Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Are We Intrinsically Good or Fallen?

This question is at the heart of the modern deviation. For the common belief these days is that human beings are basically good unless they have the bad luck to grow up in an environment that stunts this or prevents it coming out in some way And, like all the best lies, this contains elements of truth. But, also like all the best lies, it leaves out something crucial. We certainly have the capacity for goodness and an unfortunate environment when growing up clearly has the potential to turn us into bad ways. However we are not intrinsically good. You only have to see a baby to realise that. Good and bad run through all of us together and if we would bring out the former we must work at it. Proper goodness is not something that is effortless and natural but something that must be developed, even struggled for. To achieve real goodness it is not enough to walk along the flat. We have to climb uphill and the hill is steep.

I think the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man is the one that best explains how human beings are. It tells us that we may have been created in one way but have become another through the misuse of the gift of free will. Before the Fall we were innocent and therefore neither good nor bad. Afterwards we became capable of both but nevertheless there was now something rotten at our hearts which was the self-centred ego, the distortion of individuality. We had become corrupt and needed mending.

Today the idea of original sin is rejected as a sort of self-hating abasement before a dominating authority figure, and there is a degree of truth in that. The doctrine can be twisted to become that, and I certainly don't go along with the idea, present in some forms of religion, that human beings are entirely worthless and corrupt. But the opposite is also wrong. We surely are children of God but we have taken a wrong turn and that is reflected at the deepest level of our psychology and requires something truly profound to root it out. Christians would say it required the Incarnation and that the advent of Jesus offered the chance for those who would accept it of a way back to goodness. But this goodness cannot be ours since it is precisely the sense of ourselves as autonomous, separate individuals that blocks it out. It can only come when we stand aside from ourselves and know that, of ourselves, we are nothing and that all we are comes from God. If even Jesus said that 'I of myself can do nothing' how much more does that apply to us?

Since the Fall all human beings have a tendency to deny the reality of God, preferring the pseudo-reality of our own separate selves. Thus walking the path of holiness requires effort and often means swimming against the tide of our nature, or that aspect of it with which we are most identified. It is not a totally natural way of being as might have been the case had we not fallen into the duality of sin. For the reality is that all of us are born in a state of sin, meaning separation from God, because of our innate self-centredness. This truth needs to be set beside the idea that we are also all sons and daughters of the Most High and made in His image but it is still the position that, in this life, we all start from. And we can only get out of it through the spiritualising process summed up in the words repentance, humility and grace. Thus any true goodness we might eventually have comes not from us but from God. Personal goodness enters in only to the degree that we acknowledge God.

If you ask a saint, or any true-hearted person, if he thinks of himself as good he will answer no and this is not because of disingenuousness or false humility but because he perceives the innate egotism in his being. Of course, to us he might appear good, or even be good, but that is precisely because he is aware of his own lack of personal goodness and taken the necessary steps to allow God into his heart. One of the tragedies of the modern world is that so many of us walk around thinking we are good people with no sense of our fallen condition. That doesn't mean we should be beating our breasts thinking we are miserable sinners. That's self-concern of a sort too and we need to walk upright, facing the world with confidence. But we should know the truth about ourselves and strive to put it right through humble acceptance of God, and recognition that we are indeed hollow men without him, though with him we can accomplish miracles.

Modern forms of religion that tell us we are loveable in ourselves are wrong, ignorantly, foolishly wrong, even pridefully wrong. We may be loved by God but we are certainly not loveable as we are. We are corrupt. There's no getting away from this and unless we accept it we cannot make any progress on the spiritual path.  But once we do accept it and realise that all real goodness is in God then we can advance towards becoming a repository of goodness ourselves.


ted said...

Great read William! This is indeed a corrective to New Age spirituality I believe is much needed. Often, people would rather (as Rousseau did) point to external conditions for any corruption that may appear instead of looking at themselves. As such, we are ever putting on bandaids instead of seeing the cure.

William Wildblood said...

Very true, ted. Rousseau has a lot to answer for! It seems to me that the only way we can ever really be good is through love of the true good which is God who is the source of all goodness. Otherwise, whatever we do or think or believe, however we behave, we can never be good because our centre is in ourselves. This leads to the conclusion that modern man, that is man who lives according to the ideas of modernity, can never be good. It might be countered that I am defining good according to my own terms but I would say that those are the terms of reality not appearance. Modern goodness is of appearance only

ajb said...

Do you think the idea humans are intrinsically good (as opposed to both having a good nature that has been corrupted but can be returned to) undermines the concept of mercy in Christianity (as in the Jesus prayer, or Kyrie eleison)? I ask because I have difficulty understanding the concept of mercy in Christianity, and I am wondering whether this might shed some light on it.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, I think you're exactly right about that. The notion that we ourselves are good also gives us the impression that we don't need any help from God in which case we don't need him at all particularly. So it can easily lead to pride.