The Nature of Man

Don Closson

Woody Allen is one of our country's most influential film directors. This is significant because many of his films, although comical in nature, are asking some of the big questions of life. Crimes and Misdemeanors, for instance, deals with murder, love, sin, virtue, religious beliefs and the breakdown of traditional values. His continued popularity might be partially explained by humanity's need to deal with these issues as they relate to the meaning of life.

Allen himself admits to a preoccupation with the notion of death. He recalls memories of being very young--lying awake at night trying to imagine what the finalness, the emptiness, and the irrevocability of death would be like. Referring to one of his characters in Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen says, "He'll never know whether life has meaning, but maybe it's worth living after all. Maybe life isn't meaningless, and that's the best you can do--there's no great affirmation." That seems to sum up the feelings of a lot of people--They hope that meaning exists, but they're not sure what to affirm.

Meaning in life is tied directly to our beliefs about who we are. The issue of purpose is central here. Purpose gives us answers to questions such as, are we basically good or are we inclined to rebellion? Are we able to make moral decisions or are we conditioned to act by our environment? Is mankind destined to live for but a brief moment in time and then to meet with utter extinction, or do we spend eternity somewhere based on events in this life? All of these questions bring us back to the issue of purpose. Why is man here?

Answers to these questions are dependent upon our personal world view. A world view consists of faith assumptions, ultimate beliefs about reality. These beliefs are affected by our upbringing, our education, our religious training, and by the culture at large. As America continues to diversify as a people, new ways of thinking about the nature of man are added to the factors that affect our personal views.

Views about the nature of man in our culture can be separated into three groups: Christian theism, naturalism, and pantheism. These world views hold to mutually exclusive ideas about the nature of things in general, and specifically about the nature of man. For instance, Christian theism teaches that an eternal, personal God, who is a spirit-being, created a physical universe apart from Himself. Naturalism teaches that the physical universe is all that has ever and will ever exist. There is no place in the naturalist's view for a spiritual reality. The third view, pantheism, is at the core of the New Age Movement. It argues that god is the physical universe, that all is one.

There are multiple adaptations of each world view concerning the nature of man. In this article, I will examine the impact these positions have on an individual's view of himself and those around him. We will also look at the significance of choosing a particular view when considering important issues facing our society. Along the way I will introduce some people who have had considerable impact on the way we approach these questions.

This issue is vitally important to all of us who care about our nation and the people in it. How we answer these questions about the nature of mankind will greatly affect the way we educate our children and how we deal with crime, poverty, and all the other social issues of our day.

The Naturalistic View of Man

If we think of the universe as a large black box, outside of which nothing exists, we can begin to perceive reality as a naturalist might. Inside the box, the material universe, man exists as part of an eternal machine. Many naturalists, like Carl Sagan, believe that the universe has always existed and always will exist, and that we are children of the universe or cosmos. No spiritual reality exists. In the words of the Humanist Manifesto, naturalists "find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural."

Who then is man to a naturalist? As we have already mentioned, he is part of the machine of the physical universe. No part of man separates him from the rest of the plant, animal, and mineral universe. Man can be completely explained by natural processes. As one author has put it,

Human beings are complex 'machines'; personality is an interrelation of chemical and physical properties we do not yet fully understand. The process of evolution is sufficient to explain all that man is, even if difficulties exist in its application. Man is a highly evolved animal, that is all.

This position leaves the naturalist with a difficult choice. If there is no personal God who created the universe, and if man is a chance result of biochemical evolution, then is man really free to act, is he significant? Can an individual do anything other than what he actually does?

One obvious answer is to view mankind as a group of instincts. This thinking had great influence on Freudian psychology. But even Freud had confidence in man's ability to rise above his mere animal existence in order to strike a balance between his instincts and the demands of civilized culture.

B. F. Skinner goes one step further by arguing that man's behavior is completely controlled by his environment. According to Skinner, mankind has no freedom or dignity whatsoever. Whatever goes on in his mind is irrelevant. Man is a mere responder to stimuli. Skinner's book Walden Two outlines how a perfect society could be created if we would only realize that mankind is not free to make moral decisions, but is in need of planners to create the perfect environment that will result in correct behavior. Skinner believed that this society can and should be created.

Another route taken by naturalists goes to an opposite extreme. Some have come to the conclusion that man is totally free to choose his actions and thoughts.Although this freedom is absolute, mankind still has no way of knowing if one choice is better than another.In fact, existentialists often argue that man's problem is that he is born to make choices throughout life, knowing that life itself has no meaning or purpose.

A recurring theme of naturalism is that man is not duty-bound to adhere to a set of moral rules. The only rules that are available are those of man's own making. Since people differ on which rules are best, none are binding. The best that we can do is adapt to society or our environment. Death for the naturalist brings extinction. Man lives, he suffers, he dies. According to Ernest Nagel, "Human destiny is an episode between two oblivions."

The Pantheistic View of Man

Where naturalism sees the cosmos as exclusively material, pantheism argues that reality is ultimately spiritual. It is our soul, our essence as a person, that is most important.Traditional pantheism sees man's soul eventually becoming one with the universal soul or mind. New Age teachers in the West have placed the emphasis more on the individual. Shirley MacLaine's view tends to argue that the universal mind will fit within the individual, allowing him to transform the material world.

Like naturalism, pantheism doesn't allow for a personal God inside or outside the physical universe. Traditional pantheism sees god as an infinite impersonal force that encompasses all of reality. All is one, all is god. Americanized pantheism, or the New Age Movement, adds an evolutionary element. It sees men and women becoming one with the universal mind as a continuation of material evolution through the animal kingdom.

Unlike naturalism, pantheism sees man's problem as a spiritual one. Somehow, mankind has collectively forgotten its oneness with the universe. This separates man from understanding the true nature of things and, according to New Age teaching, visits upon him all the suffering of our current world and leaves him without the power to make reality conform to his bidding.

Yoga, or some form of meditation, is usually prescribed as a cure, but others have argued that drugs, sex, visualization, self-hypnotism, and bio-feedback are all viable methods for becoming one with god. Once the New Age has come, when enough people have had their spiritual eyes opened, peace can simply be visualized into being.

The traditional pantheistic view and its corollary, the New Age Movement, presents quite a different view of ethics and morality from either naturalism or Christian theism. If all is one, as they assert, then there can be no clear distinction between good and evil. Some pantheists hold that evil is part of god and will be eventually reabsorbed into the oneness of god. Others believe that evil is an illusion.

When it comes to moral guidelines, Shirley MacLaine and her followers are of little help. She argues that, until mankind realizes that there is no good or evil, there will be no peace. All is one. The consequences of this view are predictable. She tells us that a revelation from her "higher self" advises us to throw off all morality.

Instead of being concerned about morality, pantheism would have us focus on avoiding bad karma. Karma is not to be confused with the concept of sin. Bad karma is built up when we perform actions that show a lack of understanding or knowledge, that move us away from becoming one with the impersonal force of the universe. Sin, on the other hand, is disobedience to a personal creator. The issue for pantheists is education, not repentance.

Pantheism usually implies a belief in reincarnation. Bad karma from past lives, which keeps us from becoming one with the universe, plays itself out in this life. Some traditional forms of pantheism have held that human suffering should not be alleviated because it will short-circuit an individual's removal of this bad karma.

The Christian View of Man

Where naturalism sees only the material universe, and pantheism only a spiritual reality, Christianity argues that both are real in the sense that God, an infinite, personal, spirit-being, created the material universe apart from Himself.

Let's look at what the creation account tells us about the nature of man. What strikes me first is that mankind's creation is different from the rest of the animal kingdom. Although man shares the sixth day of creation with the other creatures and is made of dust, God says, "Let us make" in reference to man instead of "Let the earth bring forth" as He did with the other creatures. Verse 26 of chapter one also informs us that man bears God's personal image. This fact is of critical importance in understanding man's needs and nature.

As the naturalists argue, mankind is part of nature; we do share an animal component with other living things. We eat, sleep, procreate, and die a physical death, as do other animals. It is unfortunate that the naturalistic view stops here, leaving man as merely an animal with no hope of greater purpose or meaning. Those who have held to this position often look to animal behavior to explain man's behavior and are usually disappointed when man seems to be more complex than this model allows.

Pantheists are also correct in affirming our spiritual component. We do bear God's image, but we are not gods. Both naturalism and pantheism see part of the whole, but both deny the fullness of what it means to be human.

Because we are image-bearers, we are capable of conscious personal existence. We have self-awareness and moral self- determination. We are also capable of receiving divine communication and of responding in obedience or disobedience.

Humans were created to have personal fellowship with God. Man's original position on earth was to be God's agent and to have dominion over His creation. The disobedience of Adam resulted in a break in that fellowship, only to be corrected by the redemptive work on Christ on the cross. Mankind without God is in a sinful, rebellious state. Enslaved by sin, he feels guilt and shame, which is real and not simply imagined, as well as an emptiness that should be filled with the fellowship of his Creator.

Naturalists have difficulty finding a moral structure to the universe and often deny any obligation or duty on man's part to obey a code of ethics. Pantheists see good and evil as part of the impersonal god or universal force, again finding no moral obligations. Christianity teaches that the universe is governed by a moral God who judges all things based on His moral character, and that this God has stepped out of eternity to communicate to man what His moral character is. Jesus Christ and the revealed Scriptures are authoritative in this regard, providing us, along with the Holy Spirit, with sufficient information to understand what God requires of us.

The major difference between these views is that Christianity claims that information has been communicated to man from outside of the physical universe, and that this information clearly tells him what his moral and spiritual condition is.

Moral Issues

How does a pantheist view abortion, adultery, or theft? What would a naturalist say about homosexuality, incest, or human sacrifice? First, it's important to emphasize that there is a wide range of responses possible within each of these world views on all of these issues. Just as Christians have different views on moral issues, so do others.

On the other hand, some reactions to these issues are more consistent with the beliefs of the world view being defended than are others. For instance, it is difficult to find a naturalist who is totally against adultery in all cases. Why?Because adultery is declared to be morally wrong on biblical grounds, and very little is found in nature to deny its practice totally. Let's look at one perspective on ethics based on a naturalist's world view.

A professor of religious studies at a well-known school recently addressed the faculty of Duke University on the topic of teaching moral values in our schools. Being a naturalist, he began with the bold statement that "the human hunger and search for absolute religious and moral claims must be combatted and negated-- absolutely!" The only goal of moral education, he argued, must be tolerance. He added, "Activities as diverse as primitive human sacrifice and modern welfare programs can be seen as meaningful if not necessary within a given cultural system." This position is quite consistent with naturalism. There can be no measuring of cultures, good or bad, without an external scale to utilize. This professor applauded the fact that tolerance towards adultery, pornography, homosexuality, and abortion have all been reinforced by our legal system. He added that the public schools are the new "Sunday Schools" and that the courts are the new pulpits of morality.

A popular pantheistic view of morality has been promoted by Shirley Maclaine. She argues that there is no truth, only experience from incarnation to incarnation. All individuals are totally responsible for creating their own reality since they are god. Sickness, war, and tragedies of all types are created in our minds. Thus good and evil are merely thoughts that we have. Whatever you choose is right, since you are god. It is part of your path to becoming one with the universe.

Even abortion can be seen as part of this journey of becoming one. The destroyed child will reincarnate into another creature, perhaps even better off for the experience.

Christians take moral issues seriously because we are commanded to be holy like God, and because we are taught that faith that doesn't result in obedience is worthless. Holiness is based on the revealed character of God in Scripture. God says that adultery is wrong, always. He says that lying, homosexuality, murder, and gossip are always wrong.

On the other hand, humanity has great value and worth in the Christian world view, and our choices are eternally significant. How we react to the Gospel as individuals will determine our future in eternity.

Are we accidents of the process of evolution? Are we gods who can control reality? Or are we children of the Creator of the universe, made to have fellowship with an infinite, personal God? The way you answer these questions will not only affect your view of human nature but will also determine where you will spend eternity.

Copyright 1992 Don Closson

About the Author

Don Closson received the B.S. in education from Southern Illinois University and the M.S. in educational administration from Illinois State University. He served as a public school teacher and administrator before joining Probe Ministries as a research associate in the field of education.