It’s a strategy that could also be seen in Buddhism which tells us that human beings are motivated by the greed and desire that causes suffering. This is the ailment and Buddhism offers a way out of it – practice the eight-fold path and cultivate the virtues of detachment, wisdom and compassion. The difference between the Buddhist and Christian approach was that in Christianity the notion of sinfulness was very often used to undermine and oppress people. Thank God the emphasis has changed. Original sin, greed and desire are ways of describing the human condition, not saying something essential about the human person. There’s not a religion that doesn’t recognise the imperfection and weakness of human beings but religion also recognises the goodness and potential for heroic virtue and self- sacrifice in human beings.
Sometimes these two dispositions have been described as a divided human nature with the struggle between good and evil going on in our minds and hearts. Today spirituality and theology look on this rather differently. Today we’re more inclined to use non-dual language. Rather than seeing the human person as divided it looks upon these two dispositions as two sides of the same coin. The human condition is both/ and- we are both imperfect (and therefore shouldn’t be surprised when things go wrong and people commit sinful and evil deeds) but we are also blessed and gifted and able to live a good and loving life. Which part will characterise us? Tich Nhat Hanh talks of the seed store deep within our subconscious. We all have the seeds of greed, hatred, violence, prejudice but also of goodness, self-sacrifice, compassion, wisdom, justice existing deep within our psyches. It’s up to us which ones we feed, which ones we develop through practice and intention. Religion at its best is about encouraging us to feed the good side of ourselves so that we can live a loving life and make a positive contribution to the world around us - but it also helps us face up to our imperfections that can make life more difficult and cause us to fail, to hurt other people, to add to the suffering of the world rather than it’s healing.
The reason I’ve been thinking about Lowry is that I’ve been wondering about what it means to be human and how free we are as human beings. This has come about because of a realisation of the power of technology in our lives. The Lowry figures seem so subservient to the industrial society in which they live – oppressed and dominated by the factories under whose shadow they live and work. Today in Britain we live in a post-industrial society. The industrial revolution served us well and now we’re in the midst of a new revolution, one that’s all around us, influences how we live our lives, curtails our freedoms, is growing rapidly while most of us are oblivious to its power while rejoicing in the benefits of new technologies such as social media and the world wide web. Like the Lowry figures I feel we’re being swept up and carried along on a wave of development that could easily get out of control if it hasn’t already done so. It makes me wonder how religion is responding to this. There’s a tendency in religion for pastors to offer people comfort and support and keep them safe within the confines of their own community beliefs and practices. Are we religious people so heavenly minded that we are out of touch with earthly realities? Are we preparing people to encounter and reflect on some of the moral dilemmas that are already facing humanity?
I’ve only come to realise the influence of the technological revolution because of recent television programmes about the growth and development of robots and the power of Silicon Valley companies. Speaking of robots as a new species rather spooks me as does the whole notion of cyborgs. According to the dictionary a cyborg is “a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body”. But many of us already have mechanical elements built into our bodies in the form of pace-makers, artificial joints etc. And there are now companies in Sweden and Belgium that offer to inject microchips into employee’s hand. Those who’ve been microchipped even call themselves cyborgs! The chips function as swipe cards that enable employees to open doors, operate printers - and allow employers to track their every move. This certainly is a new kind of Big Brother and it’s easy to imagine how such technology could go wrong. But it’s the world we’re living in and for me it raises anew the question of what it means to be human and what response are we going to make to these developments. Are they going to be for the benefit of all or for the benefit of consumerism and the few? The answer lies in the human heart – can we trust it?