Fr Billy Swan
In 2002, American pop artist Christina Aguilera sang a song called ‘Beautiful’. In the song she warbled ‘Words can’t bring me down…I am beautiful in every single way’. Considered to be her signature song, it was aimed at people who felt unaccepted and unappreciated because of who they are. Fair enough. But is it really true? Are we really ‘beautiful in every single way?’ Hardly. Even the person with a minute amount of self-awareness knows that we all have faults and that nobody is perfect. And when we take a look around us in the world today with the war in Ukraine and events that repeat some of the horrors of the Second World War, the Enlightenment claim that we are moving towards progress the more scientifically advanced we become, is looking increasingly like a myth or a cruel joke.
Let’s consult the evidence, starting with the Bible. The first book opens with the account of the Fall and how human nature became corrupted or ‘fallen’ after the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Then follows the stories of a whole army of characters in the Scriptures from Abraham, to Moses to David in the Old Testament to Peter, Judas, James, John, Mary of Magdala and Paul in the New – all who share in the flawed, fallible and fallen nature of human beings. In the case of the disciples of Jesus, coming to faith in Christ included the realization that he came to save them from their dysfunction that they themselves could not overcome. Jesus himself insisted that far from being ‘beautiful in every single way’, there is something awry in our fallen human nature that needs correcting and healing: ‘But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile the man…For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies’ (Matt. 15:18-19). He also taught that our fallen nature prevents us from seeing things as they really are and that if we are not aware of our own brokenness then we are not in a position to help or serve anyone: ‘Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own?’ …Take the plank out of your own eye first and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter that is in your brother’s eye’ (Luke 6:41-42).
Few have faced the darker side of their humanity with as much honesty as St Augustine (354-430). In his classic Confessions, he points to the importance of knowing ourselves from the inside out and facing ourselves with courage. When he did so, Augustine admits that all he saw wasn’t pretty: ‘Lord, you turned my attention back to myself…And I looked and was appalled…You thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it’ (Confessions 8, 16). His insight appears the direct opposite to what Christina Aguilera would sing about, many centuries later.
But it isn’t just the Bible or Church people who shine a light on the darker side of our human nature. Shakespeare also did so brilliantly and dramatically with characters like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth; Edmund in King Lear; Shylock in the Merchant of Venice and Cassius in Julius Caesar. His genius was to show how power corrupts human nature to become something less than human. Or think of Wagner’s Ring trilogy that does something similar through the medium of opera and music.
From the world of modern psychology, Carl Jung (1875-1961) famously observed the darker side of human nature as a shadow. For Jung, this was no set of minor flaws but something deep and powerful: ‘It a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism’ (‘On the Psychology of the Unconscious’ in The Collected Works of C.J. Jung, Vol. 7, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1972, p. 35). For Jung, it is crucially important for us to face up to the shadow side of who we are and not to deny it: ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual conscious life, the blacker and denser it is…If it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected’ (C.J. Jung, ‘Psychology and Religion’, in The Collected Works of C.J. Jung, Vol. 11, p. 131).
From the world of science, even atheists like Richard Dawkins admits there is a selfish part of our nature that he typically ascribes to our genes (R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene).
And so while Christian Aguilera wrote and sang a successful song, her assertion that ‘you are beautiful in every single way’ or that any of us are beautiful in every single way, is simply false. And yet, it is expressive of something strong in our culture, namely a reluctance or even a refusal to admit the ancient truth that our human nature is fallen.
This is often accompanied by attitudes of self-invention and self-assertion: ‘Don’t tell me what to do or how to behave’; ‘I am as I am, so please accept me’; ‘I’m OK, thank you very much’. We see it in attitudes that avoid responsibility for bad moral actions: ‘If I am beautiful in every single way, then I must always be right and never at fault’. It is often the case that assertion of the will and insistence on one’s freedom of choice are often used to avoid this responsibility and offers no check on those who invoke ‘self-discovery’ as an excuse to engage in behaviour traditionally considered improper and immoral.
What all this amounts to is a fundamental shift in how we understand ourselves to be. In the past, we looked ourselves in the mirror of revealed truths in the Bible, recognized our imperfections and strived with God’s grace to grow in virtue. Now, with the decline of religious faith and belief in God, we choose to view ourselves in a mirror where we only see ourselves positively and acceptingly but with a loss of realism and a lack of objective insight caused by an immature stubbornness to admit our faults and need for saving.
C.S. Lewis brilliant captures this cultural shift in the mid-20th century - namely that instead of conforming ourselves to the truth, we bend the truth to what we want it to say: ‘For the wise people of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For modern humanity, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of humans, and the solution is a technique’ (The Abolition of Man, Macmillan, 1943, p. 87-88).
The question of whether we understand our human nature to be fallen or not is of great relevance for how we see understand Lent. For if we assume that our inner selves are free from any corruption and are indeed ‘beautiful in every single way’ then Lent and the disciplines of Lent will appear irrelevant and opposed to the choices that we would like to make. But if we recognize our imperfection, have a desire to improve in virtue and see our need for salvation from a source beyond ourselves, then Lent is a welcome opportunity and necessary path to the wisdom, self-discipline and virtue that anchors the soul in objective reality as Lewis suggests.
Secular morality emerged as a resistance movement to traditional morality that overemphasized blind obedience to external codes of law. Now, when facing a moral dilemma, modern humanity seeks a resolution not by following a commandment or considering what he or she ought to do but by consulting our internal selves and consider what we want to do. As philosopher Charles Taylor describes it: ‘Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves. Self-determining freedom demands that I break hold of external impositions and decide for myself alone’ (C. Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 27).
This quest for self-realization lies at the heart of modern humanity but again, it assumes that our human nature is without trace of corruption. This was the flawed assumption of Alexander Pope who famously said that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. But what do we do if man is flawed? To illustrate the point with an analogy – can we calibrate our watches from a clock that has the wrong time? Well, if we do, we repeat the mistakes of history. Just listen to the witness of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) and his famous speech at Harvard University in 1978. Having suffered and survived the brutal repression of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn insisted that the events in Europe of the 20th century proved that the Enlightenment vision of humanity was a delusion, a myth:
‘It has made man the measure of all things on earth - imperfect man who is never free from pride self-interest envy vanity and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey’.
In agreement with this warning, Christianity is indeed a religion of self-realization but it is also a religion of self-overcoming – moving, growing towards with God’s grace towards a more authentic self and away from a false self that is mired in our fallen nature. Consistent with Jung but most of all with Scriptures and human experience, Christianity takes our fallen nature very seriously and invites everyone to take ownership of it within themselves and collectively as something in which we share. In other words, that we take ownership of the individual sin within us and social sin among us. Both individual sin and social sin flow from what we call ‘original sin’ which offers a realistic account of human nature as morally ambiguous, capable of good yet with the tendency - even a propensity to seek the lesser good or experience the lure of evil. Although the Catholic tradition does not subscribe to the notion that human nature is totally corrupt, it acknowledges the uncomfortable insight that human nature is wounded and damaged and thus prone to think and act wrongly.
Having acknowledged our shadow side, the Lenten journey of conversion also involves throwing ourselves into the spiritual adventure of growth and maturity in Christ whose grace is present and active within the baptised and which conforms us ever closer to the life of Christ himself. An essential part of this process is the Holy Spirit overcoming in us what is twisted out of shape by our fallen nature that he came to redeem and save. This is why we enter in the desert with him during the forty days of Lent and participate in the sacrifice and discipline necessary to face ourselves and grow in virtue.
Without the self-awareness that we are part of a fallen nature, we end up continually looking away from our guilt, our fault and our darkness. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are better than we are with no need of repentance or conversion. By doing this we turn ourselves into God, either denying our need for salvation or trying to become our own saviour. Therefore, thinking ‘I am beautiful in every single way’ is not just false but represents a culture of exculpation based on a phoney desire to feel good about yourself all the time. Having a good self-esteem is very important but must be grounded in truth – that we are not beautiful in every single way. Period. This is the bad news. The good news is that the God of mercy loves us anyway and leads on the adventure to become more beautiful and perfect in love like his Son.
Here is the truth we need to remind ourselves and tell our children especially at this time of Lent. It is a time of grace, of looking inward, of time spent in the desert to see ourselves as we really are. It is a time to acknowledge our fallen nature but to grow more perfect in love with Christ and in Christ. That is why being ‘beautiful in every single way’ is not the starting point but the goal of our lives in Him.