Tuesday, May 22, 2007

From Born to Sin to Born Bad (and Back Again)

Are people born to sin?

From a Christian standpoint, the question is meaningful -- and not only meaningful, but significant. If we are born to sin, then we need salvation. If we need salvation, then the Christ story makes sense.

For many people, the notion we are born to sin has even broader meaning. Folks like James Dobson not only believe we are born to sin, but also believe that we are born selfish, rebellious, power hungry, unruly, undisciplined, and uncivilized. That's to say, we are not only born to break God's law, but we are also born with a "will" that makes us unfit to live as decent citizens of society. Like all bad ideas, that one has some truth to it.

Yet, it would be more true to say humans are born with some traits more developed than others. Our earliest memories are typically from around the age of two and a half to three. That's because most of us until then lacked the neurological structure necessary to fix such memories. And, just as it takes two to three years to develop the neurological structure for certain kinds of memory, it takes some time to develop the neurological structure for such human traits as empathy and compassion. So, it's not so much true that we are born bad, or born good, but that we are born "scarce half made up".

Of course, the Christian concept we are born to sin isn't quite the same thing as the secular concept we are born bad (or born good). Sin, so far as I understand it, is either breaking God's law, or offending God, or both. While it might be bad to sin, the notion of "bad" includes a lot of things that are not, strictly speaking, sins.

This bright Spring morning, I'm wondering whether that secular concept that we are born bad (or, for that matter, born good) has any meaning whatsoever in an age of science?

Science says nothing about whether sin exists or what its nature might be. But it does have a lot to say about human development. And it's very difficult to fit what it says about human development into either the notion we are born bad or the notion we are born good. So, I suspect folks like James Dobson and many others, who broaden the Christian concept of being born to sin into a secular concept of being born bad, might just be living in a confused world of their own.

The secular view that we are born bad has consequences, of course. For Dobson in particular, the notion we are born bad means that it is a primary duty of parents to break the "wills" of their children, and a primary duty of society to restrain and limit the "wills" of its members. That's to say, it's the human "will" that's corrupt and bad from birth.

I happen to think that's a fairly petty and incomplete view of what it means to be human.


laurie said...

I think we are born incomplete. John Shelby Spong does a nice write-up about this, and about how that incompleteness can become evil. Some, or much, of the evil that comes out of the incompletion is a remnant of our evolutionary instinct for survival, a need to survive gone wrong.

"The explanation that evolutionary human life is driven by a survival mentality that locks self-conscious creatures into a radical self-centeredness thus accounts clearly for many things that society tends to call evil. It indicates that we are not fallen creatures so much as we are incomplete creatures. It also accounts for those things that traditional religious people have tended to think of as acts of our sinful or fallen nature. This analysis frees me to press on with the possibility of identifying the presence of real evil in human life as the product of incompleteness rather than a manifestation of our fall into sin--and thus still affords me a viable doorway into the development of my new Christology. I do take evil seriously. I simply find its origins in a different place than does traditional Christianity."

Mystic Wing said...

Nope. I think our original nature is perfectly good, and bad is the assorted stuff that we heap on ourselves until we forget our essential goodness.

Finding God isn't a matter of breaking the will, but about forgetting it. That's a different thing entirely, if yuou ask me.

decrepitoldfool said...

Saying "we are born good" or "we are born bad" is far too broad a generalization and far afield of new understandings in neurology and developmental psychology. As a species we are not born bad but as individuals it is a different story. MrsDoF has worked with infants for years and attests that children are born with distinct personalities, some distinctly unpleasant. This puts them on a collision course with society and in the sense of adaptiveness means they were "born bad". But "born culpable" is another matter connected to broader questions in religion and law.

There are many "Christ stories". The one that makes sense to me is the woman taken in adultery. She was an outcast, facing the scorn and judgment of her society to say nothing of death by stoning. Jesus said; "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." In this act, and not in dying on the cross, he was her savior, and her redeemer. But the implications of this story seem to be transmitted in a frequency which the modern-day Pharisees seem unable to receive.