Saturday, February 10, 2007

What’s really “natural”

When I was in high school, we were told about Locke's contract theory of government, which is neatly summarized in the Declaration of Independence as a set of "self-evident" truths. But that summary leaves out the part about the "natural state" of man. I guess Locke said (I'm going from memory of the lectures) that man has natural rights in the natural state, but there are problems with the natural state because there are different interpretations of those rights.

Today's Old Testament reading contradicts Locke by saying that the natural state of man is rather unhappy, and that he needs help so as not to get himself killed. Here's one mention of the issue for the general population:
Then the Lord said to Moses, "When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.
Exodus 30.11-12
Wrath and plague seem to be part of the natural state of man. This is something we don't think about much these days. And it's not just the general populace; it's the priests too!
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come."
Exodus 30.17-21
Did you notice the repeated phrase, "so that they will not die"? Talk about tough job requirements: they have to do it exactly this way or they get killed! But it certainly gives the impression that the "natural state" of man is not a happy thing.

I think many of us have an intuitive sense that this is true, but without the hope of redemption. Last night, on A Prairie Home Companion, there was a scene that actually used that word! It was about mistakes made in the past, what could be done now (or back then); a caricature psychologist from a big-name university says that the entire course of your life is set by the time you're ten. "Is there no hope of redemption?" asks the incredulous narrator. Not if you believe some things being said today.

But of course the truth is different, and better. Even in the days of Aaron's priesthood, the point of the priests was to come before God on behalf of sinners -- sinners like themselves, people like you and me. And in the New Testament we learn about Jesus as the atonement, who provides the way that we can escape the (deadly) natural state. And that's good news.

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