The Idea of Human Nature

Dear Church Family,

In our Men’s Discipleship Group that meets on Tuesday mornings, we have begun reading and discussing the book All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Ken Myers. In our discussion this week, we were discussing a particular passage from the book:

Despite perennial protests over sex and violence on television, lewd rock lyrics, and pornography sold at convenience stores, evangelical Christians remain relatively oblivious to the problems associated with popular culture. This is in part because American evangelicalism has its roots in populist culture…Evangelicals have always been partial to (in fact, they may even be defined by their sympathy to) great communicators, from John Wesley and George Whitefield, to Charles G. Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Sunday, to the greatest communicator of the twentieth century: television. (22)

 

This passage and our subsequent discussion in the men’s group about American evangelicalism’s affinity, and sometimes infatuation, with personalities and celebrities reminded me of something that I had previously come across in David F. Wells’ book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. Wells writes:

In the late nineteenth century…several important shifts occurred, the end result of which was the loss in popular culture of the idea of human nature. This came about along an entirely different route than the one the Enlightenment had taken, but the conclusion reached nevertheless paralleled the ideas of the Enlightenment. This happened in several ways. (49)

 

The Loss of the Idea of Human Nature

Wells then goes on to describe the three ways in which the idea of human nature has been lost in popular culture:

(1) The first major shift was the replacement of Virtue by values. As Wells explains, Virtue was historically defined as those aspects of ‘the Good’ that are the same for all people, in all places, at all time. As Christians, we believe that this universal Virtue is the divinely revealed moral law which is “summarily comprehended in the ten commandments” (WSC 41). Yet, even unbelievers believed in the objective Virtue (the Good) that gave life its structure and meaning. Virtue, however, was slowly replaced in the wider culture by values (personal preferences).

(2) Second, in popular culture, there was a shift from focusing on character to focusing on personality. This shift is directly related to the former one: when virtues are replaced by values, self-realization and self-expression are the desired end, not good character. No longer was inner moral fabric a concern, only how one appeared to others.

(3) The third shift had to do with how speaking of human nature was replaced by speaking of the self. Whatever peoples’ differences with regard to gender, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status, or personality, it was assumed that everyone shared in human nature. The emphasis shifted, though, to speaking of one’s self-consciousness and definition of how he or she was different from everyone else. “The moral axis in life has collapsed and has been replaced by the assumption that each person must be his or her own person, must pursue one’s own uniqueness, must realize oneself, must make of oneself what one can, and must buy whatever will bring her or him to these ends.” (51-52)

So, what’s the answer?

In light of these shifts, what should Christians do? Well, as these three shifts are contrary to the assumptions of Scripture, and Scripture itself, we should resist these shifts and how they influence us and our culture. But, how do we do that? Well, I believe that there are two things that would help us immensely to live faithfully in a culture that is marked by these shifts in thinking.

First, we need to be more aware and attuned to how pervasive these shifts were. Values over Virtue, personality over character, and individual self over a shared human nature are so ubiquitous that it’s practically impossible to notice any more. That’s one of the reasons that we’re reading the book on popular culture in our Men’s Discipleship Group: to make us more aware of the ways in which our own thinking has been influenced to such an extent by the priorities of popular culture.

Second, we need to think of – and present the gospel – in a way that doesn’t succumb to these false notions of popular culture. In order to not be thought of as arrogant, we’re tempted to say things like, “For me, Jesus’ death and resurrection was the answer.” True, but actually, for everyone, Jesus’ death and resurrection is the answer.” The gospel is the good news that the Son of God died and rose again in order to forgive our sins and give us new life. That’s not merely something that I value, it’s objectively true. As Paul writes, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). And, because we all share in the same (fallen) human nature, the gospel is not just for one group or kind of people; the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Conclusion

When we become more aware of how influenced we have become by these shifts in thinking, we will be better able to resist them in our own minds and gain a renewed awareness of the objectivity of the gospel itself. In turn, we will grow in our own personal assurance of salvation because we will realize that the power of the gospel is not dependent upon myself, but upon the Lord who began a good work in us, and He will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

Likewise, when we come to realize the objectivity of the gospel (in contrast to how most people today think of religious convictions as subjective beliefs), we will be a better witness to the world. Not only will we gain confidence in the gospel for our personal assurance, but we will also gain confidence in the outward proclamation of the gospel to the world.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch