In his wonderful book, Renovation of the Heart, philosopher Dallas Willard makes this observation, “Societies the world around are currently in desperate straits trying to produce people who are merely capable of coping in a non-destructive manner with their lives on earth.”
It is quite obvious that Willard’s assertion is correct. The nearly daily evidence supports our place in these desperate straits. One only has to look at the violence and destruction breaking out in cities around the nation – Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, and Cleveland. This has led to a great deal of blame and finger-pointing. It is racism, poverty, and poor living conditions. It is a lack of jobs and a need for better schools. The problem is that this is the same rhetoric that we have been hearing for the last fifty years. The more time passes, the more things stay the same.
One of the most prominent psychologists in our country has made what I believe to be an insightful assessment. Dr. Martin Seligman is a best-selling author and a professor of psychology at The University of Pennsylvania. He says that back in the 19th century, violent and destructive behavior was a result of a lack of character. A person’s character was emblematic of how Americans explained both good and bad behavior.
However, in the twentieth century, a new perspective began to emerge in the social sciences. This new, big idea claimed that it was not bad character, rather, it was growing up in an unhealthy environment that caused crime. Therefore, it is the person’s environment, not one’s character that provides a better explanation of his or her behavior.
Seligman says that this has led to several major changes in the way that social scientists and government officials approach violence and crime. Now, if the twentieth century view is correct, individuals are not responsible for their actions. The environment, rather than the person, is the root of the behavior. This view leads many to believe that government should intervene and spend vast sums of money to correct social ills.
But clearly this approach to crime, particularly in the inner city, has failed miserably. Seligman will tell you that it is a character problem, and that character should be taught and emphasized. I do not think that anyone would disagree with him; however, I would go even deeper. I think that it is a spiritual issue. It is a problem of the heart.
Few people today seem to believe that the violence and destruction we are seeing are visible manifestations of a selfish, sinful heart. And many people in modern society do not believe in the Biblical prophet, Jeremiah, or his description of the human heart, “…more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, theft…” (Matthew 15:18)
This is not a popular message in today’s culture. Still, I believe that it offers the only plausible explanation for what is happening in our world.
Dr. Robert Coles is a very unusual man. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, having written more than eighty books. He is also a prominent child psychiatrist and a literature professor at Harvard University. He teaches literature to business majors instead of psychiatry to medical students, and the reason he gives is simple: “We have systems here to explain everything, except how to live.”
Coles has spent his lifetime interviewing and listening to people. What has he learned about the human condition?
Nothing I have discovered about the makeup of human beings contradicts in any way what I learn from the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, and from the book of Ecclesiastes, and from Jesus and the lives of those he touched. Anything I can say as a result of my research into human behavior is a mere footnote to those lives in the Old and New Testaments.
I have known human beings who, in the face of unbearable daily stress, respond with resilience, even nobility. And I have known others who live in a comfortable, even luxurious environment and seem utterly lost. We have both sides in each all of us, and that’s the Bible says, isn’t it?
Cole says that he receives a great deal of criticism from those in his profession because he speaks of human nature in terms of good and evil, light and darkness, self-destruction and redemption. He says, “They want some new theory, I suppose. But my research merely verifies what the Bible has said all along about human beings.”
Next week we will consider: Can the human heart be transformed?