Only human

"Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa."
– Bob Veale

Some interesting discussion recently in comments about human nature, specifically around the perennial question: Are people basically good?

That's a perennial question, but perhaps not a very helpful one.

The answer we Christians give is "Yes." And also "No."

The Yes part has to do, in part, with the "imago Dei" — the image of God. Each and every person, we believe, is created in the image of God. This spark of the divine is a permanent and essential component of our humanity and can never be wholly extinguished. (It also has to do with our place as the objects of God's love — meaning that if you want to argue that people aren't worth a damn, you'll have to take that argument up with God.)

Yet our fallen state is also essential. This Christian belief is conveyed in two doctrines that, unfortunately, bear rather misleading names: "original sin" and "total depravity." The idea of original sin is that sin is actually anything but original. And total depravity sounds more like a description of the mutants in "Resident Evil" than like most humans. A more accurate name might be something like "totally pervasive depravity" — the idea being not that we are wholly corrupt, but that every part of us, every aspect, is in some way less than whole (this is especially important in contrast to dualistic philosophies that view our souls as holy and our bodies as evil — such as Augustine's never-quite-shed neo-Platonism, which led him to twist original sin into something having to do with sex, a literally perverse idea that continues to screw up a lot of Christian thinking about sex and sin and human nature).

But you needn't agree with any of that to appreciate the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr's chastened, humble, "change the things I can" approach to human nature, politics and international relations.

Bracket for the moment any idea of sin, any question as to whether or not there is something inherently wicked in human nature, and consider only the better angels of our nature.

We're still human — which is to say we're finite and fallible. We're smallish and parochial. We don't live very long. We don't and can't know everything. Our perspective is always limited by our inability to be in more than one place at a time, one time at a time. And even when we have all the knowledge we can get — on those rare occasions when we're able even to know that we have all the knowledge we can get — and our intentions are as pure as can be, we still tend, quite often, to botch things up through simple, nonmalicious, human error.

All of which recommends Niebuhr's cautious, prudent approach.

I had dinner once with a botanist who specialized in remedying the damage caused by exotic invasive species. Many of these species had been imported deliberately, with the best of intentions, only to find that certain variables had not been accounted for, certain consequences had not been foreseen, leading to disastrous results.

The botanist was coping with a particularly pernicious invasive species, the melaluca trees choking out native species in the Florida Everglades. Something had to be done and the botanist had a plan. He wanted to import a voracious species of beetle and unleash it in the Everglades. This benevolent invader, he was certain, would feed only on the melalucas, dying away after it had cleansed the area of its exotic food supply and thus having no further long-term effect on the native ecosystem.

I wished him the best and I hope that those overseeing this effort really have accounted for every possible variable and foreseen every possible consequence, as he assured me they had. But I maintain a Niebuhrian skepticism about the project.

Niebuhr's modest view of human nature led him to favor limited government. He did not believe that human virtue was ever sufficient as a check to power, so he insisted that power also be limited by power, by checks and balances.*

But even if you have a more optimistic assessment of human virtue than that offered by Niebuhr's neo-Orthodoxy you can perhaps agree that our limited, human knowledge and wisdom also suggest the need for limits on the power of government as well as a chastened view of the prospects for revolution.

All of this — his insistence on limited government, his suspicion of revolution, his extreme caution in international relations, his "realist" rejection of pacifism — might make Niebuhr sound like an utter conservative, "a reactionary humbug … who does not wish to endanger the status quo."

But Niebuhr's desire to "accept the things I cannot change" is only part of his prayer, only part of his theology. He also insists that having the courage to change the things we can is an imperative, a duty. For Niebuhr, progress is a necessity, an obligation, even something of an inevitability.

Look again at that famous prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Niebuhr's hopes for progress were modest, but he was certainly no defender of the status quo.

For the theological consideration of human nature, I think Reinhold Niebuhr is unparalleled. Yet I remain, overall, less pessimistic and more hopeful than he was about the prospects for progress. This is not because I disagree with his perspective on human nature, but because I disagree with his perspective regarding the other half of what theologians study — the nature of God. Or, as one of his former students put it:

[Niebuhr's] pessimism concerning human nature was not balanced by an optimism concerning divine nature.

That former student was Martin Luther King Jr., whose "optimism concerning divine nature" was not an abstraction. He put it to the test in the only laboratory theologians have.

(More of King on Niebuhr from A People So Bold!)

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* Because Scott will inevitably chime in here, a note on libertarianism. Like all forms of utopianism, Niebuhr rejected this as incompatible with human nature. He would have appreciated the instinctive aversion to tyranny, but he wasn't naive enough to suggest that tyranny could be avoided without the exercise of power — meaning organized, institutional power and not merely some ad hoc Red Dawn fantasy that thinks the Second Amendment is the only necessary and sufficient measure for the prevention of tyranny. Thus Niebuhr defended the wisdom of America's Madisonian form of divided, limited government. Democracy lets the people keep the state in check, but even so the state tends to be more powerful than the people, so the power of the state must also be balanced against itself. Here we see the bitter tragedy of libertarianism — its "anti-government" ideology succeeds mainly in weakening the checks and balances meant to keep government in its place. See, for example, George W. Bush.

  • none

    Here we see the bitter tragedy of libertarianism — its “anti-government” ideology succeeds mainly in weakening the checks and balances meant to keep government in its place. See, for example, George W. Bush.
    WHAT? The party of George Bush did that all on their lonesome. They have eroded our powers and freedoms on a pro-state, pro-security, pro-Christian platform, and has increased the powers of his office openly and without question from the mainstream. There’s no libertarian ideology that weakened the government; there is a massive public idea that the President can do whatever he wants behind that idea. Libertarianism has nothing to do with Bush’s power grabs or his success in becoming an Imperial President. I can’t even begin to imagine how the “government should have more power” of an Imperialist Bush or a Statist Clinton connects to “government should have less power” in your mind.

  • Kristin

    More on Niebuhr in The Long Haul – the biography/autobiography of another student, Myles Horton, founder of the highlander school. A really easy, but inspiring read.

  • Jesurgislac

    I wished him the best and I hope that those overseeing this effort really have accounted for every possible variable and foreseen every possible consequence, as he assured me they had.
    Oh God no.
    Please tell me they didn’t…
    Fred, next time this should come up, please politely but firmly grab the botanist by the shirt front so that he can’t get away and start listing the ecological disasters caused by well-meaning people importing voracious new species to “fix” a problem. Invariably this leads to two ecological disasters instead of one. There are no exceptions.
    *sinks head into hands*
    Against stupidity the Gods themselves contend in vain.

  • Scott

    People are generally morally average, by definition.
    but he wasn’t naive enough to suggest that tyranny could be avoided without the exercise of power — meaning organized
    Straw man. The issue isn’t objecting to all organized activity and insisting on doing everything solo. The issue is objecting to equating organization w/ compulsion. Needing to be organized to resist a tyrant doesn’t open everyone’s checkbooks to anyone’s dreams of remaking the world, and says nothing about the social programs some think govt really exists for.
    It almost sounds like you’re making a case for the draft.
    agree that our limited, human knowledge and wisdom also suggest the need for limits on the power of government
    Limits on the power of govt or limits on the power of the Republican Party? I don’t see much in the way of accepting any limits on what govt can do in the economy around here, just limits on what the GOP can do concerning security.
    [Niebuhr's] pessimism concerning human nature was not balanced by an optimism concerning divine nature.
    I wouldn’t count on Divine Intervention in making the case for a social program.

  • forestwalker

    –”I can’t even begin to imagine how the “government should have more power” of an Imperialist Bush or a Statist Clinton connects to “government should have less power” in your mind.”
    If a society accepts Libertarianism it will be ruled by ubermensch. There’s no way around it. Just ask Ayn Rand.

  • Beth

    A wonderful piece, Fred, thanks. I’d only heard of Niebuhr in connection with the serenity prayer; now I’m interested in learning more. Thanks, also, for explaining the phrase, “total depravity.” I didn’t realize it even had a meaning, aside from the “Resident Evil” one.
    I don’t see much in the way of accepting any limits on what govt can do in the economy around here, just limits on what the GOP can do concerning security.
    It’s not about the GOP or security, Scott. It’s just that we’re more concerned about protecting human rights than property rights. That seems only natural to me.

  • Fred

    Scott –
    “People are generally morally average, by definition.”
    Obviously true, yet still potentially the basis for a religious right fundraising campaign: “Studies show that half of all Americans are morally below average …”
    Clearly a case for prayer in school.

  • pharoute

    “can’t imagine how the “government should have more power” …connects…”
    Use some imagination anon:
    Bush “I’ll give you some tax cuts and ‘property’ right refund stuff if you forget about all that civil liberties jazz.”
    “Done!”

  • Brandi

    I wished him the best and I hope that those overseeing this effort really have accounted for every possible variable and foreseen every possible consequence, as he assured me they had. But I maintain a Niebuhrian skepticism about the project.
    I sure as hell would. Two words: Australia’s ecosystem.

  • Bugmaster

    In what way is the ascent of Bush the result of libertarianism ?? I just don’t get it.

  • the bunny

    Yeah, I don’t get it either. All the libertarians I know voted for Al Gore and John Kerry. And I only have to just mention Ted Kennedy at the Libertarian Party meetings to get girls and boys to go home with me.

  • magistra

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the fact that Niebuhr has a very good take on ‘original sin’, explaining it in a way that makes sense even to non-believers:
    “This doctrine asserts the obvious fact that all men are persistently inclined to regard themselves more highly and are more assiduously concerned with their own interests than any “objective” view of their importance would warrant.”
    (This is from the Irony of American History, which I blogged about several times earlier this year (www.magistraetmater.blog.co.uk), a book which has lots of religio-political points which seem very relevant to current circumstances).

  • McJulie

    In what way is the ascent of Bush the result of libertarianism Two words:
    Grover. Norquist.
    All the libertarians I know vote Libertarian and yet espouse the most egregious Bush apologetics, but then, all the libertarians I know read that NRA magazine.
    Really, though, Bush is the worst of all possible worlds: he doesn’t believe that government can possibly do any good, so he does no good. But that certainly doesn’t mean he does nothing.
    Also, he lies about it, because he knows that if he came out and said “The federal government did nothing about Katrina, because that’s not the federal government’s job” Republicans would never win another election.

  • ScottDaly

    Limits on the power of govt or limits on the power of the Republican Party? I don’t see much in the way of accepting any limits on what govt can do in the economy around here, just limits on what the GOP can do concerning security.
    First of all not accepting limits on the economy has nothing to do with accepting limits on what the GOP can do concerning security. This is an apples and oranges argument. Secondly, I don’t think there is anyone here that doesn’t think that there should be limits on what the Government can do in the economy. We just disagree about where those lines need to be drawn. Thirdly, issues like how we treat “detainees” are essentially morality issues. They are issues of how much like our enemy are we willing to become in order to fight them. Issues of the economy are mainly free market vs controled market issues with a side helping of morality. They are issues of how much of a helping hand does the free market system need to keep from going out of control?
    The decisions that we make now in the “war on terror” will resonate for decades to come. And yet all we hear out of the GOP and hard core conservatives is essentially “shut the heck up, we know what we are doing!” Somehow I find this to be fundamentally incompatable with democracy. I mean after all if one group of people has all the answers to everything then we don’t need democracy. How can you utterly fail to see that decrying the terrorists for having no regard for human life, while at the same time locking people up indeffinitely without trial, using coercive interrogation techniques, and wanting to imprison people based on hearsay and secret evidence is hypocritical in the extreme. And I bet that you would blow a gasket if an American citizen was to be arrested in Syria as a “secruity threat” and subjected to the same techniques that you seem to feel are appropriate for us to use on people that we have arrested as “security threats”.
    The terrorist problem can not be solved by the US alone. It will take the cooperation of all the nations of the world. Yet our president continues to insist on policies and actions that drive the rest of the world away from us. For heavens sake, polls in european countries show that a significant number of people think more favorably of China than the US.
    The terrorist problem is in many ways a Christian problem. It is not a problem that can be completely solved with the gun or the bomb. Yes, you can remove one group of terrorists with the army or the police. But as long as the conditions that bread the terrorists exist there will always be more. We have to change the way that people think and live. The solution will require empathy, understanding, concern, and yes love. Something that I see as sorely lacking in the GOP’s current approach.


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