Human Nature

What if a relatively simple misunderstanding were to lead to significant missteps in dealing with important situations?  A newspaper article was passed to me last week that suggests just such a misunderstanding was the cause of failure in economic help provided to the fallen Soviet Union, failure in provision for post-Saddam Iraq, failure in the banking system in recent decades, failure in continual restructuring of education systems.  Lots of failure.  One root cause?

The journalist  pointed his finger firmly in the direction of one single failure, “reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature.” Specifically that “reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. [Therefore] society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.”

This kind of thinking doesn’t only influence major political policy, but marks every sphere of life.  The journalist pointed to parenting as an example, where parents focus on grades and test results, but have nothing to say on the most important things like character and relationship building.

Yet there is hope, as the journalist points to a richer and deeper view of human nature that is coming into view.  The source of this better view?  Researchers in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioural economics and others.  Their insights?

1. “The unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind.”

2. “Emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.”

3. “We are not individuals who form relationships.  We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.”

This kind of awareness influences on numerous levels and in every sphere.  “You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people,” for instance.

The article points to the intertwined nature of the emotional and the rational.  It also contains a very fleeting reference to the love of God.   But hasn’t the Bible been telling us this for centuries?  We are creatures made in the image of a God, not without passion, but with pure passion.  A God who has revealed Himself to us as love, as a God of passion, of compassion, of anger, of loyalty, of delight, of love; a God whose ultimate self-revelation defined Himself more by relationship than by trait.

Doesn’t the Bible teach us that we have thoroughly intertwined emotions and reason?  Take, for example, Ephesians 4:17 and following.  Paul urges the believers not to live as the Gentiles do: their conduct explained by three descriptions of their rational faculties, which in turn are shaped by the state of their heart.

What if a relatively simple misunderstanding were to lead to significant missteps in dealing with important situations?  What if we are treating people as primarily rational creatures who need to be educated and disciplined to suppress the passions?  What would that look like?  Would we perhaps find people in our churches being educated but relatively untransformed?  Would we perhaps find people in our counsel continuing to struggle with the same issues, deeper issues, issues of character, issues of relationship, issues of the heart?

Perhaps the unquestioned assumptions we hold in regard to human nature should be questioned.  Perhaps the Bible should be heard more clearly on this subject.  Perhaps recognition that we’ve misunderstood human nature might in turn lead to a more biblically nuanced ministry to those in our churches, to those in our families, to those in our sphere of relational connections.

The New Humanism,” by David Brooks, appeared in the 7th of March edition of The New York Times.  But that is just a newspaper, what does God’s Word have to say about this?

2 Responses to Human Nature

  1. Peter Mead March 14, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    If you want to read the article, click on the title in the post.

  2. Chris Oldfield March 14, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    fascinating. Thanks for the link, and top observation. There’s been a lot in the past few years – Jonah Lehrer, Cordelia Fine, John Gray, now this guy.

    I think they’re profoundly realistic about avoiding the rationalist overestimation of human nature, but I fear without the gospel it may swing to a consumerist underestimation of human nature and an abdication of responsibility (the ‘abolition of man’). I’ve found Nigel Biggar v helpful on navigating through this. I’m all for critiquing Kant’s enlightenment myth, but I’m also aware that a man called Nietzsche did that too, so it’s worth being circumspect lest we jump out of the Kantian pot into the Nietzschean kettle, so to speak. I’ve been meaning to write a post on this called ‘who do you think you are kidding mr hitler’, but havent got round to it. Fwiw here’s how I’ve tried to engage with it in the past:

    misreading humanity
    do free markets corrupt moral character
    who the man
    the supposed self
    freud: the interpretation of religion

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