I want to talk about a book I’ve been reading, Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct
Lent starts with the model we think we know about how human beings evolve. He suggests that most of us think that human development starts with a proto-ape who hits another proto-ape with a bone, resulting in the other fighting back with a stone, then a pointy thing, then a bullet then a missile. And the narrative of human development is I’m going to hit you and if you hit back I’ll hit you harder. And the world out there can feel a bit like that.
But then he says this – we’ve got it backwards. The driving force of human development is not ever-increasing violence, it’s ever-increasing kindness, or rather ever-increasing turning towards community building and co-operation.
And he starts piling on the evidence.
If the goal was to be stronger and tougher, why are we so weak? Through evolution we have lost claws, lost sharp teeth, our skin is soft. In area after area he documents how the human has evolved to work together, in community, in selflessness, not selfishness.
The scientific consensus is that being tougher and harder isn’t how the fittest of us have survived.
We’ve survived through becoming softer and weaker – almost so as to force ourselves, as an entire human race, into relying on other people for our own survival and flourishing.
The book piles on the evidence for this in terms of the evolution of our bones and organs, our brain most particularly – on a neurological level – we are built to look for patterns of interconnectivity.
And I know we live in a world that too often doesn’t feel that way, but it turns out that the story of humanity is the story partnering with one another, using empathy and being communal, rather than selfishly minded.
It’s a big issue, in our fragile world, at this fragile time. I saw one reviewer suggest that Lent’s book could be read as a counter-argument to the conclusion of a similarly expansive narrative of the human race, Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens. Harari sees the human as essentially violent. He sees religion as essentially a tool wielded by frauds to wreck that violence. He sees the end of the human race – and this emerges in his second book Homo Deus – as we are overtaken by computer algorithms and, with a nod to no-self Buddist teachings, he’s fine with that.
Lent on the other hand wants to stop us slipping away from who we truly are as social, interconnected, communal minded creatures. There’s work to do pull the tiller towards the direction of this social version of ourselves, it’s urgent work, but it’s work to pull the tiller towards who we truly are. That’s hugely optimistic.
So what does Lent have to say about religion? Of course, if you want to know about how humans beings have come together to form communities – religion is going to be at the heart of that narrative. If you want to know about our greatest communal creations; from the buildings we have built to the music we have composed to the stories we have told – religion is going to be at the heart of that narrative. If you want to tell a story of how one person changed or improved the life of another person, or how one group of people sought to improve the life of other – religion is going to be at the heart of narrative again, and again across time and across the world.
Let me pause a moment and address this canard; sometimes I hear people say that religion is a cause of violence and therefore a bad thing. Let me just try this. Think of the three worst instances of violence in the century now 20 years past – I’ll give you Stalinism, I’ll give you Nazism and I’ll give Maoism, or I don’t know you would want to include genocide in Cambodia or Rwanda or former Yugoslavia – well I would consider religion culpable of zero out of six right there. And if you were to want to suggest that every now and then there was a Pastor who supported Hitler or a Jew who became entranced by Stalinism, I would say this. Let’s put religion’s culpability for violence on one side of a scale, and then put religion’s power as a force for peace on the other. Give me, as the advocate for religion, points for Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his work in the peaceful dismantling of Apartheid, give me points for all the religious among the Righteous Among the Nations who gave their lives and risked their lives for the sake of Jews fleeing Nazi brutality – give me points for Sister Maria Rozak who turned her nunnery into a shelter for dozens of Jewish refugees from the Vilna Ghetto including the great poet and resistance fighter Abba Kovner and future Member of Israel’s Kenesset Haika Grossman.
Give me points for Martin Luther King, an ordained second-generation Baptist minister, and his good friend, the man who marched on his right hand side at Selma, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – actually the great uncle of one our members here. Give me points for every act of charity and love and mutual support that has ever emerged from a church, a mosque, a Gurdwara or a Synagogue and I’ll stack any failing of religion on the other end of the scale and, Dr Harari, Prof Dawkings and colleagues, we’ll see how the scales balance out.
The point is this, if we are communally hardwired, as humans, and I believe we are, it’s not, I believe, just a mathematical weighing up that has caused us to be this way. Somewhere, somehow we have trained our subconscious to look beyond our own need. We have been touched by a belief that otherness, beyondness is necessary for our human flourishing. And that’s where religion comes in. Religion is the millennia-old act of believing that there is something to be gained by looking beyond our own personal selfish understanding, and an attempt to fuse that looking out at the beyond ourselves with the looking out of our fellows, other people with whom we share a belief in the way to look beyond. And all the stories we tell of our religions, and all the traditions and songs and the foods and all of that – it’s how we hold ourselves together so we can look beyond.
And I believe, as a person of faith, that somehow, somewhere in all of that, we are met – in our looking beyond, by that which is truly beyond. Somehow, we are touched, or if not ourselves, we’ll share the journey with someone we believe was so touched – even if they are long dead. And that, in that moment of being touched, all our reaching toward community and the beyond is guided towards decency and selflessness, or, as I would say as a religious person, holiness.
That’s why I believe in religion.
But let me give Jeremy Lent his due, and I also want to say something about so-what, about what we should do now.
For Jeremy Lent religion is a spandrel.
A spandrel is the triangular piece that emerges in architecture when you use arches, or really any kind of circular form embedded in a square form. We’ve got a good few in this very building. For Jeremy Lent the spandrel is something that is capable of looking beautiful and attracting attention, but it’s not really a genuinely important part of the architectural scheme – it’s the bit that is left over because you really wanted an arch. His point is that though religion might seem to be integral to how human beings have come together through thousands of years and integral to how human beings have shown kindness and altruism for thousands of years, religion isn’t really the thing behind all this. Religion, says Jeremy Lent, is the left-over bit from the other stuff. Well I just don’t agree. That is to say, I do agree about the metaphor, I just don't agree with the message. The real issue about a spandrel is that it’s a necessary part of building an arch in a square space. You can’t have one without the other and every architect knows that. Spandrels are the equivalent of a Rubin-vase-that-is-also-two-human-faces. Similarly, religion is an intrinsic part of the human instinct and a necessary complement to our quest for human progress, it isn’t the irrelevant afterthought. And it's unfair and lacking in a much-vaunted claim to desire scientific rigour honesty to suggest otherwise.
That’s some high-level theology. So what do we do about it? Actually, this week’s Torah portion provides helpful insight. Jacob is dying and he has twelves sons he wishes to bless. Lola gave the example of the blessing Jacob give Joseph – about a wild donkey and an archer and she said it wasn’t a blessing that could guide her in her life, and indeed, I think that’s the point. Jacob’s blessing of Joseph wasn’t a blessing for Lola, it was a blessing for Joseph. And for each of his 12 sons Jacob has a different blessing, and a different blessing for his grandson also. We could have had a very short Torah reading today in which the Torah could have said, Jacob wanted to bless his children. He called them all together and said … and then there would have been the thing he would have said to all of them. But that’s not what the Torah records. It records each blessing individually.
I’m reminded of a portion we’ll read later in the year. Eventually, the children of Israel will get out of Egypt and head into the wilderness and receive the instructions to build a Tabernacle in the wilderness. And when the tabernacle is dedicated, a representative from each of the twelve tribes of Israel brings an offering. Each tribe brings;
One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, a gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; a bull a ram, a lamb in its first year, a goat two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs.
And we get told, in identical language, this list 12 times, for each of the tribes. And the question is asked, why didn’t the Torah just tell us that everyone bought the same thing and do it once and be done.
The Rabbis say it’s to remind us that each individual needs to be honoured in their own right. Just as Jacob does at the end of his life.
Here’s how to give a blessing; You look into the heart of a person, You look to find that particular part of that person that is utterly unique, never before seen, never after to be seen – it’s to look for what we would call the Tzelem, the image of God infolded into each human – but infolded differently in me than in you or you or you.
And it’s to direct that Tzelem, that unique perfect possibility, on a path of goodness. That’s my job. That’s why I’m so honoured to be a representative of religion and of this religion most especially. A blessing is a direction towards the path of our souls, that part of who we are which knows, somehow that we are here to good, to be kind, to reach towards others. It’s a nudge along the path each of us know we want to tread but area nervous, or blocked, or blinded.
So try this, try this if you are a parent or a child, a person living alone, or living by yourself or in community – find someone to bless. You can like them, or not like them, they can be relatives or strangers – and look for that piece of that person that is truly important. You don’t need to tell them you are blessing them – if you are English that bit will feel awkward, but share something with them that can guide them on this path of goodness, of shared communal existence, share something with them that guide them well on path in which their soul needs to travel. Open up a possibility, acknowledge a piece of wonderment. Just wish ‘em well. But guide towards the good.
I think that action, that moment of blessing or being blessed is the very heart of what it truly means to be religious. And I do like, as I hope you have figured out, I do like religion.