We were presented with a worksheet in a class on Ministerial Ethics (PL311) detailing the Four Theories of Human Nature as lifted from Augsburger’s Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures. We were instructed to theologically identify with one of the four theories. We were also presented with a variety of ethical orientations, such as: Deontological (rules and duty); Teleological: (goals and outcomes); Situational (acts and decisions that fit the situation); Sense (conscience and spirit); Virtue (the formation of character in community); liberation (fulfillment of life and freedom from oppression); and Care (responsible care to self and other). The goal was to associate an ethical orientation with one’s choice of nature theory. The combinations classmates announced in class were interesting, to say the least. I’ll make this point in a bit, but first I’ll list the Four Theories of Human Nature.
1. Human Nature is Essentially Good: Evil is external to human nature, located primarily in the environment, destructive forces in socialization and in the complexity of living in an ambiguous world.
2. Human nature is Essentially Evil: Evil is within humans and must be controlled by social controls, religious beliefs and self-control. Even our best intentions can be “infected” with deceptive intentions.
3. Human Nature is Neutral: We are neither good or bad, but capable of both. There is no “innate” tendency either way. The moral capacity of a person is shaped by education and guidance and in most cases the positive good will result.
4. Human Nature is Essentially Both Good and Evil: Both qualities are innate in human beings. We are by nature “morally divided, ambiguous and contradictory.” All our motivations are mixed and out values tainted with self-interest.
I identify with and theologically endorse No. 2., and bend toward No. 4., albeit slightly. This slight bend is couched in overarching redemption language (i.e., every individual will sometime need to actually choose Christ, in spite of innate good works, because good works alone can not and will not save). My ethical orientation is Deontological (Divine Command).
Some in this liberal seminary setting of ours may completely disagree with my nature theory and its accompanying ethical orientation. That’s cool. We don’t have to agree. We do, however, have to make sense. The art of making sense is not an act performed solely for individualism’s sake. It is an act practiced and mastered for the sake of those for whom we are purportedly training to sometime soon offer our ministry and spiritual care. Making sense is something we do for those people. It is important, right? Right.
I’m really not sure how claiming theory No. 3., and hooking it to a Liberation ethical orientation makes any sense at all. More than a few folks, however, publicly endorsed it in class discussions. The wacky combination says: 1. Humanity is neither good or bad; 2. Humanity has no innate tendency towards either; 3. Humanity can still be less than fulfilling, in spite of its total neutrality; 4. Humanity often needs to be liberated from oppression. Question One: “From where does this freedom-sucking oppression come?” The quick, easy and predictable answer: “A lack of education?” Really? Educating your noble savage is not acceptable either, right? The act of educating your noble savage is, in fact, a from of oppression. So, then what? Do we concentrate then on universal “ignorance” and celebrate cultural uniqueness? OK. Fine. Such an act does, however, point to a human nature far removed from any neutrality theory. It might even point to Deity and a subsequential Divine Command Ethical Theory. Uh-oh! Question Two: “From where does the ‘good’ required to relieve oppression come?” It can’t come from a neural human nature, can it? If it does originate there, in human nature, then the good is innate, somehow, isn’t it? It can’t be learned, after all, or we dive straight back into the aforementioned problems. Furthermore, I’m not even sure how a neutral human nature would access the “good” required to relieve oppression. He/she, after all, has no innate ability to do so! I could go on, but I think the point makes itself. A neutral human nature should not - and can not - be accompanied by an ethical orientation dedicated to relieving oppression. It just does not make sense.