While it happened several years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. The still famed television icon Oprah Winfrey, aired a show featuring the former New Jersey Governor, James E. McGreevey, whose life and political career were drastically altered by the revelation of his long kept secret as a homosexual. If you don’t remember him, he was the man who had “an affair” with a man while his wife was in the hospital giving birth to their child.
Oprah, as most celebrities would, applauded McGreevey’s commitment to himself. You must “follow your heart,” she said; applauding McGreevey for his bravery and self-reliance. He had done what she encouraged others to do; namely, be true to yourself and follow your own heart.
At first glance this self-serving ethical standard sounds pretty good; but I warn you, it resembles very much so the car you just had to have as a youngster – the one that looked too good to turn down. After you got it home and drove it a few days, however, you noticed the rattles, the clicks, the clanks, along with the spits and sputters that you never noticed on that first infatuated test run.
Just like that car you had to have as a youngster, the idea of “following ones own heart” sounds pretty good; for a while at least.
While there are several assumptions tied to such a moral guideline, this column will focus on only one. Perhaps the most foundational assumption is that the human heart is basically good. That means that while we all admit to doing bad things from time to time, we still believe that the human heart is basically good. There’s no need of an external objective source from which to draw our ideas of right and wrong because we need only to look within and go from there; so goes the argument.
With that being said, there’s this one nagging question I still have. If the heart of man is basically good then why in heavens name do we devise and implement so many organizations, institutions and safeguards to make sure things work fairly in our world?
We have the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the ACLU the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice), the NAACP and a host of other organizations, private, federal and state, that serve as human rights watchdogs. They exist because of perceived injustices and/or abuses of human rights in some form or fashion, portending to ensure a fair and balanced opportunity for all.
And let’s not forget the fact that we are a contract driven nation and that reality alone is enough evidence to contend with the so-called basic goodness of the human heart. I’ve been told, jokingly of course, that you shouldn’t do business with even your grandmother without a contract. I realize that a contract serves many purposes. It clarifies issues or defines certain terms of an agreement; but more often than not it serves as a social contract that protects all parties involved from wrong-doing, fraud, dishonesty, unfair advantage and a host of other possibilities.
Why such caution? Is it the goodness of the human heart that drives us to such action?
I don’t like it any more than you do; but while human depravity is one of the most adamantly denied of biblical truths, it remains the easiest of all such truths to verify.
Even the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking chimes in on the basic condition of the human heart as well. “The trouble is,” he writes, “our aggressive instincts seem to be encoded in our DNA…unless we can use our intelligence to control our aggression, there is not much chance for the human race.” (Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, p.137) While Hawking would probably take issue with defining the problem as “sin,” he does concede an inherent, serious and universal problem that threatens our very existence if not resolved.
GK Chesterton also captured this concept in a nutshell. When a desperate writer asked him what was wrong with the world, he responded with the simplest but truest evaluation of our human predicament. “I am,” he said, plain and simple.
If the heart of man is basically sinful, then those who think they can trust it are prime candidates for a life of confusion and self-deceit – just like Oprah, James E. McGreevey and so many others we all know today.
The words of Jeremiah the prophet are on target. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” he warns, “who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) In essence, the more adamantly one denies the basic sinfulness of the human heart, the deeper the deception.