“The striptease of humanism,” he called it, and the image caught me. My memory is of sitting on the banks of the Poudre River in the mountains above Fort Collins, CO, reading The Dust of Death by Os Guinness. I had tried twice before, but just couldn’t understand enough. But this time the scales fell off, and I began to see what he was saying about “the dust of death” descending on the modern world.
The ideas that had brought the 20th-century into being were proving insufficient; it was not an “Enlightenment,” after all. We were not only murdering each other by the millions, but the generation coming-of-age in the 1960s was refusing to accept the inheritance; they wanted to create a “counter-culture.” Before my undergraduate years were done, I had read the book and read it again, almost memorizing parts of it.
I thought of this early today as I read an NPR story about the anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. One of the most horrific moments in memory, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were brutally murdered by their fellow Rwandans– as the world watched with a strange indifference. The article was by a journalist who was there in Rwanda during the holocaust of 1994, his own life in danger as he courageously reported on the mass murders. 20 years later he wrote this:
“For me, this sums up the Rwanda genocide. It’s like a madness took over the country, turning otherwise normal, reasonable, loving people into monsters. It took me a long time afterward to try to make sense of what I had witnessed. But I finally concluded there was no use trying. I believe mankind, at its base, is good. What happened in Rwanda 20 years ago was an aberration.”
An aberration. Really? Is that what it was? The language, “I believe” is almost creedal.
In contrast, Walker Percy, one of the most prescient writers we have known, put it this way, trying to make sense of his time: “the murderous, mechanized 20th-century”– 100 years of holocausts, of mass murders from its beginning to its end, made more possible by the mechanization of the modern world. We killed more efficiently than ever before, because we could.
What does all this mean? Steve Turner’s take on the contemporary confession of faith explicit in the NPR story, sums it up very well: “We believe that man is essentially good. It’s only his behavior that lets him down.” In his poetic way, Turner sets forth the “Creed” of the modern-becoming-postmodern world, the religious dogma that pretends otherwise.
At our best and our worst, we are glorious ruins. When we miss that, imagining ourselves to be only one or the other, all good or all bad, we miss something crucial to the truth about what it means to be human.
Families don’t work very well, neighborhoods don’t work very well, cities don’t work very well, and societies don’t work very well. We need to honestly honor each other, ever amazed at the wonder that we are, while at the same time not be fooled by each other, never surprised at the malice that runs through our hearts. The truth of the human condition is more complex than we know, and yet we know that we are somehow both glories and ruins, that both the sunshine and the shadow together tell the truth about us.
(Photo is from the trail around Lake Accotink, where I walk and bike week by week. Yesterday the buttercups were everywhere.)