The human tribe

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John Spong frequently uses the word "tribalism" to describe the human propensity for thinking in terms of "us versus them". Yet he also argues that this is behavior we can overcome if we realize our full human potential. He suggests that Jesus, in his own life, demonstrated through his own life and teachings the promise of being what he calls "fully human." For example, in his book Jesus for the Non-Religious, he writes:

The more we sink into tribal attitudes, the more our lives are consumed with hatred; and as a direct result, the less human we become. (p. 241)
How do we become more human, instead of less? He writes:
There is salvation, I believe, in the fully human Jesus who reveals what human life can be, an existence free of tribal boundaries, free of prejudice, free of sexism and free of fear. Such a life will inevitably empower others to step into that promise, and when they do, they will, believe, experience the reality of God. (p. 263)
I was reminded of Spong when I read an article by Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in today's New York Times magazine. The article tries to answer the question, "How are Humans Unique?" With our fellow primates seemingly capable of so many supposedly unique human capabilities, from tool making to forms of language, what is left to make us truly different? Tomasello argues that, even though other primates are commonly conceived of as social animals, we humans exhibit social characteristics of a much more complex order than what our evolutionary cousins exhibit. He identifies three ways that this manifests itself: through a sense of social obligation, through information sharing, and through role playing.

Yet all is not well in this tale of human social cooperation, as we all know:
Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels; they also put their heads together to do all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside “the group.” Recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to get people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.” The remarkable human capacity for cooperation thus seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the group. Such group-mindedness is a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today. The solution — more easily said than done — is to find new ways to define the group.
In other words, human social cooperation relies, according to Tomasello, on human tribalism. As I see it, the solution to this problem is, as he puts it, "to find new ways to define the group." I interpret this to mean that, rather than trying to abolish tribalism, we would expand it to such an extent that our "tribe" encompasses the entire human race.

8 comments:

Matthew said...

>>Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels; they also put their heads together to do all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside “the group.”

As I see it, the solution to this problem is, as he puts it, "to find new ways to define the group." I interpret this to mean that, rather than trying to abolish tribalism, we would expand it to such an extent that our "tribe" encompasses the entire human race.<<

Any form of discrimination represents alienation. It doesn't matter how large your circle is. Jesus calls it 'judging', and those who judge are lost. Lost is lost, there's no such thing as being less lost, or closer, or better.

Matthew

Frank said...

We do think in terms of "tribe." This is a strong part of human nature (This is why I believe we are so unsuccessful as a race in our modern days, with rampant wars and genocide, because we are not innately designed to think globally... its hard for someone who is genetically hard-coded to think in tribal terms to understand what 90,000 deaths from an atmoic bomb is)

But anyway, yes, I think Jesus was using the metaphors that we innately understand and expanding them. He kept trying to expand the definitions of "brother and sister". We need to keep our tribal terms, because we comprehend them deeply. But the same regard we have for our mother and our brother and sister we should have for all people. That's what he was trying to get at.

Matthew said...

>>We need to keep our tribal terms, because we comprehend them deeply. But the same regard we have for our mother and our brother and sister we should have for all people. That's what he was trying to get at.<<

We are asked to love what God loves. The core meaning of 'tribal' always fractures the whole, making the 'us vs. them' distinction, which falls short of God's love.

Matthew 5.43 "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor[h] and hate your enemy.'

44 But I tell you: Love your enemies[i] and pray for those who persecute you,

45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?

47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew

Frank said...

Matthew,

I agree that Jesus calls us beyond those tribal "us & them" groupings. However, he also uses those very tribal understandings to help us reach beyond them. He helps us connect to something that we know so that we can understand better something that we don't know. I hear Jesus saying this:

"You know how you love your brother? Well, that's is the very kind of love that I am asking you to have for all people."

Matthew said...

Frank,

"However, he also uses those very tribal understandings to help us reach beyond them."

What do you think-

Mt. 9.16 "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.

17 Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."

If a person is trying to become worthy, they won't recognize their worthiness.

Matthew

Frank said...

I don't know, Matthew. You have to start somewhere. We use limited human language to try to understand a limitless God (or at least a transcendent God (to all the process theologians out there!)). We're doomed to failure because the tools we are using are incapable of the task, but we use them anyway because they are what we have. You can argue that all symbols and metaphors are old wineskins, but if you throw them all out, you're left without any language to talk with.

Jesus uses real life situations in the parables to help us understand the kingdom of God, which doesn't quite follow the rules of life on earth. For example, he uses the story of the prodigal son to show us what the love of God is like--using the love of a human father toward his sons. This doesn't mean that God is a human father, only that the story suggests some aspect of God.

God speaks in and through creation (which is what the sacraments are about), so I would be careful not to regard all of creation as an "old wineskin", but just to remember that even though God works in and through creation, there is a promise of transcendence, as well.

The best religious language uses the most concrete to describe the most abstract, in my opinion.

Mystical Seeker said...

It seems to me that if our tribalism is a double-edged sword (it has the positive element of promoting cooperation within the group, but it has the negative element of promoting intolerance against other groups), and if also we find that tribalism is a built-in human characteristic, then why not try to come up with a way of applying this built-in characteristic in a way that that continues to make use of the good and eliminates the bad? That was what I meant by trying to redefine the entire human race as a tribe. In that way, we could continue to take advantage of the good that we seek and which tribalism offers, while eliminating any means of expressing the downside of tribalism--since there would be no one outside of our tribe.

On the other hand, maybe this makes no sense. Is it possible to even conceive of a tribe except in terms of a division between membership and non-membership? If there is no non-tribe member to exclude from the tribe, can there even be tribalism at all?

Matthew said...

>>God speaks in and through creation (which is what the sacraments are about), so I would be careful not to regard all of creation as an "old wineskin", but just to remember that even though God works in and through creation, there is a promise of transcendence, as well.<<

Creation 'appears' as an 'old wineskin' to those who don't have 'eyes to see'. Sighted people recognize it for what it is (even when described in non-sighted language, which seems to be all we've go available!); while the 'blind' will ALWAYS miss it, trying desperately to make it look new...and fail.

*** Silence is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation.

— John B. O’Reilly ***

*** The reality that is present to us and in us: call it being…Silence. And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen) we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations…. May we all grow in grace and peace, and not neglect the silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us.

— Thomas Merton ***

>>On the other hand, maybe this makes no sense. Is it possible to even conceive of a tribe except in terms of a division between membership and non-membership? If there is no non-tribe member to exclude from the tribe, can there even be tribalism at all?<<

It's interesting how ways of thinking insidiously work their way into people's ability to 'see'. We blind ourselves!!

So long as a person accepts tribe thinking, they will be motivated to use it. 'This is who I am, what I know', they will claim. People will find the most insignificant characteristics in others to separate them from us. 'Tribe thinkers' will even accept their own speculative thoughts as evidence to cast others from the 'us' category!! The 'blind leading the blind' indeed!

Gen 2.16 "And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;

17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Matthew