Search This Blog

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Really Think A Lot of Yourself, Don'tcha?

  My last post spawned a number of conversations (on and off line) which have lead me to question one of my standard operating assumptions about the modern, western anthropology. I remember growing up and being told that while we Christians believe that man is basically evil, those foolish non-Christians believe that man is basically good; that we start with different assumptions and that the other people’s assumption was clearly ridiculous and most likely a product of wishful thinking. That is not the operating assumption. Instead, I have assumed for the last several years that nearly everyone (except Presbyterians) believes that people are, by nature, somewhat good and somewhat evil. Granted not many of us would use those terms, but I thought that most people would say that the majority of the population have some goodness and some badness in them.
  I’m not certain I was right about that.  I’m sure there are many reasons but by limited and entirely anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that many people of all sorts of religious and philosophical persuasions actually believe (or at least claim to believe) that the mass of men are fundamentally good. Most of the reasoning I found behind this goes back to either cultural or general ethical subjectivism. The claim seems to be that we judge other’s actions to be bad because we have different ethical standards (which are arbitrarily ingrained in us thanks to culture and our parents), but that at the end of the day each person generally lives consistently with their own ethical or moral views.

   But this leaves me with something of a dilemma. You see, I don’t live up to my own ethical or moral views. I see myself as rather appallingly bad, and (per my last post) infinitely good. Generally we treat good and evil as being mutually exclusive such that a thing can be good only to the degree that it is not evil and evil only to the extent that it is not good. And this approach makes sense since the two are contraries. But we tend to then conclude that a person’s soul could be plotted on a sort of morality number line. We tend to think of others and ourselves as this good or that evil. But I don’t believe that it actually works that way.

  Instead I think that the human soul is incredibly good. It is glorious beyond anything we can currently comprehend. And it has also gone very wrong. I tend to picture my own soul as something like a diamond with pits and stains and scarring on it. The pits and scratches can be ground off, the stains can be cleaned. Evil is not an equal of good after all, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, and (I think) Augustine first pointed out, evil is a parasite on good; it cannot exist in the absence of good. So the soul is good but has become very bad. And now the task at hand is how can we be fixed?

  Does this resonate with any of you? Is there anyone else out there who is simultaneously aware that you are glorious and good beyond understanding and simultaneously twisted, warped and wretched? What do you think of mankind? Are we basically good or basically evil? Or are those no longer meaningful terms to you?


  1. Hi there;
    From my view point (which is, be warned, essentially a non-philosophical one) I think that we are good, yet lazy. We want to be good, and we imagine ourselves to be good, yet when it comes down to the actual practicalities of it, we don't DO a lot about it (this is somewhat along the lines of my blogpost over the weekend).

    Is there an inherent moral compass along the lines of the 'Natural Law' of C.S Lewis? (and others, but it is he that I have been reading lately). I'm not sure. That idea doesn't really resonate with me- but that may be because I don't understand it fully yet.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts! I was struck by your opening thought that we are good but lazy. Depending on what exactly you mean by that we may be on nearly the same page here. Do you think that the laziness is something we begin with? That it is built into our nature somehow? Or that it is sort of forced on us from some other source?
    Regarding Lewis and the Natural Law, I find that I am very sympathetic to that approach (I think it is most commonly found among Catholics these days) because it does such a good job of explaining the whole deal with sin. My own protestant tradition seems to assume that sin is a sort of arbitrary set of rules God came up with around the time He created humans; mostly just to give us an opportunity to show Him how much we love Him by obeying Him. There may be some little bit of truth to that but it make a whole lot more sense to me to say that God just created the cosmos in a certain way and that that means that some actions (and even thoughts) are just going to be bad for us and for other people. Then, He told us not to do those things because they are bad for us. So when the Bible talks about the consequences of sin it isn't talking about God getting really mad and punishing us for disobeying Him, it's talking about the natural effects of our own behavior and conscious thought life.
    Again, thanks for your comments and I'd always love to hear more from you.

  3. I certainly need to think about this more fully; my 'go to' thought patterns still tend to be atheistic, so I have a bit of cognitive dissonance going on at the moment....

    I think that I see it as a mix of our evolutionary tendencies, which would be self preservation and self interest, combined with any God given nature that pushes us to save a stranger from drowning, or live up to some moral standard. We know that some things are the right thing to do, but those things are not always the easy option- hence the laziness.

    Note to self; finish thought in head before posting comment ;)