For many, the experiences of the past year have forced a reckoning with the idea of human progress. Our isolation, along with the seemingly unending bad news, has bred a sense of meaninglessness. Some are losing faith in American democracy, “eco-despair” has become a common phrase, while others are asking “Are we becoming victims of our own success?”
The ability to cooperate in groups is a significant reason for the success of Homo sapiens. We’re good at protecting our young and surviving to the next generation, but our vision for thriving is often limited to our “tribe” and to the short-term.“It is our very creativity, our extraordinary ability as a species to organize ourselves to solve problems collectively, that leads us into a trap from which there is no escaping,” writes journalist Ben Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich asked scholars who study the rise and fall of civilizations whether the events of 2020 were pointing toward possible societal collapse. Scholars note that at some point, the perils of complex societies outweigh the benefits. It becomes harder and harder to incorporate diversity into an overarching social narrative and eventually the seams start to rip. Central governments or empires splinter into petty states. Tribal factions resurface.
Our brains and today’s world
The dilemma of becoming a victim of our own success confronts not just societies, but the human species as a whole—now more than ever. We’ve marshalled the tools of science to improve human life—both in quantity and quality. Now, if we have the money, we can buy whatever creature comfort we want, travel wherever and whenever, and control the inside climate. But those same successes, left unchecked, have devastated the earth that we depend on. Plastics and industrial waste pollute our air and water and threaten wildlife. Carbon emissions continue to rise, even as scientists repeatedly sound alarms. “Will our advanced intelligence,” asks biologist Nathan Lents, “prove to be our biggest asset or our biggest flaw?”
Lents notes that the human brain hasn’t changed in 12,000 years, so it is essentially adapted to the Pleistocene life of hunter-gatherer tribes. Yet since then our societies have changed dramatically. We’ve gone from living in roving bands of 150 or so people to a global, interconnected society of billions. But our brains are still wired to identify with a small group—our tribe—and draw lines between “us” and “them.” In the tribal setting, we also learned to trust the power of anecdote and what “our people” told us about how the world works. These tendencies play out as cognitive biases, writes Lents, including confirmation bias (interpreting new evidence in ways that support our existing beliefs) and anchoring bias (giving more weight to the first piece of information we receive). They served as important mental shortcuts that allowed an early human to make sense of the world without needing to find out everything firsthand.
But today, these mental adaptations keep many of us from recognizing the evidence of climate change or systemic racism, keep us from questioning the stories we’ve been told. But what enabled us to survive thousands of years ago is undermining our ability to adapt and survive today. When we come up against information that contradicts what we’ve been told by trusted authorities, such as parents or pastors, instead of weighing the evidence and considering that the truths we were first taught might be incomplete, we often ignore the new information. It’s too uncomfortable to sit in the tension of conflicting realities. For many, the events of 2020 have become a place of rupture between the stories we’ve been told and what we see happening before our very eyes. This is a scary position—turning from what we thought we knew and scanning unknown territory, not knowing what lies ahead.
Yet I believe we have humanity’s greatest resource for our uncertain times—in the person of Jesus Christ.
Hope in the person of Jesus
What does it mean to be human? Are we just selfish creatures pitted against ourselves in a survival of the fittest contest, or pitted against other lifeforms to stay at the top of the food chain? As we face the very real possibility of becoming victims to our own survival success, it is abundantly clear that we must find another way—a way beyond “my tribe versus your tribe,” or “humans versus everything else on earth.” Our ability to orchestrate collective action to prioritize our needs has ended up undermining our flourishing, because we’ve believed survival to be a zero-sum game. We take and take, because we believe that what we don’t take others will—to our loss. We’ve put our own interests first, because we haven’t seen how our interests are tied to the interests of others outside our tribe, even to others outside our species.
But Jesus, the God-man and our fullest example of humanity, shows us another way. Instead of drawing the line between himself as divine and us as not, he identifies with us. He makes our plight his own. He gives his own life, because he knew there was a “deeper magic” (as C.S. Lewis put it) beyond the dog-eat-dog situation we find ourselves in. Jesus shows us the possibility of a different world order, with a different set of inputs and outputs. In Christ’s kingdom, “the last are first, weakness is strength, and servants become rulers. Sharing our resources results in their multiplication, and depending on others reinforces, rather than diminishes, our dignity,” I write in my book Hurting Yet Whole.
Pandemic fatigue makes it harder to hold onto the promise of this upside-down kingdom. The human species, at times, seems hell bent on outcompeting all other life on earth, until there is no life underneath us on the food chain to sustain our own. The promise of Christ’s kingdom does not erase the fact that there are grim challenges ahead.
Yet we see from the gospel that God can make something new out of the death. In Christ’s resurrection, we learn how to be truly human. He shows us that evolving and adapting to our current challenges is not about outcompeting or outsmarting the rest. Competition may be an evolutionary mechanism, but biologists have also found evidence of cooperation—including dying trees “sacrificing” carbon to nearby trees of different species through underground mycorrhizal networks—as an equally central strategy. It seems that the plants have long known the truth Jesus spoke of, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:14).
And so, let us live into our full humanity, as Jesus modeled. As some hoard resources and power, ignoring the reality of our ailing planet, let us instead share what we have. Let us face the potential unraveling of our society head on, clear-eyed. Let us acknowledge our imminent death. Let us give our time, money, and talent sacrificially for the good of our communities, the most vulnerable, and this earth that God calls good. We can do so because we trust in something deeper than competition, deeper than progress—resurrection.