“America is not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something that no one’s ever done. That’s what’s exceptional about America… It’s an incredible thing.” – Jon Stewart
Commenting on the recent election, the former Daily Show host made this comment about our country… but in a broader sense, it provokes some thought about what exactly we’re trying to do as human beings. “Fighting against thousands of years of human behavior” sounds like something noble and challenging we can get behind, but what presupposition underlies the idea that “natural is tribal”? If we are trying to break of out being polarized, tribal people… something that’s in our very nature… Stewart (and many others) are advocating that humans must transcend our very nature.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the conclusions or goals here, but I AM curious about the foundation from which this desire springs… indeed, the desire from which all our noblest aspirations spring, and the logical consistency of their application.
Is our natural bent inherently flawed, and thus something that – in many ways – we must rise above?
As a Christian, I have a very definite answer to this in the affirmative. As a rule, then, I never make arguments to validate my behavior based on the notion that “it’s natural” or “it’s my nature”. However, if we look around this same American “experiment” we see people picking and choosing both sides of the argument regarding what is “natural” to us. In fact, someone will argue in both directions in the same day to justify their desires and aspirations.
OR… is my natural disposition and inclination something that validates my desires and/or behavior?
If I recognize part of my (or humanity’s) “natural” bent needs to be suppressed, surmounted, overcome, “evolved” or turned away from toward a better course, I can’t then defend a behavior or lifestyle I want to maintain on the converse premise that it’s “natural”, “genetic” or “who I am”. That conflicts with the idea that that there are things in me – natural things – that need to be transcended. It reveals I’m simply using the argument in one hand to evoke change I want from others, or culture, but then switching to the argument in the other hand to justify actions and traits I don’t want to change.
Thus, “it’s my nature” can’t be used as any definitive defense for lifestyle or behavior.
We can’t have our noble transcendence cake and eat our natural behavior too. If as individuals and a species we know some of our inclinations need to be shed, the “natural” defense becomes invalid. The reality is, deep down we know we’re compromised in every way: flesh, mind, and spirit. We appeal to “born that way” when we want to justify ourselves, but then as we look at the cursed aspects of our culture we know that we need to rise above the way we were born.
What about “do no harm”?
One might argue that the delineating principle is whether or not the natural disposition is harmful to another person. This, however, runs into two major problems:
1. Who defines harm? Are we talking only the physical, such as if someone has come genetic and behavioral dispositions toward killing others? Surely we don’t let the serial killer – or genocidal dictator – get away with things because they were “born that way”. We don’t validate their natural bent, we tell them to get bent. But what about harm to self? When does self-modification become self-mutilation? When does self-destructive behavior impact others, and how? And what about less obvious harm… long term, sociological, cultural, emotional, or other factors? What natural dispositions play into that culture-damaging fabric Jon Stewart and others suggest we are trying to rise above? All of us are going to draw those lines differently… and if we’re honest, those lines are based on our desires to justify ourselves, or others we’re emotionally attached to. We aren’t truly seeking to apply a principle with logical consistency or detailed analysis. If we were, we’d run into the second problem:
2. Who says harm is a bad thing? A lion pride can be territorial and lethal. Plenty of animals inflict harm on others, whether it’s simply because they are carnivorous and prey on other species or whether they’re vying for territory, resources, or mates and fight and kill within their own species. We don’t watch Animal Planet and ascribe a morality judgment to a honey badger, yet something in us feels a conflict with our nature and a call to something higher as humanity… or at least some of us do. Could this actually be the real flaw? If all we are is an evolved animal species, what makes peace “noble” and conflict “tragic”? Fleeting, subjective descriptions of a currently dominant animal? What if this thinking is aberrant mutation? One could argue tribalism, territoriality and other factors are not only natural, but more valid. We’re “born that way”. Suppressing who we really are is actually the worst oppression, right? Why should the person who is born with an impulse to hurt and take something from others have to curb their behavior any more than we expect of the lion or wolf?
Star Trek has always sought to be forward thinking and progressive. In this year’s Star Trek movie, the “villain” Krall defends his view of humanity and what’s best for it by saying “That’s the world I was born into!” What’s fascinating (thanks, Spock) is that Captain Kirk’s comeback is only “I’d rather die saving lives than live with ending them. That’s the world I was born into.” Do you see the problem here? Whether they’re saying they (or humanity) was born that way (nature) or conditioned that way (nurture) the only defense either of them offers in regard to their way being right is that it’s the one they were raised to understand as right. Truth be told, many of us agree with Kirk for what amounts to no more than the same flimsy reason: we’ve been raised with a sense that his view is “right”. The movie itself assigns villain and hero roles for us to simply accept, when from a logical perspective both are arguing from a level (and uncertain) playing field.
The reality is, we all have a presupposition of morality and expect everyone else to transcend the parts of their nature that don’t align with our presupposition. The question is: who among us, or above us, has a right to say which presupposition is correct? Once that’s established, the parts that are “natural” but need to be fought may not be exactly the parts we want them to be. If it’s not established, there’s no reason or way we will ever agree… and the truth is: all of us, as subjects admitting to some need of transcendence (and thus internally flawed) can’t argue we can determine what parts needs transcending with any objectivity. To be right, one must appeal to a higher court than humanity.
The aspects of us that need to be “transcended” can only be revealed by someone who is truly transcendent.
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence… to make your name known… When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. – Isaiah 64:1-3
The cry for Messiah in the book of Isaiah is for the Transcendent One to “rend the heavens” (break through the very fabric of nature) and “come down” to make His name (and character, and attributes, law and grace) known to needy people such as us. In the book of John (16:33), Jesus tells us:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Jesus brought a message of peace that acknowledges the tribulation of this present life, but promises true peace in Christ who has not only overcome the world (and it’s natural bent) but forged the path to our freedom. In Him, and only in Him, it is said our nature can be bent back (conformed) to the shape God intends us to image. America may reflect fragments of that image, but it’s not the foundation upon which Christians stake their hope. Jesus sets the standard as the Living Word, and the Scripture he endorsed and inspired takes the form of the Bible we look to as standard and arbiter over our sinful nature. How do we break from thousands of years of nature and behavior? How do we overcome? I would redirect Jon Stewart’s words away from America, and apply more certainty to the alternate source: Jesus already won against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something that no one’s ever done. That’s what’s exceptional about the gospel. It’s an incredible thing.
“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
– 1 John 5:4
*Refuge Church is presently walking though the names of Christ, and the need for Christ, in our ADVENT series on Sundays at 10am. All are welcome as we look not just at Nativity, but our true, ultimate and only hope.