Part 1 of 3

The subject of this post results from a small crowd of blog comments and emails following the posts about my conference presentation,“Untangling Hellish Visions,” and the documentary Hellbound? For example, here are quotes from two typical comments:

  • It’s terrifying that such a god might exist and is actually believed to exist by millions and millions of people. I agree with the other poster who said they pray that religion isn’t real: such a possibility is a nightmare.
  • I don’t know what to believe any more, and I am so afraid. What is wrong with religion?

The June, 2012 issue of Nature magazine carried an interesting report about the closeness of our genetic relationship with apes. Scientists have known for several years that we share almost 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, our closest relatives. Now bonobos, the chimps’ sibling species, have joined them in our DNA pool. It seems we share 98.7% of the DNA of both species.

Reading further on the topic, what I find most fascinating is the behavioral complexity of this news. Chimpanzees are known to be aggressive, hostile toward strangers, power-hungry, often violent to the point of murderous. Male dominated, they form attack gangs to roam their territory looking for outsiders to fight and kill; a male will kill unprotected infant chimps not his own.

Bonobos, the siblings from the opposite side of theCongo River, are the only peaceful ape. They are reported to be cooperative, curious rather than hostile toward outsiders, and alpha-female-dominated. Unlike chimps, bonobos share easily, even sharing food with strangers; they do not patrol the borders of their territory or practice infanticide.

It is not that bonobos do not experience conflict; they do. However, saysDuke University researcher Brian Hare, bonobos will bite, but they won’t kill. Primatologists say they are hyper-sexual, preferring to “make love not war” as a way of resolving conflicts. Whereas chimps tend to address conflict with violence, bonobos of both genders prefer to settle scores with (non-procreative, sometimes homosexual) sex.  Journalist Andrew Sullivan reports about one laboratory experiment that “at times the chimps were too busy fighting each other to complete tasks. But the sexually hyper-promiscuous bonobos could focus…” How very intriguing.

And here, then, are we homo sapiens, sharing, it seems, not only all that DNA but the personality characteristics of both chimps and bonobos. No wonder life seems demanding! Genetic inheritance being the ground on which—or perhaps with which—we build our human enterprise, it is those characteristics which become incorporated into our institutions, and therefore into our religions as well as our secular philosophies. Oh, good gosh.

Knowing this background, it should come as no great surprise that across the millennia, as homo sapiens has wrestled with the questions that became religion, there should be a strain that has understood its ultimate authority, its god, as a controlling and often angry entity, power-ridden and hostile to outsiders, ready to punish those who do not submit to rules and the will of the leadership. It will kill its children rather than share authority, and will go to war for the sake of increasing possession or pride. Here is the judgmental aspect of human thought which stresses condemnation, whether expressed in social law or religious dogma. It is the chimpanzee aspect of our DNA which produces the attitudes of a wrathful G_d, whether in the Ancient Near East or the 21st century, and conceives dogmatic theologies of hell as eternal physical torment in the name of  a harsh justice.

This chimpanzee aspect of religion works. It has sustained Christianity for some 1,700 years and provides structure and meaning to the lives of millions of worshippers around the world. Granted, it is fear-based; but if fear is the primary basis one has been taught to experience, it seems natural. And yet, as the Christian writer John Shore puts it,

‘Love me, because I love you. And if you don’t love me, I’ll torture you forever.’  What would that be, from the Stalker line of Hallmark cards? What kind of sickness is that? And what kind of unhealthy relationship must it produce? Who wants to be in a relationship because they’re too afraid not to be?

It is with relief, then, that we can now claim our inner bonobo, which has been part of human history—and human religion—all along. A theology of subjection and appeasement is not the only approach wired into our potentials.

In human terms, the bononobo approach envisions purpose as loving, gracious, and compassionate.  Its religious expression conceives a creative force which manifests in standards and values as measures of building a relationship of trust, not as lists of requirements which must be met, not as appeasements of an antagonistic deity, and not as borders between hostile camps.

Seen from this perspective, life and religion are no longer fear-based, a matter of protecting the self from threats from God or from others. Rather, when trouble comes, and conflict—as they will—they will not be interpreted as vengeance or punishment but as part of the fabric of life, to be dealt with through engagement in relationships and trust. This attitude leads to a life free from fear, whatever happens. To see the character of life’s very existence as gracious, loving, and compassionate does not mean that bad things do not happen, but that we learn to deal with them without despair.

This stream of “bonobo faith” runs through all the major religious traditions, although they express it in different images. In our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition, the nurturing sovereignty of creativity and love is powerfully present throughout the Bible; it is in post-biblical tradition that the worst excesses of vindictive “justice” developed.

In other words, it is not the fault of religion itself that so many familiar doctrines are harsh and unloving; the fault is in the more violent strain of our nature and its influence on culture and teachings. Religion will be whatever we make it. And although the political and religious power centers may look at this kinder approach with scorn and derision, genome sequencing has now demonstrated that the way of love and compassion can claim as much validity as any other. The choice of where to place our trust has always been available; it is up to us to claim our own.

 [To be continued.]

Shore, John (2011-08-25). Hell No! Extinguishing Christian Hellfire (Kindle Locations 37-39). Kindle Edition.

Borg, Marcus J. (2011-04-12). Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored (Kindle Locations 1138-1143). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.