We are not born blank slates, but with powerful instincts, urges, desires, and motivations. These desires aren’t something we decide to have, either consciously or even subconsciously. We simply have them. We don’t decide to have them any more than we decide to be hungry or to feel pain.
The vast majority of human beings have very similar programming, including prosocial programming since we’re a very social species. This prosocial programming heavily influences our moral inclinations. These inclinations aren’t voluntary. How we respond to them may be, but feeling them isn’t.
Arguing in favor of the existence of human nature is controversial and rejected by many today due to various strains of naturalist and materialist thinking. Defenders of the concept argue that when defined in certain ways, human nature is both scientifically respectable and meaningful. Therefore, the value and usefulness of the concept depends essentially on how one construes it.
According to one influential philosophical tradition, to understand human nature is to grasp the essence of what it is to be human. As typically understood, an “essence” is the fundamental being or reality that a particular thing embodies. An essence explains the traits that a thing has. It is not reducible to those traits, however; it is unchanging in some durable sense.
Yet the concept can be defended, even in light of evolutionary and naturalist thought. That defense begins with the intelligibility of humans as such – the fact that we recognize something of what it means to be human. The picture emerging from evolutionary and developmental biology is – contrary to the widespread opinion among contemporary philosophers – one that very much supports the notion of human nature, just not an essentialist one.
Operating from an evolutionary perspective, human nature is best conceived of as a cluster of homeostatic properties, ie of traits that are dynamically changing and yet sufficiently stable over evolutionary time to be statistically clearly recognisable. These properties include characteristics that are either unique to the human species, or so quantitatively distinct from anything similar found in other animals that our version is unquestionably and solely human.
Therefore, in a general sense, human nature is a bundle of characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, which humans are said to have naturally. The term is often regarded as capturing the most meaningful sense of what it is to be human.
Western culture is a set of values, practices, and ideas that derive from the Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, and Humanists. Common to all those contributors is the claim of inherent human dignity.
The Western claim is that human beings emerge from nature as persons – free, emotive-rational, conscious subjects. As persons we possess a unique ontological dignity, an inherent value, and a sense of worth that is grounded in our very being and is not merited or earned.
Has Western culture proven this claim of human dignity? Can such insights be demonstrated in a logically consistent manner? The answer is no, one cannot deductively prove human dignity. Rather, assertions of human dignity are based on collective insight – the shared view of a culture and tradition.
Still, the fact that humans have such potential for good and bad is also something of a statement of our metaphysical status, for a being capable of such good and such evil must have some sense of ontological gravitas.
What does it mean to assert that every human being is a person? The concept of person implies an independence of being and acting, echoing back to Roman law – persona est suri iuris et alteri incommunicabilis – a person is a being which belongs to itself and which does not share its being with another. Personhood implies subjectivity – we are not inert, passive objects in the world – we are centers of awareness (including self-awareness), action, and unrepeatable individuality.
To assert the inherent dignity of the human person is not speciesism or a denigration of other life forms. Every living being is unique and of value. Each being has dignity. Yet human self-awareness, reason, language, the engendering of culture, freedom, capacity for virtue (and vice) calls attention to the unique place of the human person within the ecosystem.
This sacred vision of humanity – expressed in many religious traditions as Imago Dei, B’tzelem Elohim, and that of God within each person – has its origins in the insight that humans possess certain abilities that reflect what are often deemed divine powers – creativity, the ability to love, freedom, reason, and so on.
This vision of human dignity owes it origins in part also to the pre-Christian, classical thinking – that humans occupy a lofty role within the natural order and have natural capacities of creativity, love, freedom, and reason that rise to the level of near divinity.
Much of the better aspects of Western Cultural tradition are grounded in the affirmation of human dignity, from democracy, social justice, human rights, aid to the needy, compassion, and freedom, to themes in art, religion, literature, style, cuisine, and architecture.
To reflect on human dignity is a gateway to moral understanding and the assertion of human rights and responsibilities that form our social order. Our dignity makes certain demands on us in terms of how we live, eat, dress, work, have sex, entertain ourselves – and how we relate to others, both humans and nonhumans, in the world around us.
Humans experience the capacity of being “called” by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own nature calling us toward fulfillment.
Morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority. Rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
Our dignity and ontological status provides something of a given orientation. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
The above manner of moral reasoning derives from a tradition of Western ethics called natural law reasoning. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature to derive norms for behavior in relation to human flourishing, in Greek, Eudaimonia.
Natural law ethics engages in praxeological analysis of human action in relation to goods/values and their role in human flourishing. Yet, in the fullest sense, natural law reasoning also implies a given philosophical anthropology, or view of the human person, as well as an implied metaphysics of value and the good.
The word natural corresponds to human nature, a sense that there are essential characteristics common to all human persons that constitute them as such. Nature, in this sense, is a category beyond personality, bodily traits, or individual circumstances – nature is the essential, constitutive, aspects that make one human.
The word law corresponds to a developing body of wisdom concerning those goods and behaviors that aid in human flourishing. Therefore, natural law moral reasoning understands human morality as laws (principles, norms) of human nature – a moral law or moral order, that is engrained in and derived from a reasoned analysis of human nature itself, and the goals and end states we deem worth obtaining.
In the natural law tradition, all efforts are made to define flourishing as holistically as possible, not limiting the notion to fleeting emotional states of happiness or brief periods of sensual delight or satisfaction. The notion of flourishing implies a lasting and essential improvement of the human person as person and thus relates to constitutive aspects of human nature.
It must be noted that natural law ethics provides a framework for conducting moral reasoning – it is a method of thinking about right and wrong. Natural law ethics does not provide a list of goods or actions that lead to human flourishing. Questions such as, “what does the natural law say? or “does such behavior violate the natural law?” are somewhat misplaced.
One does not consult the natural law as one would a text. Rather, it’s a method of analyzing human nature and gaining insights into human flourishing. The word insight is significant. Moral truth, strictly speaking, isn’t demonstrated or understood through deductive means. Moral reasoning relies more on inductive method, but also the mental function of insight, the human capacity to intuit or comprehend the nature of things, their essence, their core meaning.
Insights require elucidation if they are to be communicated to others. In reasoned conversation, one needs to show or convey the content of their insights to others, getting others to see what we see. This manner of reasoning requires skill and conversations based on such can require time. Insights are not shared by all people and not always immediately grasped.
Therefore, intelligent people can engage in proper natural law reasoning and reach different conclusions. In such cases, appeals can be made using philosophical reasoning, empirical evidence, psychological evaluation, and sociological and cultural studies conducted over time, to help evaluate claims of flourishing and betterment.
Morality is an integral part of our natural circumstances and identity, and is thus proper to the methodology of both philosophy and the human sciences.
While not all forms of immorality yield clear empirically demonstrable effects, in general, it is expected that long term immoral conduct will have some noticeable results on the human person – be they affects of character, health, or mental health.
Certain religious groups will claim forms of spiritual harm for behavior deemed immoral. Spiritual well-being is admittedly a vague concept that eludes empirical verification. In general, the tendency of more philosophically based theological traditions is to speak of the spiritual as coexistent with the mental, psychological, and affective dimensions of the person.
Understanding moral truth is a function of reason, although our reasoning may be aided by the inspired writings and our religious traditions.
Wholeness & Salvation
Humans are limited, imperfect creatures living in a semi-chaotic, free-flowing world. Perfection, particularly moral perfection, is impossible – perfection remains only an ideal in a real, dynamic, and emergent world. Humans can obtain some measure of wholeness, but it is often illusive and incomplete.
The Genesis narratives present accounts seeming to argue for the imperfection of humanity as well as a denial that humans can obtain perfection. Perfection, understood as absolute moral, ritual, and juridic purity before God – an unblemished status – is impossible. However, if instead of perfection, we seek a sense of wholeness proper to our nature, then the scriptures take on fuller meaning.
We deny the doctrine of Original Sin and other related notions of a cosmic gap, separation, or debt owed to God or the universe on the part of humanity.
No one needs to die for another to be whole. Human wholeness does not require bloodshed. Much of the Christian theology of original sin and substitutionary blood atonement is deeply flawed and contrary to basic notions of justice and necessity.
The Genesis accounts are, in part, mythic attempts to explain human limitation and the presence of evil in the world, not actual descriptions of events, attempts at scientific explanation, or historical narratives.
Our world, including all humans, is imperfect and limited. Humans have the potential for fostering beautiful goodness, as well as stunningly horrific evil. Thus is the capacity of humans. While moral goodness is a realistic goal, moral perfection is not obtainable. The past is unretrievable. No Cross, atonement, sacrifice, or reparations are possible. The future does not exist. It is our responsibility to do our best to master ourselves in virtue and strive for a just, compassionate social reality, worthy of our human dignity and the sacredness of life and the ecosystem.
The ancient Jewish authors of Genesis were expressing layered meanings and insights of how they understood the world. The creation stories were intended to stand in contrast to similar creation accounts of the tribes and cultures in the region. The manner of creation speaks volumes about their understanding of God and the nature of the world.
Part of those original myths is the account of our first parents in Eden. The story is intended as mythic narrative – evolution and genetics indicates a different account of human origins. Yet our scientific knowledge doesn’t eradicate the intended meanings of the ancient story.
Jewish exegesis and hermeneutics does not read the accounts as acts of rebellion resulting in the complete rupture of the relationship between the divine and the human. Instead, most Jewish interpretation speaks of human maturation, the emergence of moral awareness, as well as the profound cultural changes that resulted from the transition from hunter-gatherers to crop growing, agricultural people. A careful reading of the texts clearly show these themes as present.
It would be Paul who pulls from the tradition the notion of original sin understood as a fault of our first parents. Paul’s theology repeatedly connects Jesus to Adam – Jesus is the first man in the new creation as Adam was the first man of the original creation. And Paul contrasts Jesus and Adam, noting Jesus’ perfections in comparison to Adam’s flaws. When this is added to Paul’s understanding of Jewish notions of sacrifice, Jesus’ death and resurrection take on a corrective nature – an initial event toward the perfecting of the world.
Unfortunately, later thinkers, building and interpreting Paul and the other sacred writings, will argue for a different narrative – one of initial disobedience that results in corruption that can only be overcome and healed by direct divine intervention. Augustine, and then many of the early Reformers, propose just this.
Survey the present theological landscape, and an even narrower version of the Reformers motif of disobedience, separation-corruption-sacrifice-restoration lies at the heart of much of Christian theology and spirituality. Often, this theology is summarized-popularized in what many Evangelicals call, The Four Spiritual Laws.
Therefore, what we’ve witnessed is the evolution of a layered, mythic account of human maturation, complexity, and imperfection evolve into today’s common (mis)understanding of original sin, replete with disobedient original parents who destroy the innocence and harmony of the world and separate themselves from God in the process, bringing death and decay into the world as a result.
This mythic foundation then becomes the starting point for interpreting Jesus as the perfect blood sacrifice necessary appease cosmic justice and restore the relationship between God and humanity. However, reality and the scriptures do not support such notions or assertions.
Returning to the text of Genesis, describing the consequences of eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the birth of moral awareness, also referenced in the couple’s recognition of their nakedness), human beings will now understand suffering and be required to accept responsibility for their actions. Further, the transition from hunter-gatherer culture (the garden) to agriculture will now require the humans to work (till) the land with much toil and sweat in order to survive. At the end of the account, God himself makes clothing from animal skins for the couple – hardly the action expected by an angry God who is now eternally separated from humanity by a chasm of sin. Move ahead only a handful of chapters, and God is entering into a covenant with Noah, and then an eternal covenant with Abraham – again, hardly the behavior of a God whose condemned his disobedient creation and certainly not indicative of a severed relationship.
Does this train of thought end with a denial of original sin? Well, that depends on how one defines the concept. If by the concept you mean disobedience on the part of our original parents ultimately resulting in Jesus’ crucifiction to “pay” for the offense, then yes, the above reading denies this interpretation. However, if by original sin, you mean a mythic account seeking to explain the multifaceted nature of imperfect and limited human beings, then no.
Salvation is a metaphor for this reality of human actualization – individual and collective – the fullness of human thriving and wholeness. In this sense, salvation is a process, not a static status – it’s an ongoing dynamic of self-improvement, learning, and love – of becoming more fully human – of obtaining some sense of wholeness. No one can hand us our salvation, we must work it out for ourselves.
The mechanics of salvation must be carefully thought through. Certain interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross assert that salvation was made possible due to Jesus serving as a sacrifice that appeases an exacting God of justice. Yes, the cross is a symbol of the saving power of kenotic love – a witness to Jesus’ integrity and love – but not divine blood payment for cosmic accounting purposes.
No one needs to die for another to be whole. Human wholeness does not require bloodshed. Much of the theology of original sin and substitutionary blood atonement is deeply flawed and contrary to basic notions of justice and necessity.
The scriptures and experience show that human wholeness – salvation – is the result of ongoing efforts of learning, self mastery, and giving oneself over to goodness. The 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel best illustrates these truths. Our wholeness comes from what we give ourselves to – this is, perhaps, the central salvific message of Jesus.
This concept of salvation is both personal and communal each overlap and neither can exist without the other.
Personal salvation implies a sense of individuation, integration, and wholeness. This is a dynamic state where thriving, growth, and moral and practical development are happening and possible.
At the personal level, a person is experiencing salvation when they are in pursuit of valid ideals which create self-fulfillment through the integration of all their beliefs and talents.
Social salvation occurs through ordering society in such a way that every person is capable of achieving personal salvation, when the community, and broader society uphold the ideals of justice, peace, love, freedom, and so on.
Salvation is the central task of religion, and according to Kaplan God is the power through which salvation is possible. Kaplan argues that “in the very process of human self-fulfillment, in the very striving after the achievement of salvation, we identify ourselves with God, and God functions in us” as life’s creative forces, tendencies, and potentialities. The entirety of Kaplan’s theology is commentary on the basic idea that God is the power that creates salvation.
Kaplan is identifying God with the dynamism which animates the entirety of the universe, from galaxies to subatomic particles, as well as with all those qualities which make the existence of the universe possible, such as order and the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. The creative power of the universe is an attribute of God, and without both the order and dynamism which underlies creation, the universe could not exist.
If anything, it makes God a fundamental aspect of reality by identifying God as the underlying unity of existence. Because God is forever creating a cosmos out of chaos,
Kaplan asserts that to believe in God is to believe that reality is constituted in such a way that salvation is achievable, i.e. that human beings are capable of achieving those things which are of greatest value to them. He does not explain how this is so, but he seems to assume that as part of the universe humans are being acted upon by God and brought forth out of chaos. As such, God is acting through us and upon us to bring us into a truly ordered existence, i.e. God is acting through and on humanity to create its salvation.
Salvation is achievable when order overcomes disorder, and this necessitates human beings working with God in the process of creation. In order for human efforts to be effective, they must align themselves with God through understanding the way reality is ordered and orienting themselves to their highest ideals.
Life Beyond Death?
Does salvation imply the supernatural concepts of a human soul that lives on beyond the body after physical death in some heavenly realm? Is salvation about achieving entry to this everlasting spiritual realm?
I believe the tradition answers no. Judaism for most of its history has not placed any great emphasis on any strong notions of an afterlife. And while Jesus speaks of heaven, it’s unclear whether he is asserting the existence of another reality beyond this one, or speaking mythopoetically.
It is here where we grasp the importance of a correct human anthropology. It seems a mistaken notion that we are immaterial souls trapped in bodies, or some sort of dualist hybrid of spirit and flesh. Yes, such language at times does help us make sense of certain human realities. But it is truer to say that we are unified self-aware flesh, that our existence melds material and immaterial realities, and that the exact relationship of the mind-soul to the body is a mystery.
Rather than speak of the human soul as some sort of ghost in the machine, it seems more accurate to speak of the soul in terms of individuation, identity, place, meaning, and purpose – the core reality of the human person – and fundamental themes in most religions. The soul is that locus of meaning and purpose within an individual.
The soul must find its meaning and purpose outside itself – in the world, in others, in objective values. Religious wisdom includes soulcraft, conveying the skills and insights needed in shaping the soul to find fulfillment with the world.
Human beings emerge from nature, our life supported and enmeshed in the ecosystem, and at the end of our life, we (or, perhaps, at least, our physical aspects) return to nature.
As for a life, awareness, or some manner of personal existence that continues after this life is over – one can’t deny such possibilities philosophically, but no one can offer any evidence for such either.
We miss the meaning of life if we live it only in reference to the future. We can experience only the now. The past is gone, and the future isn’t yet a reality. To live only for some distant, other worldly future is to miss the point of living. We should live our lives as if each day matters as much as the day to come. This doesn’t mean not to plan and sacrifice for the future – that’s prudence. It means not neglecting the joys and challenges of today for an uncertain, distant future.
Our earthly-bodily journey will end and no one knows what happens when we die. Yet we do know that wisdom lies in embracing the core spiritual truth that kenotic love opens us toward wholeness now – we need not wait for some sense of cosmic wholeness or salvation that occurs at our death.
Something of us transcends death, our love, our generosity, some of the lingering effects of our efforts – what else may endure remains a mystery.