Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Haidt’

Enlarging our Hives

July 27, 2012

If you read one book this year read, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I hope you read more, but if you don’t  read this one. Really, it’s that good. This is the third of three posts on this book ( part one and part two), but we have merely touched on the ideas he covers.

This week we’ll look at part III “Morality Binds and Blinds”. In this section, Haidt explores the idea that,

[H]uman beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee. Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition… We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves…

But human nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. .. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war and genocide. (xv)

Our “groupish” behavior affects religion but is also found  in politics, clubs, teams, and the workplace. Haidt says there are four things that make us groupish;

– the need to defend a shared” nest” and food (humans and other animals do this)  (202-203)

-shared intentionality (the ability to work together and share mental representations of tasks and the ability to conform to group norms) Quoting a researcher on chimpanzee behavior Haidt writes “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carry a log together”. (204-205)

-genes and culture co- evolve (cultural innovations can affect genetic evolution. For example,we select friends based on their ability to fit into our (shared) moral matrix. (211).

– these changes- of genetics and culture – can happen “quickly”evolutionarily speaking.  (212).

There are things that we, as a society, do which help us become part of the group and help us develop a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Rituals are an important part of this. Ritual, in this use of the word, means any expected and repeated behaviors. For example, football games are full of ritual- special clothes, foods, chants, half time, etc.  Music and dancing are other ways we become part of a group. Think of the way dances, especially in times past, helped shape communities and cultures. Think of the power of a music concert. And there are many other things we do which help us feel a sense on belonging. Holidays, pep rallies, uniforms…

When Haidt discusses religion and politics, he is thinking about them as they function, what people do and what they are trying to achieve. He wants to examine the binding practices, what brings and keeps a religious group or a political group together. For this discussion the question is not “is it true?” but “how does it function?”.

One practice that keeps groups ( and not just religious groups) together is the sacralization of something. Something becomes sacred it has become un touchable to the group. It could be family, country, taxes, the Bible, God, or any other of a number of things. Groups that last have something sacred which holds them together.

The grimmer side of groupish behavior is that the same things that bind us together, blind us. If we privilege our group we run the danger of  trivializing, dismissing, or demonizing other groups.

Haidt has quite a bit more, all of it fascinating, to say about groups, but this is enough I think to start reflecting on groupishness and religion.

It seems to me, one of the things we see in groups, especially perhaps religious groups, is the tendency for them to become rigid, to create more rules, to become more exclusive. Sometimes in religious discussions people make a distinction between dogma ( what we must believe, things central and essential) doctrine ( beliefs where there are legitimate differences of opinion) and ideas ( things that are open to discussion and speculation). What tends to happen over time is that ideas slip into doctrine, and doctrines become dogmas. Before you know it, you have people thinking that one’s ideas about evolution or the role of women in the church affect one’s salvation, rather than recalling the dogma that we are saved by grace and Christ alone.

It takes some serious and vigilant awareness to keep our groups focused yet open.  If we are not groupish enough, the group can’t last, there is nothing to hold us together, If we are too groupish, we won’t let anyone else in- or we are stringently particular about who we let in. Theologians sometimes speak of ‘bounded openness’ as they try to describe the balance the church needs.

So here is Christianity’s “hard problem” How do we include all sorts of people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds and ideas and yet still be a group? Anytime someone new joins a group, the group is changed. The mere action of joining changes the group and if the person becomes active and engaged in the group, the group will change even more. How do we keep from building unnecessary walls between us, walls over worship style, the version of the Bible we read, church structure, and so on. How do we know what is essential to the faith? How long a list is that? Can we add to it and if so who decides? How do we keep ideas from sliding into doctrines and doctrine to dogmas? How do we keep from, often unwittingly, building a wall to keep “others” out?

How can there be a group where absolutely everyone is welcome?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

Who is this?

June 16, 2012
Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcisin...

Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcising the Gerasenes demonic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re taking a break this week from Jonathan Haidt’s very fine book, The Righteous Mindand returning to theology. Some of you regular readers might know, I also write for the weekly blog for Westminster Reads *, We’re reading the “Gospel of Luke” now and this week’s reading (which will be posted late 6/16 or early 6/17) includes the story of the Gerasine demoniac. You can read it here.  There are, I think, three (at least)  interesting things to ponder in this story.

In the story of the Gerasine demoniac , Jesus has traveled into gentile territory. Jesus leaves Galilee, crosses the sea, heals this man and then returns to Galilee. A long way to go for one person. The healed man, not surprisingly, wants to stay with Jesus. He begs Jesus for the opportunity to join with him. But Jesus says no. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you”. And the man does. Actually he tells what Jesus has done, and so answers Luke’s persistent question. Who is Jesus?  With this unnamed man, the mission to the gentiles begins. This man is charged to  tell the good news before the disciples are sent ( chapter 9) , before the 70 are sent (chapter 10), and before  Acts tells the story of the spread of the gospel into the entire world. Telling the story of who Jesus is begins here with one unnamed gentile man charged to tell the story of his experience of God in the person of Jesus.

In the gospels, the demons always know who Jesus is. Others who meet Jesus often are not sure who he is. Some Jews realize who he is, some don’t. Some gentiles recognize who he is, some don’t. Even the disciples are unclear and often confused. But never demons. They are always clear about who Jesus is.

Talk about demons makes some of us nervous, especially perhaps we Presbyterians. But despite our unease with demon stories, they’re in the Bible and thus not easily dismissed. Modern people often try to explain these stories away by saying ancient people didn’t know about pathogens and brain chemistry and so “invented” demons to explain what was otherwise unexplained. Well yes, but before we set these stories aside, perhaps we should take a moment and ask if there is more to them than simply a lack of  scientific knowledge.

One important message is that mental health matters to Jesus as much as physical health, which is good news. But in addition these demon stories hint at an unseen world, the world Paul mentions of powers and principalities.  Evil, however we name it, exists. It is real and it opposes the reign of God. Jesus confronts evil, everywhere it tries to harm people or disrupt the divine order of nature.  What Jesus is about is more than individual salvation, more than personal healing- as important as those things are.  What Jesus is about is something big  and cosmic and often veiled from our sight.

If you had seen this possessed man healed, what would your reaction have been? The people of Gerasenes were afraid and asked Jesus to leave. We might be tempted to say that these gentiles didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, after all they weren’t expecting a Messiah. But just before this healing, when the disciples are crossing the sea there is a windstorm. After Jesus calms the storm, the disciples “were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). Earlier in the gospel when Jesus calls Simon (Peter), James and John after the amazing catch of fish, Peter says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).  Luke tells us, more than once, that people were filled with awe and amazement at what Jesus did. Meeting Jesus could be unsettling, disorienting, even a little scary. Within this itinerate teacher and prophet was also an unexplainable power. The people who encountered Jesus recognized, just as Israel did when they encountered God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) , sometimes it’s best to step back and be quiet in the presence of the divine.

The persistent question in Luke’s gospel is “who is this?”. Who is this man that people want to leave their homes and follow him?  Who is this who heals the sick, the paralyzed, the blind? Who is this who forgives sin?  Who is this who controls nature? Who is this who the demons know and obey? Who is this indeed?

* If you want to read through the New Testament in a year, with some- but not too much commentary, check out WR.

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