Sunday, October 11, 2009

What is Human Nature?

By the Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 11, 2009

What is human nature? Does anyone have a quickie definition for the term “human nature”?

Your definitions are much like the ones I found when I did a little research, rather than seat-of-the-pantsing it like I often do. And I found this rather old-fashioned but still worthy description of the term Human Nature. In 1947, authors Frank and Lydia Hammer, in their essay of the same name wrote this:

Human nature is the basis of character, the temperament and disposition; it is that indestructible matrix upon which the character is built, and whose shape it must take and keep throughout life. This we call a person's nature.

The basic nature of human beings does not and cannot change. It is only the surface that is capable of alteration, improvement and refinement; we can alter only people's customs, manners, dress and habits. A study of history reveals that the people who walked this earth in antiquity were moved by the same fundamental forces, were swayed by the same passions, and had the same aspirations as the men and women of today. The pursuit of happiness still engrosses (humankind) the world over.

Actually, when I think about it, a better statement of the question might be “What is human nature and what should we do about it?” because the question underneath the definition always seems to be the question of change: how do we deal with the cultural and personal and societal conflicts that arise when we encounter the many permutations of and opinions about so-called “human nature”?

So what are those innate characteristics of human beings that all possess permanently, that indestructible matrix? Can we agree on those? That’s a stickier question and one that is influenced by the culture we live in. Depending on which philosopher or theologian you choose, human nature may be anything from gender to race to sexual orientation and beyond, may be inherently sinful or good or both. And some things which we have historically assumed were or were not facets of human nature have been redefined during our lifetime.

Culture and experience shape our perceptions of human nature. In one cultural group, say a conservative evangelical congregation, sexual orientation is NOT a basic facet of human nature; it is a learned or chosen behavior only and the Bible says it’s bad.

These folks have been convinced by the ancient purity laws in the Old Testament and by the fact that they don’t know anybody who is BGLT. Or at least they think they don’t.
In our congregation and in many other liberal religious groups, sexual orientation is innate and unchangeable. We respect the findings of science and also our own experience----we know people who are BGLT and they are just like us in most ways. We are also pretty well aware that our sexual orientation is not changeable; why should anyone else’s be? And the truth is that most human beings seem to land somewhere on a continuum of sexual orientation.

What about gender? We are born with certain gender characteristics and plumbing that identify us on the surface as male or female, but what does that mean? Science has discovered that virtually all males have a certain amount of female hormones in their bodies and virtually all females have a certain amount of male hormones. So is gender a facet of human nature? If so, what about transgender or intersex people, who have genitals that don’t fit their self-image?

How about race? We used to think that race was innate and to some genetic extent it is, but it is also a cultural matter. Witness the situation in our US history when if you had one iota of African blood you were black.

Or how about those Caucasoids who are white but are now termed Latino or Latina? I remember when someone called my former husband a Mongolian because he has distinctive eyefolds similar to Asian eyelids. But he is Scots-Irish through and through!

Yet some characteristics of humankind are deeply embedded enough that they are seemingly unchangeable. Our genetic and chromosomal structures shape our human nature at a deep level; we inherit certain traits from our ancestors, yet even these can be diluted or strengthened as they are passed along in our children. Dominant and recessive genes intermingle in our makeup and create individuals who are similar in some ways and very different in others.

Authorities mostly agree that there are certain biological traits that separate humankind from other animals: an expanded consciousness, for one; a mind that is capable of growing infinitely. But how important is it to separate us humans from the rest of the natural world? Our 7th principle of Unitarian Universalism acknowledges that we are a part of the interdependent web of existence, not separate from it.

Human nature, whatever it may ultimately prove to be as science and philosophy struggle with its definition, acts upon our culture, our religion, and our politics. It is the indestructible matrix upon which we build our character, according to the Hammer essay I read earlier.

Character. Hmmm. Our Unitarian ancestors felt that human beings were saved by character, not by belief but by attitudes and deeds of mercy and kindness. Here’s what my colleague the Rev. Steve Edington has written about it:

This phrase meant the Unitarians believed we have the resources within ourselves, we have the strength of character, to deliver ourselves--at least to some extent in this life--from alienation and brokenness.... It’s a very positive expression of human potential and human possibility. It’s an affirmation that we carry within ourselves the wellsprings of courage and hope that allow us to be re-born any number of times during our time on earth.

So there appears to be a dividing line between human nature and character. What is truly innate and what is shaped by environment? How is character developed if our innate nature is inborn? How is our character shaped by our experiences?

We have all seen examples in our own experience of human children who grew up in abusive circumstances and became loving, productive adults. We have all seen examples of human children who grew up in apparently ideal homes and became violent and cruel. It’s hard to sort out the factors that send a child down one path or another.

My father grew up one of seven children, a boy who received harsh punishment from his own father for his misdeeds, forced to participate in his dad’s moonshine business, and finally was separated from his family and sent to live with friends out West when his mother tried to save him from the danger.

Yet he became a man of great character and wisdom. The one time I can remember physical punishment from him, he experienced such remorse and horror at his own actions that I never got another spanking nor did my siblings, as far as I know. So we see human beings learning both good and bad behavior traits from both good and bad upbringings.

Our genetic blueprint embeds certain characteristics, both physical and instinctual. We are programmed to have certain drives: breathing, eating, drinking, sheltering, procreating, companionship.

Our most fundamental need of human beings is to survive, so we have an innate aggressiveness within us in order to stay alive. This innate survival instinct leads us to be wary of those who do not look like ourselves, to amass supplies of food, water, shelter, mates in order to survive.

The character we develop during our earlier lives helps us set aside our innate survival instinct in favor of a more altruistic approach to human living; we learn compassion, honesty, faithfulness, kindness, and acceptance of difference. But we’re often aware of that underlying wariness, that fear, that apprehension of danger in unfamiliar or threatening circumstances. And we always have to decide whether we will stand and face the unfamiliar or run from it.

In our current culture, many divisive issues revolve around the question of human nature. Our character determines where we fall on many of these questions: is race a matter of human nature or of culture? Is gender identity inborn or shaped by culture? Is one’s choice of love partner a response to an innate, inborn drive or to a cultural norm? Is a mentally-ill person driven by biology or by environmental factors or both? Do our criminals deserve one kind of justice because they are bad people or another kind of justice because they were treated badly as children? And what is justice for bad people or badly-treated people?

One particular and controversial issue of human nature is in my mind and heart today.

Today is National Coming Out Day across the United States. On this day, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons are encouraged to make their sexual or gender orientation known to their friends and family and neighbors. Several national organizations, such as Dignity USA, the Human Rights Campaign, Equal Rights Washington and similar groups in other states offer legal help, emotional support, even financial support in the struggle for equal rights for sexual minorities.

The quest for equal human rights in our nation and elsewhere has been going on for a very long time. Too long. And there are ardent supporters on both sides of this particular quest, those who demand fairness in civic policies and protection from violence related to sexual and gender orientation and those who protest those policies of fairness and protection on the grounds that their Bibles call it an abomination.

One of the issues of that quest is Marriage Equality, the right to civil marriage for every committed couple. Though our WA legislature has voted to extend rights for domestic partners to same-sex couples and unmarried senior couples, the issue is on the ballot this November, at the request of a requisite number of voters who said “yeah, let’s vote on this issue and see what the people say”.

On the face of it, this looks like a reasonable premise. And some who signed the petitions for the referendum doubtless just want to see what the people say. But others do not trust people they don’t know or understand and are easily influenced to believe the worst of people they don’t know or understand.

Some call this behavior hate; I think it’s really more a matter of fear. We fear people who are different because of our innate drive to protect our own survival. Fear is behind this illegitimate, though legal, effort to vote on whether or not a group should have equal rights.

So you will have a chance when our ballots arrive in the next couple of weeks to vote YES or NO on the issue of civil rights for domestic partners, most of whom are gay and lesbian.

If you vote YES, you are voting to retain the domestic partner benefits law, which gives domestic partners virtually the same rights as civilly married partners: the right to survivor benefits, the right to be with a loved one in a health crisis, the right to make arrangements for a funeral for one’s partner or child, the right of inheritance of property, the right of custody for minor children, the right to visit one’s child’s teacher at school, along with many other benefits offered currently only to civilly married couples. And offered free, whereas same sex couples must pay large legal fees to accomplish the same thing.

If you vote NO, you are voting to repeal this law which gives so many equal rights to same-sex and senior couples.

This congregation has long been what is termed in UUism a Welcoming Congregation. This means that a few years ago we undertook an effort to understand what it means to be a sexual minority and to consider the issues of homophobia.

We learned that same-sex attraction is normal and is present everywhere in the world, in the realm of living things.

We learned that perhaps 10% of the human population is sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. It is pretty well accepted by scientists of all disciplines that sexual orientation is an innate quality in humankind.

We learned that hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons is on the rise and that fear is a near-constant companion for sexual minorities in some areas.

We also learned that it is pretty well accepted by those same scientists that gender identity is not necessarily tied to genitalia but to chemical interactions in the brain and body.

At the end of our 18 months of learning, we voted unanimously to become a Welcoming Congregation, changed our bylaws to reflect our desire to be open and welcoming to sexual minorities in all areas of congregational life, and began to think of ways to let our welcome be known.

Most of you know that after California voted to rescind the right of same sex couples to marry, we publicly declared that we would offer our sanctuary and my services to same sex couples on the island, to hold wedding ceremonies here free of charge. I have done one wedding ceremony for a couple and am looking forward to doing more. These are not civil marriages but marriages of the heart, recognizing the importance of sharing with friends and family the deep commitments humans make in marriage.

Character is the tool we use to make these kinds of decisions. Do we act in the direction of kindness and mercy or do we let our fears overrule our sense of fairness?

Our seven principles of Unitarian Universalism urge us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, not just those who look like us or who are heterosexual or who are privileged in some way by race, by gender, by age.

Our seven principles invite us into relationships with each other that are compassionate, accepting, and encouraging, with justice and equity always at the forefront.

Our seven principles guide us in finding a spiritual path that is free and responsible, that honors our own conscience, that respects the democratic process but refuses to use it to legislate against innocent people.

Our seven principles offer us the vision of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. And our seven principles remind us that we humans are one part of the interdependent web, that our behavior toward each other affects the balance of life on this planet, and that we have the power to enhance life for others, as well as ourselves, by our actions.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering our commitment to leading lives of honesty and integrity and compassion. May we act out our principles in our relationships with friends, family, and community, and in this way make the world a better place. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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