Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brief Thoughts on Humanity Being "Basically Good"

Recently, conservative Jewish commentator Dennis Prager has written that humanity ("man") is not basically good, to much (predictable) fiery repudiation on the part of Jews and liberals alike. Prager (again, predictably) sees this reaction as only another confirmation of the sad state of affairs that is American liberalism, to which most American Jews subscribe. It is, in his estimation, the most basic evidence of liberals' inability to accept "sad facts" that, though unavoidably sad, are nonetheless true.

The Christian tradition has its own spin on this question, grounded most radically in Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. However, this reigniting of past debates got me thinking about a simpler, more straightforward interpretation of modern Americans' (in general) and American liberals' (in particular) vehement response to the suggestion that humanity is not basically good.

It seems that there are at least two concerns finding focus here. The first is the question of human value: to say that humanity is not basically good may involve, not moral estimation of men and women, but rather valuation of their worth -- such that a humanity that is not finally "good" is not finally "valuable" or "worth enduring." If this is the case, it seems all can agree that humanity is good at least insofar as humanity, as a whole and individually constituted, is of an incalculably high value.

The second concern has to do with what may be called the negative implications of the statement that humanity is not basically good -- that is, that humanity is basically bad or evil. In other words, the statement might be taken to imply that humanity's apparent lack of goodness goes all the way down. But do Jews or Christians ever want to say this, to go this far? It seems that all can agree that humanity is not devoid either of goodness or of evil, but is rather a mixed bag, so to speak, not finally "basically" anything.

The way Christians are able to parse out this dialectic is by positing an original beginning created good, then somehow spoiled, then deemed and sought as desirable (that is, of great worth) by God and made good over time through having been found, saved, and kept by God. In this sense humanity is "basically" good to the extent that it is "originally" good -- created good by God both anciently and presently -- and simultaneously "basically" evil to the extent that its original goodness is bent and broken to horrifying effect. How practicing Jews might want to modify this distinctly Christian conception I haven't much of a clue, but at the very least it seems like a promising possibility for mutual learning and shared anthropological understanding.

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