"The Nature of Humans"

The story of the Garden of Eden is the source of the belief that human nature is evil. The story is that Adam and Eve sinned by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, resulting in the Fall of Humankind. We have been taught that human nature has been sinful ever since. This is not, however, a story about human nature changing from good to evil. This is not the story of the Original Sin. This is a story about God giving people the chance to be human beings, with opportunities to choose to do both good and bad.

The forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden is known as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. It could also be called the Tree of Freedom and Responsibility. Adam and Eve are told that if they eat of this tree, they will certainly die. Obviously, before they eat from this tree, they are not free and responsible, since they have no knowledge of good and bad. Before they eat of the fruit of this tree, Adam and Eve are little puppets. They have no independent thoughts and no authentic feelings. They have no possibility of freely entering into a covenant relationship with God. Covenant relationship involves choice. And so a great, loving God allowed created humans to be free and responsible, to be fully mortal, to think for themselves, to feel every imaginable feeling, to struggle with good and bad. When Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, human life began and human nature was intact. Life in the Garden, at least before the fruit feast, was not human life but pre-human existence, symbolic of life in the womb.

When Psalm 8 speaks of humankind having been created to be only a little less than the gods, it speaks of human nature. The Psalmist is not naive to proclaim that God has crowned humans with glory and honor and placed the earth in human stewardship. The Psalmist is aware that the actions of humans can be inglorious and without honor. Humans can choose to mess up the whole earth. It is the nature of human beings for which God is responsible in creation, not the choices that we make. Human nature is not inherently bad. Human nature is not inherently good. Human nature is inherently neutral. A river is not inherently bad or good. A river IS. A river exists without a moral value. There is no basis for judging a river or human nature as an entity. A river may be given a moral value on the basis of what it does. If the river flows gently and irrigates the crops, it may be a good river. If the river floods and wipes out towns and villages, it may be a bad river. Likewise, a human may be judged on the basis of actions, good or bad. But human nature is neutral.

Every human being is born naked and alone. Every human being dies naked and alone. No one is born with you, not even a twin. No one dies with you. Those are your own unique experiences, and there are many other unique experiences in between. Until you truly know that you are alone, isolated, unique, and different from every other human being, you will not know relationship. Until a human being understands profoundly the meaning of aloneness, the value of a relationship is not known either. Until you know that any relationship is a sheer miracle, no relationship is truly significant to your life. Relationships are taken for granted. Friendship is assumed and not valued. The miracle of relationship must be claimed. Human beings are created for community; maybe marriage, but certainly family, clan, tribe, and nation. Every single relationship in this mix is a fulfillment of the creation plan. If not, the creation would have stopped with Adam. Eve would never have seen the light of day.

But, it is the community that serves as the second great arena for the working out of human nature, the first being within our own isolated selves. The community presents us with the opportunity to do much good and bad to and for others. We are completely capable of doing good and bad to and for ourselves. Depending on our choices, we judge our actions good or bad, and we judge the actions of others. Likewise, our actions are judged by others of the community. But the very nature of any human is never to be judged good or bad. Human nature just is. It is a given, a non-judged datum.

"Don't be selfish!" is an absolutely useless admonition. When your parent said that to you when you were a child, what did you do? What did it mean? All we knew was that "selfish" meant "bad." But selfishness is common to all and a part of human nature. It is natural to be selfish. "Selfish" is wanting something for oneself. It may be air, or water, or recognition, or food. The desire for those things cannot be bad, or even good, but like all of human nature, is neutral. How we go about obtaining those things may be good or evil. Even more telling, however, is the object of our desire.

Sam and Amy are two children at play. Sam has a toy. Amy asks to play with Sam's toy. Sam says "No" and will not let Amy play with his toy. Sam is selfish and keeps his toy to play with by himself. Same story: Amy asks to play with Sam's toy and Sam says "Yes". Amy plays with his toy, and they play with the toy together. Sam is also selfish because he wants a friend and wants to play with the toy together with a friend. Either way, Sam is selfish. He wants something and gets something for himself either way. The difference is that in the first case, Sam is selfish about something that is small. In the second case, he is selfish about something that is important. The first case is an example of lower selfishness. The second case represents a higher form of selfishness. Higher selfishness should always be preferred over lower selfishness, since the reward is greater for oneself.

A person does what a person needs to do in order to maintain his or her homeostasis (meaning "similar standing" or "total equilibrium"). You were created with wonderful homeostatic mechanisms built in. Some of those are defense mechanisms that apply to the basic law of human survival, such as the will to live. Some of those mechanisms apply to your desire to flourish, to do more than merely survive. Each of us has need lists that function on automatic pilot most of the time. Your short-term need lists include the need for air to breathe, fluids to drink, affirmation of your existence by others, and food to eat. You will kill, if need be, to fulfill these needs when you are totally deprived of them.

Each of us has long-term need lists. These range from basest desires to the highest strivings of the human soul. These could range from the need for absolute power over another human being to the desire for personal wholeness. There is the need for incredible wealth, and there is the need to be a loving parent. The way you know what is at the top of your long-term need list is to see what you are working on with greatest dedication at the moment. In fact, there may be two or three needs at the top of the list simultaneously.

The point is that all humans are selfish by nature, and that selfishness is not a matter of choice. What is a matter of choice is the "thing" which one wants or needs. If you need dirt, you will strive for dirt. If you need punishment, you will do whatever is necessary to be punished. But, if you need love, you will be loving. In doing the loving thing, you may be loved in return. And occasionally, this whole arena is transcended and you love without the motive of being loved in return. Will that feel good when all is said and done? Of course. Is it possible for a person to do something good for another person and have a pure motive at the time -- love and compassion for a fellow human being. Enjoying the fruits of a sacrifice does not make the sacrifice a selfish act.

Nevertheless, transcendency is rare. Most of the time, we live in a world of giving in order to receive. The truly pure sacrificial act is so rare that it must be deemed miraculous whenever it happens. Much of the Christian ethic today is built on the premise of "God first, others second, me third." That is an admirable goal, but can only apply to a very small portion of existence. The huge majority of the time, it simply doesn't apply. Why not stress the ethic of higher selfishness aimed at informing us in our day-to-day activities? Ask a group of people if they are essentially good or essentially bad. It doesn't make sense to say we are all good at heart, since we know there can be corruption. But we don't feel we are bad, either. With a sigh of relief, we can then work out of our essential neutrality to become the best human beings we can be.


For further information, contact Dr. Ray Dykes, 405-728-2844 or e-mail.