Sunday, June 11, 2006

IS HUMAN NATURE GOOD OR EVIL: The Reform Mormon Doctrine of Human Nature

Is human nature inherently good or bad? It’s a question that theologians and philosophers have debated for thousands of years.

When we look at a newborn infant it’s very easy to believe that we‘re inherently good. After all, an infant is so helpless, so dependent--and little children are so trusting.

“No,” say most theologians. Human nature is fallen, sinful; man is selfish, proud, arrogant. War, intolerance, sexual depravity, man’s inhumanity to man--these things prove that human nature is basically evil.

If that’s true, then how do you explain the good things people do: acts of kindness, compassion and valor? Theologians say that any good people do is the result of God working through them; they insist that if left to our own devices, we’d gravitate towards evil.

Others philosophers take the opposite view--made famous in Anne Frank’s declaration, “I believe that people are basically good at heart.” Cruelty, hate, murder, sadism--these are the result of disease, mental illness or negative social influences.

But is that true? Watch those wide-eyed trusting little children at play. Even though society hasn’t had a chance to influence all that much, little children can be awful to cruel to one another at times. But surely they’re not all suffering from disease or mental illnesses.

Others say that it isn’t a question of being good or evil. Human nature, they say, is conflicted. We’re all caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between two opposing forces---between our spirit and our flesh, our minds and our bodies, our hearts and ours heads. The body, the flesh and the cold rational mind entice us to be selfish, sensual and cruel--while the spirit and the heart entice use to acts of selflessness, love and kindness. For thousands of years philosophers and spiritual leaders have said that we should strive to overcome our selfish physical desires, our materialism and the temporary concerns of life on earth--and instead focus on spiritual matters and on what awaits us once this life is over.

Most people seem to accept this last view. When they get caught up in the demands of every day life, they often feel guilty thinking that they’re not paying enough attention to God or spiritual matters. Many of us also feel awkward, insecure and ashamed of our sexuality because we’ve been conditioned to think of our bodies and our physical desires as being in conflict with what is spiritual and good.

So, is human nature good, evil or conflicted?

The good news of Reform Mormonism is that none of these ideas are true.

Reform Mormonism teaches, “The spirit and the body are the soul of man.” (Doctrine & Covenants 88: 15)
Any conflict between the body and mind, the spirit and the flesh, the heart and head is imaginary. Take away any one of these attributes and not only would you no longer be human, you’d no longer be alive. One philosopher put it this way: “The spirit without the body is a ghost; the body without the spirit is a corpse.”

Emotions and reason, spirituality and sexuality--none of these things can be separated from one another. All are a part of our nature; all are essential aspects of our soul--and none should be ignored, suppressed or sacrificed. We have to fully embrace them all if we’re to experience true and lasting joy.

Because the body and the spirit are the soul of man, Reform Mormonism teaches that “spirit and element inseparably connected receive a fullness of joy; and when separated man cannot receive a fullness of joy.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93: 33-34)

What about that newborn infant? Is she inherently good or evil? The answer is neither one. She’s still an infant, too immature mentally or emotionally to think for herself; still too helpless and dependent on others to make choices or act on her own.

And that is the key to understanding the true nature of good and evil: both are the result of an individual’s choices and actions. If something isn’t a matter of choice, then it can’t be a sin.

And so the good news of Reform Mormonism is that human beings are “in their infant state, innocent before God.” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:38)

And those little children at play--sometimes hitting, shoving and calling one another names--are they good or bad? Certainly hitting and fighting are wrong, but these are still little kids, emotionally and psychologically too immature to be held responsible for their actions. In a few years, they’ll begin to more fully understand how their actions effect others and then they can be held accountable, but for now--being kids--they, too, are “innocent before God.”

The good news of Reform Mormonism is that human beings are not by nature good, evil or even conflicted; they are by nature free.

Understanding that freedom, is the first step in understanding ourselves and the purpose of life.