The Good, the Bad and the Deeply Conflicted

Posted: June 18, 2013 in Culture, God, Life, Truth
Tags: , , ,

MORALCOMPASS

One of the gulfs that divides the Christian and non-Christian cultures is the issue of whether human beings are born good, bad or neutral.

Over the centuries, many non-Christians have argued that human beings are born good and it is only society that corrupts them.  However, since Freud, non-Christians have more often argued that humans are born morally neutral and we learn concepts of morality from those around us.  In other words, there are no in-born moral impulses of any kind.  We enter the world as blank slates, waiting for those around us to inscribe the arbitrary moral code that will guide us later in life.

Christians on the other hand, have long maintained that human begins are born sinful, inheriting an irresistible tendency towards evil, though this should not be misunderstood as a belief that all human beings are as evil as they could possibly be.  Different people will give in to this sinful impulse in different and varying degrees.  The key is simply that no one will ever be able to…or even have any natural interest in…completely avoiding the not-good impulses which come from this sin nature.

I have maintained for several years now that these options are overly simplistic.  I’m not an optimist about human nature.  I do not believe we are born good or even neutral.  However, I also believe that the standard Christian belief that we are born sinful is too simplistic a position as well.  The main problem with this view is that holding it consistently requires that we deny that any non-Christian can do any good and I just don’t believe this is true.  (Psalm 14:3 – “no one does good” – need not be taken as a doctrinal declaration but as a poetic description of general tendency)  In fact, I have seen non-Christians do great good.  I have seen non-Christians be altruistic and make great sacrifices for others.  Now, I’m not saying that these acts can earn them salvation.  I believe, as Isaiah 64:6 says, that even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags…even the good that we do is tainted by our sin and so is useless as evidence of our “goodness”.

Instead, I believe human beings are born deeply conflicted.  We have a sinful nature from birth that cannot be completely suppressed or denied and yet, we have impulses towards good that exist simply because we are made as the Image of God (Gen 1:26-28).  Apart from Christ, our capacity for good will always be overshadowed and poisoned by our sin nature, but most people will experience the ongoing frustration that comes from experiencing these two contrary impulses.  This is one of the things that leads people to seek for a Redeemer.

Anyway, just this morning I read an article about a psychology study that seems to support my belief on this issue of our inborn moral nature.  In a recent study at Yale, babies between 6 and 10 months of age were shown a little moral drama involving geometric shapes in which one shape “helped” another climb a hill while another shape thwarted their efforts.  After watching the little show, the infants were allowed to choose from the various shapes.  Over 80% of them chose the shape that was acting as the helper!  This study was repeated numerous times with different shapes playing the different parts and it made no difference.  Whatever shape was seen to be helping the climber was selected by more than 80% of the infants.  This strongly suggests that these very, very young children have an in-born sense of justice that motivates their behavior.  In another study at Yale, babies watched a puppet pass a ball to two other puppets.  One puppet returned the ball and the other ran away with it.  Then these babies had the chance to “punish” one puppet by taking away a piece of candy from a pile associated with it (the puppet).  The vast majority of the babies chose to take a treat away from the puppet who had absconded with the ball.  Some babies even smacked the bad puppet!  Again, these babies seem to be acting out of an in-born sense of justice and perception of right and wrong.  The idea that we are blank-slates with no inherent moral compass does not bear up well in light of these studies.

But anyone who has worked with children also knows that this in-born moral compass doesn’t exactly dictate saintly behavior, either!  Selfishness, dishonesty and downright meanness are evident from a very early age, in  spite of our best efforts to teach them to act otherwise.  On the whole it seems clear that, while we do have an in-born moral compass, we also have an in-born distortion to it that twists our behavior into sin.

So rather than saying we are inherently good or inherently evil, wouldn’t it just be better to acknowledge the messy reality?  We are inherently conflicted and only Christ can straighten us out.

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