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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, July 10, 2011
“Nasty, brutish and short.” No, that’s not a description of the 8:00 o’clock service. Nor does my homily qualify, if only because it fails to meet the final criterion. “Nasty, brutish and short” is a phrase used by Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, to describe what human life is really like. It is, in his words, “one continuous exercise in self-love.”
Well, Thomas Hobbes step aside! There’s a new kid on the block. His name is Robert Wright and his field of study is called evolutionary psychology. Basically, the sentiments are Hobbesian, but the evidence is genetic. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that natural selection has programmed us to get our genes into the next generation. Whatever it takes. That’s the key – whatever it takes. And it seems that men and women have some basic differences on just how this ought to be done.
Men tend to use the shotgun approach – if I spread my seed far and wide (not indiscriminately, but, then again, not very far from it) – then that will offer me the best chance to get my genes into the next generation. Promiscuity, affairs with the secretary, and augmented business trips are all schemes to make this happen. Problem is, how do I convince so many women that I’m the one for them? How do I get inside their defenses to get the chance?
Well, this is where deception takes place. Remember – I am genetically programmed to get my genes into the next generation, whatever it takes. But lies are crass. They’re also easy to spot. But what if I’m able to deceive myself first? What sheer genetic genius! If I really believe I love you and will be your companion forever, then maybe I’ll be able to convince you, too.
Women, on the other hand, have a different strategy for getting their genes into the next generation. Since they bear children – and the nurture and raising of children is enormously time-consuming – they will select their prospective mates based upon their ability to provide for them. But dependability is a problem, you see, because men are genetically programmed to deceive them. And that’s why women are genetically programmed with radar to spot deception. It’s a classic dialectic. Some call it, “the battle of the sexes.”
Dave Barry was right, I guess. In his book, Complete Guide to Guys, he talks about the differences in the way men and women think. Like about commitment, for example. Do not expect a guy to make a hasty commitment, he writes. “By ‘hasty,’ I mean, ‘within your lifetime.’ Guys are born with a fundamental, genetically transmitted condition known to psychologists as: The Fear That If You Get Attached To a Woman, Some Unattached Guy, Somewhere, Will Be Having More Fun Than You.”
Or, consider this test question: You have been seeing a woman for several years. She’s attractive and intelligent, and you always enjoy being with her. One leisurely Sunday afternoon the two of you are taking it easy – you’re watching a football game; she’s reading the papers – when suddenly, out of the blue, she tells you that she thinks she really loves you, but she can no longer bear the uncertainty of not knowing where your relationship is going.
She says she’s not asking whether you want to get married; only whether you believe that you have some kind of future together. What do you say?
a. That you sincerely believe the two of you do have a future, but you don’t want to rush into such an important relationship.
b. That although you also have strong feelings for her, you cannot honestly say that you’ll be ready anytime soon to make a lasting commitment, and you don’t want to hurt her by holding out false hope.
c. That you cannot believe the Jets called a draw play on third and seventeen.
Well, back to Robert Wright. Evolutionary psychologists put a lot of stock in the inevitability of it all. Our genetic “prime directive” is to get our genes into the next generation. With whatever it takes. And, since the value of my genes increases as my social status rises, I will seek that status. I’ll use whatever I can. The brain, for instance, is a machine made for winning arguments and for convincing others that its owner is right.
One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again – whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which – we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn’t warranted.
This “web of inevitability” – this genetic programming – throws into serious question just how “free” we are to make decisions. For centuries, Wright says, we’ve had a powerful intuition that free will does exist; we are in charge of our behavior. Actual human motivation and behavior suggest otherwise. It is a sort of updated version of “original sin.” It’s why we make the same mistakes, over and over. It’s why we become our mothers and fathers and our children become us.
But into the midst of this turmoil and self-seeking comes The Seed. A man once talked about it. “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how….It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet, when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This, too, is a story about inevitability – the inevitability of the Kingdom of God. It’s planted. It’s growing. What’s done is done…. The Kingdom of God grows because it’s already planted. A former skeptic figured this out rather late in life. If God is in charge, he maintains, then I’m free. I’m free from fear. What if I can’t make the mortgage payment this month? What is that little lump under my arm? Does my husband love me? But then I take the time of listen – “Remember the mustard seed – it’s saving you.”
I’m free to suffer pain over the right things, for once. Martin Luther once said that a saint is someone who understands that everything he does is egotistical. But he also said that this chronic moral torment is a sign of God’s grace. You might ask, “What is so gracious about filling someone with anguish?” One answer is that other people can benefit from it. We can train ourselves to do things which run against the grain of our nature. Unfortunately, given our present genetic makeup, it feels like suffering.
And finally, I’m free from being manipulated. The bad news of the Kingdom of God is that I don’t own anything and, therefore, I have no rights. The good news is that if I have nothing of my own and I have no rights, nobody can take them away. Nobody can threaten me with anything. I am free. Mark Twain once said, “Some day you will meet a happy man who has nothing, and you will know that you have paid too much for your whistle.”
The seed is planted. It’s growing. Can’t stop it. What’s done is done…