Lectionary Sermon for February 22 2015, Lent 1, Year B (on Mark 1: 9-15)

Hard-wired for Temptation
The writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus who we now talk of as the Son of God, started out by spending more than a month in the wilderness struggling with his temptations.   In the well ordered atmosphere of a Church service I wonder if we sometimes forget that Jesus must have had to deal with some real life problems  in his own life – and for that matter our church attendance wont count for much unless it has something to do with the way we have faced up to our real life problems .

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 apparent observer’s detail for events where he could not conceivably have been present as a witness. Talking about Jesus 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.   It is also interesting to note that some of his observations fit rather nicely with what today’s scientists tell us about the nature of the human.

The first is the left-field idea is that even someone as good as Jesus should face genuine temptation. This may not quite fit the way we often use high sounding religious expressions of praise in our worship but it fits very nicely the modern finding in psychology that all humans are “hard-wired” for “temptation”.  I want to step outside todays gospel reading and think for a moment about this  so called hard wiring because it might remind us that it isnt just about Jesus if we too have to face inevitable temptations.   The hard wiring idea comes because the scientists tell us that at one stage the time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Skills for survival in those days would be anything but gentle living.

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.

Take the willingness to resort to action including violence when threats emerge.  In those early days violence would have removed the competition.   We dont have have to look far to notice that many of us still organise our lives to deal with competition. Enemy recognition in a primitive setting included recognizing who looked and behaved differently, so that we know who is with us and who isnt.  Isnt it true that prejudice appears to be built into society with deep suspicions shown to neighbours who are different.   Again a universal human temptation – and unfortunately one which has played out every time people we dont like gaining power.  At present there are serious hotspots in the Ukraine, in Nigeria, Libya, Iraq and many more besides. Think ISIS, think the rejection of homosexuals, think prejudice against the Jews or new immigrants.

Remember there is 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. It maybe biology, but when a pupil from a well known high school lashes out and king-hits a bus driver (the Herald said his eye socket was fractured) you can see why it doesnt always do to follow instinct.   Yet many do. At its worst we see out of control drunken students rioting in Dunedin.  We see blind rage unleashed in football and race riots, domestic violence and squalid wars. In New Zealand typically the police record more than 30,000 call outs to domestic violence incidents each year where children are present – and more worryingly they have calculated they are only called to about 18% of the offences.    I also understand that in the USA  social scientist have calculated on average somewhere in America there is an incident of domestic violence once every 9 seconds.  Humans are a violent species.

Back in history for a small and genuinely threatened population, the aggressive responses may 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 rightly seen as anti social and must be restrained. 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.

Unfortunately some temptations we all face can’t be easily disregarded because of these inbuilt biological triggers.   However we have to be alert to those biological triggers and the part they play in our many temptations.   Because we all live different lives I cannot – and indeed I shouldnt tell you what temptations impact on your lives.    Thats the sort of thing we each have to work out for ourselves.   I would simply suggest as a species many simply dont bother to examine their own situation and as a consequence and and at regular intervals people behave in shocking ways towards each other.

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 public be-headers, we call upon our side to respond to ensure that our enemies are punished with much worse. The innocent bystanders can be overlooked because what we support is government sanctioned violence…which is of course claimed to be righteous!!

How many here remember a move to compensate those amongst our troops exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam – while nothing was done about the innocent civilians whose suffering was infinitely worse.

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 in ourselves. 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.

One very common 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. Some months ago the huge response to a well known local mayor as consequence of a public fall from grace, suggests the scapegoat mentality is alive and well.

Scapegoats are also found in the ranks of the Church. 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

To return to the temptation of the biological need to display. This 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……  He said and I quote:
“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

If we must use public prayer we must at the very least choose our words carefully.

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 Jesus rejected the normal trappings of prestige with possessions and finery – and yet somehow we often 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 because 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 judgmental.

Maybe the real problem is that we are most comfortable with faith when we treat it as a spectator sport….and have someone do it for us on our behalf. We can look back and see how Jesus faced and overcame his personal temptations, and we can criticise our leaders when they fall short but that doesn’t mean we have faced our personal temptations. Nor are reading about the Bible times and places the same as assuming nothing has changed now we are 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.


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3 Responses to Lectionary Sermon for February 22 2015, Lent 1, Year B (on Mark 1: 9-15)

  1. dave says:

    Near the beginning of the essay is this: “The hard wiring idea comes because the scientists tell us that at one stage the time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Skills for survival in those days would be anything but gentle living.”

    I take issue as this being the cause of the supposed tendency toward temptation. I feel the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, in its description of human evolution over the past 10000 years or so, also somewhat describes what follows, though this is my interpretation of the concept.

    Man is a social being just like many others, including chimpanzees, whales, elephants. Even ants and dogs can exhibit certain social behaviors.

    Our social nature is driven by empathy, our innate capacity to relate to others, to consider their feelings, to imagine being in their place. This nature means we are always comparing ourselves with others, that our status is judged in relation to that of others.

    As far as I can imagine in very ancient times, when the global human population was small there must have been small groups of families or tribes. If there were not multiple families to work together then individuals would have succumbed to any number of challenges while never having offspring. By working together the families could succeed where individuals cannot. Some could hunt or gather a crop, while others tended the children, or worked on housing/clothing/etc., or perhaps even recovered from an illness.

    In these tribes there would have been little temptation – every one was living in the same conditions. Each valued the trust and respect of the others, for their own survival as well as the group. Anyone violating the trust or another (like a lie or a theft) would be immediately noticed by the group. There was never a need for a policeman in such small communities because everyone knew everyone else. Trust was implicit. Punishment for misbehaviors, if appropriate, would probably be immediate for the community to maintain cohesion, or else those misbehaviors would damage the social health of the community, probably leading to its disintegration.

    As communities grew in size, it was no longer possible for everyone to know everyone else. When conflicts arose between strangers, a policeman or a judge (someone impartial or objective) was required to manage the conflict resolution because the strangers did not have that implicit trust and respect between the relatives or close friends to be found in the much smaller community.

    As communities grew in size, different capabilities or disabilities would result in some inequalities, as now not everyone shared in exactly the same manner. Some might be better at the hunt and then in fairness get a little more food than the others. Some who might be less capable (shorter, slower, less coordinated, etc.) would still get a share but in fairness those providing more effort to the community might get a little more than those providing less effort. Someone with the personality to take charge and control might seek a little more as a result of such management skills.

    Our ‘hard-wired’ nature is still to always compare ourselves with others. Our perception of differences and inequalities will be managed differently by each person, whether by the extent of their altruism or by their present mood (like happy or depressed) or condition (poor or rich or middle class).

    As populations have grown, communities now present to each of us the local groups of more familiarity (family, neighbors) as well as the many other groups of little familiarity – strangers.

    Each of us behaves in relation to the others around us, but we also must look after ourselves, our own survival. If the community is not cohesive, then there is less of the tendency to work for the benefit of others but instead more of the tendency to work only for ourselves. When becoming more self oriented, one will probably become more tempted to push the boundaries of behavior, to take advantage of others who are less important to our own survival.

    I suggest many of our social problems characterized here as the inevitable ‘temptation’ arise out of our disintegrating communities and the other social structures (like authoritarian corporations), rather than people just behaving like lizards (which are not social creatures) as if that is our nature.

    Political leaders and religious leaders also emphasize the evil in others, to divide and conquer different groups, to take advantage of our basic nature to defend ‘our’ own social group from attack by others – a tendency that would have also been rooted in the survival of those most ancient tribes and communities.

    Our genetic heritage suggests each person always relates to others, not always for evil behavior. Any observed tendency toward evil temptation is based on the social pressures to suppress that local community cohesion, to emphasize divisive comparisons (like advertising) rather than the beneficial social bonds. When taking this interpretation, the many evil behaviors observed take on a different meaning, rather than this ‘lizard brain’ concept.

  2. peddiebill says:

    You may be at least partly right. I certainly dont think all natural behaviour is bad, yet the notion of nature red in tooth and claw is also another dimension for which there is plenty of evidence. I would have thought that the notion of this being bad is likely to be a modern concept because when resources are limited those who are beligerent are better able to take a survivable share. I have actually read the book you refer to and I agree that this is another dimension to what happens in practice.
    Ants I do know because I have watched rival ant colonies do ferocious battle outside my house when we lived in New Guinea. They might be social amongst similiar ants but there was little sign that the red ants got on with the black ants I watched. Chimpanzees I only really know from reading but there again I have read about natural behaviour where dominance and agression is displayed between rival groups. I presume this is at least partly innate. I need to read more before I can begin to understand how common this is in some other species (eg whales and elephants) but packs of wild dogs are certainly a problem if they are left entirely to their own devices.
    I remember from my studies in psychology that quite a range of behaviour seems automatic given the right stimulus and I think it plausible that this is built into brain biochemistry. The lizard brain concept is not a new one and certainly fits what is observed in common structure between species as well as characteristics of behaviour like fight or flight, like making oneself appear bigger eg cats (and teachers drawing themselves up when dealing with difficult classes).

    • dave says:

      I will never claim to be completely right but I was put off by the ‘hard wired for temptation’ which gives the impression it is natural to be evil. In so many things in life and nature, there are opposites, like light/dark, high/low, good/bad, sometimes summarized as yin and yang. There is certainly much violence in nature, where life is continually in a fight for survival. Mankind is different because with our larger communities now most individuals are typically no longer in a fight for survival but are instead in a daily struggle away from misery and toward comfort.
      I suspect that for many people there are also opposite tendencies when dealing with others, like those who are quick to react to violence/dominance in a conflict while others are slow to violence but instead first seek compromise or some type of negotiation. Mankind’s two closest relatives are the bonobos who are very peaceful and the chimpanzees who tend toward violence. Sometimes it seems mankind is a hybrid mixture of the two, with some extent of the people tending toward one or the other (peaceful vs violent). I remain hopeful for mankind where if the social bonds were emphasized throughout society, including from childhood, people might actually behave better and the extremes we see today would be suppressed ‘naturally’ by that different social dynamic – different than that found today where the individual is emphasized, as that dynamic makes political control so much more easier (divide and conquer, among the less cohesive groups).

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