In the Image of God

When I was a child, a preacher used a metaphor about a cake pan to describe human beings. Adam was the original cake pan. After the “great fall,” the cake pan was dented. So as decedents of Adam, we are all now non-perfect cakes. We are somehow hollow, reduced.

But I simply don’t believe it. I will not pass that myth to my child. He’s perfect in every way, just as we all are.

The child’s face that I look in to is not a sinner. He’s not a broken individual waiting to be healed. He’s not evil, looking for someone to fix his fractured self.

He is, however, a child of God – of any God (you’ll read what I mean shortly), a child of mystery, a person of fullness.

I know there are many ways to look at the belief of broken humanity, but I continually think about the psychological damage we do to children when we keep pushing the “sinner” theology and thus set the foundation for this cycle of brokenness to continue. 

I sincerely think we do damage to children when we call them broken, bad, or selfish. They internalize those terms, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of negative attitudes. Maybe this is one reason this study found extremely religious states have more crime, divorce, and defeatist attitudes.

According to Psychology Today, labeling people has intense effects, whether negative or positive:

The long-term consequences of labeling a child like Hannah “smart” or “slow” are profound. In another classic study, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson told teachers at an elementary school that some of their students had scored in the top 20% of a test designed to identify “academic bloomers”–students who were expected to enter a period of intense intellectual development over the following year. In fact, the students were selected randomly, and they performed no differently from their unselected peers on a genuine academic test. A year after convincing the teachers that some of their students were due to bloom, Rosenthal and Jacobson returned to the school and administered the same test. The results were astonishing among the younger children: the “bloomers,” who were no different from their peers a year ago, now outperformed their unselected peers by 10-15 IQ points. The teachers fostered the intellectual development of the “bloomers,” producing a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the students who were baselessly expected to bloom actually outperformed their peers.

So, when I read studies like this, I simply wonder why we would label first our selves as a sinner and then do the same to our children? Wouldn’t the world be better if we enforce the good?

In no way I am trying to trample on people’s most sacred beliefs – those things we all hold in our hearts and feel connected to in our core.

But I am trying to make sense of this in my head.

I know many deeply religious friends whose foundation is built on Christ’s love, Gandhi’s patience, or Mother Theresa’s giving.

However, my mind is caught where I know it’s detrimental labeling someone “bad” from the get go. 

Maybe we just don’t see it that way when religious dialog shrouds the core belief because we aren’t allowed to question these fundamental beliefs – which we may not even pay attention to anymore anyway.  Maybe if we do wonder beyond them, it may mean we aren’t as faithful as we are told we should be. 

Perhaps describing humanity as sinners is so much part of the script we have been handed we don’t recognize the power it holds over our children, and in a larger sense, the world we are creating and living in today.

I recently read Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.  I love the title because it has a play on the word “just” as in “morally right, fair,” and also as in “simply” – we are simply babies until our environment molds us.  

The author’s belief is that babies are born with a moral sense:

“This is not the same as an impulse to do good and avoid doing evil. Rather, it is the capacity to make certain types of judgements – to distinguish between good and bad, kindness and cruelty. What’s most vital to understand here is the profound effect we have on their morality. What we express, they imitate.”

There are some more lines that have stayed with me after reading which highlight children’s natural “moral sense”:

-psychologists have found that children naturally help adults without prompting:

“Maybe their helping is an adaptive behavior designed to endear them to their caretakers, analogous to their physical charms such as big eyes and round cheeks. But researchers have evidence that suggests that helping- at least by older children – really is motivated by a genuine care for others.”

-babies do not have the ability of doing good or bad things themselves just yet:

“babies are sensitive to the good and bad acts of others long before they are capable of doing anything good or bad themselves. It seems likely, then, that the ‘moral sense’ is first extended to others and then at some later point in development turns inward.”

In an interview, the author continues to explain what his book is all about, succinctly answering questions I had about humans:

Q)So are babies naturally good, or naturally evil? 

A) Both! We are born with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and a rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness. Morality is bred in the bone. But there is a nastier side to our natures as well. There’s a lot of evidence that even the youngest babies carve the world into Us versus Them—and they are strongly biased to favor the Us. We are very tribal beings. Our natures are not just kind; they are also cruel and selfish. We favor those who look like us and are naturally cold-blooded towards strangers.

Q) Does this mean that prejudice and racism are inevitable? 

A) Happily, no. For one thing, social experience really matters—babies and children have to learn who Us versus Them is by observing how those around them act. So while some distinctions are inevitable, such as friends versus strangers, others are not. Notably, it is only pretty late in development—by about the age of five—that some children come to use skin color and similar cues when decide who to befriend and who to prefer. Before this, they don’t know that race matters, and so whether or not children will be racist is dependent on how they are raised; what sort of social environments they find themselves in. Also, we are smart critters, smart enough to override our impulses and biases when we think they are inappropriate. Once we learn about these ugly aspects of our nature, we can move to combat them. We can create treaties and international organizations aimed at protecting universal human rights. We can employ procedures such as blind reviewing and blind auditions that are designed to prevent judges from being biased, consciously or unconsciously, by a candidate’s race—or anything other than what is under evaluation. 

Q) It seems as if a lot of your interest is in how we come to transcend our hard-wired morality. 

A) That’s right. A complete theory of morality has to have two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich. But a critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—is not the product of evolution, but emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason. We bring all that to bear when we consider such questions as: How much should we give to charity? Is it right to eat meat? Are there any sorts of consensual sex acts that are morally wrong?

Q) What do you want to accomplish with this book? 

A) Two things. First, many people believe that we are born selfish and amoral—that we start off as natural-born psychopaths. And many argue that we are, as David Hume put it, slaves of the passions: our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. Intelligence and wisdom are largely impotent. This is an ugly view of human nature. Now, if it were true, we should buck up and learn to leave with it. But it’s not true; these dismissive claims are refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology. We are moral animals, and we are powerfully influenced by our capacity for reason. Second, I think there are practical implications to the scientific study of morality. If you’re interested in reducing racism and bigotry, for instance, it is critical to understand our inborn proclivity to favor our own group over others; if you want to create a just society, you’ll want to learn about how we naturally think about fairness and equity. Good social policy is informed by an understanding of human nature at its best and its worst, and this is what Just Babies is all about.

So much of evil we think is fixed in humans seems to be malleable- and that’s truly good news. We do have innate qualities that warrant our concern. But again- I think that’s what the book is saying- we can be optimistic that due to “our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason” we have the power to redirect these lower impulses (if that’s even a good way to describe them) and focus on the good, the perfected God-like in all of us. 

I think sometimes we label children’s behavior according to our limited internal script- and if that limited internal script bases actions on the precept of a broken, deficient human – what do we expect to see? And once more, what are we truly encoding onto our children? Broken people continue to break. Yet, people who see themselves as helpers or do-gooders continually help or do good. 

As a parent, I think about messages that surround us. I want my child to learn about Jesus, but also Mary Magdalena, Mother Teresa, Buddha, Gandhi, and more. I want him to feel and recognize the perfection of all of these regular humans too – who, we must remind ourselves- were created in God’s image. And while all these people were just humans, they all successfully made their arrows sharp and hit the mark (using the Greek definition of sin here, meaning “to miss the mark” like an arrow missing the target) and thus have exercised their perfection! Yes, to keep reinforcing the good brings forth more good.

So I want to throw out this lexicon of “sinner, reborn, rebellious, missing the mark” – I don’t want there to always be this struggle involving a dented cake and failure, a sense of deficiency and unfulfillment. 

Maybe we forgot or simply never realized we don’t have to use this idea of lack to make us want more. Maybe we need to remember success begets success, goodness begets more goodness, fullness begets more fullness. 

We are utterly God-like. We do have the capacity to make the world better – here today we do have creative control- and it’s as accessible as the words we choose to sculpt the world we live in.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared us in advance for us to do.” ~Ephesians 2:10


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