beyond good and evil?

One of the most common questions in religion, philosophy and psychology is, “Are people born good or evil?” This used to be a really interesting question to me. I’m not really sure why. Back in my cool guy TULIP days, I needed people to be super evil so that my Big God could be more awesomer. When I was looking into new agey type stuff, I wanted people to be good. But, what if neither of these answers actually work?

What if it’s actually a bad question? Not bad as in evil, but bad as in unanswerable

For me, the most helpful way to think around this question is to say that each of us has the potential for good, and the potential for evil. I’m not sure if that means we’re a “blank slate” at birth. I’m not prepared to say that babies have no real emotions or desires until they hit a certain age or stage of development.

What if certain streams of Christian thought are actually onto something, though… What if there is something essentially good, something beautiful, about simply existing. From our first breath to our last. Being. The way I used to explain this was that God breathed his Spirit into each of us, or that he/she/it stamped his “image” onto/into each of us. That every single person “reflects” something of the divine. That when we look at another person, any person, we are, to some degree, seeing God.

Of course, I don’t think this kind of language is necessary, and it may be completely unhelpful to some people. But, for me, I’m starting to see the value of choosing to see the world in this way. Seeing life as a gift, grace even. I still have little knowledge about where or whom this gift might have come from.

There are other ways to see life. We can choose to see it as merely an accident. Or even as a curse. We can hope and pray for another life, another world, because this life just isn’t good enough. I understand this. I’ve been there. And it sucks. But, maybe, just maybe, the people who have sought to define things for us, some people with some really loud voices and really popular pulpits, have just not been able to love life. So, they’ve projected their own inability to see life as a gift onto everyone. And, we’ve uncritically accepted their potentially (hopefully) false interpretation.

I could be totally wrong. I have been many times before. I could be completely naive. There is a voice within me – a voice that comes to the surface when I’m just not able to see – that tells me that life isn’t worth the risk. That people are evil. I used to feel like one of the characters in a Nathaniel Hawthorne storyI could only see “depravity” around me. But, what if that voice, that Debbie Downer, is what some religious folks call “the devil”? What if that voice is a collective sigh – or cry – of everything we’ve ever experienced that didn’t feel like a gift? And, what if we can choose not to listen to that voice?

I don’t expect everyone to share my optimism. I don’t even think some people can. Maybe that’s our chance, those of us who can, to be the gift that someone needs.

This is a repost from my personal blog from August, 2012.

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  • The story of humanity and our relationship with God begins with us being created in God’s image. Unfortunately, most Western theology starts with the fall instead of with the truth of who we are. HUGE error. Monumental. There are a couple of verses which speak very negatively about the heart, yet many more which speak of the heart as the source of life, wisdom, a place to imprint God’s word, something to be valued and tended, Yes, we have the potential to be completely depraved, but we also have the potential to be very good and the whole of scripture reflects this reality.

    In scripture sin is spoken of as uncleaness, dirt, filth, stains, etc. It is something to be washed away and when it is, the reality of who we were created to be can be viewed. Sin didn’t destroy what God created – it only obscures it. In the Eastern Orthodox church this is actually the meaning of salvation – being restored to the image of God which we were created to be.

    It is interesting that when I talk with people who have rejected Christianity, this doctrine of depravity has often been the thing that drove them away. They made no claims to perfection, but couldn’t see how it was healthy or good for them to walk around thinking of themselves as terrible, awful people. It was their experience, and mine as well, that the worse they felt about themselves, the worse they were as human beings. But once they were able to practice self-compassion and embrace their own goodness, they were better humans and better to those around them. And really, Jesus did say that we were to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Meaning love of neighbor is actually predicated on love of self.
    Any ways, I give my take on original sin here:

  • There is more to be said on this that goes much deeper than our instincts or desires to see the world as either better or worse. The witness of Genesis 1 repeats the phrase, like a mantra, “And God saw that it was good.” In Genesis 2-3, written probably at least 500 years earlier than Genesis 1, the mythic Garden of Eden does not exist prior to the creation of the man in the story (there is nothing growing yet for “there is no one to till the ground”). In other words, the entire notion of Eden as perfect prior to our arrival and then being destroyed by our sin misses the more accurate take on the story which supports the notion that Eden is never fulfilled – it is constructed with us in mind and with us as partners. Our “sin” is not that we mess up perfection but that we fail to accept our part in its fulfillment. Sin is less about causing imperfection and more about our refusal to accept responsibility. My Jewish rabbi friends are much more clear about this, in part because they don’t asume the “fall” makes much sense biblically. Ultimately, the reality of sin cannot be ignored or denied, but the notion of “paradise lost” and “the fall” overemphasize this while missing the inherent goodness of life, creation and God that is central to our understanding who we are and why we are here. I wrote a bit about this a few months ago in my blog. The link may interest others here:

  • Lisa Lynn

    I have a different take on the story of Eden and the “fall of man”. I believe that the story is about the transition of man from purely animal to the birth of humanity & civilization. That shift wasn’t caused by physical evolution -we are still animals- but by spiritual evolution and the creation of society and language. By gaining self-awareness we gained self-determination, but with it came right and wrong, guilt and shame, the foreknowledge of our own deaths and a separation from nature/God. Babies aren’t born good or evil because they’re born animals. We civilize them. We teach them language and our ethics. What happens to people and how they process it is what makes the difference between people who do good and people who do evil. But we are all capable of being angels or demons and sometimes things aren’t so black and white.

  • Jonathan L Davis

    Dear Mr. Davis,

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on whether we are born good or evil. I have done much thinking on this topic and have come to much the same conclusion that you have. I think that some time, at the instant of conception, God ” breathes” into the child a piece of himself and also the gift of free choice. All of our life afterwards is how we choose to bring out or repress God. Obviously, some of us have allowed more of God to emerge than others , the reason we see both good and bad in the world. I would appreciate yours and others help in refining this or criticzing this concept. Thank you very much.

    Jonathan (no relation) Davis

  • Nick Gotts

    But, maybe, just maybe, the people who have sought to define things for us, some people with some really loud voices and really popular pulpits, have just not been able to love life. So, they’ve projected their own inability to see life as a gift onto everyone.

    A “gift” implies both a giver, and a pre-existent recipient. Seeing life as a gift is nonsensical unless you believe in some form of pre-existence. But it’s quite possible to love life without seeing it as a gift. I know this from my own experience.