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Bishop Richard's Weekly video Message - Transcript 25.01.2024

Video for January 25th, 2024.

Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.

If one was to compile a list of the top 10 most unpopular doctrines in the Christian faith, I can think of two that would probably be near the top.  Now, these aren’t just abstract theological theories they are part of our world view and self-understanding. The doctrine of original sin, which although formulated by St Augustine, is clearly present in the scriptures, isn’t a great attraction, neither is one made popular by the protestant reformers – total depravity, which sounds even worse! Of course, this hasn’t always been the case. Cultures prior to our own had a much greater sense of human fallibility and weakness than we do.  Statements like Paul’s in Romans that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, are much more unwelcome today than they were in even the Victorian period.  Similarly, the doctrine of total depravity has a sniff of writing people off in their entirety.  However, the idea is simply that all parts of our nature are fallible. Depravity sounds a bit harsh because the meaning has changed in contemporary usage.

There is no doubt that both of these have been misused in religious contexts to control and marginalise.  This was the sin of the Pharisees that Jesus railed against.  The Christian view of human nature rightly holds together the glory of our creation in the image of God with a realism about our self-centred fallibility and tendency to fall short even of the low bar we set ourselves.  It is a view that at its best promotes a humility and unwillingness to jump to judgement on others.  If all have sinned, then who am I to write others off as beyond the pale. If they like me are made in the image of God there must always be hope of redemption. If Christ died for all, that means he also died for the person who has wronged me. The vision of God’s extraordinary grace in Christ is also an inspiration for us to show such grace to others.

As our society has become more secular, a different understanding of human nature has come to the fore. In part this is a reaction against the terrible judgementalism that Christians have displayed in the past. Ideas of sin and total depravity have gone out of the window to be replaced by a boundless optimism of human potential. But if the flip side of majoring on sin is a judgementalism the flip side of such optimism is inevitable disillusionment. Someone once said that if the story of the fall in Genesis 3 wasn’t there, we would have to invent it.

Despite the carnage of the last century as largely secular totalitarianisms slogged it out destroying millions of lives in their pursuit of a utopian vision, there is still a touching faith that if you apply enough education, or money, or technology at a problem it can be fixed. Secular social commentators twenty years ago found the advent of ISIS almost incomprehensible.  One could understand a revolutionary movement arising in response to injustice led by people seeking their due.  But ISIS was led by well educated, financially well-off people from stable family backgrounds. This was a brutality driven by ideology; an ideology that had its own utopian vision driven by a unshakeable confidence they were right.

On a smaller scale such optimism finds its expression strangely in cancel culture. There is a quote, erroneously attributed to Mark Twain, “When I was boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be twenty-one I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” I well remember my own arrogance of youth, but cancel culture takes it one stage further, seemingly assuming that we can have such confidence in our own rightness that no-one with a contrary view should be allowed air time. This is a profoundly dangerous, but natural outworking of secular optimism. The doctrines of original sin and total depravity rightly applied foster a humility and openness to others. Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.  If you lose those ideas there is no obvious counter to the use of power to get your own way.  The strange paradox is that the loss of ideas of sin in contemporary culture has made us more judgemental and intolerant not less. The tribalism of American politics and to a lesser extent our own is slightly scary at the moment. As I go into the House of Lords this week, I shall be bearing all these things in mind.

+ Richard


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