Tuesday, December 15, 2009

David Brooks & my Cabbie on Human Nature

I had an interesting conversation with a taxicab driver some while back. He was a comically bad taxi driver, going ten miles below the speed limit, stopping at yellow lights, and unaware of the traffic direction of the main avenues in Manhattan.

We got to talking and he really is a boxer (turned out I was his first fare as a cabbie, and he hoped to make it boxing -- I encouraged him to try to do so). He is also a Muslim, as are many of the cab drivers in NYC. He was glad I knew a couple of famous boxers who are Muslims. I also told him that I was a Christian and a clergyman, and asked if I could pose some questions about his religion. He was glad to hear my questions and responded patiently (we had time, because he was driving slowly). He indicated that he needed to do more good than bad to face a final judgement with any confidence. We segued into a discussion of his lack of respect for the father of a girl he was dating, whose father opposed his marrying his (non-Muslim) daughter. Interestingly, he was sympathetic to the father's opposition to the marriage on religious grounds, but noted that he should have voiced his objections earlier. We then spoke about his responsibilities, hopes for marriage, boxing, etc. The point of all of this: at the end, I stated that Christianity takes an essentially dim view of human nature -- that while we are the crowning glory of creation, we are corrupted through and through. He could not accept this, and viewed people as essentially good but with flaws. If people knew better, they would act better, and so on.

This debate is alive and well in the culture, as well as the Christian Church (even though the matter was firmly settled in the early church, and also at the Reformation). Many think people are essentially good and just need to be taught to do the right thing. This is secular humanism, or sometimes Christian humanism, but it is not normal Christian belief.

I appreciate the NY Times columnist David Brooks, who has a good sense of the culture as well as an astute view of politics. In a recent column, he noted that the President believes people do need to stand against moral evil, while being aware of our own tendency to be corrupt with power we wield.
Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.
My own read on the speech Brooks describes is that Obama is on the way to thinking as Brooks describes, but is not there yet. The core struggle of human nature that the President described when accepting the Nobel Prize is between different people, while wisdom sees this within the individual human heart. The view that if we only knew better, our problems would be solved is best shown, I think, in this video from Scrubs.

My cab ride ended with the driver and me glad for our conversation, but with no meeting of minds on theology.

People can do great things, but are shot through with corruption. That includes me. This makes the announcement of the angels at Christmas so helpful, because it is true -- we need a savior, that is, a rescuer, and one has come. He is Christ the Lord.