Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
December 2015 - Volume 15, No. 12
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The Human Condition (Part 1 of 3)

Somewhere and always nearby there’s a perpetual debate going on - whether the “human condition” is itself innately good or innately bad. And over the length of my life experience I’ve been mentored in both camps.

In this Part 1, I’ll speak of the question from within the religions camp within which I’ve long been raised and nurtured. Next month I’ll speak more from the psychological and secular (humanist) camps in which also I’ve been nurtured and greatly influenced.

The Religions camp

My first ‘camp’ emerges from my religious upbringing and life. The opening theme of the Hebrew and Christian Bible is two-fold. First is the emergence of Creation out of chaos.[1] God created, and “it was good.” That theme, the emergence of good out of chaos returns again and again in our own human history. It is the reason we pray in wartime, catastrophe or human difficulty. It’s also the undergirding theme of of hope in my psychotherapy practice - and which keeps me from burning out in my work.

One aspect of chaos was reinforced for me by a particularly creative client from a few years back who introduced me to chaos theory. Out of chaos, a ‘new thing’ can emerge. And with fancy computers, we can even see the process emerge. I found it intriguing. And it continues to guide my personal and professional creativity.    

Back to the Bible. Also in that Genesis prologue comes a narrative of human brokenness - which goes by a number of names, such as “The Expulsion from Paradise,” “Original Sin,” or “the Fall.” This is the narrative of first man (Adam) and first woman (Eve)[2].

Religion and Spirituality - differing disciplines of access

The very word religion at its root (Latin re-ligio), assumes the process of reuniting - ‘a bringing/tying back together again.’ That’s an essential difference between religion and spirituality. The former assumes a brokenness in the cosmos and/or the individual, the latter doesn’t. Spirituality is a discipline of access to the world of Spirit, or the ‘otherworld.’ Religion is a discipline of access to the resources for healing an essential split. And the narrative acts from which the need for healing emerge, come after Creation. That’s why the The Fall narrative is in the second and third chapters of Genesis, not the first.

In a religious ritual, a confession of sin/brokenness is essential, or at least assumed. In a spiritual ritual, it is not necessary.

Life in Middle Land - the land of human history 

The Bible narrative presents us with a cosmology of three parts. The part before human history, the part involving human history - which is a lengthy narrative of human sin and redemption, and a third part which is the culmination or part “after” human history.

Our conscious (or human) history (part 2) begins with the Expulsion from Paradise. There is no return to the Garden (part 1). Our only path now is ahead, through the ‘desert’, and ultimately toward (part 3) the City of God, the blessed home of the Redeemed - often called “the Kingdom.” Our full Narrative (as represented in our Bible) begins with the blessedness of Creation (Part 1). Our conscious (i.e. “human”) history (Part 2)  is one of struggle and death, as well as one of human triumph and glory. The Great Culmination (Part 3), which Christians call the Parousia, or the ‘second coming of Christ’, is at the end of (or after) our history. That’s why it’s so tempting for many conservative Christians to despise history and its troubles and to ‘move on quickly’. Even the idea of care for the Earth becomes a waste of time for them. But the problem here is that despising history is also despising Creation - which is a splitting of God. It also becomes a demeaning of our religion’s central act of Redemption, the life and sacrifice of Christ.

Islamic terror (a today-in-the-real-world side-trip)

We can now begin to understand why the emergent “Caliphate” of ISIS is so enchanting. It evokes the reemergent idea of a glorious and unified Islamic civilization. The ‘chaos’ they create in us by their terrorizing behavior is purposefully designed to more rapidly bring about the ‘great separation’ by which their own religious destiny is hastened. When they can create in us fear and hatred, they win. And, of course, in this present time, it seems to be working. Conservative Christianity often follows the same pattern. But as is so common within “the human condition” the process of “love” is poisoned by the powers of ego and greed, the propensity of ‘human’ nature to separate and destroy (like ISIS’ divide and conquer).

On the Monday after the Friday terrorist attacks in Paris (11/13/15), I was with two close friends at the gym I regularly attend. Both are of good and gentle heart, though not ‘believers,’ and both know I’m a churchman. One of them, almost mockingly asked “What are your people saying about the (Paris) attacks? Are they saying to bomb the hell out of ISIS or to love them?” My other friend spoke up (as if for me), “They’re Christians, they don’t have a choice.” I was amazed. Out of the mouth of an acknowledged “unbeliever” came the true essence of what I am supposed to be.

We and ISIS have a similar goal - a future where the glory of who we are created to be can be fully manifest. Islam is at heart a religion of peace, I have no doubt about that. Christianity is at heart a religion of peace, in spite of our frequent behavior. The same with Judaism, and at heart almost all the world’s religions. But when an enemy can trigger us to hatred, in order to hasten their own ‘manifest destiny’ (remember our historic use of that term?) they only delay it. We betray our true ‘heart’. When one hastens the Kingdom of God by deceit, the ‘coming’ is further delayed, or perhaps even obliterated.  


The only way is to love - we hear that gain and again, yet we often aren’t strong enough or disciplined enough to do it. That’s what a good religion does - it gives us a grace and a discipline to help us ‘hold it together’ - and the ‘it’ is the great love of the Divine for the Devine’s Creation. Love is the slow way; and often becomes the difficult way of sacrificial living. 

Our military often know this. If called to battle they follow. They willingly live in that ambiguity of love and hatred. How many mothers of soldiers quietly pray with and for the mothers of the ‘enemy’ whom their own sons and daughters must battle?  I think the rest of us often have little or no idea! 

The Holidays (or why this topic at this time of year?)

We are now within the time called “the holidays.” And in my thinking, each (perhaps every) Holiday is founded on the theme of brokenness, or redemption from brokenness.  

Halloween / All Saints has much to do with celebrating (or wrestling with) our relationship with the dead. And it’s the Celtic New Year - a time of new beginnings.

Thanksgiving is an occasion for ritual/institutional/formalized/anticipated gratitude. Though the historic narrative is increasingly suspect, its roots emerge from giving thanks for a completed harvest, originally in the midst of a time of devastation (the central theme of our traditional narrative of the Pilgrims).

At Christmas we celebrate a central act in our larger Narrative, the birth of a Savior who will save us from our sins (ourselves).  

At New Year’s we hold again to a rekindling of hope within history (within our own time). In the shadows behind our Christmas (an older calendar reckoning places Christmas on January 6, our current Epiphany or Twelfth Night) lay other celebrations and invocations for the grace and hope of renewed time. 

My own view (always open to debate):

Let me spell out my own ‘cosmological’ viewpoint on the subject of human nature.  

The Created world (i.e. ‘before’ humans) seems to have had a well-established balance, which continues in nature-as-it-is-today when separate from human intervention. That’s why indigenous people use Nature as their primary textbook - to learn from those who ‘by nature’ already have it. Nature has what we humans don’t have - a natural balance and blessedness. The food chain is the great balancer (even what we used to fearfully call ‘the law of the jungle’- till we began to realize our own human ‘jungle’ was much more cruel.). 

And so we have religion and other disciplines of culture to correct what is awry in our “human nature”. Nature has an inherent balance, human nature primarily knows to divide things.  

Being human we need to teach ourselves how to live in harmony with others and all things. We don’t have that by our nature. That’s why parenting is so important. Does a child know by nature to say please and thank you? Does a child even know by nature to be toilet trained?

Do the animals in nature need therapists? The only animals that become neurotic or need shrinks are those who live with humans. 

To answer the question

And now to answer the question, is the Human Condition, innately good or innately bad? Well, according to the Narrative I live under, it’s “good - bad - good”. And we, as I’ve noted, live in that middle part, the “human history” part, in that middle time where we humans must struggle with our personal and universal brokenness.  

But it’s also the place where with our God-created freedom, we can choose paths by which as well as suffering tremendous despair, we can attain heights of unparalleled beauty, boldness of heart and transcendent humanity. It’s our ability and choice to love that can save this world. And in saving this world, we can have access (even now) to the world beyond. I’ll call it  

The glory of being human (more on this in Part 2).

Pay attention



Gandhi on Despair

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it - always.” 

 - Mahatma Gandhi, Indian political and spiritual leader (1869-1948)


[1] “Now the earth was a formless void” (In Hebrew the words are tohu and bohu - trackless waste and emptiness) “there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.” (Genesis 1:2 - The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985). This is the base from which God ‘spoke’ Creation into being. I have chosen the more modern term chaos to represent this. Hebrew is a more narrative language, and when the more Latin mind stepped in, the negative images were translated into the more philosophical concept ex nihilo - out of nothing.

  My own thinking patterns tend more to Narrative Intelligence than Philosophical Intelligence.

[2] Actually according to ancient Hebrew narrative, Eve was second woman. Adams’s first wife was Lilith, whom he scorned (blaming her) and asked the Lord God to try again, resulting in the Creation of the multifaceted Eve. From the very beginning it seems the feminine has been split at the behest of the masculine.

My first introduction, years ago, was in a full chapter on Lilith in Sheldon Kopp’s great little book,  If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients, (1972 & still in print).

Comments (1)

  • To wit

    Thanks Bill again and again for sharing your well seasoned, unique experience, and learning. I know there are those who would assume you bring a religious vernacular into your therapy sessions. I have read part 2 and like how you have clarified that you don’t. I vouch for this.

    “Love is the slow way..” It is harder to love isn’t it? Hate seems quick with no thought and makes assumptions with no history or thought of the future, although hate can be very entrenched.

    — Askalice, 1/4/2016

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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