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