Three and a half years ago, my wife and I took a (nerdy) vacation that included a special program in Dayton, Tennessee, at the Rhea County Courthouse, site of the (in)famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Before returning home to Middle Tennessee, we stopped off at Tennessee’s Cherokee Removal Memorial Park at Historic Blythe Ferry. If you believe in the concept of holy ground — places where you take off your shoes and listen — this was one of those places.
Instead of a burning bush, what we saw was a body of water: a river across which large groupings of Native Americans were ferried for the rest of their (forced) journey westward to lands that were less in the way of white peoples’ ambitions — for the time being, that is, because the time would come when more populations of white people would want that western land, too. (I wonder why I never hear the language “Trail of Tears” used by certain Christians who try to argue for America being a Christian nation?)
At any rate, the holy ground that is Blythe Ferry is one of many places that will push people whose hearts are still pliable to ask themselves, What is wrong with us?
Recent political happenings in this country have given additional promptings to ask what’s wrong with us, but the main impetus for my current series stems from a book I just finished reading: Evolution and the Fall, just published this year (2017) and edited by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith. The book is a collection of essays by Christian authors who think carefully about the relationship between evolutionary theory in science and Christian beliefs about humanity — what we might call Christian anthropology.
The first essay I read was in chapter 3: “What Stands on the Fall? A Philosophical Exploration,” by one of the book’s editors, James Smith. Suffice it to say that this essay took me down memory lane — to courses I have taken in church history and historical theology — and especially to those courses’ treatments of the doctrine of the Fall. My recollection of specifics was dustier than I care to admit, and so I found myself revisiting old texts and prying open other books on my shelves for the first time. What fun it has been!
Yes, I have found myself embarking on adventures in thinking about what’s wrong with us — and I say “us” because it is often enough that my choices and interactions with the world betray that something is wrong with me, too. So, no, I don’t embark on these adventures from some high tower looking down on the broken people below. Rather, I move from one setting to the next, keenly aware of the interwoven ways in which our shared brokenness ties us together in the same plight, from which we might all wish for rescue.
In the next post, I plan to engage some of the salient points from James Smith’s essay “What Stands on the Fall?,” and then invite you on my subsequent journey into Pelagius and Augustine, with intentions to stop off at later thinkers like John Calvin and understandings of the Fall in my own tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement and the a cappella Churches of Christ. If you’re up for this journey with me, stay tuned. More is on the way.
For now, I close this post by inviting you to think about the question, Is humanity fundamentally good or bad? My series title and preceding comments betray my answer to this question, but I ask it nonetheless to get you thinking about the basic assessment of humanity you carry with you from day to day. When you go where you go and do what you do — and, most importantly, when you interact with other people — what is your basic assessment of them? And, of course, what is your basic assessment of yourself?
For my part, and despite the tone of my post thus far, I do posture myself toward my fellow humans in ways that allow for them to contribute to the picture I paint of them. That is, I believe that there are things right with us, too. I may be a cynic in general, but I also believe in complexity and disbelieve in oversimplifying human nature and human character. Life’s just not that easy. We must face our daily interactions postured to receive what may occur, and not predetermine the outcomes based on attitudes that may turn out to be fallacious. So, for today at least, in the encounters with humans I have today, I will push myself to ask not just, What’s wrong with us?, but also, What might be right with us?