Note: A version of this blog post was preached at Countryside Community Church on Sunday. You can find it here.
I. The Gorilla in the X Ray
Not long ago, a researcher at Harvard Medical School presented a group of radiologists a series of x ray images that are typically used to spot cancer nodules in human lungs. He asked them what they saw. The radiologists did a great job at spotting the tiny cancer nodules lodged in that an untrained eye would overlook. Yet 83% of them missed the most astonishing aspect of the x rays – the aspect that you or I would notice immediately. They missed the gorilla!
An image of a man in a gorilla suit shaking his fist had been superimposed on the x rays. Less than one in five of the radiologists “saw” it. The problem was in the way their brains had so narrowly framed what they were doing (looking for cancer nodules), that the gorilla became essentially invisible to them.
As philosopher/theologian John O’Donohue once observed, “The way we look at things has a huge influence on what becomes visible to us.” His observation reminds me of a Chinese parable about a man who lost his axe after splitting a pile of wood. He suspected his neighbor had stolen it. Over the coming days, he kept a sharp eye on his neighbor and was appalled at what a dead giveaway it was that his neighbor had taken the axe. It was almost as if his neighbor was flaunting his thievery in front of him! Two weeks later, the man discovered his axe just where he had put it in a dark corner of his shed. The man was amazed at how the behavior of his neighbor “changed” after he found his axe. “The way we look at things has a huge influence on what becomes visible to us.” Indeed.
The Darkwood Brew planning team and I have been thinking a lot about faith-and-science over last few weeks. Last Wednesday with news of “sequestration” in the air, it was curious how the backdrop of our evolving universe series influenced what became visible to us regarding the breakdown of negotiations between our political parties over the nation’s budget. If you’ve been wondering what the evolution of our earth and universe have to do with everyday life, this post may be for you!
Of course, I almost hate to bring up the subject of sequestration. We’ve been hearing about Washington’s political deadlock for so long now that it almost seems like the Darkwood Brew blog should be a “refuge from the storm” of sorts … the one place we can go to get away from all that. Plus, I’m sure that no matter what I say, some will feel certain that I’m covertly trying to advance some sort of political agenda upon them. Believe me, if I had an agenda that I thought could constructively solve the nation’s political and economic quagmire, I’d gladly offer it – directly and openly!
Truth is, I prefer to spend my time studying and reflecting upon the words of Jesus over those of John Boehner and Barak Obama. Don’t get me wrong. I think each of these folks – and the parties they represent – both have something important to say. I really do. But I also find that Washington’s politicians, along with American society in general, have been so narrowly focused on finding and eradicating the “cancer nodules” in the other party that they are missing the figurative “gorilla in the x ray.” The words of Jesus point to a vision that is so much broader and deeper than our own that they refocus my attention on what has essentially been “invisible” from view. When you put his words in conversation with what God is up to in our world through evolution, the picture gets clearer still. Let’s consider evolution first.
II. Survival of the Fittest?
There are two kinds of evolution in our world. One form – the kind identified by Darwin – is moved along through a process of competition and natural selection. One form of life mutates in a particular way that gives it a competitive advantage over others. The fittest form survives and propagates the advantageous mutation while the weaker form gradually dies off. While the process is brutal at times, involving lots of death and destruction, we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the evolutionary process. Through natural selection and the continual death of less competitive alternatives, we evolved over hundreds of millions of years from microbes swimming in the ocean to full fledged homo sapiens. Survival-of-the-fittest worked for us, or at least it did to a certain point.
Biological evolution is so strongly a part of our genetic heritage that our whole orientation toward life tends to reflect our survival-of-the-fittest roots. When faced with people who are different from ourselves – whether these people are of a different race or culture or religion – or political party – we tend to respond as if they are competitive threats to our survival. If our group is to survive and thrive, we think, the other group must be defeated. The more one group begins to act as if the other group is a threat to its survival, the more it triggers the survival instincts of the other group. If they reciprocate, the situation escalates. Then the competition escalates still further when the first group responds to the response of the second, and so it goes.
Curiously, while the survival mechanism worked wondrously well on the evolutionary road from bacterial microbes to full-fledged homo sapiens, this very orientation is now what threatens the future of our species and perhaps the earth itself.
In today’s world, we have democratized the instruments of mass destruction. As we’ve learned from hard and repeated experience, a common person – even a person with severe mental deficits – can inflict uncommon amounts of harm. And when a handful of people are bent on the destruction of people who aren’t like them, they can wreak havoc on an entire population of people … as we are now witnessing in Washington, DC.
The political war being fought in Washington, DC, would not be so disconcerting if it weren’t part of a trend that has been building for decades. For the last thirty years, America has become increasingly polarized with every new president. While bipartisanship once was a common staple of the political scene, now cooperation is as rare as fine gold. The dominant “solution” that our political parties seem feel will solve the world’s problems is the destruction of the other party. We’re in full-tilt “survival of the fittest” mode. Our primordial genetics are screaming for blood!
How is evolution working for us now?
III. The Language of Love
Years ago, poet David Whyte was approached by the leader of a multinational corporation who asked him to consult with his company. When David asked why on earth a multinational corporation would be interested in a poet’s perspective, the executive made a striking observation: “The language which we are using today is insufficient to deal with the territory that we have already entered.”
I strongly suspect that we have entered one of those territories collectively as a nation where the language we use about our situation, and about each other, is insufficient to deal with the challenges we face. What we need today is a broader perspective – one that takes seriously our evolutionary past, but sees more to the story than just survival-of-the-fittest. Just as the radiologists couldn’t “see” the gorilla in plain view without widening their field of focus, so we need to change the way we look at things so that new possibilities may come into view. In the old language, we need to “repent”! (Metanoia, “a complete change of thinking”)
I find that the vision offered by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (or “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke’s version) offers such an expanded view. Consider the following statements made by Jesus in Luke 6:26-37:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
We pay a lot of lip service to Jesus’ words in modern society, but below the surface we think Jesus was hopelessly naïve and ineffectual. Our evolutionary genes scream, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Survival of the fittest! That’s what Darwin taught, right?” (Actually, he didn’t.) We’re convinced that if we were to actually love our enemies, we would not only fail to progress as a society, but we would be eaten alive! We surmise that Jesus must have lived in kinder, simpler times, when people were less violent and more civil with each other.
Really? Weren’t the Romans (i.e., the enemies of any upstanding Jewish citizen) the very people who threw people to lions in large arenas? When Darkwood Brew’s Footsteps of Paul tour went to Turkey last April and visited the ancient city of Ephesus we stood in an arena that was designed by the Romans to be filled with water so that defenseless people swim with crocodiles to the amusement of the crowds who were exhilarated over the sight of people screaming as their own blood filled the water. And didn’t the Romans beat the tar out of the very One who taught us to love of enemies before they nailed him to a cross to die of exposure and suffocation?
Kindler, gentler times? Hardly! No, the truth is that we are the ones who live in a far kinder, gentler time, not Jesus. In fact, while there have been periods of exception, violent crime has steadily declined in the U.S. since colonial times. And as hard as our political stalemate may be, the political battles of today are child’s play compared to battles our nations founders fought against each other. While our over-saturated media coverage makes it appear that our world is going to hell in a hand basket and that violence is on the rise, the fact of the matter is that there has probably never been a time in human history when it has been easier for us to actually live out Christ’s command to love our enemies. And there has never been a time when it has been more necessary for our survival.
Of course, just because it may be safer than ever to try loving our enemies, it would be naïve to think that our enemies will universally love us back. It is not only possible, or probable, but certain that living out Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies is hazardous to our health and can lead to death. We act as if Jesus never thought of this; like we’re somehow clued in to something he had no conception of. Yet what if Jesus commanded us to love our enemies in full awareness that doing so would go badly for some of us? What if Jesus weren’t naïve?
Make what you will of Jesus, but let me suggest that what’s really hopelessly naïve is the belief that our species has more than a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving over the next several centuries if we don’t learn to love our enemies (and practice it). If we end up wiping human civilization off the face of the planet, or condemning humanity to a life of misery following a cataclysm we have brought upon ourselves (e.g., a nuclear winter or a carbon-choked Earth), how naïve will Jesus’ words sound then? For that matter, how naïve do they sound now, in light of where hating our enemies has brought us to in our political system? How much more hating and backstabbing our enemies do we need to solve our present crisis?
IV. Beyond Physical Evolution
Setting Jesus’ words against the backdrop of evolution, more becomes visible that has actually been in front of our eyes all along. Could it be that Jesus’ command to love our enemies points to a second form of evolution that is distinctively human? If we are to survive into the future a species, what is necessary is an evolution of human consciousness. I think Jesus’ command to love our enemies points to this second form of evolution. We became structurally human through hundreds of millions of years biological evolution. Yet we became functionally human through the evolution of consciousness.
Human consciousness doesn’t evolve the way biology does. When an animal mutates in a way that gives it competitive advantage, the death of its competitors is necessary for the advancement of the species. However, advancements in human consciousness take place not through the death of others, but through the death of Self – at least Self as expressed through the human ego.
When two people who are quite different from each other respond to their differences through their biological orientation, they compete with each other as if their survival depends on the death of the other (or at least their complete subjugation). Yet when these same people respond to each other in love, they let down their guard and cooperate. In so doing, they become subject to the influence of the other. Their consciousness expands. They become more fully human. As Lao Tzu once observed, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
They say “opposites attract,” and it is true. When we learn not to kill each other, or put them under our feet, we discover that differences and diversity make us stronger, not weaker. The spendthrift learns lessons from the miser. The practical realist learns lessons form the head-in-the-clouds idealist, and so on. We are attracted to our opposites because we sense that we become more fully human in the process. We become more fully conscious.
Of course, letting down one’s guard and becoming vulnerable to another person is risky business. It’s all the more risky if the person is an enemy. Yet isn’t it rather poetic that the long-term survival of our species is dependent upon each one of us learning to risk our survival in the short-term? I guess this poetic irony should come as no surprise to those of us who love and follow Jesus. Was it not Jesus who insisted that we find our life through losing it, and lose our life through seeking to save it?
I suspect that Jesus wasn’t just thinking of the long-term survival of our species when he commanded us to love our enemies (if he was thinking of our long-term survival at all). Rather, like John O’Donohue, Jesus was aware that “The way we look at things has a huge influence on what becomes visible to us.” When we look at our enemies not with hatred but with the eyes of love, possibilities that were, shall we say, “sequestered” from view suddenly become apparent. Like the radiologists looking at the chest x rays, we discover a lot more to the story than just the person’s “cancer.” Yet unlike the radiologists, when we view our opponents with love what we discover is not a gorilla shaking its fist at us, but a vision of the Christ within them. When we can look at such a person and see not just their “cancer” but the Christ within, what we discover is a potential bridge to peace and a certain a bridge to our own evolution. We discover the path to receiving what some call “Christ consciousness.” We discover the key to our future of our species. And whether our enemy loves us back or not, discover what it means to truly live a little before we die.