In order to have a proper understanding of a great many matters in life, it is important that we have an idea of who we are as people. A great many conflicts that may seem to some cynical souls as being pointless and without importance are vital disputes because they are disagreements about what man is and what we ought to be. Human nature and human potential are at the basis of much disagreement about the right course of action, and what is even possible to attain. As is perhaps unsurprising, there is a great deal of muddled and inconsistent thinking about both human nature and human potential, about what is and what ought to be. It should also be noted, at least in passing, that even if we had an accurate knowledge of what is and what ought to be, it would still be necessary for us to have a proper understanding of how it is that we can move from what is towards, if not to, what ought to be, in order that we might see some improvement in our state.
How do we understand human nature? One of the great problems of our time is the inconsistency that results from two aspects of failed understanding of human nature that spring from flawed premises and worldviews. The first of these errors posits that we are a tabula rasa and thus bring nothing to the process of education except an empty slate and a blank mind to fill with what the teacher provides. Anyone who has any experience or understanding with people, especially young people, knows this not to be the case. We come to education with a great deal of nature involved–certain natural talents and abilities, character that is developed early that either chooses to restrain and control the worse aspects of human nature for long-term benefit or acts without such restraint and requires external restraint for an ordered existence, and the like. An understanding of human nature involves an examination of human origins, human history, the effects of sin and redemption on humanity, and matters of genetics and epigenetics. There is, and cannot help to be, a great deal of disagreement about the role of these matters.
Similarly, it is no easy matter to understand human potential. How ought we to behave? What conduct or speech is virtuous and what is immoral? There is no great agreement on these matters. What I would defend as virtuous behavior and speech others would criminalize as hate speech. What others consider to be proper behavior I would view as worthy of death and condemnation now and for eternity, if not repented of. Just as our view of human nature depends on our view of questions of morality and history and nature/creation, so to our view of human potential depends on our view of the malleability of people, and of the power of vision and will to overcome those less admirable aspects of our nature, as well as the sort of help we can attain from outside of ourselves, as well as the influence of the past and of exterior conditions. It might not be surprising to note that there is no great agreement on these matters either, on what is important and to what extent and where we ought to tend.
What sort of authority exists for resolving these questions? So far, at least, much of how we deal with such matters has been the attempt to gain and maintain power in order to enforce an understanding of these questions in institutions of education in church or various types of schooling. Either power has been sought to force an answer on others or to allow space for answers contrary to what is popular understanding to be taught, to at least arrest some of the consequences of contemporary folly in educational trends. In the absence of common intellectual or moral authority that is recognized by all parties, it is of little surprise that people would seek formal authority to either coerce or allow certain answers to these disputed questions to be held by others. And we should not expect it to be otherwise. Eventually, such matters require solution by force–the force of reality brought to bear against the vain and futile imaginings of the self-deceived human heart. In order for reality to teach us, though, we must be able to differentiate reality from mere tyranny and coercion. And the ability to distinguish between the verdict of God and the imagined verdict of history is by no means universal or obvious.
Yes, when we lean to what we feel is right–letting our hearts be our guide–we are left in a spiritual fog and we end up losing our moral compass. We end up ceding our will to those with the power to use it against us because we end up dependent. This is the natural consequence of operating outside the confines of natural law. The absolutes of right and wrong hold true on every level; placing our hand on a hot stove will burn it: mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We will end up losing our humanity if we habitually sear our minds against others–either by craving the power or by failing to resist it.
I have always been struck by the way that much of what is promised to increase our freedom only enslaves us to bad habits and to others.