What’s In A Name?

I find myself in the unenviable position, as a writer, of having a message that will alienate me from pretty much all potential readers. Non-Christian readers will be discouraged from reading by my advocacy of the primacy of Jesus, while Christian readers will be discouraged from reading by my rejection of what they regard as central tenets of the faith: I don’t believe in heaven or hell, in the violence of God, or the inerrancy of Scripture, for example. In other words, the passion that drives me to write – the truth (with a small t) that I long to share, is one that I cannot envisage anybody wanting to hear: I want to convince you that Jesus saves, but I cannot do that before I expose the flaws inherent in popular Christian – and, indeed, in all religious – thinking.

Our understanding of the nature of a problem will determine how we conceptualise the solution. So if I want to convince you that Jesus is the solution to a universal human problem, I first need to outline what I understand that problem to be. And this is where I will lose my Christian readers. You see, ultimately I believe that what Jesus saves us from is not the wrath of a monster God, not from eternal damnation as a result of our personal sin, but from the tyranny of religion itself.  

And I believe that all humans are religious by nature. Now don’t misunderstand me: I am not one of those who holds that we are born with some innate yearning for God – a “God-shaped vacuum” was the term I remember from Sunday-school. No, religious activity may or may not include gods: they are completely incidental. We can – and do – behave in religious ways, whether or not we believe in a deity.

It may be that in order for you to come to grips with that, I need to go back to the beginning. I maintain that a sound theology must begin with a sound anthropology. If we want to talk about what it means to be a holon in relationship with God (and we are beings who cannot be understood outside of our relationships), then it would not be unhelpful to understand human patterns of relating, so that we can begin to understand where we end and God starts.

You are a homo sapiens. Just like lions (panthera leo) and leopards (panthera pardus) both come from the family panthera, you are from the family homo (from the Latin for “man”). You are from the genus sapiens (from the Latin for “wise”). That we should classify ourselves in this way, without any apparent trace of irony, should tell you all you need to know about the species. There were other members of the family – homo neanderthalensis and homo denisova, for example, but it is likely that just as lions and leopards live independently of one another, we lived independently of the other members of our family. From 2 million years ago to 10 000 years ago, at least six species of humans walked the earth. Contrary to what you may have been taught, the fact that homo sapiens is now the only human species does not imply that we are the latest model in a linear evolution of one species into another; it has far more incriminating implications.  

So what happened to the others? Research suggests that the likely explanation is not that the various human species simply interbred and merged into one. While some Neanderthals and Sapiens may have intermingled and produced offspring, this was the exception. It is far more likely that we drove the other human species to extinction. Thus, in a remarkably short period of time, from an evolutionary perspective, sapiens rose from a relatively insignificant creature, hunting and being hunted in the savannah, to the top of the food chain. To the detriment of the whole planet. Wherever we have gone, we have sown destruction. Within a couple of thousand years of homo sapiens settling in Australia, or America, or Indonesia, for example, the vast majority of the unique species found in those places were extinct. We are, to use Yuval Noah Harari’s fabulous term, “ecological serial killers”. We are a careless species with a predilection towards violence.

Around 12000 years ago, homo sapiens began to abandon its foraging lifestyle, relying instead on agriculture to survive. This enabled homo sapiens to live in large groups, which facilitated rapid technological and artistic progress . But it also came at an enormous – and many scholars argue undesirable – cost: living in settled communities meant a greater susceptibility to disease, a less varied (and less healthy) diet, increased working hours, and a decreased quality of life for the average member of the species. Not to mention all the social problems that come from living in large groups.  

I think it is interesting to note that the flowering of human culture seems to coincide with increased frequency in the interactions between different sapiens groups. This is where René Girard’s theories around the evolution of human culture are so insightful and important. Religion (and subsequently culture), he argues, evolved not out of a desire to understand natural phenomena, with the subsequent invention of pantheons of deities that controlled these, but out of the very practical necessity of regulating mimetic tension, and the ensuing violence, in primitive societies. Because human desire is mimetic – mediated through the desires of others, rather than being rooted in the intrinsic desirability of any object – even if resources were abundant, there would have been an elevation in mimetic rivalry around food, territory and sex. As encounters between different groups became more frequent, and certainly as humans began to live together in larger numbers, this mimetic tension would have built to the point where it threatened to destabilise communities. Indeed, the threat would have been heightened in the wake of the Agricultural revolution. A hunter-gather could simply have moved to a different location, but a farmer is tied to the land for survival. People would have had to find alternative ways of resolving mimetic tension- they could not simply escape it.  Our patterns of resolving such tensions have been eerily consistent over time. If we look at modern culture and extrapolate back, we can conclude that the group would have sought a pacific resolution through collective violence against a scapegoat.

Girard contends that, in the interests of maintaining social cohesion, primitive groups first constructed prohibitions and taboos to control how their members interacted with potential sources of mimetic rivalry. This is why, for example, cultures regulate how we consume food or sex. But it would not be enough simply to have these codes of conduct: the collective violence would also need to be managed. Scapegoating violence only works – that is, only brings about the desired pacific effect on the group – when it cannot be recognised as scapegoating. Religion manages this through sacrifice, selecting victims close enough to the source of the tension that the scapegoating can be sufficiently justified, but not so close to the group that there is a threat of reciprocal and retaliatory violence from within the group. Over time, sacrifice became ritualised, as groups sought to access the pacific effects of the collective violence, even when no “legitimate” victim was apparent, and gradually human sacrifice was substituted for animal sacrifice, which is more palatable and more easily justified. Animal sacrifice also has the additional benefit of not depleting your group’s numbers. Ultimately, sacrifice is about group unity, which is why even today most cultural rituals foster that, through activities like dancing or collective meals. Last, religion veils the whole sordid affair in myth, as the group attempts to reconcile the dissonance implicit in the fact that it needs to employ violence to contain violence. There are many theories around why language evolved in humans as it did, but I have a suspicion that story-telling and gossip were pivotal, with religious myth-making as a central factor.

I know I have not done these ideas justice – one simply cannot summarise lifetimes of research in a few hundred words. For a fuller picture, I would suggest you read Harari’s Sapiens and Girard’s Violence and the Sacred for yourself. But I hope you have enough of the picture to begin to glimpse that sapiens has a violence problem. It is a problem that shapes how we relate to one another and to our environment. Whether on an individual psychological level, or on a corporate one, we establish order through the expulsion of a problematic other. Violence is at the heart of all religion and all culture.

I also hope you see enough of the picture to see why contemporary Christianity fails so dismally in addressing the problem. It has bought into the Modernist myth of the autonomous self wholeheartedly, and has made the whole issue personal. It has framed the problem as one of personal transgression and individual redemption. But we are not autonomous – the ‘self’ is created through others – and the problem is infinitely larger than personal unholiness. Christianity has simply not understood the scale of the problem. Our species has a problem, and the problem is that it does not know how to relate to the world around it in anything approaching a sustainable way. It does not know how to resolve conflict without creating victims.

Even those who can recognise this, and accept that it is problematic, still often accept violence as an unfortunate but unavoidable necessity. They cannot conceive of a just world being established in any way other than violent revolution. But that is precisely, I think, what Jesus offers us: a glimpse of a way of being and being-with that dispenses with violence; that transcends religion and culture and politics, exposing the lies on which they are established. But it is not the sort of salvation that can be achieved by anything as inconsequential and nebulous as reciting the sinner’s prayer or  ‘asking Jesus into your heart’. It requires nothing less of you than becoming, to use the words of St Paul, a new creation.

As far as I am concerned, the choice is simple. Either we take the broad street, the one our species has been following for tens of thousands of years, and which must lead to our own destruction, or we take the narrower way – a path characterised by radical, self-giving love and forgiveness, instead of retribution and violence. The Jesus way. The first option relegates homo sapiens to a tragicomic role of very little consequence in the grand narrative that is the story of the universe. The second allows us, at the very least, to live up to our presumptuous name.

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