Surely there could be no better backdrop to Sunday’s reading from Acts than the current flurry of interest around the book by Rutger Bregman: Humankind, a Hopeful History, to be published later this week. The book has been widely reviewed. The author has been interviewed on BBC’s Radio 4 and referenced on other programmes. Live conversations between him and social commentators are advertised. Social media are agog. Stephen Fry has recommended it. What more can we need? It’s obviously a must-read.
The author, a historian, has brought together as many sources as he can find, from various disciplines, that present a positive view of human nature. He calls it ‘joining the dots.’ He cautions our reliance on the negative views of Hobbes and commends the more positive approach of Rousseau. One example that has caught the public imagination relates to William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies, in which schoolboys marooned on an island quickly turn into savages. Bregman has discovered a real-life version from the south Pacific in the 1960’s in which six boys were marooned and did not. It’s a striking image from popular culture.
In Acts 17 Paul confronts the intelligentsia of his generation and engages them in debate. He begins by discounting what many of these people might have regarded as religion: something primitive and without rational base, with weird rituals in creepy places (which he calls shrines). He rubbishes religious symbols of the past such as idols and says they belonged to ‘an age of ignorance.’ With the aunt sallies out of the way, he notes that his audience have a religious sense even though they hardly recognize it, evidenced by their altar to an unknown god. He relates to their cultural sense by quoting their poets and moves to the key issues of creation, redemption and judgement. Of course, some reject his argument, some want more time to think about it and others are convinced, but the key thing is that the argument has been put, in the public domain, with some understanding of how that domain operates, and from a base which seems to say, we both have a legitimate interest (in the technical sense) in this subject.
Bregman’s book is about human nature. That is a central concern of Christian theology. Christians differ from humanists in that they do not believe that humankind is capable of overcoming all that in our nature leads to aggression, corruption, injustice and imposed suffering, without the grace of God. The good news is that the grace of God is freely available. One of the messages of Easter is that despite the evidence it provides of all that is potentially rotten in human nature, it also exemplifies the power of loving sacrificial devotion. This is the basis of Christian hopefulness. The most basic question in the Bible, introduced in its very first chapters is this: will human sinfulness overcome God’s good intentions in creation; or, will God’s grace overcome human potential for evil? Easter is the final answer. In fact, our hopeful history is two thousand years old and we celebrate it every week.
The frustration that Paul addresses is still with us. We have a message that, properly presented, is central to human curiosity. But it needs to find its way into the public arena and to fight its corner there. It has to do so not only against the scepticism of some outside the camp, but also in the face of the insistence of some within the camp in using terms and idioms that show no sense of respect for the audience, and insist on conversation in a language that only serves to feed their worst suspicions.
We can all take a leaf out of Paul’s book. He is an apologist – one who commends the faith in rational discourse and in terms that make sense to his audience, using striking images from popular culture as necessary. It is a brave thing to do but he has the confidence in the underlying message and its importance to all people and not just to a ‘religious’ few. Unless we have more like him, it is our God that will remain ‘unknown.’