How we view ourselves says a lot about how we imagine we might be liberated or saved. By this I mean how we understand our essential nature—who we are at the core. Being liberated or saved implies either a problem to be resolved or something more we might aspire to. It’s like trying to get from point A to point B. How we envision this leap directly relates to how we envision ourselves.

Basically Bad

At one extreme is the understanding that human beings are essentially immoral creatures dominated by the effects of ancestral sin. It’s like a hereditary stain on our very nature that’s been with us since the dawn of humanity. You will find a comprehensive discussion of the theological origins of this argument here or simply by googling original sin.

In recent years, this view has been reinforced by the theories put forth by Sigmund Freud. He envisioned three basic mechanisms contributing to our overall personality. They are the id, the ego, and the superego.

  • Id – our instinctual demands for personal pleasure and comfort

  • Ego – the thinking mind in dialogue with reality

  • Superego – the moral code imposed by our family and society

Basically, the ego and superego work together to keep the instincts of the id in check. This suggests, as Richard J. Hauser has pointed out, that our inner nature is basically a thrust toward selfish satisfaction of instinctual demands with no regard for the welfare of others.

Implications for Salvation

When we see human nature this way, we’re often filled with guilt and shame. We see ourselves (and everyone around us) as little more than unworthy sinners. We may even sing hymns confessing our wretchedness with an odd sense of pride. Our best hope for this life is to somehow find a way to get along by complying with external standards of what is considered good and right. When we die, God’s son who gave his life for us will redeem us despite our unworthiness.

Basically Good

The other side of this coin sees human nature as essentially good despite our obvious struggles with evil. In his hallmark revelation of the basic human condition, the Apostle Paul declares that his inmost self delights in the law of God (Romans 7:22). In other words, he recognizes that his deepest motivation is to do good even though he always seems to find himself doing the opposite.

Eastern religions also seem be more generous in recognizing that our core nature is inclined toward the good. Chogyam Trungpa coined the term basic goodness from the established Buddhist belief that all human beings possess Buddha Nature, which is the innate potential for awakening.

In the West, Transpersonal Psychology acts as a corrective to Freud. Abraham Maslow, for instance, put forth the understanding that we are naturally directed toward self-actualization. In his schema, a mature person is oriented toward serving truth and justice, having already successfully met their physiological, safety, social, and self-esteem needs.

Implications for Salvation

Immediately we find a much more positive view of ourselves and human nature. I believe this especially attracted me to Buddhism some 24 years ago when I was attending Naropa University (known at that time as the Naropa Institute). This more positive view tends to empower us to make positive changes in ourselves and our world. The downside may be that we have little need for God.

A Little of Both and Then Some

I think a mature view of the human condition must admit there’s something to the idea of original sin. However, as Richard Rohr has pointed out, this has little to do with us personally because it’s larger than any one of us. Paul said, “All sin and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) In fact, this is the shared human condition. It’s just not the whole of it. From the very beginning we were made in the image and likeness of God. God looked upon all of creation and saw that it is good.

Therefore, our basic condition is a little of both. We have our good moments and we have our bad moments. There is a struggle deep within the very fibers of our being, yet we’re created in goodness. We are that goodness. Goodness is our essential nature. We just need a bit of help actualizing it.

Implications for Salvation

That’s why this view adds an essential ingredient to the mix—the power of God’s Indwelling Spirit to help us both overcome the negative and draw upon the positive. In other words, there is a greater power within us that constantly draws us toward exactly what we were created to be—the image and likeness of God. It too is part of the basic human condition.

Therefore, when we hold this view, the power of sin is continuously overcome by the other two factors working in our favor—we were created in goodness and we are fully aware that we have an internal guide helping us along the way. Tapping into the power of the Spirit, we recognize that we all fall short yet we are forgiven; we all have the capacity to change the world and we have an ever-present help to guide us along the way. We are not powerless. We are not alone.

As Hauser puts it, “At the heart of the entire process of coming to this fullness is the Holy Spirit, our sanctifier.”

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I’ve presented three ways of looking at the human condition. Is there another way not being considered here? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.