Hard-wired for Temptation
The once uncertain trickle of knowledge about the causes of human behaviour is turning into a flood tide, yet at the same time also we also note a reluctance to see how this input from scholars and scientists should feed into theology. Using the example of today’s reading, I would like to suggest there may even be a case for insisting that theologians should get some exposure to the modern ideas of biology and anthropology before they continue to tell us what notions of sin and temptation might mean.
The author of the Gospel of Mark has been sometimes criticised that, like some other authors of other parts of the Bible, he was inclined to provide an observer’s detail for events where he could not conceivably have been present as a witness. Describing Jesus in his 40 days solitude in the wilderness dealing with the temptations of Satan is a case in point. Yet I would argue in Mark’s defence that, here and elsewhere, he draws attention to some absolutely critical ideas, without which our theology would be much the poorer.
The first is the unexpected idea is that even Jesus should face genuine temptation. This is an idea well ahead of New Testament times and fits very nicely the modern finding in psychology that all humans are “hard-wired” for “temptation”. Even for those reluctant to accept the avalanche of evidence for evolution, there is probably at least grudging acceptance for the notion that at one time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Survival then required a strong urge for reproduction, a willingness to resort to action including violence when threats emerged and a willingness to act to ensure superiority over potential rivals. Enemy recognition in a primitive setting included recognising who looked and behaved differently.
Science now tells us which parts of the brain fire electrically and chemically with such responses. We now know that much of this activity is deep down in the primitive parts of the brain (sometimes called colloquially the “lizard brain” because it is shared with more primitive creatures). Biologically then, for whatever complicated reason, the brain is effectively “hard-wired” for these activities. Without such wiring, humans would presumably have been history long ago.
There is however a catch. Genetics being what it is, the chemical and biological tendencies to switch into these forms of behaviour are now ingrained, but are rarely helpful in a changed world. At their worst we see them unleashed in football and race riots, domestic violence and squalid wars. For a small and genuinely threatened population, the aggressive responses may still have a place – but as the population increases to the point where the only rational choice is to hope to coexist in national and even international communities, such responses are deservedly seen as anti social and must be retrained. As investment into warfare has continued virtually unabated, the dangers in following one’s biological instincts become more and more marked. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is great for the survival of a tiny threatened sub-group (particularly where the weapons of choice were tooth and claw) but is distinctly inappropriate for a modern city – particularly one in which there are a variety of cultures and a real need to lessen the dangers which cannot be avoided because of the number of potential rivals in the same area.
Some temptations we all face can’t be easily disregarded because of these inbuilt biological triggers. Mark leaves us to speculate as to the exact nature of which of the likely temptations were faced by Jesus, but others had no hesitation in filling in the detail. For example Luke and Matthew in their versions of the same event, portrayed Jesus tempted by Satan to use power and display to impress. This power option continues to have its followers in the modern world. When it comes to naked violence, a good number of self-claimed inheritors of Christ’s tradition through history, including the crusaders and their modern equivalents, act as if they interpret their claim to follow the Christ as deliberately choosing to go with the very option rejected by Christ, and instead, acting as if their hard wiring of the brain leads them to embrace the very temptations offered by “Satan”. When trying to convey the gospel as appropriate for life lived this sends a very mixed message. Attempting to beat and frighten terrorists into submission may be a natural biological reaction but as an effective method of conveying a message of peace and instilling love it is an absolute disaster from every angle. As D A Rosenberg pointed out in 1971, “levelling large cities has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants”. Curiously, we are so horrified by the callous disregard for suffering inflicted by suicide bombers and terrorists, we call upon our side to respond to ensure that such enemies are punished with government sanctioned violence…which is of course righteous!!
Temptations are not really temptations unless they are genuinely likely to persuade, so it is as well to remind ourselves that displays of power of the sort we note in others have an insidious similarity to what we ourselves might excuse to be acceptable behaviour. As a consequence we need to be ruthlessly objective with ourselves to be confident such actions and attitudes are not already part of our standard response pattern.
Another temptation is of course to notice the faults of others with a steadfast deliberate blindness to one’s own faults and sins. One of the intriguing asides of Mark about Jesus time in the wilderness is that he was comforted by wild animals. We are left to speculate exactly which wild animals these might be – but one mentioned by the Bible elsewhere (and suggested by the poet and writer Robert Graves) is the scapegoat.
In the times of the temple we read of a ceremony which happened each year on the day of Atonement in which a goat was led into the Temple where the High Priest would read out the sins of the people over the last year, ceremonially load them onto to the goat – then drive the goat out into the desert taking the sins with him….the origin of our word scapegoat. There is something curiously appropriate about Robert Graves’ suggestion that a goat whose only crime was to be thought of as a scapegoat be among those keeping company with Jesus in the wilderness.
Perhaps our modern equivalent of the scapegoat would be the political leader who is caught falling for that Oh so basic hard-wired temptation of responding to sexual urges outside the formal limits of marriage. The huge response in the media as a consequence of a public fall from grace, suggests the scapegoat mentality is alive and well.
Remember way back to the famous dynamic Televangelist duo, Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker. Did you ever read the mischievous response in doggerel by the irrepressible Allen Johnson Jr? This is a lightly edited version. (You will find the author’s original version in his book, a Box of Trinkets published by Premium Press)
Two TV great preachers called Jim
Claimed special connection with Him
But when push came to shove
The light from above
Turned out to be frightfully dim
The biological need to display is of particular interest to those of us in the Church because its lure brings us in direct confrontation with some of the most basic teachings of Christ. To return for a moment to the sometimes acerbic pen of Allen Johnson Jr……
“There are some astounding contradictions between Christ’s teachings and Christian religious services. In Matthew 6:1-6, we are admonished not to give or pray publicly. If you consider the taking up the collection as public giving (which it surely is) and hymns as musical prayer (which most of them are), then – taking into account all the long-winded prayers from the pulpit – two thirds of your average church service is directly contrary to Christ’s admonitions”
There is also great irony that the one we follow had deliberately turned his back on the temptation to display to achieve recognition and in the process rejected the normal trappings of prestige with possessions and finery – and yet somehow we behave as if he should best be honoured by ostentatious display. The peacock finery of many of those who lead worship, the magnificence of great Churches and cathedrals is indeed awe inspiring, but when Jesus has clearly shown that this is not in line with his message we may need to think again on how our obsession with such trappings impacts on the way we share his message with others.
This is not to imply we are going to find simple answers. We all have to work within the constraints of our own setting which includes the deeply embedded historical traditions over which we may well find we have little control. We also have to work with others who themselves are hardwired and have their own range of preferred responses to problems and situations as they arise. Knowing that others are similarly hardwired and that we all have very different imprinting should also make us less judgemental.
Maybe the real problem is that we are most comfortable with faith when someone moderates it for us on our behalf. We can look back and see how Jesus faced and overcame his personal temptations. This is not the same as assuming the same problems must be our problems in the twenty-first century particularly in a different cultural setting. If we were a little more keenly aware of the hard-wiring of temptation and what it means for the sort of world we currently face, perhaps following Jesus lead we might see a need to think how we too should best face our personal temptations – and then choose for ourselves a style of witness which reflects what we believe to be important.
(I would be particularly interested in feedback on the above because I am exploring the notion that what we call sin is in effect acting on preferred instinct when this course of action is considered harmful in its wider social context. This would mean that the notion of sin changes as the needs of society change??? There is also the more recent discovery that some people we call psychotic appear to have a different brain structure, which then raises the question as to whether they can always help what they do. Your thoughts please.)