However Which Way You Slice It

Yesterday at services we had a sermon from one of our congregation’s local elders on the problem of human nature.  From time to time I discuss this matter [1] in various forms, and I often find myself reading about it under the guise of other names.  For example, Catholics and those of similar traditions view human nature under the category of original sin, while Calvinists view the same subject under the rubric of total depravity, and those who are other traditions argue about what the terms mean and whether or not they agree with how the terms are defined.  Unfortunately, this is far from a straightforward matter, as different people define the term differently and even among individual writers there is a considerable degree of equivocation about the meaning, as people will change their definition from a more inclusive one that strikes the reader as basically obvious and then move on as the course of the writing goes on to a more extreme position that is less obvious and frequently exaggerated without being aware of having shifted the sense of what is meant.

Let us examine how this is done.  We may first hear of original sin or total depravity to refer to the way that our nature as human beings has been shaped by sin, by the way that our thought processes and sense perceptions are unreliable, and how we have a native and characteristic bent or vulnerability to certain types of sin by nature, and not merely by environment.  That is to say, some aspect of our nature has been corrupted by the experience of sin over the course of thousands of years of human history.  And who can deny that?  Where things get less obvious is that despite beginning with the claim that original sin is the Christian doctrine that is easiest to prove given universal human experience and the claim that total depravity is obvious given the corruption of the nature of mankind due to generation after generation of sin, things quickly go from the obvious to the extreme with claims that the vulnerability of people to sin or the proclivity to sin means that children begin under the sentence of death that only comes from having actually committed sin, not merely being susceptible to it or drawn to it, or that the moral imperfection of mankind implies a human nature in which there is no good whatsoever, instead of a varying and unequal proportion of good and evil that, nevertheless, falls short of the divine standard of moral perfection and wholeness.

Why is it that descriptions of human nature, among those who accurately recognize that we have a nature that is defective in some respects due to heredity and the generational patterns of behavior that in many ways are woven into our epigenetic heritage, quickly go to insupportable extremes?  Why is it so hard to maintain a nuanced understanding of human nature?  Why is it not sufficient to recognize that we as human beings start out with natures that are drawn to particular sins and that have a natural resistance to authority, be it human or divine, and that we are vulnerable to different siren calls to sin based on family or societal or even demonic influence?  Speaking personally, at least, I would think that these are sufficient to account for aspects of our nature that lead to sin and to point out that because our nature is defective that optimistic claims that education and a positive environment are sufficient to eradicate evil among us are simply not true–there are evils inside us that remain even after the best of education or the most favorable environment, and these evils are the most difficult to eradicate, requiring a great deal of divine assistance to even regulate and moderate, much less overcome completely.

It should be noted that this recognition of the permanence of the struggle against evil that human beings have to deal with, so long as we have human nature, is one of the reasons why those whose moral senses are sufficiently sensitive to evil in this world tend to be so temperamentally conservative in nature.  One is immune to the siren call of the false messianic state or to the view that one can achieve salvation through education or through the efforts at government to control the physical and social environment when one has an understanding of the corruption that exists within human beings, particularly within those human beings who wish to control others and create hell on earth in their attempts to make earth a heaven while it is still inhabited by fallen and rebellious humanity, including themselves.  On the contrary, the recognition that human nature is in some sense defective, even apart from active environmental influences, leads to the proper understanding that one must cultivate internal and external sources of restraint, that the moral improvement of the self and of society as a whole requires warfare and that an attention to punishment, including capital punishment, is vitally important in limiting evil with the understanding that human effort is insufficient to eradicate that evil from existence.  After all, even if we should succeed in putting to death all flagrant evildoers whose behavior corrupts others in the present world, we would still have the evil within ourselves that would easily do the same if we fail to restrain ourselves.  And if that view is melancholy, it is no less true for being so.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to However Which Way You Slice It

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    It is so difficult because human nature is not naturally balanced. We who are aware of this fact constantly struggle against either or both extremes–as you eloquently stated. We are born with a nature that is neither inherently good or evil; it is neutral, but very quickly become corruptible due to the evil environment around us. And, as you stated, we have the natural tendency of biological weaknesses, for they are within our makeup. However, they are not inherent sin. Changing our nature requires an internal, spiritual evolution. Some people change their way of behavior, beliefs, or thinking because of events that occur in their lives, but those things, of themselves, do not constitute a change in their human nature. Those former things belong to man, but the spirit belongs to God (Eccl. 12:7) and He alone can change it.

    • Yes, that’s very true, but recognizing it and being able to act on it is difficult, and it is very easy for people to be very imbalanced in their view of humanity, to either over-exaggerate or under-emphasize.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    And that lack of equity wends it way into every aspect of our human existence–especially the lack of justice. It starts with how we view our own humanity.

    • Yes, we tend to see our humanity as something that does not universally belong to human beings, something that extends from the way that so many people individually and collectively view themselves as “people” but view others as “others” without the same level of depth or worthiness of respect. It is baffling just how bad we are at matters of equity.

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