Is Man’s Nature Basically Good?

frI once had a friend who liked to play an interesting game of “what super power would you prefer?” He would ask, for instance, whether it would be better to have the ability to fly or the ability to, say, read people’s minds. Whichever one you picked, he would quickly point out the negatives that might come with that choice, and often the two possibilities he selected were, to say the least, bizarre.

I thought about that game a while ago while watching an episode of the TV show “Fringe.” Unfolding a story of parallel universes in conflict, the show plays out a variety of unusual events. The episode I was watching involved a person who had been experimented upon as a child, and as a result had developed the capacity to read people’s minds. What may have started off as a super power, however, quickly turned into a liability. Since other people’s thoughts would flood into his mind from a distance of 50 or so feet, he had been forced to become essentially a hermit, living in isolation as far away from society as he possibly could. The power had become a curse.

Most people would agree that the ability to read minds would be terrifying. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for this: the white lie we tell when we really don’t think someone looks nice would be unnecessarily hurtful. Things like bargaining for the best deal or playing poker would be impossible. But the real reason is that each of us knows the inner turmoil that lies within us – the conflicting, and often quite base, emotions warring within our minds for dominance, and worse yet, for expression. Jealousy, hatred, greed, envy, the desire for power and dominance – this ugly aspect of our basic nature must be daily suppressed, or channeled into some more appropriate expression. Drugs, alcohol and fatigue become the enemy, as each alone, and worse in combination, can lower the walls of self-restraint that, for most of us most of the time, imprison these demons in the recesses of our minds.

In my last post, I asked the question if man is basically “good,” as secular humanism holds, or basically fallen and broken, as Christianity teaches. This is an important question, because a worldview out of sync with the true nature of things is likely to lead its adherents very far astray. And secular humanism, with its utopian promises, is doing just that, as it leads people away from the true source of life. Seeing clearly man’s inner corruption can help shake off the creeping influence of this godless worldview.

But, some will object, man is capable of great acts of goodness. Does this not show that man is at his core good? Yes, it is true that many people do “good” in the world. But what is really in their heart? How many times are those acts motivated by some other, baser desire? How many times is the act of good an offering of penance, whether knowingly or not, for the guilt that is bubbling constantly to the surface of our thoughts? Why is it that despite advances in psychology that seek to eliminate these pervasive feelings of guilt, guilt remains a universal feature of the human condition? Is it, perhaps, that each of us knows something is expected of us that we refuse to deliver, and how often we fall short of the mark? Is it that we know that despite all our “good” works, there is something else within us that we cannot quite control?

If someone could read minds, he would not find a world full of people experiencing peace and contentment, with the occasional person struggling to force some evil thought to the surface. Quite the contrary: he would find the vast majority of people pursuing their selfish agenda, sometimes doing good but always measuring what they are getting against what they are giving. Even the philanthropist is in part motivated by the pleasure he derives from public praise. The mind-reader would find people quick to take offense and slow to forgive, nursing wounds real and imaginary, though some are more adept at hiding this than others. That’s what makes a saint so unusual, and so worthy of emulation. Yes, selfish concern is the norm, and the process of civilizing a person involves teaching him to think about others first. That process is so difficult precisely because it is so against the grain.

As the old radio drama put it, who knows what evil lurks within the heart of men? And lurk it does, ready to take advantage of any chink in the armor of self control that most of us need to assemble as we take on the challenges of life. The answer is simple: God, of course, knows. Omniscient by nature, he knows our every thought. Our constant acts of rebellion we cannot hide, nor disguise. He sees our corruption with stark clarity, and though we can lie to ourselves, we cannot deceive Him. And nonetheless, He finds a way to continue to love us and to reach out to us. But he does so on His terms. We cannot approach Him and ask Him to embrace the evil that we do. Instead, with humble hearts, we need to acknowledge that justice would require that He separate himself from us. As a perfectly holy being, it would make perfect sense for Him to do so.

That is the danger of the humanistic worldview. When one mistakenly believes that he is basically good, he doesn’t need a Savior. What point is there in prostrating oneself at the foot of the Cross, when standing eye-to-eye with God feels so much better? The Christian worldview, by contrast, makes better sense of what we actually see. Man needs a savior, because at his core is a corruption that he cannot himself remedy. Though we may try to hide it from others, we can’t help knowing this, if we’re ever honest enough for a no-punches-pulled self-assessment.

Posted by Al Serrato

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