Inspired by a recent discussion with a friend, I’ll get you here on
an experimental track of thought. So be warned, and check the content
for its truth by the methods you see fit for that. Note that this is
just a quick document to save some thoughts … get inspired or build
upon it, but don’t take it as doctrine.

Determined or responsible?

When talking about the behavior of other people, you’ll note there
are two people: those who judge it, and those who explain it. Sadly,
both is a naive way of aproaching behavior: the first group claims that
every human being is responsible for its individual behavior, to full
extent; the second group claims that the environment is the cause of
individual behavior, to full extent.

Both answers cannot be lived out. If we are fully responsible,
there’s no explanation for the vast majority of people that act in
uniform ways, as if driven by external force. If we are fully determined,
there is no perspective for the future, because the world will develop
in determined ways, and these seem to lead to catastrophies, everytime
and again.

Neither, nor

The correct alternative cannot be that naive. Instead: yes, my
behavior is determined by my environment up to this very moment; but it
needs not to be so from now on. When analyzing human behavior, you’ll
find reasons for each action, and reasons for the reasons, and
everything results from the environment. But neither educators nor
judiciaries would follow from this that people cannot change. It just
means, they cannot change by themselves. If you want to change people,
you need to change their environment. School, for example, is such a
changed environment, in that pupils are confronted with other values
and expectations than they know from home.

Now if educators apply this to educatees, why don’t we apply it to
ourselves? The ability to apply it to others does not include the one
to apply it to purselves. But there might come an external change of
environment that enlightens our mind for a moment, so that we can
recognize the need to change our own
environment. This moment is where we can act responsibly, but we can
also go by.

Summing up: you cannot change yourself, you can just expose yourself to
an environment that changes you.

The way out: from normal to social behavior

Even people without axiomatic ethics (i.e. non-religious people)
recognize that not every kind of behavior should be tolerated. As we
saw, every kind of behavior has a cause and can be explained, and in
that sense we can call it normal “normal”. Also, we chould be eager to
understand other people’s behavior (it’s called empathy), as that’s the
precondition of finding help for people.

But explainability does not mean that every kind of behavior is
“good”, i.e. has a right to stay unchanges. Without axiomatic ethics,
“good” needs to be defined via pragmatic truth (“that what works is
good”). Which means that socially adequate behavior is good, that’s
behavior where a human society can be built upon if the underlying
principles would be taken by everybody. As a result, a society will get
itself educators that teach its members good (in the sense of socially
adequate) behavior. This teaching will be done by changing people’s
circumstances, see above.

Mapping this to Christian words

I need to admit that, until now, I understood the Bible’s message
this way: God judges all people’s behavior and assigns to everyone the
full responsibility for his or her individual behavior. Now that I
think this is no meaningful or adequate approach to human behavior, I’m
interested if this is really the Bible’s message or was just my naive,
non-enlightened interpretation.

Let us see. I’m going to start with a collection of Bible quotes
that say something about responsibility, cause of human behavior etc.,
and from their general spirit I will re-define some well-known
Christian words.

“Therefore, as you go, disciple all the nations, […] teaching
them to obey all that I have commanded you. […]” [The Bible, Mt
28:19-20, ISV]

At
least to some degree, discipling seems to be something do-able, an
activity.

“For you spent enough time in the past doing what the Gentiles
like to do, living in sensuality, sinful desires, drunkenness, wild
celebrations, drinking parties, and detestable idolatry. They insult
you now because they are surprised that you are no longer joining them
in the same excesses of wild living.” [The Bible 1Pet 4:3-4, ISV]

This
excessive lifestyle is normal, understandable, average behavior for
man, to the extent that it’s surprising when people dare to deviate.

“For you were like sheep that kept going astray, but now you have
returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” [The Bible, 1Pet
2:25, ISV]

“When he [i.e. Jesus] got out of the boat, he saw a large crowd.
He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a
shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.” [The Bible, Mk 6:34,
ISV]

It’s
obvious here that man cannot help himself: he needs a savior, a
teacher, a sheperd.

flesh, original sin
The bad qualities of man, aquired by growing up in a fallen
world: bad education, bad childhood and perhaps bad DNA. “Bad
qualities” means what leads to dysfunctional society. And interesting
enough, it’s the same what God calls “sin”.
fallen world, world, worldly
The bad environment that we find ourself in. Including bad social
conditions (bad examples etc.), bad physical conditions (illness,
genetic diseases including affinity to depression etc.), bad
environmental conditions (earthquakes, cosmic rays, tsunami waves, crop
failure etc.) and bad spiritual conditions (existence and activity of
demons etc.).
repentance
The correct alternative of the first responsible decision that a
man is able to do in his life. It’s acknowledging that one’s behavior
is bad (though it has reasons, no matter) and choosing to be changed by
God through living in a changed environment from now on. These changed
conditions include a congregation, close companionship with brothers
and sisters, concrete activity and words from God, and more.
holyness, love
The goal of character transformation that God intends for
everybody. It’s equivalent to what people without axiomatic ethics
would (if consequent) follow from the necessity of forming a functional
society.

To sum up: God seems to be empathic. That is, he knows the reasons
why human behavior always develops in bad ways. (That is, socially
dysfunctional, as opposed to love). He also knows that it’s no solution
at all to tell humans about the determination of their behavior. He
just sees that, man must be saved: because of this determination, he
cannot help himself, and the environment does the best to harm him, as
it’s a fallen world. Man needs something that changes his environment
to the better, and by this means, changes man to the better.

And then God changed the human environment by sending His son, and
then His spirit into our human world. Every positive change can be
deduced to this act of God: this change of environment caused other
changes (making church come into existence etc.), and these changes
changed people. Within this changed environment, human behavior is also
determined, but to the good. This determination is described in the
Bible as “God gave us of His spirit”; which I currently understand to
some degree as “taught us to desire the same that the Holy Spirit does”.
And he taught it by coming into the world and changing the world … .

A problem: how to deal with all the commands in the Bible, if I say
that man is not able to change himself so as to keep them? I admit that
the biblical testimony (see the quotations above) points not very
clearly in the direction of this post, but I can explain why: because
the Bible is not a document to explain the world as it is, rather a
document to change the world as it should be. Therefore, it contains
commands much more than it expresses the connection of environment and
behavior, as commands serve two functions in a world where environment
dictates behavior. One function of these commands is to show the bad
quality of his behavior and character to man (that’s the task of the
“law”), to enlighten man to a state where he’s ready to accept God’s
salvation (see below). Another aspect would be that these commands are
not something that’s intended to be fulfilled one by one in a
mechanistic way, but something that, as a multitude of repeated
commands, establishes a different environment. Different from that
where man was used to live in. Now, he meets with other expectations,
other definitions of what is “tolerable behavior”, and why. This
environment changes man, if he’s exposed to it for a prolonged time.
The commands as such, or the strained attempt to keep them, don’t
change anybody. Not in character: it may change the outward behavior,
but only for a time.

One last problem: If it’s all God’s activity to change people by
changing the environment, why did Jesus teach that some people qualify
to go to hell? That is, isn’t it God’s fault that people go to hell, in
the sense that he didn’t perform well enough to change all people’s
environments? The answer seems to be to me: changing one’s environment
is something that God does without asking us, but only to the degree
where we’re changed (“enlightened”) enough to do this responsible
decision: “Do I want acknowledge that my behavior is not good and let
God change me to the better, or do I want to adhere to being good and
feel ok, though it’s not true and though the results will be
devastating?”. The ability to do this decision is in no way the “free
will” of man, as if man would have the ability to do right our of his
own strength. It’s possible simply because of God’s kindness, who wants
to respect His image in man instead of perfecting man without his
consent.


Start date: 2008-06-12
Post date: 2008-06-12
Version date: 2008-06-12 (for last meaningful change)

One thought on “The empathic God

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