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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Inherent goodness got you down?

I've never been a fan of the quasi-normative UU belief that human beings are "inherently good." The inherent dignity of the human being is not, as I understand it, a doctrine about our goodness; instead, it's a doctrine of moral limits. It gives us a clue about what we can and cannot do to each other by asserting reverence for individual human lives: We cannot degrade, demean, abuse, or violate the personhood of other human beings. They have inherent worth and dignity. Even when they're evil.

I mention this distinction between "inherent goodness" and "inherent worth and dignity" because my friend Peacebang is wondering whether acknowledging the reality of evil means that she's turning into a Calvinist and rejecting the liberal Arminian tradition celebrated by Unitarians. She writes: "Left to our own conscience without the instructive influence of authority and tradition, and a sense of obedience to a Moral Reality beyond our own conscience, [we human beings are] just too prone to delusions and justified cruelty, and insanity." She adds: "I'm not proposing a religious solution to humankind's innate depravity, I'm just saying that more and more, I believe we are innately depraved." (She has written a followup post, too.)

Here's an expanded version of the response I left to her post:

William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson — whose optimism about human potential now frustrates Peacebang — did not assume that people were "left to [their] own conscience without the instructive influence of authority and tradition." Sure, Emerson is a complex case when it comes to book-learnin' and the dead hand of tradition, but he was keenly interested in authority and was looking for a tradition that had genuine moral claims. (He decided that "Genius" was the tradition and the authority he'd be subject to — and he didn't just mean his own.) And even though Emerson seems to be saying that the Oversoul is internal, he didn't mean to be solipsistic: He was trying to assert a "sense of obedience to a Moral Reality beyond our own conscience." More importantly, in some of his essays he openly acknowledges human delusions and the difficulty of getting over oneself. "Experience" and "Circles" especially emphasize severe limitations on human apprehension and will.

The early-19th century theological optimists were responding to what they understood as failures — practical, moral failures — in their primary competing worldview. Channing's "Moral Argument Against Calvinism" isn't so much a takedown of the whole Reformed tradition, in my view, as it is an attempt to correct a model of the Christian life that he saw as morally debilitating. He wasn't challenging the concept of sin; he was challenging the idea that every last part of human nature is thoroughly debased by original sin and made wholly unreliable. That's "total depravity." And Channing's argument is still a good corrective for people faced with that relentlessly pessimistic kind of Calvinism.

But Channing's critique doesn't really show the whole Reformed tradition to be bunk. After all, his Unitarianism was still very plainly a kind of Reformed Christianity. Channing didn't argue that human thought was perfect or free from error; he argued that human beings were capable of making discerning moral and critical judgments by virtue of being human, and that education can help shape that human capacity. He's right. I agree that Channing can sound — and the "lyrical theists" who dominated Boston Unitarianism by the end of the 19th century definitely do sound — awfully and indefensibly cheerful; they deserve the gentle scorn William James heaped on them in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

But this is why I find it more useful to consider theology and philosophy from a historical perspective than from a doctrinal perspective. Channing was responding to the concerns and needs of his time. We live in a very different age, and while I love Channing, I don't think his formulation of liberal theology is adequate to the demands of our time. That doesn't make him wrong; it just means that we may be asking somewhat different questions and responding to different needs.

Two observations I would make about a strength and weakness of liberal theology:

Liberal theologians work in response to received tradition and its conservative advocates; they're reformers. This means that they take much of the tradition for granted and often focus on places that need reformulation. But they do not reject the tradition. (If you want rejection, you move into radical theology or prophetic theology, which I see as related but distinct tendencies.)

When liberal theology gets identified only with the corrective doctrines — with the reforms — people eventually miss the rest of the package. This helps explain why Henry Whitney Bellows, Fredric Henry Hedge, and the other "broad church" Unitarians rediscovered tradition in the 1870s; it explains why James Luther Adams paid such close attention to neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s and '40s (and famously announced, "Liberalism is dead! Long live liberalism!"); it explains the phenomenon of the UU Christian Fellowship today. We're not abandoning liberalism; we're reclaiming the context in which our tradition's liberal impulses accomplished their most significant work. They were asserting a liberal interpretation of Christianity itself.

(Religious humanists have a similar set of problems regarding human nature from within their empirical-naturalist set of assumptions. I'm focusing on the tradition of Unitarian Christianity because it's one that Peacebang and I share.)

When religious liberals discover just how inadequate a doctrine of inherent human goodness is, they often experience a crisis of faith. Does that mean they're denying human potential? Are they embracing a doctrine of human depravity? Are they showing signs of pessimism or intellectual despair? Not necessarily. I don't think they're really looking for Calvinism; I think they're looking for what was called "realism" in the second quarter of the 20th century. Read Reinhold Niebuhr. Read James Luther Adams's essays from the 1930s and '40s, especially "The Changing Reputation of Human Nature." Gary Dorrien, perhaps the leading historian of liberal theology working today, argues that even neo-orthodoxy — even Karl Barth — should really be understood as a corrective within the liberal tradition, not as renunciations of the whole liberal enterprise. Recognizing an inadequacy in liberal theology doesn't require abandoning it.

It's the critical spirit — including the self-critical impulse that recognizes social and individual sin — that I identify as the most important legacy of the liberal theological tradition. I am not an optimist, but the solution to liberal religion's problems isn't so much saying that our sharpest critics have been right all along; it's saying that our empiricism, our criticism, and our attention to the human dimension demand greater awareness than we've often given to questions of authority, tradition, history, and culture. Those questions inevitably do raise questions about evil, about power, about coercion, about tragedy — parts of the human experience that we need to help each other respond to rather than run from.

A final thought: Liberal theology never stands on its own. There's always wisdom in the orthodox camp, too. In principle, though, only the liberals recognize that there's wisdom on both sides; orthodoxy is constitutionally suspicious of the distinctively liberal features of liberal theology. So yes, Peacebang, if it's to Calvinism that you must turn to find a necessary corrective when the pseudo-doctrine of inherent goodness gets you down, go ahead. I hope you'll see that you're intent on reforming a liberal insight rather than rejecting it, however.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 25 April 2006 at 8:02 AM

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Ron Robinson:

April 25, 2006 10:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well said. Nothing to add but that. Glad to see the important distinction of historical theology and doctrinal theology. Hedge would be proud. Now I think I will cruise over to Peacebang and drop in a telling anecdote to let her know she is not alone.

Kevin M:

April 25, 2006 12:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's the critical spirit — including the self-critical impulse that recognizes social and individual sin — that I identify as the most important legacy of the liberal theological tradition.

Amen, amen.

Although I studied Christian theology in college, admire the tradition and can follow a theological conversation such as the one on Peacebang's thread, I am not a Christian myself. I'm a materialist and an athiest, and my view of human nature and human evil is informed by evolutionary psychology, a scientific discipline that explains human behavior by investigating the evolutionary pressures that shaped our minds.

There are books and books on the subject, but to boil it down, the root causes of what we consider good (compassion, sympathy, the ability to cooperate) and what we consider evil (envy, selfishness, the ability to dehumanize others) are inherent in human minds, built in through natural selection. We are not "totally depraved," as the Calvinists would have it, but left to our own devices it's in our nature to treat each other pretty awfully. (It's also in our nature to treat each other well, but setting up a situation where the benefits of doing good on a scale beyond family and friends outweigh the benefits of doing harm is very tricky; democratic capitalism is one imperfect attempt.)

To my way of thinking, if we're concerned with human well-being we'd darn well better know our limits and recognize the role that social stability, tradition and moral education play in keeping our darker impulses in check. This is a view entirely consistent with the tempered optimism that Philocrites ascribes to Channing: "Channing didn't argue that human thought was perfect or free from error; he argued that human beings were capable of making discerning moral and critical judgments by virtue of being human, and that education can help shape that human capacity." I share this tempered optimism; it's what makes me both a moderate liberal in my politics and a UU.

But for the same reasons I take strong issue with the notion that humans are inherently good that runs deep among theist and athiest UUs alike. It's a grave theological mistake that causes all kinds of grief. As I wrote recently on my blog, if you take a theological position that humans are inherently good, then you must turn to super-human causes to explain evil. You stop seeing our tendency to cause others to suffer as a tragic dimension of the human condition and start seeing it as an error to be fixed: if only we could abolish poverty and war and disease, we would realize the paradise within us. Our inherent goodness would finally be free to express itself, unbound by the shackles of depravation, oppression and ignorance. If only.

Worse, if you're enamored of the radical sociology or linguistic philosophy that sees human reality as "socially constructed," you will blame evil on structures of power and control that exert a near-invisible influence over people and can only be exposed through radical, unceasing analysis of signals and motives. This is the intellectual tendency behind "anti-racism" and "anti-oppression" as I've been exposed to them throughout the UUA. It's a deeply mistaken way of looking at things that simply goes nowhere.

There was a lot of traffic in the UU blogosphere a few months ago about the sorry, stagnant state of UU theology. Well, theologians, here is the issue that I think divides us the most deeply, and can most productively be addressed by conversation and debate: human nature. Christians like Peacebang and Philocrites have Adams and Niebuhr, whose moral philosophy is relevant to all of us. Likewise, naturalists like myself can turn to Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Wright, E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and others for a scientific take on the subject. But, frankly, we should all be reading the science, whatever our theological inclinations. If we truly believe that there is no inherent conflict between faith and reason, we need to pay attention to what "reason" says about these issues, and that means reading the science. Our ignorance in this area is embarassing.


April 25, 2006 04:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

Note that the JLA essay you recommend is on the net at

I like it a lot.

[I've added the link to my entry. Thanks for finding it! —Philo]


April 26, 2006 12:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

As a graduate of Calvin College and as a person who spent my entire childhood in the Reformed tradition, I'm certainly well-acquainted with the notion of total depravity (it's the "T" in TULIP, put first and foremost in that little acronym of Reformed-theology precepts). I questioned the assumption of "humans are inherently evil" but as I waded on to more humanistic and liberal circles I became equally skeptical about claims that "humans are inherently good." Then at one point...Eureka! Let's challenge the assumption that it has to be all one or the other? Can't it be both/and rather than either/or?

It makes more sense to see humans as involved in a lifelong struggle between their inherently good nature (the higher self) and their inherently evil nature (the lower self). Each day we face choices in our behavior and our thoughts, and we choose to go with the higher or the lower. The test is particularly relevant when "nobody else is looking." My assertion is that the "basically good vs. basically evil" question is misguided and irrelevant. The dual-nature (Manichean?) model should appeal to UU's because it is much more practical and less speculative than sweeping one-word generalizations about the nature of humanity. And it reminds us of the daily challenge to follow our higher nature in the small areas as well as the major ones.


April 26, 2006 02:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thoughtful commentary as usual, Philocrites! Having studied Calvinist, UU, and Jewish theology in theological school, the view on human nature that I find most compelling is from Judaism: the notion that we are all have *inclinations* toward both good and evil.

"In the typical Rabbinic doctrine, with far-reaching consequences in Jewish religious thought, every human being has two inclinations or instincts, one pulling upwards, the other downwards. These are the 'good inclination' - yetzer ha-tov - and the 'evil inclination' - yetzer ha-ra." [Quote from _A Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion_ by Louis Jacobs (Oxford University Press, 1999).]

Jewish traditions hold that the inclination toward evil is evident from birth, but the inclination toward good can't really take root until age 12 (women) and age 13 (men). Good must be taught to humans in order for our inclination toward good to be activated. The inclination toward evil, on the other hand, activates itself. We're born self-centered and unempathetic and if those things aren't corrected we are continually inclined toward evil.

This Jewish interpretetation enables us reframe the Christian question about whether we're inherently good *or* inherently evil. The answer is we're neither, but we've got inclinations toward good and evil, and the only way we can prevent ourselves from doing evil is to learn the good.

A very interesting book I would recommend to all is _Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing_ by James Waller. I'm still chewing on it. To me it demonstrates just how readily and how well the human inclination toward evil can be activated. And how deeply we can delude ourselves that the evil things we do are somehow "for the greater good."


April 26, 2006 08:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm gratified to have started such a great discussion over at my own blog and here, but I want to clarify that I'm less interested in whether or not human beings are evil or good or both than in how liberal theology sloppily assumes the second is true, and uses that assumption as a justification for dismissing authority, doctrine and tradition in favor of an entirely individualistic approach to religion and moral reasoning.

I am, as Kevin M. suggests we should all be, very interested in the scientific approach to the origins of evil and have actually found a strange comfort in the insights of neuropsychologists who suggest that evil resides more in the cerebral cortex than as an ontological reality in the cosmos.

However, as valuable as the study of science may be, I doubt that it offers much in the way of moral instruction to UU men and woman, or other religious liberals (or anyone, for that matter).
Part of my complaint about us is that we're armchair theologians and theorists: when everything is merely a theory, nothing compels us to obedience and ultimate loyalty. Our truths aren't truths but Interesting Ideas to be mused over until the next one comes along.

Kevin M:

April 28, 2006 07:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm less interested in whether or not human beings are evil or good or both than in how liberal theology sloppily assumes the second is true, and uses that assumption as a justification for dismissing authority, doctrine and tradition in favor of an entirely individualistic approach to religion and moral reasoning.

Very well put, PeaceBang! In a way, you've touched on the reason that, as an athiest, I admire Christian theology so much: it encompasses a venerable tradition of moral reasoning on the questions of evil and suffering. Even though modernity and my own skepticism have put me outside it, it's the foundation of many of our traditions and has left an indelible mark on how we think. I'm liberal in my politics but conservative in temperament: I think tradition demands respect. If part of your critique of individualism is that it encourages us to dismiss, lightly, important lessons from our history, I'm right there with you.

As for science: the fields I'm interested in make very specific claims about what humans are and why they behave the way they do. It's a new development, but science is starting to shed hard light on questions that, for centuries, have been matters of speculation and reflection among philosophers and theologians. I get the strong sense, from what I have read, that modern science is increasingly able to say that humans are one way and not another. If true (yes, still an "if" in my mind), these claims have vast moral implications, both for practical action and for the kind of ethical and religious reflection that UUs practice.

The trick is to connect the dots between the science, which is technical and obscure, and what you call "moral instruction." I believe that this can and must be done (I've become a zealot, haven't I?), and I think that UUs, with our unfettered theological openness to reason, are better positioned than many other religious people to take the science at face value and run with it. The problem is that the science challenges a lot of what I see as our default assumptions about humans and society.

But it does dovetail nicely with certain religious perspectives, such as the Jewish reflection on good and evil that Sarah describes. In evolutionary terms, we've evolved a set of instincts, some good (kindness, sympathy) and some bad (envy, greed); we all have them in different measure, and are all susceptible to their pull in different situations. So science could be read to support the Jewish claim that we have two instincts (although the interpretation of some instincts as "good" and some as "bad" remains a matter of ethical assertion, not scientific description), whereas the claim that the instinct for good cannot take root before puberty might be more of a stretch, scientifically, even though it supports Jewish cultural practices and approaches to moral education.


April 28, 2006 04:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

That the principle of inherent diginity is about moral limits, not moral goodness, seems absolutely right to me. And well put. "Inherent dignity" is often cited, for example, in international human rights documents as the basis of human rights. See for exmple the Preamble to Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 5 of The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The inherent dignity of persons seems to be exactly what we UU's should be affirming regardless of whatever else we believe.

Perhaps more to the worries of Peace Bang. Inherent dignity as a moral limit more or less entered Western moral thinking with the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In his "Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals" (sec. 2), Kant distinguishes between persons who have dignity beyond all price, and things whose worth is commensurable and additive. Kant's point is that we may not treat persons as if their moral standing allowed us to trade the good of one person for the greater of good of the many.

For Kant this limit has nothing to do with inherent human goodness, but with the rational autonomy of persons, the ability to act in accordance with rational moral principles; without such ability (according to Kant) no moral action is possible. Rather, in his philosophy of religion, "Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone," (book 1) Kant affirms a version (sort of) of the Augustinean account of humanity's fallen nature. Moreover, he was as worried as Peace Bang (more so even) about our capacity for self-deception, and generally thought that we can never be sure that we are acting from morally lauditory motives.

More Kant than you wanted to hear about, no doubt. The take home point is that, historically at least, there has not been thought to be a contradiction between affirming something like the first UU Prniciple and the (origianlly) sinful nature of humans. (I, however, as I wrote to Peace Bang, prefer the Iranaean view that we are born not in sin, but incomplete.)

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