Dorothy Sayers was a really interesting lady. Perhaps best known for her fiction writing, she also wrote on matters of theology with a whimsical and winsome demeanor. I’ve read a bit of her work this past week, and really enjoyed it.
In my reading I came across this paragraph. In it, Sayers is talking about human sin, and the Christian need for clarity on this topic. The less popular the subject becomes, the more important it is for us to be clear about it. Even though she was writing to a thoroughly modern culture and we are living in a post-modern age, the truth of her claim is still important and useful to us.
Read the quote, and we can discuss…
“The final tendency of the modern philosophies—hailed in their day as a release from the burden of sinfulness—has been to bind man hard and fast in the chains of an iron determinism. The influences of heredity and environment, of glandular makeup and the control exercised by the unconscious, of economic necessity and the mechanics of biological development, have all been invoked to assure man that he is not responsible for his misfortunes and therefore not to be held guilty. Evil has been represented as something imposed upon him from without, not made by him from within. The dreadful conclusion follows inevitably, that as he is not responsible for evil, he cannot alter it; even though evolution and progress may offer some alleviation in the future, there is no hope for you and me, here and now. I well remember how an aunt of mine, brought up in an old-fashioned liberalism, protested angrily against having continually to call herself a miserable sinner when reciting the Litany. Today, if we could really be persuaded that we are miserable sinners—that the trouble is not outside us but inside us, and that therefore, by the grace of God, we can do something to put it right—we should receive that message as the most hopeful and heartening thing that can be imagined.” Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos?
In Dorothy’s day (she was a friend of C. S. Lewis) there was an over-confidence that the modern man could create Utopia. Among liberal Protestants the idea of personal sin had fallen out of vogue, and it was generally held that corporate sin was the problem. Individual sin could easily be explained away by any number of scientific or medical reasons.
The truth of the matter is that we do not generally like hearing that we are the problem. We are much happier believing that the problems that ail us and our world are part of some scheme that exists outside of us. We want to believe that we are one of the good people, and that the evil in the world is present because of those other evil people.
We see this sort of distorted view of self all the time. When polled, the overwhelming majority of drivers think they are a safe driver. When asked, most American students believe they are skilled in mathematics even though our test scores do not match up well against the test scores from most of the rest of the industrialized world. We like self-delusion.
If the fault isn’t mine, it must be someone else’s. If the economy is bad, the problem is either the 1% or the 99% or whatever group of which I’m not part. If the general morality of our nation is waning, and the problem is someone else, then I must do something to force them to stop their bad behavior. If the problem is them, then when their candidate gets into office, the world will quite naturally come to an end because they – the source of the problem – are now in charge.
To deny the problem starts with me leads me to an unrealistic view of the world, and creates enemies for me where I need not have any. When we misdiagnose the problem – it’s them not me – the solution we come up with is not only unhelpful, it will likely make things worse. When the London papers were bemoaning the state of the politics of their day and asking the question, “What is the problem with our politics?”, G. K. Chesterton wrote a response to the editor of the paper saying in two words, “I am.”
Not only does my refusal to acknowledge my culpability in this world’s sin create enemies and escalate animosity, it also creates despair within me. If the problems of the world are solely the cause of some larger system over which I must strive to have control, then disappointment is assured. When people fail to live up to the standards I feel they must to create Utopia, and Utopia fails to materialize, then I despair. If my hope rests in my ability to control those forces outside of me, well, that doesn’t lead anywhere good.
The message of Christianity, and it is the message we must preach now as much as ever, is that the problem is me. Since I am the problem, the ultimate solution is to restore me. And this is the good news: Jesus provides the solution to me, and this leads to hope. Where refusal to acknowledge my sin and my subsequent culpability in this world’s problems leads to despair and animosity, acknowledging the problem’s source within me leads to hope. I have hope because even though I am unable to control the tides of this world, I can – only by the grace of God – pursue the holiness of Christ. Jesus can fix me and you and them (Through grace, forgiveness, and ultimate restoration when we see him again). If this Christian hope is true, then the solution is a need for the gospel, and it is to this message we must remain true.
And this is the hope of the gospel: the restoration of all things starting with the salvation of individuals becoming citizens of God’s Kingdom. If we find ourselves at the point of despair and panic by the state of affairs in our society is it possibly because we see the problem as them and have put our hope in our ability to have power and take control? Do we really believe the gospel has the power to restore this world starting with me, or do we not? Do we really believe that we are part of the problem?
Dorothy Sayers says the good news is that it really is your fault.