Tiptoeing Through the TULIP minefield


Over in John Shuck's blog, the question came up as to whether (or how much) modern Presbyterian churches adhere to the five principles that supposedly summarize Calvin's teachings, which are identified by the acronym TULIP. These points are described in the Wikipedia article on Calvinism.

This question is of interest to me because I can count Presbyterian churches among those I have visited over the last couple of years, and Presbyterianism traces its theology back to Calvin. Many of these churches that I've been to seemed pretty progressive, or at least they viewed themselves as such. But something has always gnawed at the back of my mind as I have visited them. Calvinism, at least as it has generally been characterized, has always left a rather bitter taste in my mouth. I could never see the appeal of it; I found its conception of God abhorrent, and its view of humanity distasteful and misanthropic. So if I go to a Presbyterian church, am I signing up for something I really can't relate to?

On the other hand, like everything else, Calvinism no doubt has bestowed a diverse heritage, and is probably always going to be an evolving, or shall I say reforming, theology. So maybe the way it is traditionally characterized is not the last word.

But what about this TULIP thing? Consider, for example, the first item ("T") in that acronym, the doctrine of the "total depravity" of the human race. I for one am immediately put off by what comes across as a sour, curmudgeonly view of humanity. As John Shuck put it,

Total Depravity. I don't believe that. I think we would all say that no one is without sin, and that we need the grace of God (election) to recognize it, but totally depraved?

I prefer to think along the lines of Matthew Fox, that we are originally blessed. I am not really sure how other modern Presbyterians feel about that.
I like the idea that we are originally blessed. Total depravity, on the other thing, makes me cringe. I once got into a discussion with a Presbyterian blogger who insisted that people were inherently incapable of engaging in acts of selfless love, that every person's ostensibly loving act is necessarily flawed and selfish in some way (this was presumably derived from this idea of total depravity.) This is an example of why I don't like this idea very much. To cite a counterexample, I can't imagine anyone who has ever experienced parental love (whether it be on the giving or the receiving end) taking such a position. I know that my own parents, flawed people that they were, sometimes did things for no other reason than out of love for their children. Yes, parents are often selfish, inattentive, angry, or impatient--and their love isn't always pure, but--I'm sorry--to say that parents never engage in acts of selfless love for their children is just plain untrue. It is one thing to make the observation that people in general are imperfect and often act selfishly; it is another thing altogether to say that people always have corrupt motives in anything they do. The former observation is a sensible observation of human frailty; the latter is just plain misanthropy.

Perhaps even more unfathomable to me than the doctrine of "total depravity" is the second Calvinist principle in that acronym, the one represented by the "U"--unconditional election. This one really makes me want to scratch my head, because I can't imagine why in the world anyone would anyone worship a God who selectively metes out rewards and punishments to people in advance of their even having commited a single act. This is fatalism at its worst. I might as well be Oedipus Rex, unable to escape a fate that was predetermined for me by an inscrutable god. This would be like staging a footrace while deciding the winners and losers in advance, and then telling everyone to run the race anyway.

Double predestination in particular is the most baffling expression of this notion--the idea that an all powerful God would create some people with the advance intention of sending some of them to hell. If God knew they were going to hell, why did this all-powerful deity create them in the first place? What kind of sadistic monster are we talking about here?

Now I do recognize that there is a positive spin to this idea of election. For one thing, it implies that salvation is completely out of our hands, which supposedly takes the worry out of it (although I would argue that it is completely natural to worry about one's fate, even, or maybe especially, when we have no control over it; after all, it is our fate we are talking about.) But in reality, I think that the one way that this idea can be turned into something positive is by making God's grace universal and unconditional. Seen from that perspective, salvation is out of our hands because a loving God extends her grace to all of us, regardless of who we are or what we do. We all then become the elect. As John Shuck put it,
Now, there may be debate on whether or not some folks are not elected. I don't use it that way. I believe God elects everyone. I am universalist in that regard. I would say a good number of my colleagues would agree with me. What maybe 40-50% would state clearly that election should only be used in the positive sense. I am guessing on percentages based on my experience in conversation with colleagues.

I think, and I may be wrong, but I think Swiss theologian Karl Barth was universalist in that he defended the freedom of God who desires salvation for all and therefore his will cannot be thwarted.
So what are we left with? As I wrote in John Shuck's blog,
I've visited a few Presbyterian churches in my area and none of the ones I visited seemed very TULIP-like, but I have to admit that this issue has always stuck in the back of my mind about whether I would be getting myself into something that I couldn't identify with. I like the idea that God's grace is out of our hands and thus is a free gift from God. I don't like the idea that some people are preselected to be "elect" while others are not, or that we are all totally depraved, or that there is a substitutionary atonement and that it is only available to some people.
The question of how to relate to Calvinism from a progressive Christian perspective is really just a specific example of a broader question. Protestant churches divide themselves according to various traditions that go back to the early Reformers--Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and so forth. An interesting question for me is whether progressive Christianity might lead to a blurring of these historical distinctions, and thus whether progressives within each of the traditions find support within their own heritage for a common progressive theology for the twenty-first century that bridges all these divisions. I would like to imagine that this is possible.

P.S. Dick Martin, who died a few weeks ago, appears in the Youtube clip at the top of this posting, along with Tiny Tim. I was an avid eight-year-old viewer of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh In" when it went on the air in 1968, and I am thus pretty certain that I must have watched the original broadcast that the above clip comes from. God bless Tiny Tim.


Philip said...

I agree with most of the things you said. I have not yet understood the appeal of Calvinism. Perhaps a Calvinist would say 'it doesn't have to be appealing, just true'.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

It probably needs to be pointed out that the TULIP idea is a later crystalization of what could be called Reformed theology -- which is linked to Calvin. Calvin, like most great thinkers, was much more complex than this would suggest. He was also a man of his times. Many modern Presbyterians would see themselves as part of the Reformed tradition, affirm those things that make sense in Calvin, and leave behind the others. It's important to point out as well that Arminianism is a branch of the Reformed tradition, but its adherents chose to emphasize other things.

But of course I'm a pastor in a tradition that broke from the Presbyterians over many of these issues.

Andrew said...

I could never get past how vicious Calvin was to people who did not agree with him. It makes me wonder what some fundamentalists might do today if they had a little more latitude. ;)

Total depravity always struck me as one of those notions that was conceived and then justified through scripture, rather than scripture setting the plumbline in the first place. God simply makes too many pleas to our reason to make TD work.

BTW Mystical, I see you changed your template. I want to try that too, I was just afraid of everything going *poof*. :)

Mystical Seeker said...


That might be a way of looking at it. That is definitely different from the more common selling point for religions that they offer a positive or appealing message. After all, the Gospel of Mark begins by proclaiming the "Good News".


You make a good point that any complex set of ideas is often hard to reduce to a simple formulaic expression, and the reformed tradition no doubt serves as the source of a diverse number of trends. Maybe the lesson is not to be stuck on the past, but to continually ask ourselves how we can move forward ("always reforming", as I believe they say.)


Yes, Calvin could be nasty. The little matter of burning Michael Servetus at the stake is one glaring example of this.

As for my template, I am not 100% happy with it, but I got tired of the old one and wanted a change. It was work finding some free templates on the net and then modifying the one I found to make it halfway suitable. If you save your old template before you make any changes, you can always go back to it, although you have to be careful because you can lose widgets if your new template doesn't refer to widgets that your old one did. In other words, it is a big hassle. :)

The Progressive Deist said...

Interesing post.

As a Deist that sometimes attends a United Methodist church with my wife I have some interactions with Christians that I would not normally have.

I rarely have interactions with anyone that pushes the view of Calvinism. At the same time I rarely have interactions with those that push for a view of Arminianism. This is because most people really don't know that these viewpoints exist. Most simply accept that concept of a basic Christianity and rarely if ever venture out and go deeper into theology.

Of course, this makes it nice as I rarely if ever have anyone tell me that I am going to HELL for not believing that Jesus died for my sins.

I fully admit that I would not attend a church that had Calvinism as a major point of view as I find it rather disgusting for the very reasons you showed in your post (not to mention what he did to Servetus). The idea that God would do such a thing is foreign to me and I have trouble how anyone can worship such a being.

Like progressive Christians, I hold to the idea of original blessing which I also call innate potential. This potential gives each of us the ability to create the world as a better place. Not terribly original but one that I hold to. I also agree with the concept of viewing God not as a human-like being but as something else all together.

I cannot comment on other United Methodist churches as this is the only one I interact with so please realize that this is not a large view of what United Methodists believe.

OneSmallStep said...

My negative reaction to TULIP is two-fold.

1) My understanding is that Jewish thought is that we hold equal ability to do both good and bad, and that our good acts aren't totally depraved. So TULIP would violate a rather basic building block of Christianity, since it partially evolved from Hebrew thought.

2) It doesn't say the best things about God, and how He created us. If we're born totally depraved, then wouldn't that mean God either created each and every one of us depraved, or if the depravity is not a result of God's decision, then God isn't fully in control of how we were created.

Harry said...

Your counterexample of parental love is flawed, at least according to Richard Dawkins.

His "selfish gene" theory explains a mother's love as a strategy evolved over the eons to promulgate her genes in the gene pool at the expense of other peoples genes.

According to Dawkins, we are in fact totally depraved, being the slaves of our selfish genes!

Mystical Seeker said...

Dawkins may be a proponent of some form of reductionism, but his views on religion are well known, so I somehow doubt that he is a Calvinist. :) I'm also not sure that saying that people are genetically predisposed to engage in certain kinds of altruistic or self-sacrificing acts really matches the Calvinist notion of total depravity. I would normally expect the notion of total depravity to work in the opposite direction--to claim that we are predisposed to do unloving things, not good and loving things.

I think that if we were really nothing but mere "slaves" of our "selfish" genes, then parental love from adoptive parents would be qualitatively different from that of biological parents, and by the same token you would never see parents who did horrible things to their biological children.

There is also the question of whether, if there is a biological basis for a given form of altruism, that somehow renders our concepts of altruism meaningless or if simply reduces it to a biological phenomenon with no other meaning to it. This kind of reductionist argument often comes up in various contexts--another example would be the argument that says that since brain chemistry affects our minds, our minds must therefore be nothing but our brains. I've never really subscribed to that form of reductionism.

Harry said...

If the Calvanist depravity means that we can do nothing good on our own, then Dawkins provides a severe challenge to your example. Parental love is not good, it is selfish, although on a genetic level, not a personal one.

I am not a Calvinist, but my objections are more directed to the idea of double predestination and limited atonement.

I have no problems witht the idea of total depravity from simple observation: people are selfish, their supposed good actions are often motivated by social pressure or desire for other's good opinion.

I have no objection to the suggestion that if and when people do act in a good way, it is the grace of God acting in them and through them.

Thinking that we are somehow good on our own can lead to complacency.

Here, I think, is a good application of that notorious atheist Betrand Russell's principal:

If a philosophical idea flatters you, be very suspicious.

I find the idea that I am basically a good person to be very flattering, and therefore very suspicious.

Your milage may vary.

Andrew said...

*I have no problems with the idea of total depravity from simple observation: people are selfish, their supposed good actions are often motivated by social pressure or desire for other's good opinion.*

I grew up in Christian circles that thought that way. My objection is not based so much on the argument, but on the outcome. I find Christians who lean toward that theology tend to be cynical, impatient, and brusk. That would seem to be just a natural next step to seeing everyone around you being depraved, and if they do a good thing, it is not them but God (or biology to Dawkins). That is why, as much as I love theology, I put a heavier emphasis on where that theology leads... how does it cause me to act and feel towards others. I don't comprhend how seeing everyone as depraved is helpful, and I never see Jesus setting that as the model. Theology that generates a disdain for man -created in the image of God- cannot be good.

Mystical Seeker said...

That would seem to be just a natural next step to seeing everyone around you being depraved, and if they do a good thing, it is not them but God (or biology to Dawkins). That is why, as much as I love theology, I put a heavier emphasis on where that theology lead

I think you raise a good point. That is one reason why I consider the doctrine of total depravity to be an expression of misanthropy. I think that if you have an inherently negative view of people, it will manifest itself in the way you interact with others.

While I can see the metaphorical power in anthropomorphizing our genes by assigning human character traits to them, I think that most of us who have experienced or given parental love believe that it is good. I think that the goodness of parental love speaks for itself, whether or not it serves the purported interests of anyone's genes. If genes influence us to act in ways that are more loving rather than less, then I would not characterize that as depravity, but rather something good. By contrast, the impression I've gotten (and perhaps I'm wrong) is that Calvinists who argue that a manifestation of the purported total depravity of humans is that their ostensibly altruistic acts are always done in some sense in order to provide some advantage or benefit to the self (even if is nothing more than to look good to others). This is something that I fundamentally disagree with. This is cynical in the extreme, and it really does reflect a certain misanthropy, because it never accepts any act of kindness, generosity, or altruism on its own terms, but always attributes it to some ulterior motive.

I would argue that, sure, obviously people are often craven, selfish, or brutish in their behaviors, but sometimes people do altruistic or unselfish acts with no thought of personal advantage. That doesn't mean that people are always good or that they always do that. But to take the extreme position of "total depravity" introduces a persistent and poisonous undercurrent of cynicism in our relations with others.

Harry said...

Andrew and Mystical:

I have not experienced the sort of misanthropic Christian you have run into, at least not so I'd noticed.

Personally, I find the idea that we humans are hopeless sinners tends to make me more tolerant of their bad actions. They in a very real sense can't help it.

I learned this from other Christians, btw. And I recognize that I have done the same, and sometimes worse. Judge not lest you be judged.

So the theology of Total Depravity need not, and often does not, lead to misanthropy. I think the theology of predestination might be more at fault here.

PrickliestPear said...

One of the problems with the doctrine of "total depravity," of course, is that it presupposes the traditional fall/redemption paradigm that has been rendered obsolete by evolutionary theory.

Daryl P. Domning, in a brilliant article published in America magazine a few years back (Google "Evolution, Evil, and Original Sin"), and later in a book called Original Selfishness, points out that "selfishness" is a characteristic of living things generally, not just humans. Humans are unique in that we are morally reflective beings, and therefore capable of striving against our selfish instincts. Whether we are ever capable of acting with utter selflessness is an open question, but really, what does it matter? Do our motives really have to be 100% pure for our actions to be moral? If they're not, then what? Moral behaviour was never about winning divine brownie points, anyway, it was, and is, about living rightly, in community with others. And whether or not we can do that isn't properly the subject of theological speculation.

The traditional notion of the fall -- and the consequent need for redemption -- is erroneous in itself, so I have little interest in doctrines that presuppose it, especially the more ridiculous ones like "total depravity."

Mystical Seeker said...

The traditional notion of the fall -- and the consequent need for redemption -- is erroneous in itself, so I have little interest in doctrines that presuppose it, especially the more ridiculous ones like "total depravity."

I've run across those who espouse the doctrine of total depravity who also believe in evolution and who thus don't take the Adam and Eve story literally, and I just can't for the life of me figure that one out. How, exactly, did the universe come to its "depraved" state if God spent 14 billion years participating in the evolutionary processes of the universe? I've never seen any explanation for this. It is as if the doctrine of total depravity is just being echoed as a truism without any explanatory mechanism that would give a theological underpinning for it. If God has been involved in creation somehow over the last 14 billion years of cosmic and biological evolution since the Big Bang, and if we modern humans are simply the product of those processes that God is ostensibly responsible for, then in absence of a story of the Fall what we are left with is that God evoked into being a universe with laws and processes that created totally depraved human beings. So isn't God ultimately responsible for this situation?

John Shuck said...

Thanks Seeker for the link. I am late to this discussion but I just want to thank you for Tiny Tim. Talk about Totally Depraved!

No, I am kidding about Tiny. I think Bob had it right about TULIP being a post-calvinist thing.

The Synod of Dordt comes to mind.

John Shuck said...

I just read the notation at the bottom of your blog that you were 8 in 68. I was 7. No wonder we get each other's bizarre pop references.
I remember Rowan and Martin and Tiny Tim as a kid, too.

Do you ever feel that the world skipped over our age group? It seems life went from boomers to xers and we sat around listening to the Banana Splits on our 45s.

Mystical Seeker said...

John, I know what you mean! (And yes, I get the Banana Splits reference. :)) Although technically I've see the Baby Boom categorized as lasting until as late as 1964, so in theory we both could be classed as Baby Boomers, I have always felt that I was really located between generations, and I never really had a generational identity myself.

John Shuck said...

"I have always felt that I was really located between generations, and I never really had a generational identity myself."

That's what I was getting at. In fact, in my 16 years in ministry, there have hardly been any folks my age there.

Older and now 20s and 30s. Kinda weird.

Harry said...


If you find evolution incompatible with Total Depravity, then why do you find it compatible with Partial Depravity?

(And here I assume we agree that there is some depravity in the world).

The question is one of degree, not of kind.

PrickliestPear rightly notes that evolution by itself implies complete selfishness, but suggests we can somehow overcome our genetic programming (through divine intervention?().

So the simply evolved man is totally depraved, but can, through the grace of God, become a moral being.

Frank said...

Count me among the people who lean toward original blessing.

However, I have to agree with Harry that the theory of evolution does not obliterate the doctrine of depravity. The idea that there is something in the human condition which is somehow "lacking" and we need an injection of God/spirit/whatever to help us transcend this--you don't need a literal Adam & Eve for that. This is where I'd disagree with Spong and others.

I still think depravity is too negative for my tastes, but like all good religious philosophies it underscores a need for transcendence.

That being said, I have often wondered if altruim exists at all. Even when we do good things, don't we really do it for ourselves? Maybe we do it to feel good, or to uphold virtues we believe in--Maybe we don't want the pain that would come to us if we didn't.

"I couldn't bear to look at the homeless perosn any longer, so I gave him money." That's not altruism, that's guilt talking. The person gave money so they themselves could feel better.

Even a Kamikazee pilot can be said not to be altruistic, because his identity is to tied up to his country and this ideal of suicide that he could not live without doing it, so it is an expression of his self.

So if you're the good Samaritan and you walk by the hurt man on the road, do you help him out of altruism, or do you help him because if you didn't it would nag at your conscience, or you would feel bad, or you would not be upholding the virtues you indentify with yourself? Those are technically self-serving motives. I mean isn't that what empathy is--the ability to feel someone else's pain so that it becomes your pain.

I don't think this kind of selfishness is bad, its just part of human nature, and as my spiritual advisor once said, sometimes the most base instincts are the pathway to the most profound.

Mystical Seeker said...

I would suggest that evolution can produce cooperative or altruistic behavior just as easily as it can provide for selfishness. Many species have evolved all sorts of mechanisms to enable cooperative behavior with one another. In fact, your earlier citation of Dawkins earlier is a partial example of this, since Dawkins's "selfish gene" theory suggests that there is a genetic basis for cooperative behavior with those closest to an individual. Among primates, which are generally highly social animals, you find all sorts of ways that evolution has provided for cooperative, social, and potentially even altruistic behavior.

Take a look at thisfor an example into research into the evolutionary basis of altruism. According to a research finding,

In experiments reported in the journal Science, toddlers helped strangers complete tasks such as stacking books.

Young chimps did the same, providing the first direct evidence of altruism in non-human primates.

Altruism may have evolved six million years ago in the common ancestor of chimps and humans, the study suggests.

Mystical Seeker said...

Even when we do good things, don't we really do it for ourselves? Maybe we do it to feel good, or to uphold virtues we believe in--Maybe we don't want the pain that would come to us if we didn't.

In many cases, I am sure that's true; but in other cases I would suggest that altruism can occur for no other reason than simply a wish to help another person.

Guilty feelings does raise an interesting point, though, because it does complicate things. As self-reflecting creatures with the ability to formulate ideas of virtue and right and wrong, so our actions can easily get tied up with guilt and our values; this does beg the question of whence comes those guilty feelings in the first place. To me, though, choosing to adhere to one's values about right and wrong does not inherently serve as a selfish act just because one's values are internalized somehow.

This sounds like an argument that if the feelings of altruism come from within a person's motivations, then they can't really be altruistic, because even the satisfaction of one's own motivations is by definition selfish (since the motivations spring from the self). To me, however, the satisfaction of a motivation is not selfish in and of itself, if the motivation is simply that of helping another. I have heard the argument that there is no such thing as altruism before, but it always seemed to boil down to the argument that if you want to do something for any reason, it must be selfish because it is what you want to do. It seems a little tautological to me, and it defies the common conception of what altruism means. There is a big difference between helping someone simply because that's what you want to do, and helping someone because you will look good, or because you will get money for it, or because you will have some other tangible benefit. We all recognize that there is a difference, we all treat it differently, and I think to deny that altruism exists is to disconnect from any real meaning that we assign to people's motives in the real world.

Frank said...

I would suggest that altruism can occur for no other reason than simply a wish to help another person.

But that's just it. Its my wish for you.

I'm not sure what you mean about the common conception of altruism.

I think there are different levels of satisfaction. It is satisfying to sit on the couch eating potato chips. It is also satisfying to go out and serve the needy. Both can be seen to blossom out of a person's base desires, but one expands a person and the other probably doesn't.

The way I look at the gospel story, Jesus did not tell us to be altruistic. He rather told us to recognize in every person the same kinship and empthy you would have for your own flesh and blood brother and sister. In other words, take your family loyalty and all your feelings of love, kinship, clan-ness and identity, and simply expand them. He did not tell us to walk away from our depraved state and embrace altruism, he rather told us to work with our natural state to build the kingdom.

In fact, the notion of altruism--in some sense--requires the doctrine of depravity to be true. In order to have altruism, you have to have a split personality--the depraved, selfish part of you, and the altruistic, enlightened self. I rather see the human condition as an integrated whole.

Harry said...


You reminded me of my favorite quote from Solzhenitsyn:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Progressives have the capacity for great cruelty because they think that they are naturally good, and do not reflect on the evil in their own hearts.

Mystical Seeker said...

In fact, the notion of altruism--in some sense--requires the doctrine of depravity to be true. In order to have altruism, you have to have a split personality--the depraved, selfish part of you, and the altruistic, enlightened self. I rather see the human condition as an integrated whole.

Yes, I agree, but that strikes me as quite different from a doctrine of "total" depravity, since it recognizes that people have within them both the potential for both good and the bad.

Progressives have the capacity for great cruelty because they think that they are naturally good

That is simply not true. I don't recall anyone in this discussion saying that people are "naturally good".

That seems to be posing two extremes as the only conceivable alternatives; somehow either you must have an extreme doctrine of "total depravity", or else hold an extreme belief that people are all "naturally good". I have always argued for a middle position, that people are capable of a broad spectrum of actions, both good and bad, and I have never claimed that people are naturally good. What I am addressing is the position that people are inherently tinged by corrupt motives in every single thing they do, something that I think is misanthropic and cynical. The funny thing about this is that if anyone took that position seriously, they would mistrust everyone's motives because they would assume that everyone always had a selfish ulterior motive in any act they did. In fact, I'm not even sure what would be the point in saying "thank you" to someone who did you a favor, since obviously from this point of view they are only doing such a favor to benefit themselves.

Frank, that is what I mean by the "common definition of altruism". In the real world, we really do distinguish between people's motives. We don't take all generous acts as being selfish in nature. We understand in the real world the distinction between on the one hand someone who does acts of kindness merely to ingratiate, to curry favor, to get money compensation, or otherwise benefit themselves, and someone who just does a favor no questions asked. Humans treat those two kinds of actions differently, and I think for a reason. I don't think we would do so if we really thought they were all essentially the same kind of action, since all would be based on selfish motives.

Harry said...


That Progressives are capable of great cruelty I know from observation and reading history. I surmise the fact that they think they are naturally good from their descriptions of their motivations.

The point of saying "thank you", is to provide the reward they seek. It is common for someone who did an "altruistic" act to become indignant if they are not rewarded with gratitude

The doer of a truly altruistic act does not need to be rewarded with gratitude. Then, and only then, would there be no point in saying "thank you".

Frank said...

Harry that is funny, given the recent passing of George Carlin. He hated when someone would stop traffic, indicate for him to cross the street, and then demand a thank you for it. They weren't doing him a favor, they want to be in control and get thanked.

Mystical, I don't get too down on things by seeing a lack of altruism. I just see that there are higher and lower ways of serving ourselves. Its like eating junk food and eating a healthy meal--both are satisfying in their own way, but one is better. So helping someone else instead of directly helping ourselves is similar--its more deeply satisfying.

I just think that life is about recognizing that my destiny is ultimately tied up to your destiny. It is self-less in the sense that you work to get rid of the unhealthy construct of shame and ego and replace it with love. But it feels good and we are also drawn to that love like a moth to a flame when we let go our fears and other inhibitions. Selfish? That's one word for it. But I don't see the negative connotations to it.

Mystical Seeker said...

He hated when someone would stop traffic, indicate for him to cross the street, and then demand a thank you for it. They weren't doing him a favor, they want to be in control and get thanked.

Which is goes along with the point I am trying to make. We fully understand what is going on with people who do that sort of thing, and the fact that we characterize them in a certain way shows that at some level we really do understand the difference between altruism and selfishness. The reason why we are annoyed at people who do that kind of thing, but we aren't annoyed at others who act selflessly in other contexts, shows that we all understand at some level that people don't categorize all acts as "selfish". Everyone knows the difference between people who do things in order to get something in return, and those who don't.

I think this is the problem here--it lumps together two completely different classes of action into the same category (selfish), when we all simply know that this is not a valid way of categorizing things. i understand what you are saying about different levels of selfishness, but I think that at some level this still impugns the motives of people who do genuine acts of kindness.

You are, if I understand correctly, suggesting that people do certain acts of love or charity always do so because it makes them feel good. I have also heard this argument, but I think it assumes certain things. It assumes first of all that the reward is the basis of the action rather than the outcome. Yet why assume that? It could just as easily be the other way around--that people feel good secondarily because they do these acts, but that the motivation itself comes from something inside themselves and precedes any rewards that might accrue afterward. Rewards of any sort can sometimes be an icing on the cake for an internal motivation that is not based on the reward per se; there is no reason to inherently assume that the reward in itself is necessarily source of the motivation, however.

Going back to what we've seen from evolutionary studies, do small babies or chimpanzees who do acts for strangers do so because of the reward of feeling good about their moral sense? This doesn't seem likely to me.

In fact, I would suggest that it need not be the case that everyone feels these rewards at all. Many people may do good things but may not feel any particular sense of internal reward afterward. Sometimes altruistic acts are carried out, well, just because. One reason that I cited the example of parental love is that I think this can often be quite common in the case of what parents do.

I think this whole issue bothers me because it suggests that we should go through life questioning the sincerity of everyone's altruistic acts, if anyone actually took this seriously. Maybe I should take it less seriously because I doubt that most of us really do that--although perhaps I'm wrong about that. Philosophically, it is just a cynical view of human nature that I find objectionable. But practically, the reality is that I don't think most of us really do that--as evidenced by the George Carlin story. In reality, most of us appreciate certain kinds of acts and do not appreciate others, and we do so because we see the motivations that lie behind them.

Frank said...

Well its hard because classifying everyone as "selfish" is a loaded expression that brings baggage with it. Let's try some different words:

What differentiates the George Carlin story is that some people are motived purely by a clear desire for self-gain. They don't even care if I want to cross the street, they just want to tell me what to do and then force me to say "thank you." There are others who are willing to pause their driving for just a moment and incure a slight inconvenience in order to help someone.

I would argue that both motives are self-serving in a sense, but both are different and we should probably use different words to describe them so we don't have the kind of confusion we are having.

I think the moth-to-a-flame analogy is a good one, because I see that our desire for God--for goodness--is like an infant baby who walks with their hands outstretched just to lop up the love that is all around them. We enter the kingdom of God as little children, didn't Jesus say. They want to be a part of this goodness which is about serving life and just loving. God call us not to abandon our base motives to superimpose something that is artifical to our nature, but God rather calls us WITH those base motives and THROUGH our very nature. This is incarnation. And again, "base" has negative connotations that I do not want to bring along. Here I'm talking about "base" to refer to that magnetic draw that we have to be a part of this love force. We want it. Its our nature to be connected to it. But we have years of ego and shame and fears preventing us from swimming in this sea of love.

The key idea here is that even altruistic people want it. They can't imagine not loving to the point where they are willing to give up their own lives so that someone can have life. BUT That's not really giving up their life-- that's living into it. That is resurrection.

Frank said...

And a quick additional point: I'm not describing a situation where everyone is robotic, weighing the costs/benefits to themselves of everything they do, always looking for what they are going to "get" out of everything they do. I'm not picturing a cold description of human nature like that at all.

Its more the way a baby reaches for his mother and the mother reaches back. Its that kind of wanting which is paradoxically all about giving.