The Story of Us
October 3, 2012 1 Comment
“I Am” — A documentary by Tom Shadyac
Tom Shadyac is the director of a few comedies that may sound familiar—Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, The Nutty Professor, Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty. However, in I Am, Tom turns from humor to two very serious questions: What is wrong with the world, and what can we do about it?
Fans of G. K. Chesterton will immediately have insight into the meaning of the film’s name, but Tom will take this in an unexpected direction by rephrasing the question. But before getting there, Tom covers a wide range of issues in conversations with leading thinkers and thinking leaders around the world, people like Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Topics include economics, the environment, science, peace, consumerism and human nature among others. Through these diverse conversations, the theme of connection (and its corollary, compassion) comes to the forefront.
In this post I will address just one facet of the film—the stories that are told about human nature. A number of the participants speak against the generally held scientific story that humans are by nature competitive, self-seeking and violent. Instead, they highlight examples of cooperation and apparent altruism in animal behavior* as well as empathy and compassion in humans. I was familiar with this perspective from an evolutionary psychology class I took at the University of Nebraska as an undergrad, but these conversations covered some new ground for me. Similarly, the positivistic line of thinking presented in the film also runs counter to much of what is described by (most?) Christians as humanity’s sinful nature. Tom’s conversation partners want us to gain a broad view of human nature that is not captive to these darker story lines of traditional science and religion.
As a Christian I have three responses to this type of argumentation. First, I really appreciate it. I think it balances the negative views that are heavily stressed in some Christian theology—there is no good in humanity; we are only desperately evil. It is worth admitting that the Bible does not lay out a systematic theology of “human nature.” Rather, Christians select verses from various parts of the Bible to bolster their viewpoints. The problem then becomes a matter of the comprehensive versus selective nature of the verses presented. If only the negative verses are chosen, the picture is pretty bleak (e.g., “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Jer. 17:9). But if other verses are brought into the conversation, the picture expands (“I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” Ps. 139:14).
Let me expand this positive element in the Bible in two related ways. First, a significant part of the biblical story is that we—males and females—were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). This reality coupled with the state of relationships described in the first few chapters of Genesis demonstrate that we were created to live in harmony with each other and with our Creator. We are most fulfilled when we live in this way. From this perspective, it is as much a part of our nature to experience empathy and exhibit compassion toward other humans as it is to be selfish and destructive. According to the biblical story, this darker side came when Adam and Eve chose to rebel and distance themselves from God; however, the Bible never says this image of God in us was entirely destroyed. It would seem that John 10:33-36 (“you are gods”) could be considered in this conversation as well.
In addition to the theme of the image of God, the Bible (Paul) actually acknowledges that people who are not directly or overtly connected to the “Christian” God are still capable of much good. Paul states:
13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:13-16)
While it is true that this should be read in the context of the rest of Romans, Paul would not have used this type of argumentation if he did not believe that no one could do any good without an open and conscious dedication to the God of the Bible. We must admit that the biblical material is as complex as the reality we see on a daily basis where church leaders abuse children and violent Maoist rebels in Nepal rescue girls locked in brothels.
I believe a more accurate view of the Bible’s teaching on humanity is that we are a mix of altruism and selfishness, that we are made to thrive best when we live a certain way and we will suffer the consequences of living out of harmony with this (hatred, revenge, greed, etc.). That is to say, we have good and bad lurking in us, so we should not be surprised to find the positive dimensions of biology and physics described by Tom Shadyac’s conversation partners.
No where do I find in the Bible (and I could be missing it, so let me know) do I find an evangelist starting a conversation by convincing people how sinful they are, as some evangelists do today. The apostles did not say, “You are completely evil, so you need to be saved by Jesus.” Two examples of what they did actually say are in Acts 10:34-48 and 17:22-31. In Acts 10 Peter begins by describing the story of Jesus and his mission. Mention of faith and judgment come at the end after the Jesus story. He starts with the goodness of Jesus, not a generalized description of the negative condition of humanity. Later in Acts 17, Paul begins his discourse not by condemning the people’s idols but by complimenting the people on their religiosity. He then moves into the story of the good God who has been patient with them, but who is now calling them to embrace a new revelation. Then the resurrection is the crowning point in the story. Judgment is mentioned, but in the positive light of God’s redemptive history (and the word “sin” doesn’t appear here as it did in Peter’s story where it appears in the context of forgiveness).
The evangelists simply did not rely primarily on guilt or condemnation to convince listeners to follow Jesus.** How did we move from Peter and Paul’s methodology of sharing the story of Jesus to the “four spiritual laws”? I’m not going to argue that these “laws” are wrong, but simply assert that they are out of harmony with the style of the early crew and that they are limited because they speak only of the negativity of the human condition.
If Christian evangelists were to be consistent with these biblical models, maybe their present-day speeches would be something along these lines:
On TV you see clips of starving children in various parts of the world and something twinges inside you. Many of us change the channel right away because we feel like we just can’t do anything to really make a difference. You watch a movie about football, and you find yourself rooting for the underdog named Ruddy. You hear of renewed violence in the Middle East and you wonder if we’ll ever be able to find a way to get along with each other. You know there are people in need in your county so you give money to the United Way campaign at your office. These are examples of the compassion, empathy and desire for peace, love and reconciliation that God has placed in our hearts. These are the little flickering flames that God wants to breathe his warm breath of life into so they will grow into great bonfires or forest fires. We as Christians are encouraging each other in seeking our good God who wants to live in us fully and to be with us forever. Won’t you join us in dedicating your life to Jesus so we can travel this road together, encouraging each other in the way of mercy and goodness and peace. This is how you were created to live; it’s where you will find your greatest satisfaction. Jesus died for you to make it all possible, and God raised him from the dead in vindication of this way. Join us in exploring this great mystery as we live and walk in community.
My second response to the scientific story about the nature of humanity is that the speakers do not seem to give the full picture of the scientific evidence. I agree that science is discovering just how connected we are and is finding democracy and cooperation deep in the fabric of our world’s ecosystems. However, the competition is just as real. Both are present. I once attended an event where Jane Goodall spoke about the behavior of the great apes and also her reasons for hope. She noted that 98 or 99 percent of human DNA is shared with these mammals. She was quite optimistic about the 1 or 2 percent difference. Since that small difference had created the building we were sitting in and the cars we had used to drive to the building, it also held potential to solve the other many problems we face. However, in the same speech she spoke about the cross-border raids and beatings meted out by competing groups.
If the evolutionary argument is that humans have cooperation in their genes because we see cooperation in animals, then it also must be that we have violence in our genes because that is also seen in the higher primates (and all throughout nature) as they compete for territory and food. She failed to add that the remaining 1 or 2 percent also account for the truly amazing ability of humans to torture each other. No other species works deliberately to discover ways to exert pain on other members of the same species in the way that humans do. During graduate studies in peace, I was overwhelmed with how creative and dark humans can be. And yet so often in these dark stories there were heroic figures giving of themselves compassionately to care for others in their despair. Our highs and lows as humans can be so close in physical and temporal proximity.
The full story from the Bible and from science must include both the beautiful and the ugly, the compassion and the wanton violence. Arguably, each tells these stories in different ways, but the full description of each must include both aspects; neither is all sweetness and light or all bitterness and darkness.
My third observation about these stories told by science and religion relates to cause and effect. I can agree with the film in that we need to acknowledge the positive dimensions of reality and humanity. The robust story is not uni-dimensional. However, if the speakers mean that the behaviors we see today are the result of these stories, then I have to disagree. Human behavior looked like this well before the scientific story was told and even long before the biblical story made it out of the small Middle Eastern region where the stories were eventually recorded. The domination of empires and the effects of greed were powerful forces in the world well before the stories in the documentary were widely held or even told at all. Maybe hearing a complete story of human nature will motivate us to embrace the good, but the negative elements of the past stories are not to be blamed for the negativity that is present in the world. The stories did not create the evil. That would be describing the timeline backwards.
In the end, I really appreciated the film. I think it would be a great film for a conversation starter between friends or even in a number of different academic classrooms since so many topics are covered. I’m glad Tom took a break from comedies to explore these amazing questions. His own story intermingled with the other conversations gives the film a bit of movement and brings the threads together in a most personal conclusion. I hope you’ll check it out.
*The professor had done his PhD work on chipmunk self-sacrifice. Consider also the elk cooperation against wolves in this documentary — http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/river-of-no-return/full-episode/7648/.
**End time fear is also used today by some, but consider these comments from early SDA leader Ellen White, “The shortness of time is urged as an incentive for us to seek righteousness and to make Christ our friend. This is not the great motive. It savors of selfishness. Is it necessary that the terrors of the day of God be held before us to compel us through fear to right action? This ought not to be. Jesus is attractive.”
UPDATE: This came through Tumblr this morning — Why it pays to be a nice baboon.