This past Tuesday, the title of a Frank Bruni op-ed piece in the New York Times caught my attention: A ‘Disgusting’ Yale Professor Moves On: How a target of students’ ire came to write a book about humanity’s transcendent goodness. The piece was about Nicholas Christakis, described by Bruni as “an intellectual rock star” for his scholarship and academic achievement, including a 2009 listing in Time magazine’s inclusion in list of the 100 most influential people. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and since 2013, Yale.
But, as Bruni writes:
…he is best known not for what he has accomplished but for what he absorbed: taunts and insults from furious Yale students who swarmed him in a campus courtyard one day. “You should not sleep at night!” one of them screeched, as he miraculously kept his cool, a mute punching bag. “You are disgusting!”
The incident that precipitated this encounter occurred at Yale in the fall of 2015
Christakis’s wife, Erika, who also taught at Yale back then, had circulated a memo in which she questioned a university edict against culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, suggesting that students could police themselves and should have both the freedom to err and the strength to cope with offense. She wrote that her husband concurred.
And all hell broke loose. Hundreds of students signed an open letter denouncing her and hundreds demanded that the couple be punished. There were protests. And when, in that courtyard, Christakis apologized for any pain that the memo had caused but refused to disavow its content. He was pilloried.
So imagine my surprise when an advance copy of his new book, to be published next week, arrived. Titled “Blueprint,” it’s no lament for the mess that we humans make of things. It’s an argument that we’re transcendently and inherently good — that we’re genetically wired for it, thanks to a process of natural selection that has favored people prone to constructive friendships, to cooperation, to teaching, to love. “For too long,” he writes in the preface, “the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness and cruelty. The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.”
The bright side? From a man who had students refuse to shake his hand at graduation; who lost friends among Yale’s faculty; and whose wife, a respected expert in child development, was so thoroughly ostracized that she had to leave the university?
In his interview, Christakis said that “few people realize that he listened to those students for more than two hours, and that they hadn’t intercepted and surprised him: He went out to meet them, knowing how angry they were. “I felt that I had to model the principles that I believed — which is that I am committed to free and open expression,” he said. “I hardly could cower in my house.”
Although he stayed calm — which he attributes to years of training in karate and its premium on self-control — he was rattled, deeply, by the encounter. He soon took his first sabbatical ever. He read books about equanimity in the face of injustice. “I did not want to become a different person,” he said. “I certainly did not want to become embittered.””
Many of us are aware of the complexity of our current society, where passions regarding the freedom of speech collide with the legitimate need of people and groups to feel respected and understood. But for the moment, I’m less focused on that dilemma than I am the age-old debate which takes place in philosophy classes, college dorms, and, oh yes, churches–over whether human beings are inherently evil or good. We could stop here and break into small groups and discuss, but I fear we might never reach consensus. We’ve got plenty of evidence of how wretched humans can be, but to take Christakis’ perspective, there is also plenty of evidence for the contrary position.
Yes, there are hideous wars and horrid leaders. But if that were the sum of us, how to explain all the peace and progress? Christakis urges a wide angle and the long view. “To accept this belief that human beings are evil or violent or selfish or overly tribal is a kind of moral and intellectual laziness,” he told me. It also excuses that destructiveness. “The way to repair our torn social fabric is to say: Wait a minute, that’s not quite right.” His reasoning, oversimplified, is this: Complex societies are possible and durable only when people are emotionally invested in, and help, one another; we’d be living in smaller units and more solitary fashions if we weren’t equipped for such collaboration; and human thriving within these societies guarantees future generations suited to them.
Christakis isn’t the first or only theorist to posit the inherent goodness of humanity or even the robust existence of virtue. But it is a bit of a hard sell in many instances.
As for the example of Christakis himself, the story of a man who knowingly walks into a situation of danger and a hostile crowd because of principal should sound familiar to us. Lent is a journey with Jesus who his face to go to a place where he will suffer and die.
In Luke’s gospel today, Jesus takes a somewhat rare definitive position by stating that bad things can happen to innocent people, and that the tragedies of life do not constitute punishment for bad behavior. That might be good news to some extent, except it seems to give us even less opportunity to control external forces to our lives. And then, Jesus makes the point, repeatedly, that we need to repent, otherwise all is lost. So, the presumption seems rather pessimistic. Then there’s the interesting parable of the infamous fig tree, which hasn’t shown much promise. Yet it is the gardener who negotiates the reprieve. And then pledges to nurture the tree. Throughout all the parables about redemption and salvation we find intertwined threads of urgency and patience, dread and hope.
The challenge in all of this is that we might still feel that our salvation is precarious and provisional. One false move and we’ve blown it! In 1st Corinthians, Paul has a whole list of things we can do that might put our salvation at risk, including complaining! In other places, he allows that it is really impossible for human beings to win salvation on our own, but only through the power of God. There is a theology of the cross which assumes that humankind is so depraved that the only way we could be saved is through God killing his son on the cross. But I think this idea misses the mark by a mile. Jesus does not substitute himself for us—he completely joins with us, even in death on a cross. You couldn’t have a starker example of the brutality, unfairness and capriciousness of life. Yet at the same time, cross and resurrection together reveal a transcendent quality to the drama of life, an option for hope over despair, and a calling to live beyond what we can often imagine
We can never escape the truth of human existence. We are dependent, vulnerable, and capable of doing great harm. Neuroscientists will tell us that at the base of our complex and amazing brains is an ancient “reptilian” core which gets activated all the time. It’s the center of the automatic “fight or flight” which can unconsciously sense danger and trigger us to respond for the sake of self-preservation. The instinctual part of us which prefers the company of our own tribe rather than the stranger. So, in one sense, we are selfish at the core of our being. But that’s only part of the story. Theologians from Thomas Aquinas to Karl Rahner and beyond have argued that we inherently have a capacity to grasp the transcendent—that we are existentially positioned to receive grace which is the self-communication of God’s love and power. We couldn’t aspire to holiness if we didn’t already have an inherent capacity to recognize the good. But we need to be “woke”—to be awakened to the reality of this power and possibility. In essence, not just to be our “better” selves but our “true” selves. In Jesus, God is trying to arouse us and nudge us forward.
Perhaps this is why we speak of “salvation” both as something which has already been accomplished as well as something yet to be fulfilled. All of creation is in God and all of God is in creation, yet we are still moving toward what Teilhard de Chardin called the “omega point,” the complete realization of Christ in love.
Of course, this is a position of faith. It is easier—perhaps safer—to put stock in the more pessimistic account. Most people remember bad experiences more vividly than good ones—unless we repress or dissociate them. This also appears to be rooted in our biology, perhaps another example of an instinct for self-preservation. But we also hold deeply rooted capacities for self-transcendence, sacrifice and loving-kindness. And we also need to be “fertilized” through encouragement and support from one another. We are rooted and grounded in love, that we might bear fruit, and be complete in God’s glory of creation.