MonthFebruary 2014

The Olympic Spirit and Human Goodness

InspiredImages / Pixabay

Are human beings basically good, or are they more inclined to do evil?  There is plenty of evidence for both sides of this long-debated philosophical question.

There is a lot of evidence for human goodness–we see it in the so-called “Olympic Spirit” where individuals dig so deeply to find incredible resources that we all admire.  Athletes of different nations come together, despite so many differences (some of them very serious), and show the world that unity might be possible.  There are many stories coming out of the Olympics that show the good humanity is capable of, like Justin Wadsworth, a Canadian Coach, who helped Russian skier, Anton Gafarov with his broken ski.  Or Gilmore Junio who gave his position in the  1000m event of men’s speed skating to Denny Morrison who fell in the Canadian trials and did not qualify.

But each of these athletes must undergo a rigorous regimen of testing because it is certain that some will resort to drugs and sophisticated doping methods to win.  Judging scandals are also not uncommon. Cheating is exactly the opposite of what the games stand for, yet we expect it will occur as surely as we are of the Dutch winning speed skating medals.

Where modern manifestations of liberalism are a little more mixed in their ideas of human nature, classical liberalism has a positive view of human nature.

Historically, more liberal political parties, starting from a position of human goodness, would work very hard to eliminate things like poverty and oppression or to promote things like education, for they believed that the evil men do comes from environmental factors.

This is another reason I might not be a liberal, at least not a classic one.  I don’t have a lot of faith in human goodness.  While environmental factors can certainly play a role, I think people are evil regardless of environment or education.

To a large extent I suppose I agree with Hobbes.  Not the Calvin’s side-kick, the stuffed tiger, Hobbes.  Although these two explored this idea as well . . .

Calvin and Hobbes - evil nature

. . . but the philosopher.  In his Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes said that without the authority represented by government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings will behave very badly.

For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war.  According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness.  This natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man.  He also argues that competition, diffidence and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety and reputation.  We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life.  This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights.   To ensure that these contracts are performed, society needs an authority who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints.  We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.

Because of humanity’s basic nature, Hobbes says that the “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

OK, I’m not completely in agreement with Hobbes.    I believe that human beings are capable of amazing expressions of altruism, but I think our default is to be selfish.

When I look at myself in the best possible light, I find, that even my best behaviour is usually motivated by selfishness in some way.  I won’t even begin to talk about those times when I behave badly.

I Think the Bible is True

Most liberals like parts of the Bible–they usually like what Jesus said, but there are other parts of the Bible that they reject outright.

I am not like most liberals because I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and, as such, it’s true and it’s relevant, and it’s also authoritative.

But let me say that there are certain parts that I am really uncomfortable with as well.

But, I can’t easily reject them for two reasons.

Two Reasons I don’t Reject the Bible

One reason is my experience.

In the past, I have had some major problems with what the Bible says.   Over the years, I often come to a realization that I had been misreading the Bible my whole life.  I’ll be reading something or listening to a sermon and I find a beautiful resolution to these puzzling passages.

Take, for example, the problem of hell–how could a loving God send people to hell.  That really bugged me for a long time, but then I read C. S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce.”   In it, Lewis postulates that God’s role is not so much sending people to hell as allowing people to walk away from him.  Lewis even suggests that people can leave hell if they want to, but many choose instead to stay.

This idea of God allowing human beings to choose is central to the teachings of the Bible.  The problem of hell is still with me, but I’ve discovered enough through reading the Bible and other folks much smarter than I am that it is not necessarily incompatible with a loving God.  By the time I got to reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I benefited from his critique on the Christian approach to the idea of hell, without accepting many of his conclusions.

I came across another thought in Dr. John  Patrick’s keynote from last year’s Apologetics Canada Conference.  The idea was this:  It’s not too hard to accept that God is both pure Love and pure Justice.  Just as it is inconceivable that a loving God allows people to be in hell, it is also just as inconceivable that a just God would allow people into heaven, but nobody argues about that.  It is a puzzling paradox, but it makes some sense if God is both living AND just.

It is my experience that puzzling passages will be sorted out in time.  I just need to do more reading and praying and and listening.

There are still passages that puzzle me, or that I just don’t like.  But I am no longer tempted to reject the Bible because of them.  As with past issues, I might be misinterpreting them.  So, I will wait patiently for be blessing of future epiphanies.

The second reason why I don’t reject the Bible . .  .

. .  . just because I don’t like what’s in it.

If the Bible were truly the word of God, then I doubt it would say only things I agreed with.  I doubt it would only say the things that citizens of 21st-century liberal democracies liked either.

If the Bible really were the word of a transcendent God, it is highly doubtful that it would present only those ideas that are palatable us, only here and only now.

If the Bible really were the word of a transcendent God, it is highly doubtful that it would present only those ideas that are palatable us, only here and only now. Click To Tweet

That wouldn’t make any sense, especially since we keep changing our ideas about what is right and wrong every few centuries, or decades, or years.  I haven’t been on this planet for very long, yet in my mere 50 years, I have seen a lot of change.  What was fine 20 years ago is the worst thing imaginable today.  If a perfectly offenseless Bible were written today, it would be deemed offensive in 30 years.  It’s a wonder that a book thousands of years old isn’t a lot more offensive than it is.

One of the arguments in favour of the Bible actually being the word of a transcendent God is that there are parts I am very uncomfortable with.

I understand that a significant barrier to the acceptance of the Bible in (some) African cultures is that it demands we forgive each other.  In North America, we have no problem forgiveness, but apparently, this is as hard for some cultures to accept as, say, sexual constraint is for North Americans.

I think the Bible is true, even though there are some parts that we have a lot of trouble with.

In some cases, we are troubled because we think it’s saying what it actually isn’t.  In others, it’s actually putting its finger on an area where the Creator of the Cosmos is telling us we have strayed from the path of righteousness.

The trick is knowing which we are dealing with.

Sometimes we think the Bible says what it isn't saying. Sometiems it's actually putting its finger on an area where the Creator of the Cosmos is telling us we have strayed from the path of righteousness. The trick is knowing which we are dealing with.Click To Tweet

 

I Might Not Be a Bigot (or a Commie)

aitoff / Pixabay

Individualism is so strong in the United States, that if you suggest any sort of limitation of individual freedom you might be called a bigot (by the left) or, worse yet, a socialist (by the right).

I think this might be the reason I find myself feeling more at home in Canada where, it seems,  individualism is softened a bit.

Individualism arises from a particular view of the self–the self is first an individual, and second, a member of a group.

Individualism is Both Liberal and Conservative

Individualism is not just liberal thing.  Both Liberals and Conservatives enthusiastically support the tenets of the liberal democracies, of which personal freedom is one–they just tend to emphasize different ones.

The liberals tend to be more interested in political and social freedoms and the conservatives are more insistent on economic ones.

So, it seems, that everyone can agree that individual freedoms are the ultimate good.  But then the Christians show up and suggest that there might be some merit to sacrificing some of those freedoms for the common good.  Then everybody hates the Christians–they are called bigots by the left and Commies by the right.

I am not a liberal because I question the primacy of individual political and social freedoms.

Marriage and Individualism

Personal freedom and Individualism should take a back seat now and them.  Marriage is a good place to test this idea–in marriage, individual freedom is less important than the common good.

If the self is ultimately an individual then the primary purpose of marriage is to serve the needs of the individual–marriage should contribute to happiness and aid in the flourishing of the individual.  If the marriage is no longer achieving this end, then one might legitimately get a divorce and move on.

If the common good takes primacy over the individual, then communal flourishing is more important than that of the individual.  Under these conditions, the purpose of marriage is to benefit the greater community in some way, say, by providing a secure environment for the nurturing of children.

It seems to me that in our culture we are unbalanced toward the side of individualism and showing no sign of moving toward equilibrium.  Liberals are not responsible for this shift, but in the area of political and social freedoms, they tend to push that direction.

Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, free speech are complicated issues and many Christians, and other groups who have a more collective mentality, are at odds with those who lean toward the individualist side of the continuum.

Importantly, it is sometimes one’s view of the self–whether it is primarily individual or communal–that determines one’s position on these issues and not, simply, one’s bigotry or communist leanings.

Paul Tillich wrote that there is a “polar tension” between individuals and community because you can’t have one, without the other.  A community needs individuals to challenge the identity of the community in order to keep it alive, and the identity of the individual is derived from the greater community.

I am a little worried that we are in danger of losing the tension.

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