Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good in human nature: Intro, and Part I

Over at Undivided Looking, Aron has been pondering original sin, and the question of good and evil in human nature. I've been considering that question -- both the thoughts over at his post, and an older one here in which many of you had chimed in on the comment thread, and had made some interesting observations.

It looks like, to get the whole picture, we'll have to consider

a) Are we intrinsically good in our nature (and what does that mean anyway?),
b) Are we good for a purpose in relation to others?
c) How do those pieces fit together?

Seriously, books have been written on those subjects ... and rather than try to cram a book into a blog post, I'll hit the highlights.

First, why break it down like that? If we ask, "Is something good?", we can either mean "Is it good for a purpose?" or "Is it good in itself?"* We don't always like the idea of being "good for a purpose" - it makes us sound like tools, and we've all met people whose only interest is in using us for some purpose of their own. Isn't there a possibility that we're simply good in our own right, without "purpose" coming into it with the need to be used or useful for some other agenda? So this post starts with the question whether we're good in our own right, "intrinsically good". (The next post on the topic is drafted; it was split out from this because it was becoming too long for a single reading. So next time picks up with the question of whether we're good for a purpose in relation to others, and looks at some connections that I find interesting in that light.)

Is human nature intrinsically good?

If we accept that creation is "very good in every way", at least in its unspoiled state, then there has to be a sense in which human nature, in that state, is intrinsically good. Thinking through examples of things that I consider good in themselves, apart from any use or purpose, I find myself considering things like the stars, the ocean, the forests, or (I live in a salt-marsh on a coast) the beauty of the bayou. I find myself thinking -- especially this time of year -- of wild flowers that brighten the fields and pathways, thicker and more numerous than stars, and displays of morning glories climbing every available post and tree so that I suspect the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon might have looked like that. Some things -- sunshine on the water, sunrise on the clouds -- are beautiful enough that human language has trouble describing them. We find ourselves reaching for a more profound, divine language: "There is no language where their voice is not heard."

Is human nature capable of drawing out reactions like that? It should be ... if we fit in with nature, it should be.

Why do those other things draw out that kind of reactions in us? I suspect it's because they remind us of God. To the extent that another thing reminds us of God, and is filled with the glory of God, it draws out that reaction. I think that's one reason why David's Psalm 19 has been such an enduring, often-quoted work for not just hundreds of years but for thousands of years at this point: he captured that wisp of thought and put it down, that thing that we sense when we view nature, and that a poet senses so acutely in watching human words fail at the same job: "The heavens declare the glory of God ... there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard."

I mentioned the hanging gardens of Babylon earlier. It was reckoned as one of the wonders of the ancient world. But here's the thing: it wasn't a wonder merely because it was ancient. It was a wonder because, with the help of man, nature surpassed even the normal wonder of nature. All of the ancient wonders of the world were instances where we could rightly look at man -- at human nature -- and experience wonder, where we could see that there is a sense in which we also reflect the glory of God.

But we're so fond of the thought of being good in ourselves -- of being intrinsically good, worthy of admiration -- that thought can corrupt us. The rest of nature is not so self-conscious. That self-reflection draws us into narcissism and idolatry, and threatens to undermine its own goodness.

* This conversation ties closely to the different basic ideas of ethics and what makes an action good.


Martin LaBar said...

Interesting. What does "good" mean?

Martin LaBar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Weekend Fisher said...

It's rooted in the nature of God, according to Christian philosophy. (In other philosophies it is above the gods, or a contingent matter of God's will, or doesn't actually mean anything at all, depending on which other school of philosophy you're looking at.)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...


OK. Thanks.