Understanding Human Nature and Developing Human Potential

Note: I retired as a professor of education in August of 2012 and have left the USA to serve in a voluntary capacity overseas. I do not plan to post any more blogs in the foreseeable future. For those who are interested, there is plenty to read in the books and papers I have posted on this website. May you all continue to grow in your insight and service. 

Note on last blog: On August 24 and 25 I will be presenting two workshops on “Understanding Human Nature and Developing Human Potential” at the Green Lake Conference in Wisconsin. Below are some ideas I will be presenting. For more information on this topic, see my book, Truth, Love and Justice in “Books and Papers” on my website: rodclarken.wordpress.com.

It is important to acknowledge at the outset, that most of our conceptions of human nature and potential have been heavily influenced by popular culture. We are generally unaware of the many erroneous assumptions we have inherited from prevailing thought, which often obscures or shades the truth. History can be viewed as the civilizing of our human natures from a barbarous and degraded form to one that more and more reflects our human potential and maturity. However, some of the acts of the 20th Century exceed those of the past in barbarism and destruction (See Century of Light, commissioned by the Universal House of Justice for more detail and examples.)

Our willingness to fall prey to the ideologies and ideologues of the past century bear witness to our limited grasp of human nature and potential. Indeed, we have been witnessing the rapid decline of our civilization as leaders have sought to undermine the very conception of human nature and structure of society and morality. By human nature, most people generally think of as survival of the fittest—each person seeking his own welfare. We might call this our lower nature. In fact, it can be maintained that it is even lower than animal nature, in which the various animals cooperate, depend on each other and work together for their mutual welfare, even sacrificing themselves to protect their young and their kind.

Just as humans have a physical body that has animal capacities, natures and traits, they also have been endowed with greatly increased moral and spiritual capacities to know, love and choose how we will behave. These capacities distinguish us from animals and make us human; however, if we do not properly and responsibly use these God-given gifts, we become worse than the animals.  It is in the “willing submission of human nature to Divine Law that, in the final analysis, can alone produce the necessary changes in attitude and behavior” (Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 25) to make us spiritual.

By human nature, I generally am referring to our ways of thinking, feeling and acting that distinguish us from animals. Wikipedia describes human nature as follows:

Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinkingfeeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally, i.e. independently of the influence of culture. The questions of what these characteristics are, what causes them, and how fixed human nature is, are amongst the oldest and most important questions in western philosophy. These questions have particularly important implications in ethicspolitics and theology. This is partly because human nature can be regarded as both a source of norms of conduct or ways of life, as well as presenting obstacles or constraints on living a good life.

  Where these capacities come from and what their characteristics are important questions in human thought and education. We must explore these questions to better understand the meaning of human life and guide human behavior. More recently, the sciences have been studying humans to gain more knowledge about who we are and the character of our thinking, feeling and being. Unfortunately, much of that research has been guided by a limited materialistic view of humans which has infected the greater culture.

The qualities to know, love and choose are faculties of our minds, hearts and wills. These three capacities and characteristics are given special importance in the Bahá’í writings. Traditionally, religion, art and literature have given expression to these capabilities and what it means to be human. These three capabilities have an immaterial or spiritual nature that some call the soul. The soul is defined as “the complex of human attributes that manifests as consciousness, thought, feeling, and will, regarded as distinct from the physical body” (Encarta Dictionary). In other words, the rational soul is the power behind our minds, hearts and wills to manifest conscious thought, feeling and will. Attending to all three faculties is important in developing potential. We must give “concerted effort to develop character and encourage the emergence of the spiritual qualities latent in human nature” (International Teaching Centre, 1989 Jan 01, Task Force on Education).

Our minds, hearts and will, which are the seat of our thinking, feeling and choosing capacities are best actualized through the powers of truth, love and justice, which are also recognized as foundational virtues in the Bahá’í Faith. Only as we recognize and cultivate these virtues are we able to overcome our animal natures and free ourselves from the debilitating desires and ideologies that constrain our thinking and behavior. These three standards or principles bring out the best of our natures. If our thinking, feeling and will are not guided by the ideals of truth, love and justice, we will not develop and can bring untold harm on others and ourselves. “It is chiefly service to humanity and dedication to the unification of mankind that unlock individual capacity and release creative powers latent in human nature” (International Teaching Centre, 1989 Jan 01,Task Force on Education).

Because of our varying personalities and backgrounds, we socially, psychologically, emotionally and morally respond to and interpret different things and situations in diverse ways that heavily influence how and what we think, feel, choose and do. In addition, we make our choices on how we see, feel and choose according to varying circumstances, motivations and inclinations. We are affected by our inherited physical characteristics, our innate spiritual capacities and our acquired development of them through training, experience and education (Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 212-214).

Education is seen by Bahá’ís as important in developing our nature and potential and is a continuous and creative process. Its aim is to develop the capacities latent in human nature and to coordinate their expression for the enrichment and progress of society. At certain moments in history, Bahá’ís believe education may also act as a powerful instrument for profound societal transformation. Within this creative process, it is possible to achieve an essential harmony between faith and reason through an approach to education that encourages the free investigation of all reality and trains minds to recognize truth, irrespective of its origin (International Teaching Centre, 1989 Jan 01, Task Force on Education).

Our various cognitive, affective, moral, social, spiritual and motivational frameworks combine in powerful, unconscious and still little understood and studied ways to determine what we think, feel, choose and do. Most of these processes happen automatically and unconsciously until we exercise our endowments to become conscious, thinking, feeling and choosing beings taking charge of our lives and development. The Bahá’í writings guide and inspire us in this process, helping us to correct our limited and often erroneous notions of who we are and how we should be. Science is also beginning to help us become aware of how our thinking and feelings are often erroneous (Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011).

As our capacities, based on many interconnected and complex factors influenced by the interaction of our physical and spiritual natures and our environments are investigated with new scientific methodologies and technologies and combined with divine wisdom, we can expect great progress. As Baha’u’llah states

Through the Teachings of this Day Star of Truth every man will advance and develop until he attaineth the station at which he can manifest all the potential forces with which his inmost true self hath been endowed. It is for this very purpose that in every age and dispensation the Prophets of God and His chosen Ones have appeared amongst men, and have evinced such power as is born of God and such might as only the Eternal can reveal. (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 1971, p.68)

The realization of our potential is synonymous with spiritual growth. As we learn to respond appropriately to our environment according to divine guidance we advance in our purpose of life—to know and become our true selves, which is the same as coming to know and draw nearer to God. As we seek meaning and purpose in life and adjust our physical needs and longings to our spiritual we develop a healthy relationship to the world, others, ourselves and the infinite unknown.

The Bahá’í teachings differ from previous religious understandings in that they do not view the material as bad and the spiritual as good. All are created by God and considered good. It is only in our use or misuse of these forces that they can be regarded as good or evil. We are all on our individual paths toward acquiring more
God-like attributes, depending on our varying capacities and conditions. An essential truth of human nature is that the body is to serve as a vehicle for the developing of the soul. In this understanding, our society has it all wrong with its focus on material pleasures and self interests. If we do not discipline our physical desires in service of our spiritual purpose, both we will suffer individually and collectively.

If you wish to attain to your full happiness and potential, you will need to align your life with spiritual values. The tension between our physical and spiritual natures is the best vehicle for that development on this earth. It is because we have physical needs and desires that we can develop the spiritual capacities so essential for our wellbeing both here and in the life to come. In the end, Baha’u’llah assures us—“Success or failure, gain or loss, must, therefore, depend upon man’s own exertions. The more he striveth, the greater will be his progress” (Gleanings, pp. 81-82).

In summary, we can say that we have both physical and spiritual natures. We are to use our knowing, loving and willing capacities of our minds, hearts and wills to think, feel and act in accordance with our purpose to know, love and obey God. In this way we develop our true selves and manifest the potentialities with which we have been endowed.

Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things, and would gain a true knowledge of your own selves—a knowledge which is the same as the comprehension of Mine own Being. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, pp. 326-327)


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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1 Response to Understanding Human Nature and Developing Human Potential

  1. oakritchie says:

    Well thought-out post on Human Nature! I have a couple posts on the topic that I need to update, for I may have written it in a way that might not be accessible to my peers…

    Thank you for thinking through, and sharing your thoughts and experience!

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