The view ‘that humans are intrinsically good and that under the right social conditions, their good nature will emerge’ is of course not the invention of the Age of Enlightenment, but a reconnexion to the classical world, to the ancient Greeks and, incidentally though not directly, to the East Asians. Thinking of this utopian attitude, I recall a scene from the film The Last Emperor. The governor of the prison in which former emperor Aisingioro Pu Yi was incarcerated, says, ‘We believe that men are born good, we believe…’ and ends with ‘How could this have happened? What made you do these things…?’ and ‘Your salvation lies entirely with you…’ indicating that by self-criticism and going through re-education, even these war criminals could become good men again, as they were created. Yes, with an attitude like that, the Red Chinese had ‘a justification for trying to make them perfect… no matter what it takes.’
Unlike Christianity in the West, the Orthodox East does not accept original sin and total depravity either, nor do the Jews, whose scripture the West refers to in evolving its moral stance. My basic day to day attitude wavers between hope based on the attitude that ‘men are born good’ and the sometimes very distressing experience that if they were ever good, it must’ve been a very long time ago. I lean to the former despite the latter. Most of what we practically believe comes from very unreliable sources: movies, books, songs, or from untypically brutal invasions of our personal lives, rather than from the Bible, which should in every instance be our starting point. But how can we understand its message if we don’t compare it to living in the human world? I am captivated by an old Russian film that I have watched and re-watched in parts many times: Andrei Rublev.
That film, made in 1966 under the repressive Soviet regime, is remarkable for its honest content and historically reliable depiction of life in Russia at the beginning of the 15th century. One of the most beautiful and mysterious scenes is when the monk Andrei Rublev encounters a pagan Russian ‘sabbath’ in the forest, naked men and women running with torches, indiscriminate mating and feasting, playing in the river and launching a ‘sacred image’ in a dugout canoe. The musical accompaniment is what makes it more real than life. I feel like I am there in the Slavic pagan past when I watch it. I mention this only because it is an example of what our own racial past was, at least for those of us who are European, whether Western or Eastern. The savagery of the human condition, very different from the concept of the ‘noble savage’ erroneously attributed to Rousseau, is quite plain throughout this film, both in the pagans, and in the primitive Orthodox believers.
All were more savage and brutal, let alone un-Christian, than we want to admit. This, of course, adds weight to the original sin and total depravity concept. Even in the face of this, I still waver between the East and West, leaning East. Man is basically good, basically wants what is right. What I see ‘original sin’ as, is this: a built-in ‘law of failure’ that afflicts us, and I am reminded of Paul’s words in his epistle (Romans 7:14-25), ending with ‘Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.’ It seems to me, with all the evidence submitted, we are all still very far from certainty about what is going on here, as to the theories. What we do know, no matter how we cut this cake, is… ‘we’re in real trouble!’