Sunday, January 13, 2013

Traveling toward Hope and Freedom

When I think about how we decide what matters, how we determine which desires or goals are legitimate and worthy, which are destructive, or simply dumb, I’m struck by the odd confluence of confusing, conflicting theologies surrounding us. Our modern secular religions, often unstated, influence priorities and moral values in unexamined ways.

One theology, biological determinism, or “biodeterminism,”  insists we are no more than the sum of our genes, neurons, and biochemistry, simply acting out the unexplained impulses generated by internal physical processes. Our character and apparent choices are controlled by genetic disposition. We are, in every particular, “born that way”, and thus have no responsibility when we find ourselves eating to excess, drinking destructively, resorting to violence, using force for sexual gratification, compulsively desiring experiences, individuals, objects apparently denied us. We can’t help it. That’s who we are.

Somehow, I missed Richard Dawkin’s highly popular The Selfish Gene when it was first published in 1976. I was busy editing my college newspaper, playing field hockey, juggling two majors. I missed his description of the ways we’re enslaved by the “selfish molecules” that control our behavior:  
Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up their freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines. (The Selfish Gene, 19-20)
 The book was widely discussed, widely quoted, sold over a million copies, and has been translated into more than 25 languages. It was republished to great fanfare in 2006, and continues to serve as the sacred text of bio-determinism. 

While the science of genetic determinism falls consistently short of predicted outcomes, and repeated studies show that genetics influence but in no way determine sexual identity, intelligence, behavior, class, the creed continues to shape our moral dialogue: We are what we are. Change is not possible.

As Dr. Marvin Minsky, professor of cognitive science at M.I.T. explained in 1988:
According to the modern scientific view, there is simply no room at all for freedom of the human will. Everything that happens in our universe is either completely determined by what is already happened in the past or else depends, in part, on random chance. Everything, including that which happens in our brains, depends on these and only on these: A set of fixed, deterministic laws. A purely random set of accidents. (Society of Mind, 306).
Put doubt aside: there is no room for freedom of human will. None.  Everything is fixed.

Specific aspects of biological determinism are eagerly embraced by specific parts of the population: Surely homosexuality and transgender behaviors are genetically determined?  Research has repeatedly failed to discover the long sought “gay gene,” but identity politics holds firmly to the idea that homosexuality is fixed, despite significant evidence to the contrary.


Popular writer Tom Wolfe repeated the creed in a 2002 Duke Commencement address
[L]et's not kid ourselves. We're all concatenations of molecules containing DNA, hard wired into a chemical analog computer known as the human brain, which as software has a certain genetic code. And your idea that you have a soul or even a self, much less free will, is just an illusion. . . Your fate is preordained and if we had . . . enough data and sufficient parallel computers, we could predict everything you're going to do, including the fact that within the next 20 seconds you'll touch your forehead.   
In 2011, biologist and cheerleader for the “new atheists”, Jerry Coyne, explained in a USA Today forum:
“Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.. . .  The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we're characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we're puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.
--Dr. Jerry Coyne, (biologist, U. of Chicago)  
Do you believe it? Do they?

Studies in epigenetics, brain plasticity, and the ways behavior and experience can shape and reshape both brain and body long past adolescence undermine the foundations of deterministic doctrines.

According to the UK Council for Responsible Genetics:   
Biologists have known for a long time that gene expression is complex and DNA does not determine biology, let alone other characteristics of physical and mental health, behavior and intelligence. Nevertheless, over the years, the deterministic model that genes alone define biology has become enshrined as the prevailing paradigm. . . Why do scientists, with the full knowledge that various aspects of the cellular machinery and the environment work in cohort, continue to apply and propagate the DNA mantra? The motivations may be many, but chief among them is the simplicity of the "DNA is everything" model, and the outside commercial and scientific incentives available for such a focus. The application of DNA ideology has led to a problematic construction of race, sexuality, and intelligence, as seen through a lens of genetic determinism and has fostered the belief that for each of us our physical and mental well-being are pre-programmed and reflect the composition of our individual DNA. This scientific interpretation enhances a sense of inevitability and forecloses efforts at promoting social justice by presenting them as futile.”  
That word, "futile," haunts me. 

During the season of Epiphany, the dark time of the year, I find myself repeating John 1:5: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

What a dark world, when possibility is locked in the grip of invisible genes, when violence, war, infidelity, rape, abuse, addiction, poverty are guaranteed, and any hope of wisdom or grace is simply an illusion.

I think of the wise men, heading off in search of a new king, a new kingdom, drawn to the light of an unexpected star. What constricted world were they hoping to escape? What tyrant gods did they slip past as they traveled? 
Matthew’s story tells us of their encounter with ruthless, power-addicted Roman King Herod, of their exchange with tradition-bound Hebrew priests and scribes. Surely there were other constructs they left behind them: idols, kings, brutal practices assuaging lifeless gods.

I find myself wondering about the difficulties of the journey: long, risky passages over barren deserts, cold lonely nights, glaring sun. What doubts distracted them? What marauders threatened their success?

Yet they continued on. And isn’t that the journey of hope? Refusing to live in darkness, insistent on traveling toward the light. Hungry for something beyond “what is.”

I’ve heard, more times than I can count, “This is the way I am.”

Impatient, angry, tempted and twisted by desires, unable to connect with others, unable to focus, unwilling to think, fractured, unforgiving. “It is what it is.” “I am who I am.” “I was born this way.”

I find myself saying: “No.” Gently, sometimes. Then with more force: “No.”

We are not bound by our genes, determined by inner chemistry, trapped in a hard-wired narrative that leaves no room for change. We are not puppets of physical laws, unwilling agents of an inhumane agenda.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The refrain of light and freedom echoes through the story of the church.

We were slaves to sin: but set free.

We were slaves to law: set free.

We were slaves to the demands of bodies wired to eat too much, drink too much, reach for all that would destroy us: free.

We want it to be easy. Wave a wand. Say a magic word. But even the magi knew it wasn’t easy. It’s a journey, a long hard journey of obedience, prayer, longing, struggle. Setbacks. Defeat. Wrong turns. Painful encounters.

Good to have fellow travelers pointing us toward the light ahead.

Good to have the witness that’s gone on before, reminding us – the story isn’t over.

The story isn’t written in stone by uncaring, unthinking, selfish genes.

It’s written in love, in struggle, in longing for what's real and true and right
“I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  
On a long grey day, in a world weighted down with war, poverty, injustice, it's good to remember that change is possible, and to walk in the Light that promises hope and freedom.    
Journey of the Magi, James Jacques Tissot, 1897, France

This is the third of a series for the new year: "What Matters"
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