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A recent discussion has drawn my attention to the perennial question whether humankind is basically good or basically evil. (I suspect I will be critiqued for falling into a binary language construct, e.g., yes or no, but that discussion is for another day). My answer to that question is neither/both: humans are fallen, which means they are inherently good and evil; it is this ambivalence which makes humans so frustrating and surprising.

The idea of “fallenness” or, in older terms, “original sin,” is much misunderstood. It combines several notions, and it cannot be reduced to either “basically good” or “basically evil.” Included within the concept is the idea that humans are the image of G-d, that humans are weak (whether by choice, circumstances, or inheritance), that humans continually choose evil and choose good, that humans fail to choose. As individuals and as groups, people can surprise with their generosity and with their selfishness. More often, they can frustrate with their apathy (and Hannah Arendt has explored the terrible results of apathy).

I think people dislike this idea for a number of reasons. First, it is complex and ruins our natural desire to fit things into neat categories and boxes. Second, it makes it nigh impossible to fully demonize or valorize an individual, since any given individual is prone to goodness and badness. Third, it implicates each one of us with evil, and no one likes to own up to that fact. Fourth, it means even those individuals we hate have the same goodness within them which we like to imagine for ourselves.

I believe this idea is rather important, so a few metaphors might help to explicate what “fallenness” means. Think of a half dead pine tree; a corked bottle of wine; a coffee-stained white shirt; a moldy piece of cheese. The problem with all of these is that the objects have no moral agency, unlike humans. The issue of moral agency complicates the matter further, I believe. Not only does the question of good or evil require moral agency, the exercise of that agency is such that it forms the character and nature of the agent–it is habit-forming. A person who consistently chooses to hate becomes hate-full. But they never lose the image of G-d, only tarnish it further. A person who continually chooses to love becomes loving. But they never entirely lose the urge to evil. This means that there is a “bell curve,” or perhaps parabola, of fallenness in individuals.

In theological terms, it seems to me that the Calvinist “utter depravity” takes things too far (and denies moral agency, thus denying evil), while the “Arminian” concept ignores the depth of human fallenness. To return to the inspiration for this blog, I think perhaps understanding fallenness as a Kierkegaardian dialectic between good and evil is the best way to view it: both goodness and evilness exist within each person (and humanity as a whole) in continual tension, affecting and being affected by the other, neither ever wholly disappearing (at least in this life). There certainly is no superceding synthesis.