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Optimistic Doctrine

Harry Blamires’s Canon Kirkbride relates a story about a piano-tuner visiting a street where every house has an old, disused piano, and all of them are out of tune (this was the 1950s, when most houses in Britain still had a piano, left over from that time before broadcasting, when people made their own home entertainment); (The Kirkbride Conversations. Six Dialogues of the Christian Faith, London, SPCK, 1958, pp. 106-7).

The point of the story is that the true nature of pianos – how they’re meant to be – is in tune, and that being out of tune is not natural, not right; and pianos can mostly be returned to their proper state. If we consider – as the Church teaches – that in this present world people are imperfect, damaged or flawed in some essential way, from their very birth, then there is the possibility that they may be brought back to how they should be, how they were always intended to be, good, as God first made them, and originally knew them.

Kirkbride then tells us that G. K. Chesterton considered that the doctrine should actually be known as “Original Innocence”, since innocent was how people were created, before things went wrong.

But maybe there is a difference between innocence and goodness, perhaps goodness is a higher state, that of possessing the essential goodness of the Creator, rather than being simply a tabula rasa – and certainly, the final state of redeemed humanity will be of this kind – a nature refined through the experience of fallen-ness, and the acknowledgment and acceptance of Jesus’ saving acts – our appropriation of them, our freely saying “Yes!”.

This inherent imperfection is always with us, a flaw so true to our experience, so real to what we know of ourselves, of our constant inability to do only what we know is right; it is the perpetual presence of our frailty before relentless temptation (thus St. Paul Says “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will” (Romans 7, 19 (New English Bible)).

Only by acknowledging it is there a possibility of our nature being changed, of the prospect of better things; thus our doctrine is one of great hope, and hope leading to certainty, and certainty leading to transformation.

The alternative to this Judeo-Christian understanding is one which I fancy goes something like this: that all people are born in an “empty”, neutral state, like a page on which nothing is written, a computer disc on which there is no data recorded, and all of our identity – one can no longer talk of “nature” – is something acquired from other human deeds or actions (“nurture”, not “nature”).

People become as they do, due to experiencing other human-instigated things, and thus badness of any kind is learned. Human institutions, systems, and ways of doing things, are the source; and thus corruption of this original nothingness (one can’t call it innocence) comes from already-corrupt systems-of-things – all of which were made by humans, since there is no other possible source of institutions, systems, methods, and the like.

Immediately, here, one sees the flaw, and it’s the old “chicken and egg” problem. How could any human institution or method be “bad” unless it was created by intelligences that were themselves in some sense bad, or had an innate, unlearned, tendency to badness? Certainly there are evil human institutions and systems which damage people – but they only exist because they were created by people (animals never established anything), and people who had a certain inclination to bad things, an inclination which was of no one’s making …

People who hold this second view are thrown back on the idea that by human effort, the bad institutions and systems in the human world can be changed, that people, as a result, can be transformed, and that – inevitably, eventually – the world will become a better and better place, and the final result – for our remote descendants – will be a largely-perfect world.

But this humanistic doctrine – the most desperate, the most hopeless of all human sophistries – is the inevitable concomitant of the dark delusion that is materialism.

Every movement of fascism or totalitarianism that has cast its grim shadow on the human race has fed on the seemingly-beneficent illusion of mankind’s present essential goodness; every dictator, with his death-camps and mass-graves, has been schooled in this pleasant-sounding lie – thus we cannot but sympathise with Canon Kirkbride’s cry: “Take away the humanist’s optimism, for it fills me with despair! Give me the Church’s relentless insistence on our daily sins and our dyed-in sinfulness! It gives me hope.”