Thursday, November 29, 2012

No, You Don't Suck

A Facebook friend of mine — a classmate throughout grade school and high school (one of many with whom I have reconnected through the magic of teh intertooooobz™ in recent years) — today posted a link to this website, not to promote it, but to cast a critical eye on its products: T-shirts (and hoodies and sweatshirts and wristbands... but as far as I can tell, not coffee mugs or tote bags) emblazoned with the words Without Jesus I Suck!

Reaaally, now...?!?

The comments to my friend's post seemed mostly to be reactions to the crassness and vulgarity of the phrase, and to its embedded potential for sexual innuendo, but one commenter cut through all that: Citing the doctrine of total depravity, he opined that the people wearing the shirt were mistaken; that even with Jesus, they still suck!

I beg to disagree. In fact, I utterly reject any notion that humans — with or without Jesus — suck.

I'm not a theologian, of course, and I make no pretense of understanding the technical details of argument between the differing versions of this doctrine. But notion that we are all inherently depraved... wicked, in fact... and inherently powerless to be anything else strike me as a sort of mass cultural psychopathology, regardless of who may think it's good theology. It is nothing less than a broadly shared self-loathing, and there's no way it can be the basis for humans living together in anything like harmony or justice.

Indeed, I think (though my wife believes I overplay this, and it's quite likely she's at least partly right) that this idea of the innate corruption of humanity... indeed of everything in what John Donne called out as the "dull sublunary" sphere of human existence...  lies subtly, almost invisibly, at the root of a large number of our social problems: It is, I think, part of why we undervalue, if not outright demonize, physical pleasure and behaviors that are focused on pleasure; it is part of why we celebrate toil and hardship and suffering, not only because of good things that toil and forbearance in the face of hardship and suffering can enable, but also for its sheer, punishing difficulty; it is, more importantly, part of how ostensibly loving, compassionate, godfearing people can so easily discount others' suffering in the public sphere.

A world populated by people who believe we, by our very nature, do not deserve pleasure and do deserve pain and hardship and punishment will, not entirely surprisingly, be a world full of pleasure dulled by shame, in which unnecessary hardships are viewed, perversely, as just.

And that sucks.

Myself, I have a different view. There are plenty of individuals, of course, who could fairly be said to "suck," based on their personal behavior... but humanity as a whole? By its inherent nature? No, I'm sorry: I hold not with Augustine or Luther, but with Shakespeare. I said the link that spurred these thoughts was posted by an old high school classmate, and I recall the quote I placed in my senior class yearbook, from Hamlet (though admittedly I first encountered it in Hair):
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals....
 I believe human life is not innately depraved, but innately valuable and noble. I believe that the founders placed the pursuit of happiness aside, and equal to, life and liberty for a reason. I believe that happiness itself is the purpose of life, and that we should pursue it — including physical pleasure — without shame or regret. I believe that toil and suffering are noble only to the extent that they enable noble ends; they are never noble in their own right, nor does any human inherently deserve to suffer... nor should any of us be complacent (never mind satisfied) in the face of others' unnecessary toil and suffering. I believe, as William Faulkner asserted in accepting the Nobel Prize, that humankind will "not merely endure: [we] will prevail."

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