August 23, 2012

The other side of our nature


Text: Ephesians 4:26–27: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun
go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

I can't resist exploring this little bit of the Epistle to the Ephesians this morning, because in one simple little sentence it knits together the two parts of my life—my effort to live as a disciple, poor though it is, and the study of human nature, especially emotion.

Every day I work among people who study how the rational, reasoning part of us is shaped and influenced by the non-rational, affective part of us. How our feelings shape our thoughts. We tend to think of these two aspects of our selves as very separate, and a major theme of our Western cultural tradition is to regard these two aspects of ourselves as somehow locked in an unending conflict.

It’s like that old cartoon of someone trying to make a decision, with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. It’s a pretty typical in our way of seeing ourselves that the angel is our rational, careful, calculating mind, and the devil is our passionate, impulsive, changeable heart.

And the two are constantly at war with each other for control of, well, us. Of our choices, of our will, of our very selves. And here’s the part that touches our life of faith: The choices we make have the power to shape our souls, for good or for ill.

So much of how we are brought up—our parents, our teachers, even the church—give us this basic idea. Right here in Ephesians, just before the reading we heard this morning, Paul makes pretty much exactly this argument to the new Christians in the church he planted there.

“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self,” he writes, “corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

It doesn’t take a lot of interpretation to hear those words and set up a conflict between rationality and emotion. Old self: corrupt, lustful, passionate, untamed, heart-centered, not pleasing to God; new self: baptized, mind-centered, dispassionate, rational, pure. From the first Christian writer we have what becomes a powerful view throughout our whole history: The idea of the warring sides of our nature.

That basic idea has significantly shaped our ideas about human nature for all of Christian history. But increasingly we’re coming to understand that it’s not very accurate. It’s very appealing, and it makes it easy to categorize and evaluate people and the decisions they make; and it’s easy to miss how deeply those ideas have shaped our thinking, not just about us, about the nature and purpose of faith.

But for now I just want to get to this idea: What about this other side of our nature? Are we really as Paul describes us? And what if we’re not? What does that mean for how we should believe?

*  *  *

I don’t mean to turn this morning’s sermon into a neuroscience lecture. I just want to make one basic point. The picture we are now receiving from science about how our minds work is a picture that shows that the separation between rational and emotional, between reason and feeling, doesn’t actually describe how we work. It’s a way of describing two parts of a unified nature.

Most of us are proud of ourselves when we don’t make a snap decision, when we don’t act in the heat of the moment. And certainly there are times when it’s probably better that we don’t make an important decision.

But it turns out there really is never a time when our feelings don’t influence our thinking. We have no moments of perfect rationality. Each one of us has our own unique emotional profile, something we usually call a personality; and that shapes how we see the world and what decisions we make, sometimes profoundly and sometimes subtly.

Okay, so we don’t really have two natures, just one. We don’t have a little angel and a little devil going around with us all the time; we just have ourselves. So what?

At least I think it must mean this; it must have something to do with why God chooses to save us, not through sending a set of instructions, but through a person-—through the personhood of Jesus.

The other side of our nature is not the angry side, the sad side, the fearful side, the disgusted side—the emotional side. The other side of our nature is the divine side, the immortal side, the spiritual side.

We live in this material world. We are material creatures, and we interact with other material creatures. We are flesh and blood. Like all material things, we have a beginning and an end. We are mortal.

And we have this other side. Sometimes we call it our mind, sometimes we call it our spirit; all the time it is that part of us that cannot be reduced to the material. It is the part of us that lives in the realm of both reason and feeling, the realm of fears and hopes, the realm of imagination and creativity.

The only way all of this can be true at the same time is for us to be both material and spiritual in one unified self, just like we are both rational and emotional and one unified self. And so what it takes to bring us back to God when we go off the rails is—well, is someone or some thing that is the same way.

Back this spring Judy and I took a beginning beekeepers’ class. (We must not have done very well, because all of our bees ended up leaving our hive for better real estate somewhere.) One of the class sessions was taught by a professor at UMass Amherst, a class on bee genetics.

During the question period, one of the people in the class raised his hand. He was perplexed by what his bees were doing. It was still early spring then, not a time that bees are supposed to be out foraging. But at his hive there was quite a little cloud of bees flying around the front of the hive, even on a windy day. They were doing something they weren’t supposed to do. Why might this be happening?

The professor thought for a moment, and then very calmly said, “The problem, you see, must be that the bees haven’t read the book. So what you need to do is prop the book open by the opening of hive, and then they’ll understand what they’re supposed to do.”

Of course he was kidding. The book doesn’t tell the bees what to do.

And that is our situation. Before Paul, before Jesus, we had a book. It was as if the beekeeper was trying to help us out by propping the book open in front of our hive. We had the book of the covenant. We had the bible. We had the instructions.

And yet it didn’t help. It didn’t reach us. All most of us could manage to see was a giant obstruction getting in the way of our path.

What we needed was someone like us, someone who knows both reason and passion.

If pure rationality were the key to godliness, Jesus would have been something like Mr. Spock. But that is not the Jesus the bible gives us. The gospels give us a Jesus who weeps; a Jesus who gets angry; a Jesus who feels compassion. The person who comes as the promised one is a whole human being, who yet at the same time has another side to his nature.

That is meant to point out to us that we, too, have within us the capacity for holiness. We, too, are human and divine. And to fully develop both sides of our nature, we cannot begin from the position of confusing them with the different tools we have been given to experience the world—our minds and our hearts.

God, who comes to us in the form of the flesh of Jesus, the head and heart of Jesus, takes on both reason and passion to lead us to holiness. Both of those things must then have something to do with God’s plan for us, and with the way God acts in Jesus to save all of us, body and soul. Amen.