Three Views of Human Nature

This is part of my continuing series on the intersection of the humanist and the Biblical worldviews. My previous two posts have been critiques of humanism and I hope to offer an alternative soon, but first I need to make a quick clarification.

When I speak of humanism, I am referring to the broad worldview (and associated systems of psychology and belief) that places the individual human as the focus of all spiritual thought. That said, there are two quite distinct branches of humanism and they have very different understandings on human nature and spirituality. I’m sure there are technical terms for these worldviews but I’m just going assign my own labels: spiritual humanism and materialist humanism.

Spiritual Humanism: I interacted with spiritual humanist thought in a previous post on spiritual practices. Spiritual humanist hold a high view of spirituality, of faith, and of connecting with your inner Self. In this view we are two part beings: physical/material and spiritual. Our spiritual, true Self is good. Our physical/material Self is prone to error, confused, fleeting, and can be corrupted by society. Because, at our core, we are good people, Spiritual Formation means connecting with our true selves. Living by faith means trusting our intuition and acting in freedom. This view seems to have a lot in common with Eastern mystical thought. To be honest, I haven’t personally encountered many people that hold to this view, at least not on any practical level. However, the belief that at our core we are inherently good does seem to be widely held.

Materialist Humanism: Materialist humanism has a low view of spirituality and faith but it still places a premium on acting in accordance with your nature. Here I am using the term “materialism” to refer to the philosophy that holds that only the physical world is real. Humans are only material beings and not spiritual beings. So, to be a materialist you either have to be an atheist or at least an agnostic, though I think many Christians (myself included) tend to act out of a materialist perspective. You can be a materialist without being a humanist. What makes a materialist also a humanist is the belief that people are basically good.

From a philosophical perspective it seems contradictory to say that only the material world is real and that people are basically good, since “good” is a moral category and morals, being non-physical, are not “real.” Despite this apparent contradiction, materialist humanists can still tell that, at least subjectively, people have value. We can all relate to feelings of joy and sorrow, gain and loss, peace and strife and so, at least subjectively, we can assign value to those things, both for ourselves and for each other. I think that at least one reason, then, why many materialists believe people are good is because of an optimistic view of evolution and the gradual improvements we see in the areas of society, technology, medicine, etc.

If people are basically good then why do we experience human evil? There are probably numerous ways this can be explained but one of the primary ways it’s explained from a humanist perspective (like Malsow, for instance) is by sickness. Sickness here is expanded to refer to either (1) any disordering of desire or (2) any lack of one of the basic needs (physiological, safety, social, or esteem, self-actualization). Removing evil, on both a private and public level, means ensuring that everyone is able and free to gratify their needs and, in some cases, to “heal” anyone who is pathological, that is, has disordered desires.

Like spiritual humanism, material humanism pursues personal growth by looking in on the Self. In this case, this can be done by gratifying ones needs and then pursuing self-understanding and self-actualization.

Biblical perspective: I’ll expand on this later but allow me to briefly sketch a Biblical perspective of human nature. First, it is incorrect to say that the Bible has a negative view of humanity for, in fact, I think if properly understood Christianity places a much higher view humanity that the other two worldviews listed above.

First, we are created in God’s image. We are created as both spiritual and physical beings but these parts are not in conflict, but integrated. Our worth does not come from ourselves, but from God our Creator.

Second, we are fallen. Though we are created in God’s image, we are hopeless idolaters. That is, we have not only disordered desires, but disordered worship. Instead of worshipping the Creator, we worship the created thing, either in self-worship or in worship of a false “god.” Because of this, our very natures are fallen. We know we are supposed to do right but on our own we are unable to do right. This is not physical sickness nor is it alienation from Self but spiritual sickness and alienation of our whole selves (body and spirit) from God.

Third, we can be re-created. The task of spiritual formation, then, begins not by looking inward, but by looking toward God. The task must be one of (1) reconciliation with our Creator and (2) re-creation of the self. This regeneration doesn’t move us back to our created self, but forward, toward the self that we are re-created to be. The task of reconciliation and re-creation are both possible through Christ. We are reconciled to God through Jesus’ work on the cross and are re-created (continually) in the His image.

Finally, we can live forever with God on a New Earth. This task of spiritual formation is never completed in this lifetime. Ultimately, we place our hope the resurrection, when we will be reformed both physically and spiritually.

The Biblical worldview presents both a low and high view of humanity. On the one hand, our problem is far more dire than just sickness or self-alienation. It is sin, for which we hold personal responsibility. On the other hand, we are loved by the Creator of the universe and the value that He places on us is far more than we could ever place on ourselves.