Earlier this week I wrote a piece explaining how the Christian message teaches self-hatred because it is predicated upon the contention that humans are fundamentally sinful creatures. Even the nicer forms of Christianity still choose negative descriptors for the human race because in order to need a savior, you have to need saving from something. And according to pretty much every version of Christianity I’ve seen except the very most liberal ones, that something includes you.
[Read “So Long, Self: How Christianity Teaches You to Hate Yourself“]
That sparked a conversation that went back and forth on my Facebook wall between me and a couple of Christian friends (Laura and Beth) who keep up with what I write, plus a couple more deconverted friends named Marcia and Gretchen. The conversation was worth sharing because I feel like it circles around a key difference between all but the most liberal Christian views of humanity and the humanist view of humanity.
Laura: I’m much more on the side of the christian spectrum that says ‘we have a bent towards selfishness’ or ‘humanity is glorious but also broken’ than someone coming from a total depravity mindset.
A question: If we aren’t broken, what are we? War, oppression, rape, greed, defiant ignorance, revenge, hatred, sheer bad choices when we actually know better… These are part of our human experience. If it’s not some type brokeness or wrongness, what is it?
Me: But isn’t “bent towards selfishness” and “broken” just another way of saying fundamentally depraved? I mean, isn’t that like Total Depravity Lite? Is it Partial Depravity? Why even choose either depravity or brokenness as a basic modifier?
If I ask you,”So what do you make of humanity?” would the first thing you think of be “They’re broken?”
Why not just “capable of both great goodness and terrible evils?” Is there something that demands you magnify one of those sides more than the other?
Beth: I don’t think “having a bent toward selfishness” means humans can’t also do great good. And you know I’m not the type who believes that only Christians can do good things. On the grand scale of human history, though, humans have done a colossal amount of damage to each other and to the planet, so I don’t struggle to believe we aren’t inherently good.
I don’t like the word ‘broken’ any more than Neil does, but I guess it doesn’t do much to substitute another word there.
Me: How about learning? How about evolving? Slowly progressing? Making advances all the time? In the cosmic time scale (think in millions of years, not hundreds, because life doesn’t evolve at the speeds we prefer), we are moving forward. Might we fail to overcome our own limitations? Sure, we might.
But any look back through history requires selectivity of some kind, an interpretive grid. The one Christianity uses DEMANDS that humanity be seen in a fundamentally negative light. But why? Why must the capacity for harm and self interest be the thing we say is MORE BASIC? What compels us to do that? Is it because the number of evils in our past outnumber the goods?
Are you sure about that?
Or are you compelled to do so by a narrative that requires it, because without that piece, the whole edifice of this religion collapses upon itself?
Beth: Honestly I’ve seen enough to believe that people aren’t inherently good with or without Christianity. But you’ve given me something to think about.
Me: Who says we’re inherently good? Note that’s not even what I said. That sounds suspiciously like what worldview classes in church and seminary says humanists believe. But it’s a straw man version.
What I said was, “capable of both great goodness and terrible evils.” Does one have to be *more fundamental* than the other? And why? I see no need to pick one. The potentiality for both are simply always there.
My partner Amy brought up an excellent point: You know how the news adage is “If it bleeds it leads?” The reality is that thousands, maybe millions of good things are happening every day, but they don’t make the news. Why not? Because that’s just not how news works.
And what is history if it’s not “the news” compiled over the course of thousands of years? Human history is a distillation of all the bleeding and leading of hundreds of thousands of news cycles. That skews our perception. Badly. Toward seeing humans as collectively worse than they really are.
Nobody writes history about the guys who decided NOT to start a war.
Beth: Valid point.
Marcia: Brokenness can only come from the idea that we were once “perfect” snd then somehow departed from that state. Those of us who believe in evolution do not accept that there was once a state of wholeness or perfection that we “fell” from, so the problem of human evil is just that, human.
Laura: I DO believe in evolution. So in my view the perfect thing we ‘fell’ from was an ideal, not an actuality. It is the sense that we are not what we SHOULD be not that are are not what we once were.
And isn’t that something that resonates? We are not what we should be? Don’t most people share that sense of disappointment that people, even ourselves occasionally, don’t act better?
Me: I would say we are not yet what we CAN be. Of course I am disappointed at humanity, just like I am disappointed at myself. But that does not mean I then conclude that failure is more basic to my personality than whatever it is that I aspire to.
How psychologically unhealthy would I be if I singled out my own flaws and concluded that I should characterize myself primarily by those things rather than simply saying that I have both good traits and bad traits?
Put differently, this compulsion to make the shortcomings and growing pains of the human race the primary descriptors of who we are lacks compassion for the entire species. If you were to speak this way of an individual, you might very well feel terrible afterwards, like you were being ungracious toward her, and unnecessarily critical.
So why is it okay to do it toward all of humanity as a group?
Laura: It is saying we are fundamentally broken, just as we are fundamentally glorious. For a real example: I am smart. I have a unique brain and a cool way of thinking. My brain is also broken. I have OCD that constantly ‘corrupts’ my thinking processes. I am both awesome and broken. The more important thing is the awesomeness, but i think i’d be dumb to ignore my brokenness as it threatens all things good. Make sense?
A bent towards selfishness may or may not be total depravity lite depending who you ask. Don’t really care. When you say humanity, the first thing I think might actually be ‘special’ or ‘valuable’… or ‘fascinating’. ‘Broken’ isn’t my primary qualifier, but it is a fundamental aspect of understanding humanity as it currently is. I would say capable of both great goodness and great evil.
Gretchen: One of the first chinks in my fundamentalist world view 20-some years ago was realizing that most (if not all) of what constitutes sin are the very things that have helped humans survive over the long haul of history. Lying (allowing one to avoid or sidestep a threat), stealing (obtaining resources one may need to survive), killing (eliminating a threat), etc., have long been used as a means for survival. I’ve never been able to reconcile the idea of a “sin nature” with our bent toward preferring survival over death.
When this idea first occurred to me, I wondered “How can we be inherently evil when the very behaviors that serve as evidence of our wretchedness are the same ones needed for survival under extreme circumstances? Why would God give us a desire for survival and the means to survive, only to punish us for it eternally if we don’t ask for forgiveness the correct way and directed at the correct deity?”
Neil: I would group greed and lust in there as well. Hoarding resources sounds like an extension of a survival instinct (one which we can phase out through evolved systems of governing ourselves), and of course lust stems from a biological drive to procreate and propagate the species.
Laura: In regards to survival instincts, I actually largely agree. One can’t accept evolution and deny that survival was the primary motivating force (consciously or unconsciously) for many or all the behaviors we have learned. However, there is a big difference between killing for survival and killing for pride or anger or revenge. There is a big difference between hoarding in order to have enough for winter and hoarding an excessive amount when others are desperately in need. Once humans developed a conscience or sense of moral right and wrong, we became aware (or should have) of the unreasonableness and wrongness of such excesses of behavior. That’s the part i’d call sin. I dunno if that will make sense or if that will feel like i’m missing your point.
And this: “only to punish us for it eternally if we don’t ask for forgiveness the correct way and directed at the correct deity?”” isn’t something i’ll defend because i don’t believe in eternal hell or an exclusivist salvation.
Neil: I would add an illustration: A 3-yr-old draws her mother a picture and brings it to her. The mother’s response is, “Well, it’s imperfect. It’s broken, in fact. But take heart, child, in time you will get better, with my help.”
Good parent, or terrible?
Laura: That would be a terrible parent. But that’s not a good comparison to God imo.
The conversation went on for a good bit after this, and there are many relevant rabbit trails introduced by other members in the conversation, but this gives you the gist of what I wanted to republish for the public.
Laura and Beth each write for their own blogs, which you can find here and here, but I’ll leave you with one last line from one of Beth’s posts to see what you think:
There’s a kind of Christianity out there that gently places a balm over old wounds by telling the survivor that she is loved the way she is; that she is worthy and has dignity. I can’t say which narrative is the “correct” one, but I’m inclined to believe it’s the one that endorses inherent worth and purpose, because no one I’ve ever heard of accomplished amazing things while still believing she is a wretch.
For more of Beth’s thoughts about this ongoing conversation, click here to see her longer response.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever had any experience with a kind of Christianity that doesn’t include a significant element of “wretchedness” to it? Have you encountered a version of Christianity that did not depend on telling you that something is fundamentally wrong with you?