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.