Bishop Robert Barron has cited Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful” as being expressive of today’s culture of exculpation, self-invention, and exaggerated desire to feel good about ourselves all the time. In the song, she warbles, “Words can’t bring me down. . . . I am beautiful in every single way.” But is it true? Are we really “beautiful in every single way”? Hardly. Even the person with the smallest amount of self-awareness knows that we all have faults and that nobody is perfect.
Let’s consult further evidence, starting with the Bible. The first book opens with the account of the fall and how human nature became corrupted or “fallen” after the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Then follows the stories of a whole army of characters in the Scriptures, from Abraham, Moses, and David in the Old Testament to Peter, Judas, James, John, Mary Magdalene, and Paul in the New—all whom share in the fallible and fallen nature of human beings. Jesus himself had insisted that, far from being “beautiful in every single way,” there is something in our human nature that is flawed and wounded and that needs correcting and healing: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:18–19). He also taught that our fallen nature prevents us from seeing things as they really are. Therefore, if we are not aware of our own brokenness then we are not in a position to help or serve anyone: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? . . . First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Luke 6:41–42).
Few have faced the darker side of their humanity with as much honesty as St. Augustine (354–430). In his Confessions, he points to the importance of knowing ourselves from the inside out and facing our fallen nature with courage. When he did so, Augustine admits that all he saw wasn’t pretty: “Lord, you turned my attention back to myself. . . . And I looked and was appalled. . . . You thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity and hate it.”
But it isn’t just the Bible and the saints that shine a light on the darker side of our human nature. Shakespeare also did so brilliantly and dramatically with characters like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Edmund in King Lear, Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, and Cassius in Julius Caesar. His genius was to show how power corrupts human nature to become something less than human.
From the world of modern psychology, Carl Jung (1875–1961) famously described the darker side of human nature as a shadow. For Jung, this was no set of minor flaws but something deep and powerful: “It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism.”
From the world of science, even atheists like Richard Dawkins admit there is a selfish part of our nature, which Dawkins typically ascribes to our genes.
And so, while Christina Aguilera had a hit with “Beautiful,” her assertion that “I am beautiful in every single way” or that any of us are beautiful in every single way is simply false. And yet, it captures a reluctance or even a refusal on the part of modern culture to admit the ancient truth that our human nature is fallen. We see this in attitudes that avoid responsibility for bad moral actions. For if “I am beautiful in every single way,” then I must always be right and never be at fault.
What all this amounts to is a fundamental shift in how we understand ourselves to be. In the past, we looked at ourselves in the mirror of revealed truths in the Bible, recognized our imperfections, and strived with God’s grace to grow in virtue. Now, with the decline of religious faith and belief in God, we choose to view ourselves in our own mirror, where we see ourselves positively and acceptingly but with a loss of realism and a lack of objective insight.
The question of whether we understand our human nature to be fallen or not is of great relevance for how we see and understand the whole Christian life, especially at this time of Lent. For if we believe that our inner selves are free from any corruption and “beautiful in every single way,” then the disciplines of Lent will appear oppressive. But if we recognize our imperfection, have a desire to improve in virtue, and see our need for salvation from a source beyond ourselves, then Lent is a welcome opportunity and necessary path to the wisdom and penance that anchors the soul in what is really true.
The quest for self-realization is dear to the heart of modern humanity, but it assumes that our human nature is without trace of corruption. This was the flawed assumption of Protagoras, who famously spoke of man as the measure of all things. But what do we do if man is flawed? To illustrate the point with an analogy—can we calibrate our watches from a clock that has the wrong time? Well, if we do, we repeat the mistakes of history. Just listen to the witness of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) in his famous speech at Harvard University in 1978. Having suffered and survived the brutal repression of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn insisted that the events in Europe of the twentieth century proved that the positive Enlightenment vision of humanity was a delusion, a myth:
It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man who is never free from pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey.
Christianity is indeed a religion of self-realization, but it is also a religion of self-overcoming—of moving, of growing with God’s grace toward a more authentic self and away from a false self that is mired in our fallen nature. Consistent with Jung but most of all with the Scriptures and human experience, Christianity takes our fallen nature very seriously and invites everyone to take ownership of it, within themselves and collectively, as something in which we share. Although our Catholic tradition does not subscribe to the notion that human nature is totally corrupt, it admits that we are all tainted with what we call original sin. This moves us to acknowledge the uncomfortable insight that human nature is wounded and is thus prone to think and act wrongly.
Without the self-awareness that we are part of a fallen nature, we end up continually looking away from our guilt, our fault, and our darkness. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are better than we are with no need of repentance or conversion. Having a healthy self-esteem is certainly important, but that must be grounded in truth. A healthy self-esteem must be able to acknowledge that we are not beautiful in every single way. Period.
This is the bad news. The good news is that the God of mercy loves us anyway and leads us on the adventure to become more beautiful and perfect in love like his Son. That is why being “beautiful in every single way” is not the starting point but the goal of our lives in him.