Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Contrasting Religious and Biblical Understandings of Human Nature

In his book, An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956), Arnold Toynbee speaks of two forms of nature: non-human and human.

He states that humankind decisively defeated non-human nature as early as the Old Stone Age which ended 12,000 years ago. This is not to say that non-human nature does not at times bite back, even in our own times, through tornadoes, hurricanes, deep freezes, scorching temperatures, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. “On the whole, however, she ha[s] yielded to Man like a docile sheep” (22).

Not so human nature. “…Human Nature has shown itself as refractory, and as recalcitrant to human control, as a goat or a camel or a mule. When Man tries to coerce Human Nature, he defeats his own purpose; for, so far from cowing it, coercion merely stimulates its obstinacy, rebelliousness, and animosity” (22).

But if this “Human Nature” is a part of us yet something we should but can’t control, what, exactly, is it? Toynbee explains:

…in the Subconscious Psyche’s repertory of ‘primordial images’, this Nature that is Man’s inseparable and intractable companion is expressly portrayed [22] as a bull. This creature, far stronger physically than Man, which Man has precariously subjugated by the exercise of his Intellect and his Will, is an apt symbol for those subconscious principalities and powers in the Psyche which are so much more difficult for the Intellect and Will to cope with than any veritably non-human living creature is (22-23).

When using the term Human Nature, Toynbee is referring, at least in part, to this “psychic bull” (23). In addition, he says:

The abiding untamed power of the great subconscious abyss of Human Nature has been underestimated by Man in Process of Civilization since the discovery of the Intellect and the Will [23] by the philosophers…(23-24).

In India the Hinayanian Buddhist school of philosophy recognized that the demonic sub-rational elements in Human Nature could not be conquered without an arduous struggle, and it was concerned to conserve psychic energy for employment on the Will’s formidable ethical enterprise by discouraging the Intellect from exploring the boundless realm of Metaphysics (24).

[Greek rationalism] was inclined to ignore the existence of the subconscious abyss of the Psyche altogether; to treat the Intellect and the Will as if they were the whole of Human Nature; and to deify them as if they were the masters of the situation (24).

[The questions is one of] the relation between the Will and Intellect and the Subconcious Psyche…(24).

The Intellect and Will [25]…are only just beginning, in our day, to discover, explore, and so perhaps master, step by step, the actually still untamed Inner Psychic Nature of Man himself (25-26).

Using these texts, let us attempt to accurately summarize Toynbee’s understanding of human nature. According to Toynbee, every human being has one personality composed of three parts: the intellect, the will, and the subconscious psyche.

Toynbee doesn’t say much about the intellect though he does speak of rationalism. Let us say that he speaks of the intellect as that element of our personality by which we seek to understand and control nature, human and non-human, through the use of reason.

Toynbee associates the will with ethics. If the intellect identifies what is ethical through the use of reason, then the will is that element of our personality by which we commit ourselves to doing what is good. He is quick to point out, however, that committing oneself to knowing and doing the good isn’t enough. That’s because of the third element of our personality.

Toynbee identifies the third element of our personality as the subconscious psyche. To suggest its wildness, he sometimes refers to it as the subconscious abyss of the psyche. To evoke its strength, he likens it to a bull. He sometimes even uses language which suggests it is not so much human as demonic. Untamed, powerful, and destructive, our intellect and will must ceaselessly struggle to keep this third element under control so that we may understand and do the good we seek.

We have previously discussed a different understanding of human nature revealed by the biblical witnesses to Jesus Christ. Contrasting Toynbee's understanding, based on his study of world religions, with the biblical view might prove helpful.

Rather than having one personality, every one of us has two: an Olympian one, structured in terms of the conventional yet false gods it adores; and a Tufluvian one, structured in terms of the truth, freedom, love, and vitality of Jesus Christ.

What Toynbee identifies as our subconscious psyche, the biblical witnesses see as our Olympian personality. They do, however, agree with him that the struggle between our Olympian and Tufluvian personalities is endless. They also agree that our Olympian personality is driven by a demonic spirit referred to as the Flesh just as our Tufluvian personality is animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, our Olympian and Tufluvian personalities each have a mind and will of their own. In contrast to Toynbee, the biblical witnesses find nothing reasonable about our Olympian mind and nothing good at all about our Olympian will. If we want to understand the truth and witness to it through love, we need Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. Only our Tufluvian mind and will are interested in that.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.