As a graduate student studying medieval Christian history, I was repeatedly exposed to the unspeakable brutality of man against man. (One needn’t move beyond the present world for examples, but studying the Inquisition can be especially vivid for a young man). I found myself asking in earnest, How could human beings burn other human beings at the stake? How could devout Christians especially countenance let alone inflict the unspeakable torture and agonizing death upon defenseless men and women? Was Calvin right? Are we born depraved and wretched, our evil hopelessly innate? Is this the implication of King Benjamin’s admonition that we must “put off the natural man?” I don’t think so. I found a powerful clue in my reading of Dante’s Inferno.
Dante’s Inferno describes a pilgrim’s journey through the circles of hell, escorted by his guide the poet Vergil. Early on, the poet sees a man burning in the lake of fire and brimstone, and expresses an instinctual grief and pity at the sight. Vergil turns on him and lashes out with these words:
There is no place for pity here. Who is more arrogant
within his soul, who is more impious
than one who dares to sorrow at God’s judgment?
Dante learns his lesson over a series of similar confrontations. Eventually, he sees another sinner trying to find respite from his sufferings by latching on to their boat. This time, this is how Dante responds:
May you weep and wail to all eternity,
for I know you, hell-dog, filthy as you are.
They beat the sinner off, with Dante’s guide shouting “Down! Down! With the other dogs!” Then he turns to Dante and embraces him, saying: “Indignant spirit, I kiss you as you frown. Blessed be she who bore you.”
I found Dante’s transition from a naturally compassionate, tender-hearted soul to a hardened and judgmental tormentor horrifying—and instructive. We don’t have to knowingly embrace evil to become “past feeling.” We can imbibe subtle currents in the cultural air we breathe, we can be socialized by peers and colleagues and friends, losing touch with the light of Christ in deference to philosophies and ideologies that to every appearance are decent, humane, even religious. So, in my mind at least, a partial answer is discovered. Our most godly inclinations, which we are naturally possessed of, being “whole from the foundation of the world,” can be distilled out of us, even by well-meaning mentors and religious systems. So what of Benjamin’s “natural” man?
It is true that some Book of Mormon passages reflect a dour appraisal of human character, especially the teaching that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and will be forever and ever, unless . . . he putteth off the natural man.” However, moments before, King Benjamin had affirmed the automatic salvation of children, and in the next breath, insists it is to the state of a child that the natural man must return to become “a saint.” Given the Augustinian view of a child as the clearest evidence of the corrupt Adamic inheritance, the difference between Benjamin’s view of inborn innocence and goodness, and a Calvinist position that imputes only the darkest inclinations to the human heart, could hardly be starker. In any case, the expression “natural man” is, of course, Pauline. As Paul employs the term, it has reference to an acquired worldliness, it is not a statement about human ontology, inherited nature, or innate attributes. In his triple parallelism, the apostle contrasts “the spirit of the world” with the spirit that is “of God”; what “man’s wisdom teacheth” with what “the Holy Ghost teacheth;” and “the natural man” with “he that is spiritual.” “Natural” is in this formulation clearly a worldly acquisition.. Brigham Young understood this point, which is why he would preach that men “naturally love and admire righteousness, justice and truth more than they do evil…. The natural man [in the literal, non-Pauline sense] is of God.”
What does this means for us and the challenges of discipleship in a fallen world? Bit by bit, we inevitably take upon ourselves a nature that we were not born with, and it is that cultural, environmental, political and ideological contamination we must struggle to be free of. That is the great challenge of our mortal crucible (and of a political moment such as we find ourselves in at present). We cannot escape the demands of political engagement. But we can strive to make all party loyalty and factionalism and tribalism bow before the demands of discipleship, and struggle more intently to escape the siren calls of those counterfeits of virtue that plague both sides of the aisle. We can resist the urge to hide our own partisanship behind the language of discipleship. But we can only do this to the extent that we recognize that those forces everywhere and always at work on us, seeking to make us—in Paul’s caution—“conformed to the world,” can only be resisted to the extent we are “transformed” by the True Light.