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An essay donated by James B. Gray

"An Evolutionary Perspective on Matthew 25" -
Expressing love of others through good works

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Jesus is quoted in Mark 12:29 – 31 as asserting that the most important commandment is to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, the second most important commandment being to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Several years ago (1992, in “Evolutionary Aspects of Love and Empathy”) Robin Allott referred to love of God, however, as a “difficult idea. If love is a transfer of the self-centre, the centre of gravity of oneself, with the incorporation of a model of the other along with or in the model of one’s self, then how can a model of God be said to be incorporated in or introduced alongside the model of one’s self? This remains a puzzle despite the voluminous writings of the mystics, both Christian and non-Christian.”

The solution to Allott’s “puzzle,” however, lies in the Bible itself. For the “witness” of the Bible—as my essay on Worship should make clear1—is that one loves God by loving the neighbor. That is, given that the God of the Bible is especially a command-giver, and that the essence of those commands is to engage in activities that amount to loving the neighbor, it follows that what “love of God” entails is loving the neighbor. Therefore, what Allott’s statement reveals is a superficial knowledge of the Bible—such that the difficulties perceived, by Allott, in loving God, indicate ignorance rather than insight.

What loving the neighbor can involve, in Biblical terms, is expressed in some detail in what Christians refer to as the “Old Testament” (as I indicate in “Worship”). And Jesus elaborated, famously, on the commandment in Matthew 25:35 – 45)—wherein Matthew has him say, in effect, that loving the neighbor includes (but is not limited to) feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, receiving strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those who have been (rightly or wrongly) imprisoned. That Matthew wanted to emphasize the contents of this “plan of salvation” offered by Jesus is indicated by the fact that he had Jesus repeat in four (4) times (in my Good News Bible, at any rate).

Still, one can raise the question: Did Jesus go far enough? Was it enough for him to simply identify types of behaviors that one can engage in that involve love of the neighbor? Does it follow that if people know what they should do, they will do it? Did not, in fact, Paul go beyond Jesus in recognizing (Romans 7:14 – 25) that he—and by implication all humans—knew what he should do, but failed to do it; and also knew what he should not do—but did it anyway?

Paul attributed this failure on his part to “my human nature [which] serves the law of sin” (v. 25 in my Good News Bible). But did he locate the source of his (perceived) problem correctly? The elites that control our Western societies would like us to believe as much—for such a belief on the part of the masses serves the interests of the elite. But if one examines humans from a historical—and especially evolutionary—point of view, one will reach the conclusion, rather, that such a viewpoint is in serious error. Indeed, Allott (whose article appeared in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems) went so far as to make the startling assertion that : “Love in its most developed form is to be seen not as a lucky accident, an undeserved blessing for humanity, but as an explanation of and a necessity for the course which human development has taken.” Put another way, what Allott was claiming—and what is increasingly becoming accepted as a truism—is that had not loving behavior developed in humans as a natural behavior, humans would not be where they are today!

This is not to say that if humans engage in loving behavior, that behavior can be said to have a strictly genetic basis. For human development occurs not just because humans are endowed with a certain genetic makeup but because they are raised in a social setting. Indeed, the very structure that their brain develops is in part attributable to the social environment within which they develop. An environment, by the way, which—if absent—would mean the rapid death of virtually every human infant.

Although one cannot say at present that the development of loving behavior is well-understood, it can be said with confidence that a proclivity for such behavior developed in a “natural” way. Of course, “love” itself does not have a single meaning—for the sort of love one has for one’s mother is not the same sort of love that one has for one’s brother, or neighbor, etc.—or, for that matter, one’s other parent. Meaning that the processes that led to the development of one sort of love need not be the same as the processes associated with some other sort of love.

It may very well be that it is easier for a person to develop positive affect (love being an example) for members of one’s family than strangers. But insofar as this is the case, this difference does not have a genetic basis so much as it has a basis in the fact that one’s interactions are especially with relatives than with strangers (to make a trite—but nonetheless true—statement indeed!). However, we should keep in mind that our ability to empathize with others (the concept of empathy being related to that of love) does not appear to be related to biological relationship. For example, the reason we can refer to some movies as “tear jerkers” is that many, if not most, viewers are able to empathize with characters undergoing experiences that would make them cry. And our military leaders and media moguls are aware of this fact—which is why they have made such a great effort at hiding from us the horrors of the war that we have been perpetrating on the Iraqis: being either members of the elite or lackeys of the elite, they are benefiting financially from the war, and therefore do not want to see it end. (That it is destroying the very economy from which they are benefiting doesn’t seem to be a fact visible on their limited horizon.) They know that if the public were made aware of the atrocities that have been, and are, committed by our troops (and private security personnel), they would raise such an outcry that the politicians would be forced to listen to the public—for a change.

If one reason why loving behavior is not more common in our society is that we are not presented information—and especially images—which would “turn on” our empathy, and thereby motivate loving behavior in a Biblical sense, it is not the only reason. A number of additional factors could be cited, but I will limit myself here to what I regard as the fundamental factor.

I am among that group of thinkers that views the Agricultural Revolution, of millennia ago, as being the source of most of our problems today. This is, of course, a “contrarian” view but one, I believe, that has solid support. This is not the place to develop this point of view in detail, but suffice it to say that the primary “facts” behind this viewpoint are:

Prior to the Agricultural Revolution there was concordance between human biology and the way of life being lived (a gatherer-hunter one—or “cynegetic” to use Paul Shepard’s term). That is the stimuli and behaviors for which humans had become “designed” by evolutionary processes were ones that the way of life provided. Because of this concordance, well-being was widespread; and although we might not be able to claim that loving behavior was common, we can with good reason state that its opposite was not common.

With the Agricultural Revolution the way of life began changing, meaning that the stimuli received and behaviors engaged in by humans were also changing. Indeed, this change has accelerated since the Industrial Revolution of 250 years ago.

Because human biology was not changing at a comparable pace, the stimuli to which humans were exposed and the behaviors which they were forced to engage in became increasingly “discrepant” relative to their “design specifications.”

This increasing Discrepancy not only resulted in ill-being, but the ill-being precipitated, e.g., violent behavior—which resulted in more ill-being. Which . . . . Thus, the current mess of our society cannot be attributed solely to our president, for the roots of our problems go back millennia.

I will conclude by noting first that the origin of religion may very well have coincided with the development, by humans, of not only empathy for others in the group but for the prey species that were providing a significant about of food to early humans. At some point humans, because they had started to feel empathy for prey species, felt a need to ask permission of animals to kill them for food, and ask forgiveness from them afterward for having killed them. These behaviors also became accompanied by rituals—and it is this ritualistic behavior which may have been the precursor to religion as we know it today.

The Agricultural Revolution, however, caused a change in the character of religion. In addition to the effects of that Revolution noted brief above, another effect was the rise of the prophetic tradition that gave rise to Hebrew Scripture—and the Christian Bible. For as certain sensitive individuals noticed the ill-being that was accompanying the rise of civilization, they attempted “restore” the situation of widespread well-being that had existed before. As I noted in “Worship,” there occurred preaching and law-making, etc.

Would that more in our midst understood what the Bible is really about! It might make a huge difference!

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Originally posted: 2008-MAR-21
Latest update: 2008-MAR-21
Author: James B. Gray

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