Is a Christian's Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

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Several years ago, while reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy, I was impressed by his ability to expose many of the great criticisms of Christianity for their inconsistency.  He noted that, prior to becoming a Christian, he would no sooner be swayed by some criticism of Christianity, than a contradictory one would grab his attention.  Consider this quote:
As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind -- the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. [1]
Chesterton goes on to explain five examples of such contradictory sets of criticisms, noting that he could easily come up with fifty more.  I will not in this post discuss each of these examples, but I do encourage you to pick up this book as soon as there is a chance.  You will not regret it.  While pondering this idea though, I began to wonder about the separate criticisms that Christianity is both drearily pessimistic and foolishly optimistic.

Now the first criticism is that Christianity is far too pessimistic on its view of human nature.  It is, of course, an orthodox Christian view that man is in a state of sinfulness and rebellion against God.  Many Christian theologians will go, and historically have gone, to the extent of arguing that man is totally depraved.  In other words, no aspect of a human being's life can be considered wholly good apart from God's grace.  Our rottenness is so pervasive that we are unable to help ourselves in this respect.   Consider this post from a few months ago discussing this view.

The second criticism is that Christianity is foolishly optimistic in its understanding of future states of affairs.  The after-life is just an invention, they say, to make us feel better about two facts: first, that there is a great amount of suffering in this world, and second, that we will all eventually die and this life will end.  We have made-believe the idea of heaven in order to give ourselves hope where there is none.  Life sucks, and then you die.  Death and taxes.  Yada yada yada.  Of course Christians do not believe that the Church has made this idea up, but the idea itself is another orthodox belief.  Christians believe that because of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, we will also be resurrected in the end, and God will make all things new.

If this set of criticisms fits Chesterton's template, then we can disregard them as insincere attempts to undermine the Christian faith.  But I don't think they do fit the template after all. I think that both claims are true, except insofar as they are said to be errors.  Christianity is dreadfully pessimistic and hopefully optimistic at the same time. The glass is both half empty and half full (of course you math types will recognize that this is always the case and that the analogy is stupid.  And then you engineering types will see that the entire question is framed wrong in the first place: the glass is actually just twice as tall as it needs to be).  The answer is that Christianity is pessimistic with respect to human nature, and optimistic with respect to God's love, grace, and power.  The Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans says that "God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."  I think this highlights the seeming inconsistency between Christianity's optimism and pessimism.  We are rotten, but He is good.  We are unable to save ourselves, but He has already saved us.  We are doomed to a short life full of suffering, but He will raise us from the dead to live eternally on a redeemed and newly created earth.

It shouldn't really be a surprise that the atheist/agnostic/skeptic is critical of both sides of this coin.  On the Christian view, that's been the conflict from the beginning.  We want to lift ourselves up, and tear God out of His throne.  Humanism has always been the enemy of the Church because our pride wants to make us the focus, rather than God.  That is how Eve stumbled in the garden: the serpent promised that by eating the fruit she would become like God.  So as opposed to being valid criticisms, I think these simply bring to the forefront the main difference between a Christian worldview and a Humanistic one.

1. Chesterton, 1908
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