May 28, 2008

In God’s Image

[This essay appeared in somewhat different form in Fellowship Papers 1989, the occasional journal of the Catholic Fellowship of the Episcopal Church.]

“Some persons view what is happening as a breakdown in fundamental relations between the sexes. Others view what is happening as a breakthrough to a nonsexist understanding of human beings who are all made in God’s image.” Rachel Wahlberg, Jesus and the Freed Woman (NY/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978), p.2.

The greatest difficulty in the debate on sexuality is the lack of a rigorous, systematic theology. I will not attempt to develop such a theology here, but offer a possible starting point, in response to one particular flaw in current thought on the subject.

That flaw is apparent in the way in which some have been interpreting a biblical text: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.27) The interpretation, developed by different authors, can be expressed simply as this: that the image of God is only perfectly reflected in the union of male and female. As one bishop (Bennett Sims) once put it, “. . . the divine image in humanity is incomplete without both man and woman.”

At first glance this seems rather harmless and orthodox. Similar views have been expressed in Jewish and Christian circles in the past. “Said R. Eleazar: A man without a wife is not a complete man, as it is written: “Male and female created he them...” (Yebamot 61f) Karl Barth, adopts the notion that the divine image is only fully present in the relationship of man and woman, which he calls, “the true humanum and therefore the true creaturely image of God.” (Church Dogmatics, III/2, p. 587f.)

In Barth’s case and others, such notions stem from an effort to provide the traditional sexual ethic with a theological underpinning. This working backwards from an evolved cultural moralism to a divine mandate simply will not work. A moral theology of sexuality must respect the theology of the divine and human nature—not the other way around. Such efforts go back to Augustine of Hippo, who wrote,

...the woman, together with her own husband, is the image of God, so that the whole substance may be one image, but when she is referred to separately in her quality as a helpmeet, which regards the woman alone, then she is not the image of God, but, as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one. (De Trinitate 7.7, 10)

Not only is this view illogical, but it rests upon incorrect reading of Genesis. Moreover, many ideas developed from this starting point are questionable, if not positively harmful. I will try to describe the implications and offer a response.

Looking to the text

The text is frequently misquoted as, “God created man in his image, male and female.” This reading forcibly applies the modifier, “male and female,” to the image of God. It implies an androgynous God, a God both male and female, rather than the God who is beyond and above categories, and Christ “the image of the invisible God,” in whom “there is neither male nor female.” (Colossians 1.15; Galatians 3.28)

A key to understanding the concept of being made “in his image” comes later in Genesis (in a passage that is omitted from the Eucharistic and Daily Office lectionary, and so has probably never been read by most Episcopalians):

When God created man, he made them [singular in Heb.] in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them [both plural] Man [Heb. Adam] when they were created. When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth... and he had other sons and daughters. (Genesis 5.1-4)

Adam is used here both as the name for humanity, and the personal name; it is important to note that the creating and naming apply to the whole species. Now as to Adam’s own fatherhood and image, he had fathered Cain and Abel, both male, and had other sons later, yet only Seth is described as being “in his likeness, after his image.” Seth’s sex therefore cannot be the key to his likeness (since he shared it with others before him), but some other quality (which is not explained). Perhaps the phrase means nothing more than “after his own heart”; that human beings are particularly dear to God, as Seth was dear to Adam. In any case, Scripture makes it clear that while all of God’s children, both male and female, are in God’s image and likeness, in Adam’s case only Seth among his children bore that quality—and it wasn’t because of his sex.

After all, just as Adam had sons before Seth came along, so too God created creatures with sexuality before creating human beings. (Genesis 1.22) If God had intended sexuality—maleness and femaleness (what some people call “gender” but which is better called simply “sex”)—to be especially expressive of the nature of God— it would have been better to save it for humanity.

For if sexuality were somehow chiefly or especially expressive of the divine image then we would be forced to adopt the notion that all of the animals and many of the vegetables are also created in the divine image. There may be some comfort in this for those who see God as a great Life Force rather than as the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen—including the “life force.” But sex isn’t what makes us uniquely God’s children. For what we share with the image of God is something which we believe to be unique to us as human beings—something shared by all of us yet complete in each of us. What is it? The Catechism says it best—and I would refer everyone to it before they make any more comments about our relation to the divine image—“What does it mean to be created in the image of God? It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.” Free will and love, not sex, is our share in God’s image.

All and each

Likeness to God is not simply something shared by all of humanity, but is a quality resident in each individual human. Jesus echoes this when he warns, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.40) Every person is in the image of God, and we either honor or reject that image in our day-to-day behavior in relation to individual human beings. The plain meaning of our text is this: God created humanity “in his image”; God created both male and female, men and women. Each person is made in the image of God, and shares in a likeness to God that has nothing to do with the individual’s sex. The image is complete in each: it is, if you will, holographic. It is like the presence of Christ in the eucharist, in which the bread, though divided, remains — in each fragment — the whole Body of Christ. Each individual partakes of that Body in the same way that each individual shares in the divine image: wholly.

Generalizing the divine image and dispersing it to collective humanity opens a door for acts of oppression against individuals. Those who say they love God but hate those who bear God’s image are liars. (1 John 4.20) Equally, those who say they love “humanity” while hating individuals have fallen into a theology of the “mass man”—and the idea that God’s image is somehow best expressed by a married couple partakes of this error. It is easy to practice benevolence to groups and societies; it is often difficult to deal with individuals with tolerance and love.

Perhaps the gravest error arising from this identification of sex, or the union of the sexes, with the divine image is the way in which it effectively denies the Incarnation as defined by the Council of Chalcedon (BCP pg. 864). I’m sure Karl Barth would have been appalled to have this pointed out to him. Jesus Christ, in his divine nature, is the image of God. His human nature, which he shares with us completely and perfectly, derives entirely from Mary his mother. If Christ’s humanity is perfect and complete, he encompasses all that is human. He was a man, yet he partakes of human “substance”—that which he shares with all humanity—from Mary, a woman. His sex cannot be an essential or substantial part of his—or our—human nature, but is an instance of the “scandal of particularity” or what the philosophers would call “accident” as opposed to “substance.”

As Irenaeus said in his great work Against Heresies

If [Jesus] did not receive the substance of flesh from a human being, he neither was made man nor the Son of man; and if he was not made what we were, he did no great thing in what he suffered and endured... The Apostle Paul, moreover, declares plainly, “God sent his Son, made of a woman.” [Gal 4.4]... Superfluous too in that case is his descent into Mary, for why did he come down into her if he were to take nothing out of her?” (III.22.1f)

An Episcopal priest once told me Jesus couldn’t have been fully human if he wasn’t married; so, therefore, he must have been married, secretly. One shudders to think what the Council of Chalcedon would have done with that one.

Jesus, a man, in his human nature is of one substance with Mary, a woman, and with every man, woman and child—with all of humanity. Any theology of the imago dei which neglects Jesus Christ as its perfect exposition will be fatally flawed.

Relations and symbols

What does the Scripture tell us about the relations between male and female, on the symbolic level? Paul develops an analogy in Ephesians 5.21-33 between the relationship of Christ with the church and a man with his wife. The unity in love and obedience which exists in the “one flesh” of a man and woman reflects the mysterious relationship of love and obedience between Christ and his body, the church. There is no suggestion that “male and female” (or man and wife) have anything to do with God’s divine nature, or our human nature. Paul is building upon what for him was a natural hierarchy of love and obedience which could lead to a transcendent unity: a man loves his wife because through the sexual act they “become one flesh”; and no one hates his own flesh. Note that in conclusion Paul refers the whole concept to a higher plane, and even implies that sexuality exists merely to provide such a symbol! “I am saying that it [i.e., the “one flesh” of Genesis 2.24] refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

To conclude, human nature transcends individual sexuality, which is a part of the physical creation we share with animals and plants, and was created as a means to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1.28). Sex is an attribute of the individual person, not of human nature. Every person is either male or female; humanity as a whole is neither.

The divine nature is beyond sexuality; God is neither male nor female. And we too, when we become children of the resurrection, will be even as Christ is, in the place where there is no more “male and female,” no more “marrying or giving in marriage” because we will no longer need the sexuality that was created for “mutual joy..., help and comfort..., and... procreation.” (BCP pg. 423) “Those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more.” (Luke 20.35-36) As Aquinas said, “Types and shadows have their ending... “ When Love comes, and when we are in that Love, we will no longer need sexuality. Because “when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13.10)

Lest anyone accuse me of dualism, or being anti-body, let me set the point straight right now. Dualism certainly exists in the church: the love-hate relationship theologians have with sexuality and generation (“the realization of the divine image” versus “the root of strife, partaking of the nature of sin”) is an outgrowth of the two creation accounts in Genesis. In the first (1.28) sexuality is part of the blessed order; in the second (3.16-4.1) it becomes tainted with pain and mortality. I do not go along with either of these extreme positions. You want dualism? You want a linkage of sex and original sin? You go to Augustine of Hippo! See, for example, Civ. Dei, XIV.15-26. The unfortunate split between will and emotion, and the linking of sexuality and original sin are both results of the Pelagian-Augustinian debates. Once Augustine decided that sexual reproduction was the means by which original sin was transmitted, it became all too easy to lay the blame for the sin upon the means by which it passed from generation to generation. Augustine goes so far as to say that it is the erect male member which transmits original sin (Sermon 151). For Augustine, sexual activity is still tainted even in a faithful marriage, even when procreation is expressly intended. Besides that, he finds the whole thing extremely distasteful. “I know of nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses and the joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife.” (On the Nature of Good 18)

I feel sorry for Augustine, in a way. He was largely a victim of a neoplatonic view of the world, unable to accept the dynamic tension of life between what St Francis de Sales called the Will of God (what God wills in the depth of God’s being) and the Good Will of God Done (the day to day realities, including the pains and failures necessitated by free will, ultimately redeemed by God). Augustine, poor man, couldn’t help confusing the imperfect with the bad.

God didn’t say creation was perfect. God did not create a perfect world, but a perfecting world. God did not create perfect beings, but created beings that were capable of becoming perfect because they were made in God’s image—having the power to choose. It was in right choosing that the road to perfection lay. Had humanity chosen obedience, they would have achieved perfection. Through the Fall they lost that ability until the time when God too became human. With this redemptive act, human beings once again become capable of reaching perfection in Christ and through Christ. All creation is awaiting the perfection of humanity, for when human beings take up the task for which they were created, the world can then be perfected. (Romans 8.19-23.) The significance of the Incarnation and At-one-ment affirm that the “happy fault” of Adam was not an incidental episode of salvation (or creation) history. Only through “one man’s obedience” could perfection be realized, a perfection realized “once and for all.”

No, God didn’t say creation was perfect; God said it was good, except for one thing: loneliness. (Genesis 2.18)

I think sex and sexuality are great. They are good, a part of God’s creation. But like a lot of other good things they are imperfect, earthly, and transient. That the risen body will be unlike the “body of death” is a promise of hope. Many things that we think are great now, many “creature comforts,” many things valued in the church, like prophecy and knowledge, will pass away. Love will remain.

Tobias Haller BSG


Erin said...

Amen and amen...

I have heard view's like Barth's presented as an argument to support opposition to same sex blessings and have marveled that no one ever seems to consider the implications for all those who are single. As a divorced friend of mine lamented after hearing such a sermon, "so now that I'm divorced I no longer reflect the image of God."

I appreciate your comments about the incarnation as well because if his sex was essential to his nature then Jesus did not redeem me or any other woman.

I really appreciate your blog Tobias.

Marshall said...

As I recall the logical extreme of the "it takes two - the right two" position was Emmanual Swedenborg's. Didn't he postulate that the perfected resurrection body incorporated both sexes - literally incorporating each of us with a mate? For some it might seem romantic. For some of us, with less romantic histories, the possibility might be less exciting.

rick allen said...

"Augustine, poor man, couldn’t help confusing the imperfect with the bad."

Augustine's identification of evil with a mere privatio boni has surely been the most important theological bulwark against the kind of dualism you seem concerned about.

"You want a linkage or sex and original sin? You go to Augustine of Hippo! See, for example, Civ. Dei, XIV.15-26."

Augustine plainly didn't consider sexuality "original sin"--that was disobedience born of pride. He does speculate in those chapters on the relationship of lust to reproduction, and plainly feels that there is something "fallen" and dangerous in the epithumia accompanying all human sexual relationships.

In many ways I think that this is the most misunderstood aspect of his thinking. But you needn't read the Civitas Dei to grasp the overcoming of reason by sexuality--it's the basis of fully half of our popular entertainment.

Christopher said...

I have some thing to add to this later today. It seems though that no matter how often this is reiterated, folks keep pressing the complementarity argument anyway. I think part of the problem, at least for me, is the philosophical language of Chalcedon, important as it is, does not quite capture that we're dealing with God who became a human being in all the particularity. The humanity of Jesus in the formula is rather abstract and hard to relate to in terms of natures, etc. To say gender is accidental is philosophically true and yet it doesn't speak to how much we are shaped by our particularity.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Christopher. I too share the difficulties with Chalcedon, in part due to my own metaphysics not being Aristotelian! The language of substance and accident is not my native tongue.

As a process theologian, my approach would be to emphasize the importance of the individual entity in relationship with all other entities. Another recasting might be approached through an existential approach via the "essence" of what it is to be, and to be embodied. In any case, I think there are other ways to view the Chalcedonian doctrine in ways that preserve its truth without necessarily using its philosophical/metaphysical framework. A relational approach would say that the Incarnate Christ relates to humanity initially and solely through Mary and thus all of humanity is included in her as it is in him -- like the "narrow gate" -- she is the entry point into humanity. I'd better stop now or I'll soon be developing a notion of co-redemptrix based on Whitehead!

Tobias Haller said...

Rick, on the contrary, I think the notion of privatio boni to be precisely the problem with Augustine's moral theology. Naturally, he feels the need to think in terms of substance -- and so sees "good" in substantial terms, rather than in relational terms. (As I mention in the previous note, this is partly a metaphysical problem.) It takes scant account of Jesus' own statement -- "Why do you call me 'good' -- none is good but God alone." We also have the error in thinking that Adam and Eve were created immortal -- contrary to the account in Genesis, in which it is the fruit of the Tree of Life that bestows immortality; thus their immortality is not "natural."

I did not say A thought sexuality was original sin. I said he linked them. I'm critiquing his very strange (and unscriptural) connection of erection with sin -- and his erroneous speculation that Adam and Eve engaged in intercourse "under the control of reason" while in Paradise. This is not a scriptural speculation, and disregards the text.

I think A's speculations on sex tell us much more about (his) psychology than theology.

FranIAm said...

As always Tobias, I read these pieces with my jaw wide open and my mind reeling.

And I am deeply grateful for that.

I must say that when I got to the Augustine of Hippo portion of the post, I did laugh out loud. This is a reflection of not only humor and irony but of pain.

Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking words and ideas. My spiritual and intellectual lives are enriched greatly by them.

rick allen said...

"This is not a scriptural speculation."

If it's speculation, of course it's not "scriptural"--otherwise it wouldn't be speculation.

"I think A's speculations on sex tell us much more about (his) psychology than theology."

We can psychoanalize anyone from any theology, if we prefer to do so. But I think doing so always trivializes the argument and the person, whether we are saying that liberals are just looking for justification to indulge their lusts or conservatives are simply over-repressing their libidos. So what if they are--what's that got to do with the question at hand? It's ad hominum at its worst.

Augustine taught that the fallenness of human beings was not something learned from Adam's bad example, but something present in each person just by virtue of being a person. If you transmit human life, you transmit that fallenness as well. And we all know how human life is transmitted.

Perhaps we might prefer the way Erasmus' Folly puts it, in supporting her claim to deity, by showing that there is not even life without her:

"the Stoics too, that conceive themselves next to the gods, yet show me one of them, nay the veriest bigot of the sect, and if he do not put off his beard, the badge of wisdom, though yet it be no more than what is common with him and goats; yet at least he must lay by his supercilious gravity, smooth his forehead, shake off his rigid principles, and for some time commit an act of folly and dotage. In fine, that wise man whoever he be, if he intends to have children, must have recourse to me.

"And why not speak to you still more frankly, as is my fashion? I beg to inquire whether the head, whether the face, the breast, the hand, or the ear--all of them accounted honorable members--generates gods and men? I judge not; nay, rather that foolish, even silly, part which cannot be named witout laughter, is the propogator of the human race."

Tobias Haller said...

Rick, you have missed all the points on this.

There is speculation that is based in Scripture, that is, based on questions of interpretation. What I am referring to in Augustine's case is his speculation that contradicts the plain sense of Scripture -- for instance, that Adam and Eve engaged in sexual congress while in Eden, where the male member was under the governance of the will instead of the passions.

As to his psychology, this is not an argumentum ad hominem: I am not trying to disprove his argument on the basis of his psychology -- it fails on its own merits as incompatible with Scripture. What I am saying is that his psychology might explain where and why he went wrong.

As you are probably aware, Augustine's teaching on the Fall is not universally accepted throughout the Church Catholic. The Eastern Orthodox tradition regards the concept with a good bit of suspicion, and never much elaborated it beyond acknowledging the data in the Pauline material: sin entered the world through one man, and through him, death, and we all suffer because of it, and are redeemed from it by the one man, Jesus.

As I note, part of the issue is A's need to see sin as a "substance" so that it is "transmitted" -- rather than seeing it in terms of action, as Paul (arguing from a Jewish understanding of sin) intended (see Romans 5). It is Augustine's speculative (and typically Western) search for a mechanism of transmission that is at the root of the problem -- a problem of his own creation. One can accept the fact without any speculative mechanism.

The traditional Jewish answer -- one which meets the test of Scripture, is that even as created human beings had two inclinations -- to good and to bad. And the "bad" inclination (which is the inclination to self-interest) is not entirely bad, and in some cases good: for, as the Rabbis put it, "If it were not for this inclination, a man would neither build his house, marry a wife, father children, nor conduct business..." Actually only such an understanding covers the evidence of Genesis: that Adam and Eve "sinned" of themselves, before or coterminous with the "Fall." The urge to self-interest was "in" them as they were created; it was the choice to act upon it that was sinful.

So the whole Augustinian engagement with Original Sin and its transmission (as opposed to its effects) which so preoccupied Western theologians, leading in some cases (i.e., Luther) to rather unfortunate consequences, seems to be a deformative doctrine -- as, indeed, the Orthodox would say. Or as a bishop friend once put it, "The spirit of Augustine hangs like a malignant cloud over western Christendom." I think that is probably too strong; there are many wonderful things in Augustine, and he is rightly admired. But the influence of his doctrine of Original Sin has probably not served the church so well.

rick allen said...

Toby, I would agree that much in Augustine is troublesome, and obviously he has been not only proclaimed the "Doctor of Grace," but the inspiration for Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Jansenism.

Augustine has significance as a philosophical and literary figure in addition to his stature as a Father and Doctor of the Church. What sets him apart I think is his willingness to grappple with problems, some of which are still intractable: the relationship of free will, predestination, and grace, for instance.

He is also one of the first to directly write about sexuality. What is intolerable from the modern perspective is his clear grasp of the negative aspect of desire, and there he is quite at one with the Eastern Fathers. His attempts to envision a sexuality apart from epithumia seem strange to us, but if his speculations fall short, I think they raise issues that are largely ignored in the contemporary enthusiasm for "liberation" from sexual strictures.

You seem to fault his Platonism, which of course he shares with the early councils and the Eastern Fathers. In the West that was latered tempered somewhat by the introduction of the Aristotelian perspective, with the Franciscans as the keepers of the Platonic/Augustinian approach.

As an undergraduate I wrote an honors thesis on Whitehead (comparing him with Heidegger), and so at least at one time had
some grasp of Process Philosophy. I am not sure it represents a great improvement over the real/substantial presuppositions of the pre-Hegelians, but I am interested to see how you see its application here. It is, I think, one of many "footnotes to Hegel," the granddaddy of all progressives, who brought movement and history into metaphysics--as first suggested, of course, by our old friend Augustine.
Process theology East Platonic West Aristotelian Franciscans Augustinian

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks for this. As I say, there is very much good in Augustine; which, in one sense, makes his occasional going off the rails all the more troublesome. (I suppose one might say the same about any great artist, thinker, or theologian.)

My primary concern here has to do with notions of "good" and with the hint of dualism (which he of course was aware of and tried to defend against by developing the notion of sexual relations sans desire.) But there, to my mind, is the nub of the problem. Augustine (like the Buddha!) sees desire as a passion -- something endured or suffered, not as a faculty of the agent. Plato had a better grasp in seeing, along with some of the early theogonies, that the origin of the world lies in desire, Eros as primeval source of all (as opposed to Aphrodite's child.) Augustine was caught up, along with others, in focusing on Exodus 3:14 revealing God as pure Being, as opposed to 1 John 4:8 revealing God as Love. Right here you have the difference between essence and action. The Love of God is not something God suffers, and is related to the will -- God does not "suffer" love; love is the outflowing of God as God is. Even Augustine had hints of this, but, as I observe, I think his personal psychological makeup, together with some of the gnostic strands of dualism circulating in his time, some reaching back to Plato, (and some of which he absorbed in spite of himself), together with a general distrust of human capacity, led him to articulate a theology whose emphasis tends towards the negative. I do not think I am alone in seeing Augustine's teaching on sexuality in this light.

I do resolve to post the long promised essay on my understanding of the development of morals, informed by a more process-oriented understanding; I realize I've promised this in the past, but it is a long work in need of revision. I hope it might lay this out in a more systematic way.

Christopher said...

Fr. Haller,

I would be interested in you expanding on your critique of Original Sin, especially your critique of Luther. I've noted before that folks like James Alison critique Luther, but the Luther they critique is a Roman Catholic caricature that does not fully resemble Luther. I for one, find the doctrine of Original Sin to be descriptive in many ways of how we are now, and would suggest it's a contingent doctrine about our betwixt and betweenness but not ultimate.

Tobias Haller said...

Dear Christopher,
My comment on Luther was probably a cheap shot. Actually I think Luther's teaching on Grace is sublime; I suppose where I come afoul with him is in the pessimism that only allows us to be "clothed" in grace; which is indeed true in the betwixt time -- but which to my mind overemphasizes the negative aspect, rather more peccator than iustus. I'd rather emphasize the latter than the former, as it is God's doing -- and that is actually where Luther ends up. The problem with Evangelicalism arises when it forgets the impact of grace in all its glory.

The piece I just posted, Good as Gold (1) begins to lay some of my own thoughts on this out at length.

FranIAm said...

This blog is like no other.

That is all.

Tim said...

While I admire the depth of investigation in this post, I have one observation/comment to offer. It seems to me that it jumps into "that space", where it sounds like one talks from an accepting-literal reading (and where everybody knows what you mean!).

Example: you jump pretty directly into Gen.1:27. The discussion wholly treats God as creator, the creation being a past event (only), and contains hints of people taking subsequent deductions quite seriously.

I come from this position:
a) God's role in creation is continuous, guiding, ...;
b) the Fall speaks of ongoing problems in the "human condition";
c) the story is a myth related around a camp-fire in a time of oral tradition;
d) the truth in the creation story is metaphorical and/or poetic; it is a source for deductions not a historical text-book.
As such, I find it hard when you take a phrase like "male and female, God created them" and continue to talk as though that actually happened in quite so few words - as though there is much authority in this passage on which to base a moral system.

I have more than once made the point that God is not male or female, but male & female (as we know the terms) are *of God*.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Tim. If you get around to reading the articles called "Good as Gold" you'll see I do take a view of Genesis similar to yours. In this article I was speaking, of course, from "within the myth" so to speak -- to correct a misreading of the story even as a story. Actually, another problem with the text is that we tend to hear "male and female" as adjectives, as if God made people and then gave them sexes; in Hebrew the words are nouns -- so the text really ought to be read, "A male and a female, he created them." In short, God actually created men and women -- and it continues even to this day!

Christopher said...

Fr. Haller,

Upon further reflection, given I think my views of the human condition are more "pessimistic", I would say "realistic", how does this account for the sheer realities of horribleness among us humans. I cannot help but remember walking through the grounds of Bergen-Belsen and losing all sense of a rosy picture of humanity. How do you develop what I think is a fair Augustinian assessment that self-interest has far outswept itself into something sinister that as Luther notes is willing to "blame God" as Adam does in the Genesis account?

Tobias Haller said...


There is no doubt that the inclination to evil can take over; surely the horrors of the holocaust are ample evidence. But I would also suggest that less startling examples of this urge or inclination -- and the abandonment of others for one's own advantage, plays a part in things at the cosmic (i.e., in the old sense of the word) level, such as the global warming crisis. Unbridled pursuit of one's own "advantage" ultimately disadvantages everyone.

The inclination to evil does have a disconcerting multiplier effect that the urge to good seems not to deploy so effectively. One occasionally sees waves of outreach in response to crises or disasters, but I'm not persuaded these have the staying power of the darker side of human nature, which often undercuts them: think what the government of Myanmar is doing in relation to the recent cyclone. The power of the mob is not, it seems, balanced by the power of the congregation. And this is something the church needs to take seriously as it is itself undercut by the evil inclinations of its own members, and the multiplier effect that a corporate body can provide. (The role of the "state church" in Nazi Germany should always be held before us as a reminder. For every Niemoller there were dozens of others who were willing to toe the line and not ask questions. He himself began as an antisemite and went through a process of conversion.) Hence the importance of humility, and the need for the church itself to confess and repent its sins -- past and present. And always to beware self-righteousness and submit every action to the touchstone I've been speaking of in the other article: the royal law of love of neighbor, and choice for neighbor, even at loss to oneself.