January 28, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Choose this day whom you will serve.
You don’t know if you’re more enthralled by his intellect or his coiffure. Robert Sapolsky is a renowned professor of biological and neurological science at Stanford University. He has spent years analyzing the behavior patterns of baboons, and his research has focused in the domain of primatology.
Sapolsky is also a self-proclaimed strident atheist, sans the acrimonious air typified by Richard Dawkins. Yet in a recent commencement address, Sapolsky appealed to theology as the basis for his argument for the uniqueness of the human race.
He devoted most of his address to establishing the commonalities of humans and other primates. Aspects of human behavior like culture, cultural transmission, communication, empathy, and aggression were all shown to have complements within other primate species. All that distinguished humanity was the degree to which those aspects had been developed.
But near the conclusion of his comments, he conceded that one feature of humanity set it dramatically apart from all other forms of life: the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in mind simultaneously, and to find the proof of the possibility of something in its apparent impossibility.
Mercifully, he provided two examples to rescue his thesis from cold abstraction. The first was from the Danish Christian and existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who said that Christian faith is “a faith that persists in the face of its own impossibility.” In other words, from a purely human perspective, part of what catalyzes faith is the acknowledgment of how impossible it seems. Even as I write that, I’m not sure I get what he means, which is why I’m glad Sapolsky gave one more example—this time from Sister Helen Prejean. (You may remember her from Dead Man Walking, the film based on her ministry to death-row inmates.) When asked what would motivate her to care for the most deplorable of our society, according to Sapolsky, Prejean said, “The less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven; the less loveable the person is, the more you must find the means to love them.”
For Prejean, recognizing how impossibly difficult it would be to forgive someone made forgiving them not only possible but necessary. Believing someone to be unlovable made it morally imperative to love them. Call it an oxymoron or just a paradox, humanity distinguishes itself, Sapolsky argues, by how it can powerfully believe what is seemingly unbelievable. This he considered “the most irrational magnificent thing we are capable of as a species.”
As we heard Sunday, Joshua pressed Israel to trust in the Lord despite plenty of reasons not to. Prospering civilizations built on many alternative conceptions of the divine surrounded the fledgling nation. Their presence presented ample rationale not to trust the one, true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even Israel’s own experience revealed a world full of incongruity, chaos, and sorrow that made it seem impossible to believe in a sovereign God. Yet Israel, in a Sapolskian sense, did the most human thing possible by believing in what seemed unbelievable.
This hard-wired feature of humanity also finds expression in anyone who believes in the gospel of Jesus. All things now living will one day succumb to death—inexorably and irreversibly. Yet foundational to our faith is the belief that God brought a man back from death, and that in Him began the overturning of death. This is a tenet so seemingly absurd and yet so critical to our believing. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
That’s not the only pillar of our faith that requires this capacity Sapolsky identifies. For the implication of Christ’s death and resurrection reveals another apparently irresolvable tension: that we are more deplorable than we care to admit, and yet more prized than we can imagine. Jesus’ suffering proves that. Those truths seem impossible to hold simultaneously. Yet their apparent irreconcilability yields a more profound and believable truth: this eminently just God is undeniably for us. That’s why the “love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). His love—not the preference for absurdity—is what explains Kierkegaard’s and Prejean’s faith. It must also be what explains ours.
What point can be made from Sapolsky’s observation that humans have the unique capacity to believe quite strongly in the face of equally strong reasons not to believe?
Has your zeal for God waned? Have your circumstances begun to cripple the confidence you once had in the goodness of God? Finding renewed faith may require circling back to the most absurd foundations of our faith. Considering the salutary effects of holding to the ethical demands of godliness is helpful. But ethics must be buttressed by the deeper truths that motivate it: that Christ rose again and that, despite your unholiness, this Holy God is for you. If such impossible things be true, then hope shall find its way into all other concerns.
Trust Him. You’re only human.