We are Social Creatures — Not Selfish – Not Self Serving


We are made for community. We are made for love. Have no doubt it is hard for us to hear that message; hard mostly because we are constantly inundated with messages of individualism.  We are sold a bill of goods that we are self made, self reliant, and self important. We have, from a young age, learned to compete with others. While that sense of competition can serve us well, it can also cause us to leave others behind, or to be left behind ourselves, in a game whose stakes are very high; the game of life.

Vanier has written a lot about community. The above quote is one of my favorites of his because it is a reminder of why community is so very important. We all yearn for love. We yearn to love and to be loved. God reminds us through community that we are beloved, that we are not designed for loneliness. We are hard wired to be social, to assemble, and to work collectively to care for one another.

This week I cannot seem to get away from the message of community and how important it is that we come together. My reading keeps bringing it back. A friend forwarded an article in the New York Times entitled Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual. It is a great piece that emphasises the fact that we are social creatures.  In the article John Edward Terrell writes;

Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.*

We are not our best selves when we are just self! We are not designed to, nor have we evolved to, be focused on self. The self-serving and selfish individual is not the basic unit of human social life! This important message from the University of Chicago anthropologist can serve as a powerful reminder for us as Christians of who we are called to be. Terrell in fact writes about what he was taught by church as a child noting that he was taught about relationship to God and responsibilities to one another. He points out that while some Christians and evolutionists often are at odds, on the matter of social responsibility there is little light between the social teaching of Christianity and the work evolutionary scholarship. He concludes his piece with these powerful words: “We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today. Nor is this what the world’s religions would ask us to believe. Or at any rate, so I was told as a child, and so I still believe.”

This week I have also been reading Take this Bread by Sarah Miles. Raised an atheist, this journalist finds her way to Christianity and writes about how that tectonic shift in her life instructed how she would respond to people around her – especially those who hunger and thirst. She had, as a journalist seen much suffering and hunger before her so-called ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment. After coming to experience the power of community as expressed particularly in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Miles’ life became enriched not because of what she achieved, or accomplished in her own life, but instead by how she discovered ways and means to feed the hungry. She writes in her introduction:

At a moment when right-wing American Christianity is ascendant, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalist crusades and exclusionary ideology, I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action. What I found wasn’t about angels or going to church or trying to be ‘good’ in a pious, idealised way. It wasn’t about arguing a doctrine… the Virgin birth, predestination, the sinfulness of homosexuality and divorce… or pledging blind allegiance to a denomination. I was, as the Prophet said, hungry and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: at a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and the outcasts are honored.           …And so I became a Christian.**

Church Tree

When we get ourselves all spun out on arguments that serve no positive end, and when default to what divides us – we have succumbed to the materialistic and competitive messages that are not rooted in our story as a people of God.  Its at those times that I worry that we are cutting our own tree branches from below our own feet. The church is famously fractured into denominations, and even divided further within those denominations into parishes. With the pressures of being church today, parish leaders and members are becoming increasingly protective as all of our silos are threatened with tumbling in these days of decline. As Church we are not immune to the consumer messages of individualism and self preservation. I am convinced that they more stress we face and the more fear we have the more inclined we are to default to the position of preservation and protection. The danger becomes forgetting that we are a people whose message is rooted in the simple yet profound. Our material core bread, wine, body, blood, broken and shared. We are called to come together around the table – all of us. The outcasts and the despised are not just welcomed – but honoured.  We are in danger of forgetting that we have a responsibility to one another. Coming together is a sign to others that love is possible. We must never forget that God loves us and calls us repeatedly in scripture to come to one another.

We are approaching Christmas and the ads are rife with messages that say ‘I want that!’ Truthfully all of that consumer pressure revolving around the coming Holy season of Christmas is built on the notion of the self. It is a built on a lie. For the Christian – this is an outrage, the Incarnation is about anything but consumption and want. I urge us to heed the words of Terrell  “The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. I would add that it is fabricated to the benefit of a group that long ago figured out that they needed to look after one another – Corporations. We have a choice. The Christian lives in the hope and expectation of new life. We are a people who have a God of healing and of incarnation. We have been assured that God cares enough for us that God would come to us in our vulnerability and our fear. God dispels our darkness with Light and Life – Christmas. We might take time during Advent and Christmas to find ways to focus on other and not on self. This might be a time that we could enter into another’s vulnerability as Christ enters into ours. Let us renounce the fabrication of #IWantThat to embrace #WhatDoYouNeed #HowCanIHelp #ILoveYou #IForgiveYou

Please feel free to leave your thoughts by clicking the Comments button at the top right of this post.



*John Edward Terrell,  New York Times; Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual – http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/30/evolution-and-the-american-myth-of-the-individual/?emc=eta1&_r=0

**Sarah Miles Take the Bread, (New York, Ballentine Books, 2008)

2 thoughts on “We are Social Creatures — Not Selfish – Not Self Serving

Add yours

  1. Hi Revy Kevy,

    Peace Be With You.

    Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs came to mind. Ones needs of food, shelter, clothing — basic needs of self must be fulfilled before we can progress to ask what another person needs or wants. These are contained on the base of the triangle — physiological and safety needs. From my personal experiences in recent years I believe this to be very true. If one experiences any real or perceived threats, a person cannot effectively progress to social needs.

    In Christ, Wanita Harris.

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