The Ties that Bind

“Blood is thicker than water,” we say to indicate that family ties are deeper than any other human bond. This is often true even against our best efforts. In a time in which many people have conflicted relationships with their family, family obligations still manage to pull harder than any other.

But what is thicker than blood? A repeated theme in the NT is that bonds within the body of Christ supersede those of our families. Indeed, the image of the body—disparate parts held together in one whole—recalls Scripture’s affirmation that husbands and wives become “one flesh.” But what is it that binds us to one another as believers?

This is an important question in our current environment. Our society is increasingly described as “fragmented.” With the decline of community and the failure of family, people are desperately in search of collectives to be a part of. They turn to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or some other identity to find community. But these new collectives often fragment as quickly as they form, riven by yet more internal differences.

Like so many other areas of our lives, for many people today, what binds them to a church is nothing other than their choice. If they like the product being offered, accept the beliefs of the church, and have some affinity for a few others in the congregation, they will likely stay. For a while. With so little linking them with others, it is not surprising that people so easily separate from a congregation in search of a new one.

But what if something deeper is binding us? In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul urges the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Notice the two words regarding our connection: unity and bond. He goes on to specify wherein their unity was found: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (4-6).

The series of “ones” that we read here should give us pause in our casual attitude toward church affiliation. We are members of the one (body of) Christ. We are united in the one Holy Spirit. We are united by looking forward to one hope—the completion of God’s plan for humanity. We bow before the throne of one King. We all have faith in the same thing. We have been baptized into a single reality—the death and resurrection of Christ. We share a Father and so are one family.

One might claim that this is just talking about some hidden spiritual connection to the universal body of Christ. There is no doubt that this is true. But what use is something that we don’t feel or see and that has no material effect whatsoever? How should that “mystical, spiritual” reality manifest itself in our lives?

This deep, multi-faceted connectedness with the body of Christ should manifest itself in our relationship to our congregation and to individuals within it. It should be characterized by deep commitment to one another, shared joy and sorrow, generosity, and a great reluctance to quickly separate from one another.

What’s thicker than blood? Your “choice?” Or Gospel glue?

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Firm Foundations

From humble beginnings in the solitary study of bean plants by the Austrian friar Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the science of genetics has come to capture the imagination of our modern world, from the highest levels of science to the most casual cultural references. As we saw in previous articles, two psychologists studied how beliefs about the genetic basis of various conditions (e.g. sexuality, criminality, mental illness, and obesity) influenced people’s view of those conditions.* They showed that when people believe a condition has a genetic basis, they are more sympathetic and less judgmental of that condition. So far so good. But they also showed that belief in a genetic basis led people to believe that the condition was unavoidable. Our genes determine us.

This is just another version of an age-old discussion. Humanity has long wondered whether we are shaped more by our biology (nature) or our environment (nurture). This, in turn, is related to even deeper questions concerning whether our actions are truly free (autonomy), or if something—nature, biology, divinity—constrains us (determinism).

What study reveals is, that in believing that genes unfailingly produce certain conditions, people are accepting biological determinism; they accept that people’s choices about obesity or sexuality, are not free. They cannot help but experience these conditions. This is remarkable given our culture’s rhetoric about freedom and choice. In accepting a genetic explanation for behavior, it may occur to people that they, too, are subject to such genetic reduction.

Why do people so readily accept genetic explanations? As the authors make clear, it is manifestly not because “science” supports such conclusions. Very few of the most important things about us are simply the result of our genes; almost everything about us, from personality to disease, arise from a web of causes.

I believe genetic explanations are so appealing precisely because they seem to offer an explanation. They offer a reason behind otherwise inexplicable and uncontrollable things about us. For while we claim to prize freedom and autonomy, we also deeply want stable foundations for our lives. We are looking for security. But having rejected the rock of God’s character, we look for foundations in science, nature, and biology.

What is fascinating about this “genetic determinism” is that it reveals a willingness to sacrifice freedom in exchange for foundation. People will give up the power of self-determination for the “security” that being determined by their genes offers. In truth, we are caught. We neither like the guilt and shame that come from accepting responsibility for our behaviors nor the self-limiting that results from accepting our biology as determinative.

For the Christian, security and freedom are not opposed. True security is rooted in the goodness of a Creator God. True freedom is found in the call to live out the image of God as manifested in Jesus Christ. We need not sacrifice one for the other.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

Damned if you do…

In an earlier post I looked at an article* about the search for “genetic” roots of human behaviors and conditions. While such reports suggest that certain behaviors like homosexuality or depression are “natural” and therefore shouldn’t have any stigma attached to them (what the authors call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’), the truth is that genes just don’t work that way. Most conditions are not linked to single genes, nor is the presence of a genetic marker a guarantee that the condition will manifest itself. Environmental and behavioral factors matter.

As psychologists, the authors’ main interest is in how these reports of the genetic basis of various conditions influence attitudes toward those conditions and the people who experience them. They look specifically at attitudes toward sexual orientation, obesity, criminality and mental illness.† The results are thought-provoking.

In the case of sexual orientation, exposure to the idea that sexual orientation has a genetic basis reduced prejudice toward homosexuals. Similarly, people showed an increased sympathy toward those manifesting mental illness and obesity when given a genetic explanation for the condition. Claims of the genetic basis of criminal behavior reduced people’s assessment of the criminal’s culpability. In general, they show that believing that a condition has a genetic basis makes people more sympathetic to those experiencing those conditions.

While increased sympathy is good, the results were not entirely “positive.” The authors summarize their findings: “[A]rguments for underlying genetic contributions elicit more fatalistic reactions than arguments for underlying experiential factors” (809). That is, people believe that the presence of the genes leave sufferers with no choice in the matter. Criminals will commit crimes. The obese will be obese.

In the case of mental illness, the increased sympathy was offset by other, less favorable responses. When they believed that mental illness was genetic in origin, people were more likely to regard the mentally ill as dangerous and unpredictable. Further, for some respondents, the presence of a genetic marker for mental illness set the sufferers apart as a separate “diseased” group, distinct from the unafflicted.

These results concern the authors. They worry that this poor grasp of genetics could lead to abuse, such as the sterilization programs applied during the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, or the way genetic screening has resulted in the abortion of almost all babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

While that concern is real, I was struck by the dismal view of the human condition on display here. The Christian doctrine of original sin has been mocked as a low view of humanity. But this view of the genetic inevitability of disease, mental illness, and criminal behavior is far worse. While we do affirm that sin touches every part of who we are as humans, we also hold out the hope of salvation in this life and the glory of resurrection to the next one. Genetic determinism offers neither.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

Born that way? Not so fast…

Fairly regularly the media touts the latest medical discovery of the genetic basis for some disease or condition. When the news involves the genetic roots of illnesses, it is generally met with praise. When, however, the genetic basis of a condition with some moral overtone is in view, say, sexuality, alcoholism, or obesity, the responses are often mixed, especially among Christians. When the discovery of a “gay gene” is announced, supporters respond with acclaim and detractors dismay. Hey, if it’s genetic, it’s natural, and if it’s natural, it can’t be wrong, right?

In a fascinating article*, two professors of psychology, Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine, unmask the hype around such genetically based claims and expose the unhelpful responses these claims elicit. Several of their arguments are illuminating.

First, the authors point out that, contrary to the media’s presentation, most diseases and other heritable conditions are not “monogenetic” in origin, that is, their presence cannot be traced to a single gene. While there are a few such conditions, they are extremely rare.

Second, the article points out that for most genetically based conditions, the presence of the genetic marker is not causative, that is, merely having the gene does not guarantee that the person will manifest the disease or trait. Genes present a probability of the occurrence of a trait or condition, a probability influenced by environment and other factors.

These two points alone relieve much of the anxiety felt by Christians by so-called genetic proofs. Genes just don’t work that way. While there may be some genetic predisposition toward obesity, depression, or homosexuality, the presence of such a genetic marker does not destine the carrier to contract that disease or manifest that condition. We can’t say, “My genes made me do it!”

But even the idea that there is be some physical, genetic basis for behaviors that Scripture censures could be disconcerting for some, even if that basis isn’t determinative. However, this is where an understanding of the doctrine of sin is important. With humanity’s fall into sin, we should not be surprised to learn that a propensity to sin is embedded in us even at the deepest physical level. Scripture makes clear that while our body is not in and of it self a problem (as was held in some Greek philosophy), in its fallenness, our flesh is not on our side in the fight for purity and holiness. Paul testified to beating his body into submission because it did not want to behave as he knew it ought.

The upshot is this: Christians need not fear that further genetic discoveries will ultimately condone that which Scripture condemns. On scientific grounds we can say that no genetic reality on its own compels sinful behavior. Genes don’t work that way. On biblical grounds we understand that our propensity to sin is woven deep within us and should not be surprised to learn of genetic links to sinful living. All the more reason to proclaim with Paul, “Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25)

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

Binary Opposition

One of the terms that the transgender movement has popularized in contemporary speech is “binary” or more often, “non-binary.” The computer savvy may point out that the term had already infiltrated the vocabulary with the proliferation of computer jargon in the modern world. In computer terms, binary usually refers to the computer code made up of only two digits: 1 and 0. It is “bi-nary”, because there are only two (bi-) options. In the broader cultural discussion about sexuality, “non-binary” was first used to refer to people who did not identify exclusively with either of the two sexual behavior choices before them: heterosexual and homosexual. They rejected the tidy division of humanity into these two categories. Now the term is more frequently applied in talk of sexual identity and gender to refer to people rejecting the simplistic categorization of humanity into male and female. To be “non-binary” is to reject being simply labeled as male or female.

Much could be said about this state of affairs, but for now let us make an observation and a diagnosis. First, we should observe that these are not the first binaries to come under assault in our world. The spread of the theory of evolution broke down the binary between animal and human. There is no longer any hard break between animals and humans; we are merely the next link on a chain. Postmodern philosophical thinking has undone the strict binary of truth and falsehood and even between reality and irreality, suggesting that everything is a human construct. Society has similarly dismantled the binary of single and married. Of course, many still identify themselves as one or the other but the prevalence of premarital cohabitation, the practice of “serial monogamy”, and the general disconnection of love, sex, and child-bearing from marriage have all contributed to the creation of a range of relational categories. Other examples could probably be adduced.

How might we explain this rejection of binary thinking? I believe these high-profile rejections of either/or options exemplify deep dissatisfaction with other binaries over which we are powerless. Human existence, never mind Scripture, present us with key binaries that fundamentally label us as humans. There is the Creator-creature binary. There is the God-not god or Divine-human binary. There is the alive-dead binary. And we might add the spiritual alive/dead binary we call saved-not saved.

Sinful humanity is absolutely powerless to undo these binaries and so, is diametrically opposed to them. However, since we are totally powerless over them (despite our best efforts), we exert energy in either establishing our own binaries not underwritten by divine authority (e.g. master/slave, racial distinctions, and social classes) or, more commonly, seek to control or undo the binaries that God has ordained.

Humanity is desperate to control the terms of its own identity and, as the transgender movement reveals, is willing to head into absurdity to do so. By contrast, Scripture invites us to have our identity defined on God’s terms. That he will “make our name great” like he did for Abraham. That we can find our identity in Christ by sharing in his sufferings. That he will call us by his name. What he asks in return is that we embrace the ultimate binary—He is God and we are not—and live it out in daily worship.