On Christian pessimism

Francis Spufford advocates being adventurously realistic about human nature.



Francis Spufford advocates being adventurously realistic about human nature.


I think Christianity – potentially, not always, because sometimes we mess it up considerably – I think Christianity gives you the chance to be adventurously realistic about human nature. I think it’s the religion that stretches from the depths of what we’re capable of up to the heights of what we’re capable of. And it has a lovely pessimism. I know that doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, but it has a lovely pessimism about what human beings are likely to do in situations of stress. I look at the New Testament and I see Jesus gloriously unsurprised by all the rubbish that human beings commit, particularly in the name of God.

And because it’s got that kind of nice dark base note of “disappointed-already” to it, it’s therefore ready to do justice to the rest as well. It’s not pessimistic in the sense that it darkens the whole picture unreasonably; it does justice to the darkness that’s really there in the picture, and then can do justice to the rest as well.

Christianity also lets individual human beings be realistic about themselves – to look at their pasts without blinking or blushing … or perhaps, you know, this is something that happens when the blinking and the blushing are over. And so, yes, I messed up like that, but there are always new beginnings available. It’s a way of being on realistic yet kindly terms with your own fallibility. I think you can see that on the scale of Christian history and on the scale of individual Christian lives. It hopes for much but is never catastrophically disappointed when things go wrong. And that’s a good basis for facing the world.