Alister McGrath says the notion that humans are basically good just won’t cut it.
I think the Christian idea that humanity is sinful needs to be rediscovered, and one of the reasons it needs to be rediscovered is it’s so obviously right – there is something wrong with us. Why is this world such a mess? It’s a real challenge for secular humanists, who in effect are saying we are rational, we are wonderful … and look at the sort of things we do. Well, that’s bad people. The answer is, no, those are human beings doing those things. And we have to have a defensible understanding of human nature which allows us to understand why we aspire to greatness but very often simply mess things up.
If we recover this idea of the sinfulness of humanity, it in effect is saying to us, look, it means we recognise we are damaged, we are broken, we are wounded. We need help! And actually that makes us much more tolerant, that makes us much more understanding of other’s people’s failure. And if we know we’re likely to mess up, we’re going to be extra careful about things.
I think, for me, the Enlightenment had this idea of humanity as almost like a rationally perfect human being. But that simply doesn’t explain why we mess up so much. If we realise that we are almost flawed to the extent that we do this by nature, then we can begin to address the problem. Recovering the idea of sin is not about going back to some sort of superstitious past. It’s simply about recognising the truth about who we are and making adaptations to the way we think, the way we behave, which are much more realistic than this delusion of humanity as a perfectible being.