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on being very good

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Libby Anne hosted another fascinating Judaism 101 roundtable, this time on human nature and sin.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2013/06/judaism-101-humans-nature-and-sin.html

A lot of the discussion revolves around the Jewish concepts of yetzer ha-ra and yetzer hatov, which Wikipedia translates as evil inclination and good inclination respectfully – but based on the Judaism 101 discussion, that translation doesn’t seem adequate at all. They compare it to Freud’s ego-id-superego division (though it doesn’t match perfectly): you have an ego that leads you to consume things that are good in and of itself, and a superego that limits how much you allow you to consume so you don’t cause harm or do things society frowns on, and an ego trying to balance the two. To the extent the analogy holds, the yetzer ha-ra is the id and the yetzer hatov is the superego.

Of course, it’s not an exact comparison, but the point is: the yetzer ha-ra isn’t inclining us to do things that are bad in themselves. It’s actually driving us to do things that are quite often good. Like eat, and build a life, have sex. If I understand the panelists, without the yetzer ha-ra we wouldn’t have any inclination to consume  and acquire the things that make for a good life. The trouble is that, without balance, we consume too much things. The drive to eat becomes gluttony. And the drive to have sex is not only helping us get something that’s pleasant but is also necessary to human survival – but without the yetzer hatov, it becomes a preoccupation with sex. (I see major parallels with Plato’s tripartite soul and Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean here, though again, it’s not an exact parallel.) The point is, the yetza ha-ra is not an inclination toward things that are evil in themselves; it’s a drive that is good in itself but, if it’s not restrained, will lead us to act evilly because it’s out of balance.

Libby Anne introduces this by comparing it to the evangelical Christian belief that “infants were born with a sin nature. Even before they did anything wrong, they were already tainted with sin and already in need of forgiveness.” This is certainly a big part of evangelical Christianity, to be sure, and you see it in other strands of Christianity as well. I don’t want to ignore it, but I think if that’s the only thing you think about when it comes to Christianity’s account of human nature, you’re missing a lot of it. To be fair, Libby Anne wasn’t saying all Christians believe this, and she wasn’t even saying it was the only Christian belief about human nature; she was really just describing the belief system she’d been raised in as an evangelical Christian, and perhaps just one part of that system. I’ve also seen the damage this belief has done to different people, both in excusing bad behavior (I’m damned anyway, I can’t help it, etc.) and in making them feel worthless. So I think it might be useful to look at some other Christian beliefs, which I think are actually really quite similar to the Jewish beliefs Libby Anne’s panelists describe here.

As a Methodist, I sat through more than one talk on the creation story in Genesis 1-2. It wasn’t about evolution, really, but more about human nature. In those chapters, God often looks out at what He’s created and notes that it’s good, but with humans He says that they are very good. Libby Anne’s panelists talk about this word and one of them quotes a rabbi who explains that humans being very good meant that they had the yetzer ha-ra, but as a Christian I never heard anything of the sort – not the Hebrew word or the concept behind it. Rather, very good meant just that – humans, as created,  and compared to all the rest of creation, humans are the most good part of it. That’s not nothing. And even after the Fall, God has a continued desire to work with humans. Some of us (Abel, Noah, David, Job) are even recognized as righteous or particularly praiseworthy. We are not chopped liver.

And in the New Testament, Jesus and Paul get explicit. In Luke 11:13, for instance, Jesus teaches that in spite of being evil humans know how to give good gifts to their children. He speaks again and again of human potential and seems genuinely frustrated when the disciples just didn’t get it and kept failing. You don’t get disappointed if there’s no expectation things could have done better, and you certainly don’t continue working with something that is damaged beyond repair. Then in Romans Paul writes about the law being written on our heart, even if we have never been taught anything about God or the Bible or the like. Humans may have been damaged and have to struggle against the legacy of original sin (a most un-Jewish idea, as I understand it), but this doesn’t mean that goodness has been completely snuffed out. There’s something about this initial very good human nature that endures in us, that justifies disappointment and frustration but also mercy and the chance to try again when we fail. I’ve always found it interesting that according to Christianity it’s not angels that get a savior – it’s humans.

If anything, this idea that humans could be created very good by God and yet still be capable of throwing it all away so easily, after being tempted by another sub-God thing (Satan or a natural serpent, whatever – still not God) always struck me as a little bit insulting to God. Augustine thought a great deal about this, though he spent more time on Lucifer than Adam, and the basic issue came up in Descartes’s fourth meditation as well. Probably other places, too. The basic issue is this: humanity is created good, but at the same time we are so easily tempted by the first shiny bauble we come across. Fruit on a tree, just because God told us not to eat of it? I mean, come on. If that’s all it took to tempt us, and if that’s all it takes to reduce humans to giant sin-magnets, it doesn’t seem like we were that good in the first place.

Augustine’s answer is actually pretty similar to the Jewish ones Libby Anne’s panelists talk about. It’s not that Lucifer had a bad nature, but that he used his good nature in a bad way. And what let that happen? Well, it was the fact that Lucifer was so sure in his own goodness, so prideful he didn’t want to rely on anything else. Tolkien fans may be all too familiar with the motif: “[Melkor] had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within Him to bring into Being things of his own […] Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.” It’s not that Lucifer’s nature was evil, after his rebellion. But he lacked the ability to use it well, it was more power and might than he could handle. Pride goeth before a fall, and all that. Augustine also tells a similar story about Adam, though there Adam wasn’t so thoroughly good as Lucifer so it’s less of a challenge for him to conceive of the Fall of Man. And it’s worth noting: even though this pride will eventually get him thoroughly thrown out of God’s presence, and even though he’s in a state of rebellion, Lucifer and God can still come together and reason together. Check out Job 1, for example.

An interesting side-question here: what exactly should we make of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (I’ll just call it the Tree), the one Eve ate the fruit from? Because on the Third Day, “the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” Does that include the Tree? It would seem to, at least if the tree was part of the original creation. I have a distinct memory reading a Christian monastic, I believe from around the time of Charlemagne, asking how many centuries passed with Adam and Eve walking around the garden and nothing changing, and noting that without death there can be no new life. His basic point was that humanity neede d to know not only what it was like to be near God but to be far away and want to be nearer – a yearning that gave way to a kind of dynamic reality, if you will.  There’s a definite school of thought that you see in medieval mystical writers that Eve’s eating of the fruit is… well, not good, precisely, but necessary. One common understanding of good is complete, and if you’re not aware that you’re lacking anything or even if you’re not lacking anything, you can never grow into anything better.

This idea of being aware that we need something more is actually at the heart of Anselm’s hope for humans. I don’t deny that Christians believe original sin leaves us in a bad spot, to put it mildly. For Anselm, this is a big part of why we don’t have a good awareness of God and why thinking about God as not existing is even possible. For Anselm, a big part of what it means to be rational is recognizing something good as good. Since he thinks God is the source of all goodness, you can’t understand anything about goodness, i.e., you can’t be human without being aware of God. In fact, he says that recognizing God’s worth (and the relative goodness of everything connected to God, meaning all creation, is really what humans do.

That was before sin, though. Sin means that we’re not as good as we used to be, and that means we’re less able to do whatever we’re supposed to be good at. It’s kind of see through binoculars that are badly out of focus. You’ll probably be able to see something, probably even better than you could see with just your eyes. But it will be blurry and imprecise and nowhere near as good as things should be. Our hope is that we realize this, and we remember (however faintly) the joy we had when we saw God as we ought to. Because we remember this, we realize that things aren’t just as they should be, that we somehow need something more than we have right now. And that leads us to reach for God. We can’t save ourselves, but we can start the process and participate in it.

This actually points to a big distinction in Christian theology, which I’m only beginning to wrap my head and don’t want to put myself out there on an expert on. But I’m talking about the distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism. Among other things, Calvinists teach total depravity, which according to Wikipedia (a fine theological source-text, I know…), total depravity is “the teaching that, as a consequence of the Fall of Man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the srvice of sin and, apart from the efficacious or prevenient grace of God, is utterly unable to choose to follow God, refrain from evil, or accept the gift of salvation as it is offered.”

Arminians do believe in total depravity, but they also recognize that individual humans have the choice to respond to salvation or not. Again per Wikipedia, “Free will is limited by God’s sovereignty, but God’s sovereignty allows all men the choice to accept the Gospel of Jesus through faith, simultaneously allowing all men to resist.” It makes room for humans to have more of an active role in their salvation. Humans are marred by sin and incapable of saving themselves, but we’re also capable of playing some role in our salvation. We’re able to recognize God as good and we’re able to reach for Him as part of all that. There’s an old word picture I’ve heard Calvinists use when talking about redemption: that we’re not just drowning men, we’re like logs floating on the river that needs someone else to swim over and fish us out. To extend that analogy, Arminians would say, no, humans are drowning men: perhaps incapable of getting out themselves, but at least capable of swimming over if someone throws them a preserver.

As The Help puts it: We is kind. We is smart. We is important. All of us. Under the Christian version of human nature, or at least one Christian approach to human nture, we aren’t perfect anymore or even good and we’re insufficient to saving ourselves. We have need of God. But we are also worthy of being saved. There is some spark of goodness, some dignity and worth, that hasn’t been snuffed out yet. We know right from wrong and recognize in our heart of hearts that we should do good. (This was the heart of Francis’s recent statement on atheists: even the atheist knows what good is, and can meet up with the Catholic, the Christian, the whomever-else when we do our little bits of good together.) We may not be perfect, but we’re still pretty damned spiffy, and we’re still capable of doing good.

I know that not everyone claiming to be a Christian – even everyone who is a Christian – approaches human nature like this. I know there are people out there who believe humans re hopefully bad. But there are also very significant strands of Christian thought which point out that humans were created by God and recognized by Him as very good, and this hasn’t been completely wiped out. As J.K. Rowling put it so memorably: The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We have all got both light and dark within us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.

I think I read something along those lines once or twice in that Judaism 101 post. And it’s as true of Potterverse and Christian theology (at least the kind I try to live out) as it is for Jews, I think.

And in case it needs to be said: do go read the whole roundtable. As usual, it’s well worth the time.

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