Often times in my classes, we begin to discuss those questions that deal with ‘worldview’ and ‘ultimate reality.’ The questions usually begin to surface when I suggest that our perspectives and understandings of the world are built on the foundation of our ‘presuppositions’—those underlying beliefs that we bring to every situation or question. For instance, we have all have presuppositions about humanity. I ask my students, “Are people, humans, basically good or basically bad?”
How we answer this question will inform how we deal with others, what we expect of people, how we raise our children, etc. If I presume humanity to be basically good, then I’m horrified at the Columbines, Auroras, Newtowns and city buses of New Delhi; if I presume humanity to be basically bad, then I’m not terribly surprised by the horrors of humanity (or at least I shouldn’t be!)
But, is there another option? After we have debated and fleshed out the good or bad perspectives in my classes, I raise a third perspective (presupposition)—humanity is not good or bad; people are born selfish, self-centered.
Anyone who has ever had children will recognize it in a moment. Children really aren’t morally good or bad until they are old enough to make conscious decisions regarding themselves in relation to others. BUT, from the moment they are born, they are absolutely self-absorbed, self-centered, selfish. They want milk…and they want it now. Then, they want attention. They want praise. They want…want…want. The children don’t just ‘grow out of it’ – just take a three-year-0ld up and down aisles of Toys-R-Us or even just a local grocery stores and you’ll hear it—“But I want….! Waaaaaaaa!” I even hear it from teenagers…and, lamentably, from adults as well….
If we were born bad, that would explain some of the horror we see in the world…but not the good we see. If we were born good,…then the world should certainly be a much better place than it is! But, if we are born selfish…then, well, that would explain a lot about the world…the good and the bad.
If individuals are selfish, then groups of individuals would develop a “group selfishness”…and we see that as corporations seek market control, political parties push for their party line, as governments push for patriotism and nationalism. In fact, if we look at many of the problems today—from the small and local to the big and national, we can trace the origins of the problems back to good, old-fashioned selfishness and egoism.
I believe that the Christian Scriptures recognize self-worship and self-importance as the greatest problem with humanity…and call for self-emptying as the highest act of faith. Jesus taught his followers, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends” (TNIV). The very greatest love one can have is to commit a selfless act. Jesus even 'walked the talk'...right up to an agonizing death on the Cross. If that is the greatest love, then the opposite—the worst thing one can do—is to pursue selfishness.
So, if we ‘buy’ this idea—humanity is first and foremost selfish—what does that mean for us? It means that before or as we teach our children to be ‘good,’ we have to teach them to think of others, to act on behalf of others, to live for the benefit of others…and not just unto themselves. It means that as adults we must be willing to set aside the pursuit of our personal gain and recognize that we must help others to achieve and gain as well. It means that our institutions, companies and corporations must look beyond themselves and the bottom-line profits. It means that our nation and all the other nations must do more than help themselves.
Are people basically good or basically bad? No…we are basically selfish, and the great human task is to train the coming generation—and move ourselves—to look beyond ourselves, to think of others. I suppose Jesus is the one who shows us best how to get there....