Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Living in a Darwinian World

We live in a Darwinian world. All of us do. I mean that we are subject to the laws of nature including all the pleasures, pains and impulses that come with them. None of us can escape this no matter how refined or virtuous we think we are. Even individuals who are great examples of worldly transcendence are forced to live with this world’s inexorable Darwinian pull.

This is neither all bad nor all good. Yes, it means that we come into this world selfish and uncaring. And it means that we are tempted throughout our lives to do whatever it takes to get ahead or to push our children to succeed. It also means that in our rush to achieve success we can pursue very parochial and profane things. This is the moral inheritance of us all. We might call these tendencies Darwinian sins.

But this same inheritance also means that we will care for our children and families. That we will try to work hard and be respectable citizens. It means that we will be watchful and aware of the world around us. It means that, in our better moments, we will plan for a rainy day. We might call these tendencies Darwinian virtues.

In general, we are pretty good at recognizing Darwinian sins. We probably don’t call them by this name, but we recognize them just the same. Noticing a selfish act in another person is second nature even if we can be quite slow recognizing one in ourselves.

Unfortunately, we often fail to recognize when our virtues are Darwinian too. This is unfortunate because trying to live in a Darwinian world, even as we profess to live Christian lives, can lead us down the road to hypocrisy.

An obvious example is the overzealous parent living only a nominally Christian life. Suppose this parent pushes his child to be his/her very best in athletic, academic and other activities. Obviously, this is not a bad thing by itself. It’s clearly a Darwinian virtue insofar as it seeks the advantage of one’s offspring. But this parent is very selfishly engaged in his child’s life and very blind to the teachings of Christ. There is no kindness nor forbearance directed towards the opposing team or to officials, nor is there understanding when a diligent child brings home a poor grade or fails to get the leading role in a school play. The command to love one’s enemies is an impossibility to this parent who cannot even feel concern for the school across town.

Darwinian virtues don’t have to be so stark, but they often lead in that direction. Attending church and trying to look respectably religious, even as this parent selfishly drives his family to success, is an act of hypocrisy. Darwinian virtues are never really Christian virtues in the end.   

Or take the well-meaning parent that notices a talent in her child and insists that her offspring is precocious – perhaps especially gifted, maybe even a genius. I well remember being a young father and feeling a certain likeness to this parental pride. It is natural. After a while, though, hearing this same well-meaning braggadocio from unnumbered kindred parents, it becomes quite tedious. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with being proud of your child. But you will look a long time before you find it justified in holy writ. There is no Christian doctrine of Darwinian pride.

The Christian parent is to teach faith, the honoring of parents and the reverence of deity. Nowhere is it written that Christ expects us to have the brightest, the most athletic or the most artistic offspring. This isn’t because the New Testament is silent about rearing children. On the contrary: in perhaps the harshest statement of all scripture, the Lord warns those who offend them that it would be better to have a grindstone wrapped around their necks and then be drowned into the sea. How many well-meaning parents have pushed their children to the point of offense in an attempt to appease an apparently virtuous Darwinian end?

Darwinian biology doesn’t measures success by how rich we get or by how healthy we keep ourselves (although this may be part of it). It measures success by our offspring. Darwinian success posits the survival of the fittest. Success is ultimately measured by how many descendants we leave behind.

We call adultery and fornication by their proper names: we call them sins. Yet in a Darwinian world these are expected behaviors. From a strict Darwinian perspective, the cultural circumstances under which a child is born doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the child survives.

But what about abortion? Isn’t this a case where our argument fails? Many in our society seem to be OK with letting one’s offspring die. We may agree that we don’t normally see animals in the wild intentionally aborting their unborn offspring. But the fact of eliminating one’s offspring seems clearly anti-Darwinian. How can this unnatural act be considered a Darwinian sin?

The answer is not really that hard to see. A culture of abortion is a culture that fully recognizes the reality and legitimacy (if I can use that term) of extra-marital intimacy. It fully accepts the Darwinian impulse to reproduce at any cost, even if it ends up rejecting the results of this impulse.

We could give many examples regarding children. Let’s look instead at our attitudes about work. The Darwinian attitude is that hard and smart work will lead to success and allow us greater advantages both now and when unexpected events occur in the future. Most of us tend to agree with this perspective. Preparing for a rainy day is clearly not bad advice. Surprisingly, however, this sort of work is a Darwinian virtue.

This can be confusing because the argument is actually a conflation of a couple of things. It suggests that security comes from hard work, and it pretends to make us the authors of our own well-being. Christian doctrine recognizes the need for work. The Old and New testaments are fairly clear on this. But the purpose of work is not to get wealthy, or to secure our own future. We are to work because the sluggard has no place in Zion.

We are to work honestly and diligently. But it is really quite presumptuous to believe that we will be successful to the degree that we work this way – as if it were a law of Heaven. How many wealthy Christians are there in this world quite certain that anybody could be as good or well-off as they are if they only worked hard enough?

I know it makes a certain sense for someone who has worked hard to accumulate the comforts and conveniences of life to believe that their virtuous deeds have been the cause of their success. And the argument isn’t false at a certain level. It rings true as a Darwinian virtue.

But it is quite false as a Christian virtue. Everything we have comes as a blessing from God. And His promise is that He will take care of His humble followers. As Professor Nibley argued so poignantly many years ago: “work we must, but the lunch is free.” It is God that gave us life. And it is God, in the end, that allows us to live – whether with wealth or otherwise. You will work in vain if you think that God expects it of you so you can be rich. He is more likely to ask you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor – and then to follow Him.

I came across another example of this confusion a few years ago in the American South. We were at a business dinner in a restaurant where one of our party noticed someone at a distant table saying a blessing on the food. My colleague mentioned how hypocritical some people are about saying prayers. Her comment surprised me. Where I come from, giving thanks for a meal is the proper way to show respect to God. In public places, we might chose to pray silently and in a way that others would not notice. But prayers should still be said.

My colleague told us that in the culture of the South, many only pretended to be religious to show they were better than they really were. Sometimes the overt religious act (such as a prayer) is really only a ploy. I was reminded of Christ’s remarks about hypocritical Pharisees.

Darwinism is perfectly content to use religion as a means of promoting one’s self. Christ, on the other hand, requires that we put Him first and trust in Him. This devotion happens in the unobserved workings of the heart. It can never be hypocritical, or it never existed at all.

Why does any of this matter? Perhaps you have never been particularly interested in Darwin or his theories. My answer is that it matters because Darwin was right on certain points, just as he was often wrong. And sadly, many well-meaning Christians live their lives pursuing Darwinian virtues, oblivious to the fact that Christ expects us to strive for subtly – but very importantly – different ones.

So much of our religious journey requires us to take personal inventory on occasion. It requires that we ask ourselves the motives of what we do. Do we act out of convenience, following Darwinian drives, while our deeds are really only pious pretensions? Or do we honestly strive to follow the words of the Master?

It is difficult to overcome selfishness. We want to be recognized. We want people to be happy with us. And there is nothing necessarily wrong with these desires. But they are not desires that bring us spiritual strength. They are Darwinian virtues only.

Christ requires of us a selfless sacrifice. He requires that we serve Him alone and not ourselves. This is almost an impossible task in a fallen world – in a Darwinian world. But it is His gospel nonetheless.

Darwin has many followers and his theories have had very significant sway. Some of this has been quite valuable. It has allowed us to understand quite clearly what it means to live in a fallen world – the world that is our testing ground, the place we call mortality – the place of death.

But it is quite a contrast to think about these Darwinian realities in which we live and then to read through the Sermon on the Mount. There is probably no other literature in the world that opposes Darwinism to such an extent. If you are confused about Darwinian virtues and Christian virtues, all you need to do is read the 5th, 6th and 7th Chapters of the Gospel of Matthew and ask yourself the following question: what is the world’s alternative. You might do this for every example Christ mentions and compare each one to the expected behavior at work or at school.

The doctrines of Christ are the loftiest and most divine truths the world has ever known. They have endured – and will continue to endure – because they are timeless. They are also timely. Too often, however, we understand them in simple, limiting or merely contemporary ways.

Perhaps we think that after accepting Christ, our worries are over, our place in Heaven is assured. This is very dangerous attitude. Mortality, by its very definition, is not over until we die. This is where Darwin’s laws reign supreme.

It matters a great deal that we learn to distinguish between Darwin and Christ. I don’t mean to demonize Charles Darwin. I doubt that he ever intended to have his name contrasted so starkly against Jesus. But there is little doubt that many manifestations of our ongoing moral apostasy are justified by the widespread Darwinian mindset so loved by the world today.

We have learned to recognize and reject the ways of Satan. Christianity has a long history countering his deceits. Today we have other sophisticated ones to deal with. Our continuing challenge is to follow the better way.

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