Neither Good nor Bad

As violence and division erupt here at home and around the world, we are forced again to ask of ourselves: who are we? What is the essential nature of human beings? Are we inclined to do good, or are we bound to pursue what might be named evil? Good, or bad? A seemingly simple question but one that drags in its wake a multitude of ramifications that are not so simple. After all, the issue of human freedom and responsibility is at the heart of all human society.

In the fourth century a controversy between Augustine of Hippo and a monk named Pelagius set the terms of debate for western culture. The latter argued that human beings have the innate power to do good, while Augustine argued that because of original sin we are all incapable of doing good without the help of God. Augustine basically carried the day and set the tone for the Middle Ages. More than a millennium later the same issue came front and center when Martin Luther and the renowned scholar Erasmus had at it, and Luther set the tone for most of Protestantism: we need God’s help. But the issue is not solely a theological question. The laws of society presuppose that a party judged guilty freely chose to break the law, and so is responsible for the act, be it jaywalking or storming the Capitol. The only excuse is insanity, however that may be defined and proven. Generally, the question of our innate goodness or badness is usually raised as a question of whether we have free will or not and whether we are responsible for our behavior or not.

But such framing betrays an oversimplified image of how our brain actually functions. The assumption is that there is a faculty called “will” that we possess, and that it can be free or captive. The reality is that our mental operations are a process, not a possession, and recognizing that complicated operation completely transforms how we understand who we are.

That process begins when we come into this world, bombarded with a vast array of stimuli. We need to make some kind of sense out of it, and so we begin to organize our sensations. It doesn’t take long before we meet the sensations with categories of interpretation, such that red and spherical we soon learn to recognize as an apple, and henceforth we link the sensations of red and round with our perception of an apple. It also does not take long before we use our mental perceptions to determine what we see. Sensations are made to fit into our preconceived notion of what should be and, voila, I now begin to believe that the world really is as I perceive it, even though that identification is a mental leap of judgment. It also does not take long before I expect everyone else to see the truth of my little world that I have created, and if that does not happen, then some type of corrective adjustment is called for.

What types of correction? One possibility is that we could recognize and accept the narrowness and short-sightedness of our own perspective, and seek to learn from others, so that we can expand our world. Education here plays a key role, such that instead of demonizing the “other”, we could learn about a different viewpoint. This works for some people, perhaps even a majority, but openness to being educated about the limitations of our private world is not universal. There are those, perhaps in great numbers, who absolutize their worldview and judge “others” as being deviant. Education does not work for them. Just as openness is not an option for many individuals, so too is it not an option for certain groups. Mass delusion creates groups that mistrust each other, and who sometimes battle for the right to be most wrong.

Just as education will work for some individuals and groups, the scientific method is supposed to create a world that is beyond interpretation, a world that everyone accepts because it is true. But that is not the case. A key cause of the social divisions in the US is that emotion has overpowered reason, and we believe that the world that I and my group have created for ourselves is not subject to scientific criteria. Science, along with education, seems unable to contradict the distorted perspective with which some live and move and have their being. Pelagius, Erasmus and the free-willers seem a bit naive when commending our capacity to do good without perceptual distortion. On the other hand, Augustine and Luther have mis-identified the source of our problem. It is not that we have inherited some sort of disease called original sin, but rather that a perfectly neutral and natural process of trying to make sense of our environment can take a bad turn toward absolutism. Science and education are elements that help redirect our navel-gazing, but apparently are insufficient for the enlightenment of certain individuals and groups, perhaps the majority. Why we absolutize our own limited perspective, turning away from education and science, is a question with no obvious answer, but we all unconsciously absolutize to a certain extent, some more so than others. In short, we all have a world we have created, some of us are willing to embrace science and education- understood in the broadest sense- to correct and widen that world, and some are not willing.

The next question is whether there is a dimension of human existence that goes beyond education and science, and the answer is yes. No matter who we are, we all experience certain moments that transcend our mundane everydayness, lifting us out of the ordinary. I have described these times elsewhere and often, and will not repeat that description here. They come big and they come small. An example of the big is an immediate sense of awe that can come when gazing at the Milky Way. An example of the small is the warmth created by the cuddle of a puppy. They ever so briefly free us from the confines of the world we have created, and serve as reminder that there is more to life than we have allowed into our world. The problem is that if these special times are not recognized and nourished, they become easily absorbed back into our world, subsumed under whatever rationale we create to enable our retreat back into our comfort zone. How are they nourished? This where community enters the picture.

We are social beings who did not evolve to live in isolation. When in a moment we are liberated from the confines of our world, we greatly benefit from those with whom we feel at one. We need both comfort and critique as we seek to grow and become more open. We all know this: former prisoners returning to society, drug addicts becoming clean, those seeking to lose weight, people dealing with mental or physical pain- we need loving community support in order to survive and succeed.

The question, then, is not whether we have free will or not, or whether we are essentially good or bad. The task, rather, is to understand the processes we go through in the attempt to make sense of life. And the key to that understanding is to recognize those moments, those special times when they come our way. We can do that on our own, but the awakening is much easier and more fruitful if, to quote Joe Cocker, we have “a little help from our friends”.
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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