Monday, September 08, 2008

Nature of Humanity...

Long ago William Shakespeare wrote:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!
In my last year of seminary I referred to that quote in a paper dealing with Calvin and the doctrine of humanity/nature of humanity. In that paper I essentially took Calvin to task for his thoughts which developed into "worm theology".

So what is our basice nature? Are we naturally inclined to good or to evil? Is it a question of original sin or original blessing?

This column appears in the latest issue of the United Church Observer. I took Church History before Sandra got to St. Andrew's and so never took part in the exercise she describes but I have to say that it sounds like a great exercise. Do you stand more with Augustine and the inability to do anything but sin (which leads quite directly to Calvin and total depravity) or with Pelagius and the ability to choose to do what is good? And why?

IF I were to do it I would be on the Pelagian side of the line. But as I thought about it while reading the column I realized that I might be closer to the center than previously. Observation of human activity and structures does in fact speak eloquently about an original sin/total depravity possibility.

But then I remember a question John Crossan asks in God and Empire in regards to civilization and violence. Does normalcy mean inevitability? Just because there is a tendency to happen does it automatically have to happen?

So yeah, I still lean towards Pelagius (and some suggest that Celtic Christianity as a whole leaned toward Pelagianism before it was taken over/folded into Roman Catholicism). I see thaat God declared all creation, humanity included, as inherently good. That means there is the possibility that we can choose not to sin. But the evidence makes that hard to believe at times....

So if we were all in Sandra's class together where would your name be on the chalkboard?


  1. I read each statement and I think "Yes, of course!". So I'm not sure where I'd be on the spectrum - probably near the middle. I find that an appreciation of "original sin" (to use the usual term) allows me to simply let go of my tendency toward perfectionism. I can't be perfect; even if I do absolutely everything I can, I won't be. So I should do my best, and trust God in Christ to help me make up the lack...

  2. I think I see the tendancy toward evil more in collective human endeavors/history than in individuals--the tendancy for bold new ideas to get institutionalized, for efforts for justice to turn violent, etc. I wonder if there is also a class/social location element in this too--does the middle class tend toward Pelagianism?

  3. I would love to sit in Sandra's class and firmly place my name in the Pelagianism column.

    However, I have to agree with PCIT that when it comes to the basic political and social structures in which we all live and breathe - it's tough not to agree with Calvin re: the inherent evil of most social systems.

    I include the church in those systems, by the way. I know that it simply is what it is, and it's better than no system at all - we DO need some kind of order. But in so many ways, the church gets in its own way and spends a lot of time focusing on what are essentially a reflection of its shadow side.

    So - the idealist in me likes Pelegianism. The realist sees Calvinism.

  4. Our Hindu friends would probably see this exercise as limited thinking, but would likely be too polite to criticize it for its limitations. In Hindu philosophy, we wouldn't be trapped in a dichotomy that, no matter how refined, leaves universes of possibilities out of the picture.

    Rather, the Hindu approach would allow for the either-or view, as this exercise has reflected, or a both-and view, which would postulate that we are capable of light/dark (read good/evil if you must) both, in a dynamic balance; then there is the neither-nor, which would suggest that this view of good/evil is not truthful or useful. I won't go there: both-and is more fun.

    In a sense, i guess in Hindu philosophical terms, Calvin and Pelagius were both right--and both wrong. Isn't this fun?