Written by Wesley Bergen. Media by Noah Henry.
“The whole thing is going to hell in a hand basket” has become one of my favorite phrases since coming to Greenville College. I don’t use the phrase about the school (that often), and I’m not entirely sure what a hand basket is. All the same, I like something about this phrase. Maybe it’s the image of the Lord of Darkness hearing a knock, opening the gates of Hell, seeing no one, and looking down to see a flowery basket with a note pinned to it. More likely, and with more seriousness, what I probably like about the phrase is the unflinching self-righteous certainty it expresses. “I know what you’re up to,” it says with the stern confidence of a Caucasian father in the 1950s, “and it’s not getting you or anyone else anywhere.” Perhaps what I enjoy even more is the fleeting sense of vindication that comes from distancing myself from the work of evil. “Look,” I say, pointing at chain smokers, alcoholics, atheists, and people who watch too much TV. “I’m glad I’m aiming for the straight and narrow unlike them!” I of course never think that perhaps I am in the basket as well—precisely because of this way of thinking—and am heading for the same destination.
To make this clearer, let me try to build an extended metaphor. Riding in the hand basket to hell is, without a doubt, a seductive option for every human. We all enjoy sinning, even though we all know what its wages are. But, for the purpose of analysis, let’s suppose all sin falls into one of two categories: self-righteousness and its opposite, depravity. The sins of the first category are all forms of haughtiness, and come from the false assumption that piety is Godliness. This is the sin of the Pharisees. The sins of the second category are all forms of apathy, and come from the equally false assumption that Godliness is unobtainable. This is the sin of the rich man who refused to sell his possessions to follow Jesus. These two categories of sin (self-righteousness and depravity) descend from the even more fundamental sin of pride, or the belief that we know better than God. The sinless option – the one that is not proud – must therefore be neither the way of haughtiness nor the way of apathy, but rather something in between. Perhaps, if you stop to think about it, the gap between these two seems rather small. In my assessment of other’s actions, what middle ground is there between supporting and judging? To be honest, I’m not sure if there is one.
Whether or not you agree, let’s continue building our metaphor. From my seat in the hand basket to hell, I don’t have to walk the treacherous line between haughty, arrogant self-righteousness and apathetic, hedonistic depravity. I can simply pick which sin I’d like to commit and enjoy an easy trip. Of course, I don’t “pick” in any typical sense of the word. Alarmingly, I’m typically not even aware that I’ve picked a sin; rather, I usually only discover this after the fact through reflection. I discover I am riding in the basket of self-righteousness when I realize I no longer feel the need to be self-critical, question my motivations, struggle to see good in my suffering, plead for grace out of sheer despair, or ask for forgiveness because I was wrong. Safe within the hand basket of self-righteousness, I forget the gut-wrenching fact that I, too, have sinned.
Through this same process of self-reflection, I sometimes find myself riding in the equally sinister hand basket of my depraved, sinful nature. When I ride in this basket, I forget that I am a child of God. I become disgruntled and more than a little defensive when someone upsets my complacent sinfulness by reminding me I am called to something higher. I discover I am in the hand basket of depravity when I realize I no longer feel the need to admit my guilt, seek atonement, treat others as human beings, aspire to virtue for its own sake, share my private life with people I respect, restrain my will, or accept the consequences of my actions. Safe in the hand basket of depravity, I forget the difficult truth that God’s love for me is unconditional.
Such ends my lengthy hand basket metaphor. Now, if you’ll indulge me for just a bit longer, I’ll step out of the confessional booth and into the tweed jacket by bringing some theological language to what I’ve been describing. The two categories of sin I laid out above (self-righteousness and depravity) are closely related to a struggle that is at the core of Christian theology: the struggle known as dualism. Dualism is a heresy that teaches us the universe is a battleground for the competing forces of good (God and God’s holy host) and evil (Satan and his demonic host). In our age, dualism commonly rears its heretical head in two ways; first in the way of thinking that says God and Satan are competing for control of the world, and second in the way of thinking that says the world of matter is evil while the world of spirit is good.
As compelling as this way of carving up reality may be, it is in obvious conflict with two key biblical texts: The creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and John 3:16. In fact, given that we all know these lines from the Bible, it’s rather astounding that dualism is as prevalent as it is. The Genesis stories repeatedly emphasize that God finds creation good, not evil. As to where evil came from, I hope the Papyrus will soon run an article on different theories of evil in the D&D section – but for now, I’ll just say that the entrance of evil into the world in no way means that God finds creation any less good. This is attested to in John 3:16 when we learn that “God so loved the world.” The Greek word for world in this verse is literally translated as cosmos, which is an identical concept to creation. Far from hating creation, God loves it even to the point of Jesus’ death.
I’m eager to connect dualism to our earlier discussion of the two sins of self-righteousness and depravity. The way I’m going to do this is by connecting these two sins to the two poles of dualism. Self-righteousness is the sin that says, “You are of the world, and I am of spirit, therefore I am the better.” Self-righteousness makes a moral demand that we take the higher path dualism offers us. Depravity is the sin that says, “I am of the world, and I have no need for the world of spirit, therefore I am not the worst.” Depravity makes a moral demand that we take the lower path of dualism. When we commit these sins, therefore, we preach the heresy of dualism. But we are not called to be dualists, we are called to be Christians. Instead of picking a side in a dualist mind-set (and riding in the hand basket), we must walk the line between these two sins and neither condemn the world nor embrace it fully. We must be neither self-righteous nor depraved. We can neither flee the world by seeking spirit nor vice-versa. I don’t know how not to do this, and as I said earlier, I’m not sure if I even see any space between self-righteousness and depravity. To me, they seem like the only two options. Maybe this suggests that being a Christian is a necessarily uneasy, uncomfortable experience. Maybe it means that being a Christian requires us to feel self-doubt in our motivations, lack confidence in our actions, and avoid optimism that things will get any easier for us. All I am sure of is that God’s nature is love – not hatred – and that this is what we are called to imitate.