The Train Wreck Of Humanity
by Matthew Cramer
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
— Walt Kelley
I grew up in Southern California. In the mid-1940’s, Mother would take my sister, Julie, and me on summer vacation to Laguna Beach. There, the Pacific Coast Highway separates the beaches from inland hills that drop down almost to the edge of the highway.
The “well-to-do” had their beach homes in the hills that overlooked the ocean and all below. There were small houses near the highway — not much more than shacks, really, with rudimentary kitchens and bath — that people, such as we, could rent to vacation on a modest budget.
One summer, a young man named Bob, whose family owned a large house in the Laguna Hills, asked permission to take Julie for a ride in the evening. Mother gave her approval — on condition they take me, the younger brother, along. Naturally, we both objected, but Mother insisted.
On seeing Bob’s car, our jaws dropped in awe — A 1940, Buick Phaeton convertible, with the top down. Now, Phaetons were four-door touring sedans, with a characteristic luggage hump at the rear. The front fenders were huge, gracefully curved, with a beautifully covered spare tire nestled in each. A wide running board ran front to back on each side.
Bob’s car was canary yellow with wide, white-sidewall tires; the interior upholstered in white, tufted leather, set off by a canary yellow dash. All of the hardware gleamed in bright chrome — instrument cluster, door handles, window frames, bumpers, grille and so on.
The hood looked to be at least seven feet long (a slight exaggeration). With the top down, the car looked at least fifteen feet long (another exaggeration, but you get the picture). To say the car was a Classic is an understatement. It was drop-dead gorgeous, breathtaking, awesome and a joy to behold.
I’ll never forget that magnificent car, and driving through the Laguna Hills those warm summer nights. Ocean scents, mixed with those from the dry brush, enveloped me as I sat in the rear seat, head laid back, without a care in the world, studying the stars overhead and listening to Big Band music on the radio.
Clearly, that car’s designers and craftsmen created something unique and beautiful. One can detect in this world, many good and beautiful things, designed and built by mankind: Homes and office buildings; roads and bridges; rockets and space stations; the arts and various musical instruments; many scientific and technological advances. All these make our life easier, more pleasant and enjoyable.
Each achievement expresses the intelligence, nobility, creativity, and the capacity for love and goodness that reflect a portion of God’s intent in our creation. Yet, looking around us, and at our world, we instinctively know all is not right with humanity.
God Doesn’t Make Junk
The Bible tells us that God created the universe, the world, and all living things. Then, He created mankind “in His own image” (Ge 1:27 RSV), set man and woman in the Garden, and put them in charge. They lived in harmony with The Creator, who filled all their needs.
When He’d finished, God sat back, looked it all over and saw that it was good (Ge 1:31 RSV). It must have been a magnificent sight to behold His work: Adam and Eve, the Garden, nature, the world, and the universe — all in a pristine state — unbelievably more beautiful and awesome than anything we can observe today.
But then, of their own free will, Adam and Eve disobeyed the only rule God gave them, thus causing the Train Wreck of Humanity. Mankind’s parents offended an infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, and omni-present Being who is the Source of existence, good, life and love. The effect of that disobedience, impossible to overstate, was an unmitigated disaster — a train wreck, most terrible; of horrendous proportions — for all creation, and for every person yet to be born of mankind.
The magnitude and scope of that damage leaves us with two very important realities, both of which must never leave our consciousness. They must remain fully alive, in tension, and active in our world-view.
The Train Wreck’s damage is crucial to fully understand and appreciate the incredible cost and significance of our redemption.
We must also firmly grasp a correct assessment of that damage to the humanity we deal with every day.
The Scriptures say that “death entered the world” through that first sin (Wis 2:24 NAB, Ro 5:12 RSV). When we see or hear the word “death”, we think of physical death — the most chilling and fearsome physical event we encounter — the moment our physical life, as we know it, ends.
We come into being through our parents, as God intended, but we enter life damaged. From the moment our existence begins at conception, we are doomed to die. We are still wonderfully made and capable of magnificent deeds: Sacrifice, forgiveness, love and creativity, to name a few. Yet, these are only reflections or portions of the beauty, nobility and goodness of our original creation.
We have a life of sorts, but we never come close to living the fullness of creation as experienced by Adam and Eve, because we suffer many dysfunctions. Each day amply demonstrates that we reject God’s commands as we yield to the temptations and deceptions of evil by allowing our emotions, appetites, desires and egos irrational influence in our lives.
Wounds, Damage And Death
Our language doesn’t have a word that adequately describes the wrecked condition of our nature. Some use the word “damage” but it doesn’t convey the degree of severity. Some translations use the word “death” which depicts the severity and tragedy of our condition, but leaves out recognition of the good that resides in us.
Others prefer “wounded-ness” to affirm the remaining part of the wonder and nobility of our creation, and express our need to be healed of our wounds, since we have no resident healing capabilities to reverse the effects of Original Sin. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Cor 15:17 RSV).
Each word emphasizes one aspect of our condition; some positive, some negative. None of them capture it all. I use the word “death” here to emphasize the severity of the damage, and a sense “of no way back”, at least in human terms. After all, exactly how could we pile up enough points to make up for an offense against an infinite being?
Five kinds of death were introduced by our parents’ sin, each one chilling and fearsome:
- First, is the death of our relationship with God — our ability to achieve our created destiny to be with Him in Heaven. Through our parents, we rejected our created purpose and committed an unforgivable offense — unforgivable, at least in human terms — against a perfect Being. We were damaged with the permanent flaw of pride, and are thus unable to easily communicate with God or survive exposure to His fiery, perfect goodness.
- Second, is the physical death we know, and usually think of — that time when our soul and its animating force, our human spirit, separates from our body, and the body corrupts.
- Third, is death in the internal order or makeup of our person. No longer does our intellect and God’s grace easily guide our will. Instead, we must contend with unruly demands from our appetites, emotions, desires and egos — demands that are denied only with significant and painful effort.
- Fourth, is death in our relationship with nature — nature is no longer subject to us. We can lose our lives through sickness; we die in fires, floods, earthquakes and any number of natural disasters; and we must work in order to live. (I am convinced that Minnesota Mosquitoes should be included here, but have yet to find any scripture to back it up.)
- Fifth, is death of our God-given authority in creation — the “dominion” (Ge 1:28 RSV) we received at creation which includes authorization to give commands and to extend protection over that for which we are responsible. This fifth death allows Satan and his minions to enter the world in a significant way — to use their powers in nature, and to tempt and deceive us even further into sin and separation from God.
Today, if we could find that 1940, Buick Phaeton in a junkyard, it would be rusted, dented, and stripped of many parts. You could still see the remnants of those classic lines, and maybe find a chrome piece or two. Yet, much of that wonderful creation’s original beauty would be lost, due to the deterioration that condemned it to the junkyard.
So too, it is with us. At conception, we inherit genes from the DNA of our biological parents that determine much about our size, shape, color, and other characteristics. At the same time, we inherit the damaged human nature passed on to us from Adam and Eve, mankind’s parents. I call this our Adamic DNA.
Confronted with the evidence of our condition, some prefer to retreat into denial, and exclaim, “God doesn’t make junk!” — trying to focus only on our nobility and ability to love, while denying the serious flaws in our nature. To be sure, the nobility and wonder of our creation is evident and shows through many times. Yet all too often, discord, mistakes, power plays, and the evils we commit, testify to the painful truth of our damaged condition.
Clearly, God did not make junk. But after He created us in His image, humanity suffered a “Train Wreck”.
Pride — The Great Inflator
The truth of our situation brings us face to face with the need for an effective and lasting solution. Many prefer to think that through proper environment, education, affirmation, opportunity, hard work and discipline, we can solve human weaknesses by ourselves; and bootstrap our way into perfection.
All these efforts help, of course. Yet our damaged condition is real, and it cannot be fixed by human effort alone. It is folly to attempt, all by ourselves, to fix our condition. Pride caused the fall of Satan and his minions from Heaven. Pride was the stuff of Adam and Eve’s sin; “… your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods…” So too, pride works against admitting our condition; because if we did — we must deal with it, and turn to God. (For more on this see Satan And His Minions, and How Satan Gets To Us.)
As we grow in self-awareness, each of us is haunted by a deep-seated sense that something is missing. A sense of insecurity creeps in that nags; like trying to remember the forgotten name of an old friend. The spiritual writers allude to this condition when they say: We are all born with a uniquely shaped hole in us that only God can fill.
Pride drives our attempts to fill that hole with beauty, education, health, popularity, success, reputation, wealth, power, influence and other aggrandizements. Pride leads us to think; “I can do it myself”. We want special knowledge; we want to be better than others, get all the credit, attain a special significance that sets us apart; and so on, ad nauseam.
Suppose pride walked up to you and said; “Hi. I’m Pride. I’m one of Satan’s followers and I’m here to help. Let me show you how to do things all by yourself; get all the credit, wealth and power; and be popular. It’s true I’m the one who got Adam and Eve into trouble; but hey! not to worry, that was a long time ago. I give much better advice now.” You might smile some, but with a stern face, say; “You must be kidding! Get out! I’m not listening to a loser like you!”
But, that’s not how pride works. Pride stays in the background. Pride whispers in your mental ear, suggests you evaluate situations, decisions, relationships, and opportunities in light of one priority — yourself. Pride is The Great Inflator. Pride advocates a focus on ourselves that dominates our thoughts. The focus might be positive (I’m the greatest), or negative (I’m no-good) — but it steers the focus to me, nonetheless. We are seldom sucked in all at once. Instead, pride attacks us bit-by-bit, always willing to retreat a step, then come back another day.
Lets face it. Deep down, we do hanker to be like gods. We want to know everything; make up our own rules; do anything and everything with outstanding talents and gifts; be admired and greatly respected by others, and still remain more humble and spiritual than the rest. And, we want never to die.
It’s no surprise the first commandment deals with pride: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3 RSV). Some people make graven images of plaster, wood, stone, and metal. Others make them of flesh and bone, ideas and dreams.
For some time, it’s been popular for the elite to assert that the existence of evil entities, Satan (or the Devil) and his followers, is a myth. Christianity has always taught that Satan and his followers are real. The Bible is very clear on the subject (Eph 6:11-12 RSV). (For more on this see Satan And His Minions.)
The fifth death listed above — death of our authority in creation — allows evil entities expanded access and operating room in nature and us. We don’t know how much of nature’s animosity toward us is due to a breakdown in the damaged, natural order of things after Original Sin, or is the direct action of evil. We do know that evil has influential access to our personal thoughts, and to the systems we set up to organize and govern ourselves.
“… that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11-12 RSV)
We are human beings, created in the image of God. We still manifest some of the nobility, goodness, and wonder God put in us. Yet anyone who’s lived a while, knows it’s much easier to do wrong, than right; to think negatively, instead of positively; to be vengeful instead of forgiving; and to give free reign to our desires, rather than discipline them.
The Church calls our tendency to “lean away” from what is good and godly, “concupiscence”.
“The ‘mastery’ over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscence that subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 377)
Evil uses weaknesses in our nature and character as doorways to gain influence in our lives and lead us astray. Thus, the accusations and deceptions hyped by evil lead us to enkindle conflict, make bad decisions, abandon communications, render harsh judgments, ruin relationships, and take paths that lead us away from God.
In short, it’s far easier to wander away from God, than remain close to Him. Evil is there urging us to do the wrong thing, every step of the way.
Doesn’t Salvation Count For Something?
Yes, it does. Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection healed the breach; established the Church, the Eucharist, Penance and the other Sacraments; sent the Holy Spirit, Who, with the Church, guides us through Scripture, teachings from Councils, the Church Fathers, and the Magisterium; and provides a New Life of innumerable graces with which to live our lives.
That’s Jesus’ part, and it is the most wonderful and overwhelmingly significant part. (For more on this see What Jesus Did.)
But, we must consider our part, too. We know we’re created and placed on this earth for one major reason — to make a choice. We must choose whether we want to live with God for the rest of eternity, or alone without Him. Unfortunately, we cannot make that choice all at once.
We humans are creatures in time and space. We are different today than we were yesterday. We’ve had new experiences; we’ve faced new issues, and made new decisions. We can choose God today, and correct our choices of the past. But we cannot choose God for tomorrow, because we don’t yet exist in tomorrow.
As long as we draw breath, we must make choices between the unreasonable demands of our Adamic life (emotions, appetites, desires and pride) that take us away from God and into ourselves; or the invitation to release the New Life of Jesus Christ in us that leads us to God. The process is called “dying to self”. Paul refers to it as “working out our salvation” (Php 2:12,13 RSV). (For more on this see Embracing Conflict With Hope)
Thus, in the midst of the vicissitudes of life — trying to make a living, raise a family, vote, pay taxes, be responsible citizens, maintain good health, and so on — we must also make good choices that keep us on the narrow path to our destiny of Heaven. This is no easy task. It is hard work. If not for the grace of God, The Holy Spirit, The Church, and other tools Jesus has given us, I doubt few, if any of us, would make it.
Stirred By The Divine Spoon
It’s not easy to hear God if we are practicing pagan, occult religions; or leading a desultory life of debauchery. It gets easier after we are baptized, after an epiphany, metanoia, or “born again” experience; and after significant dying to self. Yet the closer we get to Him, the more God calls us to specific tasks in the Kingdom.
Ah! But my tasks are not your tasks. There’s no end to the variety of calls, missions, assignments, and tasks the Lord can and will ask us to do. Predictably, this diversity provides yet another breeding ground for dysfunction.
The calls and whisperings of God are always legitimate and good; but our weaknesses and temptations from evil, pit God’s assignments against each other through comparisons sponsored by pride, jealousy and fear. Comparisons are always ready to pounce on legitimate differences. In our minds, the knee-jerk response to mission differences is usually something like this: “Let’s face it, my task is at least a little more important than yours, isn’t it? Why are you trying to get all the credit and the resources, when my objectives need it more!”
Guess Who’s Coming To The Party?
So there you have it. All of us are a wonderful, loveable, damaged, and redeemed collection of “odd ducks”. We are Saved, Baptized, Born Again; earnestly trying to get closer to God by saying no to our Adamic nature — engaged in the hard work of dying to self, and resisting evil. Yet we are each in various positions on salvation’s playing field.
You may have conquered sexual lust in your life, while I have conquered anger in mine; and both of us have a long way to go in other areas. We see things differently, have different desires, have bought into different deceptions, and our pride is in different stages of deconstruction. These are all breeding grounds for trouble in relationships of any kind: families, or other kinds of organizations, be they sacred or secular. It’s a wonder we get along at all. But God’s grace works wonders.
God creates us in His image, capable of great love, sacrifice and nobility; and we are significantly damaged through the Adamic DNA we inherit. Both points must be held in tension.
We are redeemed by Jesus, reborn in His New Life, filled and guided by the Holy Spirit; and set back on the road to life with God in Eternity, along with all the support we need to make it.
Nevertheless, we, those we love, our families, the people we meet, our neighbors and friends; those who join our organizations, who become competitors or even authorities over us; those we trust to run for public office; Christ’s ministers and the members of His Body — all enter relationships in various stages of the New Life. It’s at the peril of our relationships that we ignore this reality.
Before the late 1950’s, Christianity had a good handle on the reality of our damaged nature. To be sure, there have been excesses. But all sense of a damaged nature was thrown aside in the 1960’s and 70’s by the “me first; if it feels good, do it; God doesn’t make junk” generation. Pejorative jokes and sly innuendoes abounded about Catholic guilt, Lutheran guilt, Irish guilt, Jewish guilt and all the other “guilts”, to discredit a significant reality of our existence.
The point, of course, alleges we were encumbered by an exaggerated awareness of our fallen nature, and unable to enjoy the fullness of life until we throw off all that false guilt. One can look at society today to see a cacophony of negative results from that newfound freedom.
We need to recapture an honest, truthful, and life-giving assessment of our human condition. A wise businessman knows that all good plans rest on a realistic evaluation of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — especially the potential weaknesses and threats of all us “odd ducks”.
Jesus told us: “… be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16 RSV). Surely this injunction includes recognizing the true condition of everyone, whether they be in the family, a church or secular organization, its management or any other grouping of “odd ducks” we find ourselves. Jesus alerts us to be well prepared to constructively manage the issues that are certain to follow — true wisdom indeed.