The following is a transcript of a talk I gave to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County at their Sunday Service on 4-10- 16. It is their custom for speakers to begin with a children’s story, after which the children leave the main congregation for Sunday School. I chose a selection from A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.” This is the reason for my reference to Winnie the Pooh in my talk below. The talk itself is available as a podcast at www.UUFDC.org
Some of you may recall that when I was here last June I discussed how what the poet William Blake called “mind forged manacles” get in the way of finding a path through the present crisis we face. The litany of violence, displacement, starvation and looming human, economic and environmental catastrophe has only become more pronounced since I spoke here last June.
I argued then and have argued in my book, New World Disorder that we are in the throes of an historic global capitalist crisis in which the system in its present form is not capable of generating enough value to feed, cloth, house, educate, and care for the world’s population. And any possible short term “solutions” face a critical contradiction. On the one hand, they are tied to economic growth that accelerates the deterioration of the eco system. On the other hand, the threat to survival due to the need for even more economic growth has put us into a state of perpetual war and ongoing and growing hatred of others. We are in an age of anger, fear and loathing. The disturbing trends that are before us daily are what I have termed “churning and flailing” as the system and the people of the world are desperately attempting to find a way out of the mess.
Alexander Saxton’s fine book, Religion and the Human Prospect, sees this crisis as potentially ending human life altogether or driving us into the teeth of barbarism—a “Mad Max” world (if you saw that undeserving, cheesy, academy award winning film). Saxton sees a potential future which drives us toward ecological burnout and/or nuclear and biological self destructive war. In my book, New World Disorder, I suggested a wide range of possibilities just short of Saxton’s dire predictions. But most of the outcome scenarios in my book simply postpone Saxton’s notion of where we are heading.
A more hopeful notion, however, that I laid out last June, is that we have the possibility, and I think the obligation to, contribute to a positive alternative that could end war, ecological destruction and construct a society based on human need. In such a world the full and free development of each and every human being is the point of society, the ruling principle if you will. But we have to leave behind what is considered pragmatic to envision such a society and fight for its existence. This would mean throwing off our mind forged manacles, including those represented by “human nature.”
My critics have argued with me that I am a hopeless “romantic,” and I have been sneeringly called an “idealist.” One politically conservative and thoughtful friend kindly said last June’s talk and the essay that followed was “eloquent” but failed to come to terms with “human nature.” “I believe,” he said, “that human beings are hard wired in such a way that what you propose is humanly impossible. You are ignoring human nature– human nature as articulated by James Madison in the Federalist Papers at the founding of this nation.” One person from this congregation said to me after the June talk, “War is the default position. It always has been.”
These remarks started me thinking and I began to work on a new essay: Is “Human Nature” a Barrier to a World Without War, Environmental Destruction and Inequality.” Today’s message is a sharing of my thinking on this to date. My thinking has led me to believe that there is no such thing as a biologically or divinely based human nature that cannot be changed. Today’s form of “human nature” has developed out of the needs of our political and economic system to survive. The institutions we have built – government, corporations, technology, and religion in their present form have generated and are protected by the perpetuation of human nature as we know it. These institutions and those who control them perpetuate human nature in its present form to preserve what is and their position in society. And this has been true throughout history.
For this reason, what we consider human nature today can always be changed. Historically, the basis for a change in human nature has been within the dominant view of what human nature is at any given time when it contradicts higher aspirations of humankind. And I believe that contradiction is beginning to appear today.
Finding the new within the old is an important task and we can catch of glimpse of the possibilities through the eyes of children who have not yet been schooled in what their nature is. In the musical “South Pacific,” Lieutenant Cable and Nellie muse on the prejudice and bigotry of people in the U.S. They sing a song called “You’ve got to be Taught.” One verse that sticks with me is this (I’ll spare you my singing it):
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the folks, your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Last June at this gathering I read a snippet from the Carl Sandburg poem The People, Yes.
In the poem a little girl was viewing her first troop parade with her father.
What are those?”
“What are soldiers?”
“They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill as many of the other side as he can.”
The girl held still and studied.
“Do you know…I know something?”
“Yes, what is it you know?”
“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”
The father was dismissive of his little girl that she could know about soldiers and war. Where could she possibly learn at her young age to the point that she knew something…something that he did not know…about war and peace, about human nature.
Many believe, like the father in Sandburg’s poem, that war is part of our nature and the idea of a war to which no one will come is unthinkable. Hatred, bigotry and evil are also seen as an inevitable part of human nature, which makes war inevitable and shapes the activities and form of government, corporations, today’s technology systems and even institutional religion.
A question is: Do we believe what the protagonist in Chris Cleve’s popular novel, Little Bee, states that “Evil has had the whip hand in the world ever since Cain…Evil is not going to be vanquished. Our job is to resist it…so goodness never entirely vanishes from the universe.”?
Is this the best we can do? I don’t think so.
So I turned to Winnie the Pooh. Because, seen as a fable, it was originally and continues to be a component of our culture that is counter to prevailing views of human nature.
Christopher Robin, the little boy in Winnie the Pooh was, in addition to a character in the Pooh stories, the son of the author of this series, A.A. Milne. Milne apparently decided that his son Christopher did know something. And the adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Roo, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit and Christopher taught us as children and adults what that something is.
Milne’s stories included a philosophy of hope and love, in which a little boy and his toys with small hearts and weak brains could treat one another with love and respect. They offered an alternative to the prevailing human nature being experienced at the time these stories were written. The first publication of Winnie the Pooh came in 1926 when the world had witnessed the First World War, a war that Milne had opposed and the same war that prompted Carl Sandburg’s poem, The People, Yes and the little girl’s vision of a war where no one would come.
The 1920s were termed by the writer, Bill Bryson in his book One Summer in America: 1927, “an age of loathing.” “Bigotry,” he said, “was casual, reflexive and well nigh universal…There may never have been another time in the nation’s history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason” (Sounds a bit like today!)
In the U.S. the 1920’s was a period when we saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan which had been moribund for some time. It’s view of human nature caused Klan members to hate nearly everyone except WASPS like themselves. (The hatred of Klansmen here in the Midwest was focused particularly on Catholics and Jews. I doubt they would have cared much for Unitarians either). The 1920’s in the U.S. was a time of brutal suppression of Black people. In Chicago there had been a race war in 1919. 38 people died, 23 of whom were African American.
Internationally and in the U.S. the 1920s was a time of surging anti Semitism. It was a time where science came up with a rationale for all of this hatred, the notion, based on Darwin, of Eugenics. Eugenics offered the “hope” of the scientific cultivation of superior beings. They would be descended from a race called Nordics that included all those who came from Northern Europe (excluding Irish who were considered to be an inferior race). Proponents of Eugenics not only wished to encourage Nordics to mate with each other and raise the level of humanity, but many wished to stop “inferior” beings from expanding through forced sterilization. (Bryson estimates that 60,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the U.S. during the 1920s. And this view of human nature persisted until Hitler took it to its logical conclusion.)
Against this view of “progress” through the aegis of a superior race and hatred of all others we see the option posed by Christopher Robin and his toys. The stories were based on the views of the real Christopher, a child who knew something. How diverse can you get where a group of friends includes a little white boy, a mentally challenged bear, a donkey constantly struggling with depression, a smarty-pants rabbit, a baby pig, a tiger, a kangaroo mother and her baby and a know-it- all owl. Not only were they friends, but they loved and actively helped each other through difficulties by using their own unique talents to make up for physical and emotional challenges of the others. No sign of hatred, selfishness or notions of a superior race in these fables. The stories offered a vision that ran contrary to the dominant view of human nature—through the eyes of a child and a bear. How far removed was the world of Pooh and Christopher Robin from this age of loathing!
But contrary visions of human nature were not limited to children’s stories and toy animals. In the 1920s there was also an active counter culture and political movements that challenged the dominant human nature personified not only by the Klan but a variety of acts of bigotry and repression. The reason such movements arose was that the prevailing hate, fear and loathing and actions stemming from it ran contrary to aspirations that were deep inside of many people.
The same is true today. The young activists involved in the Occupy struggles have taken a number of different tacts. They still defend the rights of the 99%. They have formed and support the notion that “Black Lives Matter.” They see the possibilities of health care for all, free education, housing as a human right. There are community activists who attempt to improve their communities. Are they hopelessly naïve? I think not.
I recently saw a lovely video that was making the rounds of the internet. It seems that a group of young people decided to conduct an experiment by staging some scenarios of people having difficulty in public to see how the public would respond. In one, a middle-aged woman (an actor) was carrying heavy shopping bags loaded with groceries along a busy street. Then suddenly a rude man (also an actor), busy talking on his cell phone crashed into her causing her to drop the bags spilling groceries all over the street. He moved on pretending not to even notice what he had done. Some people simply looked the other way and kept going, pretending not to see her. But one man, who was simply a bystander and unaware of the experiment, immediately came rushing up to her helping her to her feet and began picking up the groceries. The actors, who were conducting this experiment, surrounded the kind man and serenaded him with a beautiful song thanking him for his kindness. They did several other staged acts that led to both indifference and kindness. In each case the person spontaneously engaging in a simple act of kindness seemed to be embarrassed by the attention he got and gave the singing youth a bewildered smile that seemed to say: “Wouldn’t anyone do this?”
The answer, of course, is no. But the question the video raised for me is this. Which of the acts of the people in these scenarios represented what we call “human nature?” Were they those engaged in acts of kindness or those who ignored and actively avoided a fellow human being in distress? I concluded: neither. It is my view that there is no such thing as a human nature that will guarantee kindness, cruelty or anything in between. So if we want to live in a world where kindness prevails over any other inclination, we have the opportunity to contribute to the creation of such a world. Perhaps this is what the people who made the film were trying to do.
But what of my friend who argued that we were hard wired to be evil and cruel as some of the founding fathers of the U.S. argued when they wrote the constitution and “The Federalist Papers”? A discussion of the Federalist Papers, which were written in the late 1770’s to promote the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, including their specification of “human nature,” needs to be informed by the political context of both the Federalist Papers and the Constitution.
The framers of the constitution and those with the right to ratify the constitution were all men of property. Some even had slaves. Women, indigenous people, slaves and free black people of African descent were specifically excluded from the process. So the language of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers written to promote ratification of the Constitution did not apply to them. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers. Their vision of a democratic republic in the form of the United States of America was grounded on a specific view of human nature that fortified their position in society. Being good Christian Protestants, their basis was an interpretation of the doctrine of original sin. All human beings, in this view, were both evil and good. And if left strictly to their own devices, evil would likely prevail.
In Federalist #51, Madison stated: “But what is government itself but the greatest reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary…In framing government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and then in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Human nature in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution interpreted the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the story of Cain and Able in a specific way. All humans in this view were tainted by original sin. But the founding fathers chose not to apply this to the potential for abuses of the slave holder to his slaves or even of husbands to their wives. So it was hardly a universal interpretation. Rather, their particular take on “original sin” served to protect the property rights of our founding fathers from the English monarchy and from what they viewed as the dangerous factions among the U.S. colonists.
The doctrine of original sin itself was not specifically included in the bible but evolved in a particular political context. The theologian Matthew Fox got tossed out of the priesthood and eventually left the Roman Catholic Church by insisting in his book, Original Blessing, that the doctrine of original sin was politically motivated and continues to be so. “Saint Augustine, whose influence has lasted for some 1,600 years in the Western Church, is the one who taught that the sin committed by Adam and Eve condemned all future humans to being born into a state of sinfulness.”
“It’s no coincidence that Augustine lived in the fourth century, which is when Christianity took over the Roman Empire. If you are going to run an empire, original sin is a useful idea, because it keeps your subjects confused about whether they even have a right to exist…When you’ve tied yourself in knots about whether you’re deserving or not, you fall into line. You seek approval from outside authorities. You do as you’re told. You subjugate others in the name of Christ, which is what the Christian empire has been doing for centuries. You buy indulgences, or deny your sexuality, or override your pacifism – all to keep from going to hell. So it serves a political purpose to teach original sin.”Much of our notion of human nature is grounded today in this doctrine of original sin.
That is not to say we don’t have some biological aspects of our behavior. There are some behaviors we share with all animals on Earth. As Alexander Saxton points out in his book Religion and the Human Prospect: “Human beings (like most other organisms) come equipped, in case of immediate threat to life, with biological responses…The adrenalin flows, teeth clinch, hair bristles, legs begin to run, hands grasp for weapons.” If we or our children are threatened, we tend, as the poet Robert Bly once stated, to go into “our animal brain.” In response to children being burned by napalm during the Vietnam war, Bly stated:
“If one of those children came toward me with both hands
in the air, fire rising along both elbows,
I would suddenly go into my animal brain,
I would drop on all fours, screaming,
My vocal chords would turn blue, so would yours,
It would be two days before I could play with my own children again.”
But the poet here makes it clear that these reactions would cause us to go into our “animal brain.” And this suggests that these visceral responses to danger to our survival or to children generally are not examples of “human nature” but pure animal instinct.
The essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson in her essays titled The Death of Adam, critiques Darwin for making no distinction between human beings and other forms of life. In the work of Darwin and his many followers there is no such thing as what Robinson calls “human exceptionalism.”
She argues that: “If we act from a sense of justice, or from tact or compassionate imagination, then we put the impress of our own sense of things on the external world…There are rewards in experience for generosity… because it is appropriate to our singular dignity as creatures who can act freely, outside the tedious limits of our own interests.”
Alexander Saxton, develops Robinson’s notion of “human exceptionalism” further by noting that human beings have developed unique institutions that open up the possibility of putting what Robinson calls “the impress of our own sense of things on the external world.” These institutions include government, science and religion. Both government and science, Saxton argues, are geared today to preserving a failing system – that needs economic growth greater than what it takes to feed, cloth, house and care for the people of the world. And economic growth, even at its present inadequate rate, is destroying the planet while its failure to attend to human needs is generating perpetual war. This is the kernel of the grand contradiction we face. And institutional religion is likewise tied to the system by accepting and promoting “human nature” limitations to solutions to these critical issues that are based on the doctrine of original sin.
The hope lies in the fact that the limitations on human nature that are evident every time we turn on the news and hear a political debate or look at the spectacle of murderous behavior in the form of war, street killings or police violence– – are not permanent. What we see as human nature is capable of change but we must see changing human nature as a task to be done. Science and government can be forcibly put into the service of a world organized around principles of the highest expressions of “human exceptionalism,” to use Robinson’s term. Yet we have reached a point where the deep economic/social crisis we are in has caused us to enter a new age of loathing where hate seems to rule.
But we do have choices. And those choices are not confined to the perpetual election cycle, public policies, or today’s manifestations of human nature that take the form of mutual loathing. The novelist and essayist, Arundhati Roy, speaks of the failure of our imaginations and our:
“…failure to replace the idea of flags and countries with a less lethal Object of Love. Human beings seem unable to live without war,” she says, “but they are also unable to live without love.
So the question is what shall we love?” My overall message this morning is this. We do have the power to find within today’s chilling manifestations of human nature a path to changing human nature itself. And we can choose between the human nature represented by the rhetoric of many of the politicians who are running for office or we can embrace the vision of Christopher Robin, the poet, Carl Sandburg and the essayist Arundhati Roy by replacing hate, flags and countries with, in Roy’s words, the less lethal Object of Love.” Making that choice is a place to start to exercise the power we have within us.
The recording of this event can be heard at: http://uufdc.org/?sermons=is-human-nature-a-barrier-to-a-world-without-war-environmental-destruction-and-inequality