[Jesus] answered, when you pray, say, ‘… And do not bring us to the test.’ Luke 11 v4 (Some manuscripts add ‘but save us from the evil one’)
There is no more a literal devil-out-there than there is a literal god-out-there. But just as that does not mean that what the word ‘God’ points to isn’t real or doesn’t matter, so the non-existence of the devil must not tempt us to suppose that evil is not a reality. It is, and this fact and its consequences have to be faced. It is an important religious insight that all of us have within us the possibility of doing great evil, an insight that is borne out by psychological research. We should never condemn people who carry out evil deeds without taking this seriously; that way any of us could go but for … ‘… the grace of God’ is how tradition ends that line. But what is ‘the grace of God’ here?
A traditional church doctrine, derived from a reading of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, is that human beings are born in Original Sin, and that unless they – we – are saved by faith or the church and its rituals, we will naturally become evil-doers. This seems to blend two important and true ideas to make something that is both pessimistic and misleading. The first idea is that both as a species and as individuals we have to grow up into what we regard as mature human life; our present state is not where we started. The second is that the inclinations that can lead us to ‘sin’ are part of our original mental equipment. But so, of course, are the inclinations that can lead us to love and to have a moral sense; if we have Original Sin, we have Original Love too. Either potentiality can be developed in anyone, and what usually makes the decisive difference is the kind of upbringing they received as a small child. To say that we are meant to grow up able to love is not to say that left to our own devices we will grow up to love. But left to our own devices we won’t grow up to be ‘sin’ful either. A human individual is human not just on account of getting its genes from human parents; it is human because of growing up in human society, and the nature of that society is as crucial to the adult that results as are the genes. Left on its own, fed perhaps by animals, a child of human beings would not – in fact does not – develop language, and neither does it develop either love or the moral sense that would be necessary to say it could ‘sin’.
The Jesus teaching attacked reliance on Law because it saw that Law did not lead people to be blessed, happy, makarios. But it did not say people needed no guidance about their behaviour. It just wanted that guidance to come from within the individual. But, again, it did not imagine that such guidance would flow out of an individual who was simply left to their own devices. It rather saw that we can be self-guided – autonomous – and yet still not be liable to want to smash up society only if we have seen other people and especially our elders being makarios and realised that they are so on account of their loving outlook and, consequently, their loving behaviour. If we grow up in any human society at all – and if we don’t, we won’t be human in any meaningful sense – we will grow up surrounded by adults whose outlook and behaviour, not least their behaviour towards us, will unavoidably incline us to explore more of the Original Love possibilities within ourselves than the Original Sin possibilities, or vice versa. That is why Jesus’s most trenchant condemnation is aimed, not at Law-breakers or Roman collaborators, but at those who give children a bad start on life’s journey: they deserve to be chucked into the sea with a millstone round their necks.
But the job isn’t finished in childhood. As we grow up, we have to take more and more responsibility for making sure we pay more attention to our Original Love inclinations than to the temptations of Original Sin. This means first knowing ourselves, our weaknesses and our strengths, so that we can avoid situations where we can’t trust ourselves to do what our Original Love inclinations would have us do; this is why we pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation.’. It means trying not to let our sensibilities become too brutalised. It also means looking out for others too, particularly by not giving them power that they can’t handle, bearing in mind that there’s a good chance that any of us, given absolute power over someone else or the ability to act in secret, will sooner or later abuse that position.
It’s important not to let our understanding of the impact of upbringing on impressionable small children make us despair of those who have been led to develop their Original Sin side and neglect their Original Love side. We need not, must not, write them off. But we do need to understand that saving them is a more difficult and more costly exercise than helping them set off on the right path would have been. It always requires love of an unusually high order – a love which resists the inclination to give up when success seems unattainable, a love which is prepared to make real sacrifices to bring salvation.
Paul’s teaching saw the willing sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the decisive demonstration of the love that can save people who are almost beyond salvation. If we can no longer accept Paul’s vision of the unseen world through which this salvation is effected, we need to seek another way; it certainly will be no less costly. If you want some idea of just how costly, talk to someone who has taken young people from dysfunctional families into their own home to foster them.
We know, sadly, that in some lives all this goes wrong and people finish up unable to hear the promptings of Original Love. The tabloid press is inclined to call them ‘evil’, but they weren’t born that way. If in desperation we use threats of ever-steeper punishment to deter them from crime and to bully them into behaving acceptably, that is an acknowledgement of society’s – our – failure. We are back with Law, and though Law may bring order it will not bring human flourishing; that is at the heart of the Jesus teaching. So is the care we owe our children.