Recently I made a statement to my wife as we were watching some TV program to the effect that left-liberals/progressives don’t believe in human nature. She asked me what I meant by that, and I wasn’t satisfied with my answer. I doubt a blog post can fully clarify what I meant in what is really a book worthy study, but when I couldn’t easily communicate what a fundamental worldview issue our view of humanity is I thought this needed to be addressed.
It’s not just how we view humanity, of course, but how we view of all of reality that separates the materialist, primarily secularist left from the more mostly religious, metaphysical right in Western culture; in effect, our world-view determines our human-view, if I may coin a phrase.
Post-modernism is the dominant worldview of most people living in the West, which means that the majority of our fellow citizens do not really believe there is anything such as absolute truth or an objective reality apart from their subjective view of it. This is how your co-worker or neighbor or the person sitting next to you at the ballgame can believe that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, Hinduism, whatever, can all be equally true if that’s what floats your boat. Who am I, it is often heard, to tell you what is true for you. The logical inconsistencies with this are obviously enormous, but hardly ever given more than passing consideration.
Yet if we really do inhabit a reality where the material is all there is, then why not post-modernism? Who is to say that any ultimate meaning exists? How could there be any ultimate meaning outside our own subjective sense of things if there is nothing beyond the atoms? Nietzsche was right. I like the way this was put by Carl Trueman in a recent issue of Modern Reformation magazine: “True atheism must be that of Nietzsche’s Madman, facing the cold impersonal brutality of a godless universe where all that is left is the will to power.” You will get arguments from some atheists (not Woody Allen!) that this is a bunch of malarkey, that building a value system in a godless universe is a piece of cake; they are delusional.
But whether someone is an atheist or a religious believer, both views are driven by presuppositions, i.e. beliefs held that cannot be proved but must be assumed. The very first, first principal is what we think about the material reality that confronts us in our very being and that surrounds us, ubiquitous in every sense of the word. Is this all there is, or is there more? A question to which the word “proof” means nothing. In fact the word “proof” itself assumes a materialistic empirical bias, an assumption that such is the only way one can attain true knowledge. Or that knowing itself can only be derived solely from material observation. More or not is the great epistemological divide. Depending on which side you come down will largely determine your view of human nature, i.e. if there is even such a thing.
If humanity is a chance event there can be no such thing has a human nature, something that is a given about every human on the planet. If on the other hand man is the product of a Creator, then our nature is a tangible thing, created to be a certain way. In the Judeo-Christian faith we are told the man is made in the image of God, and thus we are each born with characteristics of God himself. We are first persons born in relation to a mother and father, and an extended family, born in relation to ourselves, and finally born in relation to God. We are fundamentally relational beings, who have person-ality, and in the Christian view of things our relational nature is a function of being created by a Triune God who as one being exists in eternal relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately something went terribly wrong when this nature we were given was corrupted; we call this the Fall. Man wasn’t content being made in God’s image; he wanted to be like God, determining for himself what was good and evil. For me this is the most plausible explanation of what we find in human experience through all of recorded history. We see goodness, love, beauty, kindness and mercy; we also see it all perverted by selfishness, greed, hatred and lust. The list of the good and the evil are limited, and we find that evil is always good perverted. If human beings have this nature intermingled with good and evil, if the good was perverted and if the evil like gravity seeks to bring the good down, we have a relatively predictable human pattern of behavior, kind of like what we see throughout all of history in every culture, in every age.
The societal implications of these two views could not be more profound. Thomas Sowell has called one the unconstrained and the other the constrained vision in his aptly titled book, “A Conflict of Visions.” Never the twain shall meet. The former materialist view sees human beings as ultimately malleable, the latter as limited to intrinsic traits that are unchangeable. One lead to the French Revolution, the other to the American Revolution; one to a hundred million deaths in the 20th Century, the other to the nation that put an end to the killing.
The American Founders regardless of their religious convictions were not atheists and thus not materialists. All believed in a Creator and built a system of government based on a classical and Biblical view of humanity: human nature is constant and inherently tragic. As James Madison says so eloquently and perspicaciously in Federalist 51:
But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
Auxiliary precautions indeed. The Founders believed in “human nature,” that this nature was predictable, consistent and unchangeable, and thus government was necessary but must be strictly limited because men are not angels. They sought to create institutions and customs that wisely anticipate both human greatness and human baseness.
The rise of progressivism in the early 20th Century sought to change all this. The intellectual and social milieu of the late 18th/early 19th Century is a fascinating study; the rise of science and technology was a heady mix for a Western culture that believed in limitless possibilities, with the operative word being limitless. All problems, all human suffering could finally be defeated; hubris was not in short supply during the decades prior to World War 1. Yet even an additional cataclysmic world war and a Cold War didn’t seem to dent the progressive belief that human beings could transform reality. Or in the immortal words of President Obama, a progressive extraordinaire: he was going “fundamentally transform” America.
Although early progressives were mostly religious (e.g. the social gospel), progressive intellectual and philosophical pedigree was primarily the atheistic materialism and worldview of Marx. It took some years for the remnants of Christian thinking to be completely washed away, but as the 20th Century wore on it became clear that communism, socialism and progressivism all have in common the materialist assumptions of the unconstrained vision. Just the right government program or the right environment will finally accomplish some form of human nirvana. But that pesky thing we of the right call human nature just keeps getting in the way. Just ask President Obama.