Are we inherently good or evil? Generally, most arguments seem to fall into one of two theological camps.
On the one hand there is the belief that man’s nature was originally good but that due to disobedience this nature changed to one of being inclined towards evil. This disobedience had the side effect of bringing ‘sin’ into creation, and every person is now afflicted with this disease. So though man was initially good he has now inherited an evil nature by being born with ‘original sin’. In this case it seems that ‘sin’ is a tangible force somewhat along the lines of gravity or magnetism, invisible, powerful yet corrupt. The corrupting influence of this force acting upon man can be seen in the way even small children will slip easily into cruel and selfish behavior patterns and it is up to parents to (hopefully) teach them how to behave kindly towards others. But where did this force come from? How could a created being’s actions bring such a deadly and destructive entity into nature?
On the other hand some say that every child is born innocent and pure yet learns to become selfish and ‘sinful’ by those who have authority over him as well as his family, friends and enemies. What we call ‘original sin’ is nothing more than the self preserving and naturally selfish instincts that we are taught to cultivate when we first become self aware. If children were born into cultures that truly were in accordance with God’s design then there would not be the opportunity for them to learn how to become ‘sinful’. Many of us who are parents would tend to disagree with this argument yet our pride may blind us to the fact that our children learn selfish, as well as kind, behavior from us.
I feel a strong pull towards this second argument. What sways me most is the amazing quality that humans have of naturally developing relationships. We instinctively crave companionship and in the process cultivate love between ourselves and others. This goes counter to what is found throughout the animal kingdom and how Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche describe mankind. It is not ‘natural’ to love, yet it is the most natural thing that man can and will do. It is only through the corrupting influences of others that we learn to sacrifice love, the true reward, for rewards of more immediate and material gratification.
As Henri Nouwen puts it in ‘Jesus and Mary: Finding Our Sacred Center’, “Before I am sinful I am innocent: that is, before I participate in the evil of the world, I am touched with goodness….I have to claim that goodness in me. It belongs to my deepest self.”
The idea that we are completely flawed at heart and require a divine savior works well for those of us who struggle with our internal demons. However, when we stress the inherent evil nature of mankind, inflicted upon every living person through the descent of original sin, we risk trivializing the passion of humanity and in the process may push others away from the open arms of God.