Janie B. Cheaney – The limits of human goodness

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, October 7th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Here’s WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney on human limitations.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: In the early days of the pandemic, actor John Krasinski produced a homemade video series called “Some Good News.”  From his living room, he virtually walked the nation through springtime rituals like prom, graduation, and weddings. Celebrity friends contributed their talents and viewers contributed short videos, artwork, and inspiring messages. Krasinski always concluded with, “and remember, no matter how hard things get, there’s always good in the world.”

Of course there is. The world was created good by a good God, and we hear echoes of that goodness in cheerful birdsong and soft evening breezes. But what about our species? Pessimism about human nature is not limited to the Psalmist’s declaration that there is none righteous. Christians and Jews, environmentalists, activists, and cynical politicians have always held a pretty robust view of human failing.

A recent book called Humankind: a Hopeful History tries to correct our bad rap by pointing to positive examples. Like, did you know that an actual Lord of the Flies situation occurred on a remote island of the South Pacific? In 1965, schoolboys from Tonga decided to play big-time hooky, “borrowed” a boat, got lost in a storm, and shipwrecked on a piece of rock, to be stranded for 16 months. Instead of turning on each other like the characters of William Goldman’s novel, they cultivated a garden, collected rainwater, organized daily routines (including prayers), and settled disputes peaceably. Cooperative behavior, according to the author of Humankind, is the norm, not the exception.

So what accounts for wars and oppression? The theory posed by the book is that quote-unquote “civilization” and land ownership interfere with our cooperative instincts. Evolutionary psychologists call it a mismatch: humans settled down before their DNA was ready for towns and farms, and have suffered a kind of schizophrenia ever since.

Interesting, but simplistic. If goodness is a matter of simple decency, most of us understand appropriate behavior and act accordingly. We want others to think well of us and we want to think well of ourselves.

But even decency isn’t absolute. Screaming obscenities in the face of a police officer may seem like fitting behavior to protesters who see cops as an obstacle to justice. Who’s to say they’re wrong? Certainly not the company they keep.

That’s why Jesus says that no one is good but God alone. Without a standard, even “common decency” lacks a common definition. So does “evil.” Cancel culture is about locating and condemning evil outside oneself. But corruption begins inside, with self-centeredness, rationalization, and petty resentment. It’s a deeply personal and individual matter that only the Holy Spirit can reveal.

Optimists and pessimists both get it wrong. There’s good in the world and God’s image-bearers are capable of virtuous deeds. Real goodness, however, is for God to define, and God to judge.      

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

(Photo/YouTube, John Krasinski) Some Good News

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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