity’s communal wretchedness, these young souls proved an existence of yet another kind of humanity… a different kind of reality.
What’s all this got to do with redemption?
Well, the connection is that if I choose to look at humanity (and individuals) as reasons for suffering of other people, then the world is a bleak, depressive, disgusting place and I will stick to my belief that there’s nothing good about humanity, nothing worth saving, nothing worth loving.
But the fact of the mater is that The Bible is full of verses where we hear of how God loves us so much that He gave his only/unique Son to die for us, and through this death and resurrection, somehow we get a clean slate… with God and with others.
So now I’m kind of compelled to look at humanity from a different perspective, from a perspective that there seems to be something there… something in humanity worth loving, worth saving.
The entire history of art which works with things of aesthetics, whether it’s paintings, or music, or architecture, or dancing… this aesthetic art seems to best show this dim light, this little something we all have which is worth saving. There are other forms of self-expression in paintings, music, architecture or dancing…. but this is more centered around expressing anger, frustration, fear, aggression etc. so it’s more about destructive thoughts than about aesthetics. I wouldn’t even call that “art”.
Art as a different form of natural theology
If we had no Bible, no written/oral revelation of God to tell us that this world is created to be beautiful, I think we would be able to deduct it from the very internal feelings and ideas we have… and from forms of art we see throughout human history.
Humanity’s attraction to aesthetics in itself could be one pointer of a reality that surpasses everyday pain and suffering and transcends into eternity. Those young folks singing on X Factor could be one very good case in point. The songs and their voices, while result of talent and practice, still show a dimension of this world that Physics doesn’t bother with. Nor does Biology. Their singing shows a built-in desire for the good, beautiful, etc.
Humanity’s capacity to express ideas in forms such as music, paintings, sculpture, writing etc. is a very interesting characteristic. If we can create these things, how can some people say that humanity is utterly dead in sin. Yes, yes, I understand that looking at something good and then derive general conclusions methodologically is a dumb thing to do. But I am also aware that looking at idiots such as our politicians, bankers or ISIS as relevant representatives of humanity is also a methodological error since we would be looking only at the bad things in life.
Not to get into a debate of the existence of evil as an entity (vs evil being only an absence of good), if some people are capable of creating art, and most people are capable of recognizing it, then humanity isn’t a lost cause. Then this world shouldn’t be condemned to destruction. For a species that can create and appreciate art, it is then only natural to push the world toward better.
So because of humanity’s ability to create and appreciate art, I would speculate that there is very much what to save, what to redeem.
Of course, you could say that the very talented artist that creates a great piece of art then goes off to indulge in all sorts of “ungodly” behavior, but keep in mind that I’m not making an exhaustive theological stand here. I’m just taking a rather bleak outlook to the world (Rapture, crash-n-burn prophecies etc) and pointing out that throughout history people have worked together to improve life, and art is one of the tangibles of such an effort.
If we are capable of creating art and enjoying it, there is definitely something alive and kicking… something that bears the imprint of God. I’m not refering here to humanity’s capacity for self-redemption. I’m just making a case that humanity isn’t wretched because humanity creates and enjoys art.