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Posts Tagged ‘homo narans’

db_26-Cross_of_the_Holy_Week2Two of our grandchildren came with us to the Passion Day Mass yesterday. We’d been talking over the weekend about peer pressure, fair weather friends, and the dangers of posting anything in a digital format that you wouldn’t want to have to show your grandmother.

I found myself using the long double-Gospel of the Mass as an object lesson. See? One weekend you’re king for the day, and everyone cheers. The crowd are out in the streets laying down palms for your donkey to walk on. Five days later, the same people are in the same streets baying for your blood. Who, then, are your friends?

The New York Times had an article recently about the power of family stories to build resilience. The article talks about the research of a couple of Americans, who were interested in the observation that children who knew more about their families coped better in a crisis:

They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept. 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.

“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Duke talks about three different themes in family narrative – the ascending theme (we came from nothing and built an empire), the descending theme (we used to have everything, and we lost it all), and the oscillating theme.

‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Fascinating stuff. As those who’ve followed this blog for a while know, I’ve suggested (slightly tongue in cheek, but my recent readings around AI (artificial intelligence) just reinforce the opinion) that we should be called Homo Narrans – that our identifying characteristic as an animal is our ability to make sense of our environment by making a story out of it, and to then pass that story on to others. My master’s research methodology was based on the power of narrative to build cohesiveness into groups. Surely much of the strength of Christianity to endure and survive lies in the power of the Christian narrative. Passion Sunday’s epic readings take us from triumph through hope to agony and despair. We can’t not know that the resurrection follows. For us, even the descending narratives of the daily readings of this Holy Week – taking us step by step closer to the betrayal, the denial, and the cross – are coloured by the ultimate in plot switches of Easter morning.

Our Christian narrative is an oscillating narrative. I find it hard to believe that a descending narrative – one in which the leader died, betrayed by a close friend and deserted by all but one of his other friends – would have had any survival value for the nascent group. Did they pull themselves together enough to come up with a lie that would keep the crowds coming? Improbable, I would have thought. And the improbable is vastly less likely than the impossible. In this case, the impossible (the resurrection) simply means something happened that we don’t understand. The improbable means that people behaved in a way that is outside of human nature.

We belong to something bigger than ourselves, and – no matter what happens – we’ll survive; we’ll stick together as a family.

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Last week, I blogged about homo narans, the story telling hominid, and suggested that our storytelling is a key way in which we resemble God.

On another blog, we’ve been talking about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac.

In this post, I want to tie these two thoughts together.

One point about the Abraham and Isaac story that I only recently realised was the age of Isaac. I always had the impression that he was a child. But apparently not. He was at least a teenager, and perhaps in his 20s. Definitely a legal adult.

He was old enough to carry on his back up a mountain sufficient wood to consume the sacrifice – which is a lot of wood. Indeed, some people have argued Isaac was in his early 30s – largely (as far as I understand it) because the whole story prefigures God’s sacrifice of His only son, and Jesus was in His early 30s.

So we have a willing sacrifice. There is no way a centenarian is going to be able to tie up a strong young man who doesn’t want to be tied. To me, it makes a difference that Abraham and Isaac were both willing.

And we have two people who are absolutely convinced that it’s all going to work out okay, since they trust God’s promise that Abraham, through Isaac, will be the ancestor of countless people. They don’t know how things are going to work out. They don’t know if Isaac is going to have to die first. But they trust God. And Isaac more so than Abraham, since he trusts his father’s trust in God.

Now God has been building up to this point for a while. Throughout Abraham’s life, he has been asked to trust God – and sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn’t. The key events have undoubtedly become stories that Isaac is familiar with. Isaac’s trust, in other words, is based on Abraham’s stories.

So what was the point of the whole exercise? God already knew what Abraham and Isaac would choose, so why put them through this ghastly exercise?

However, as many commentators point out, Abraham and Isaac didn’t know. This knowledge – that at the last edge they would put God first – was crucial to the future; crucial to the forging of Israel as a nation.

From that point on, throughout biblical history, the message comes through: ‘We have a great destiny, which was earned by our ancestor’ (for example, see the song of Our Lady: ‘as was promised to our forefathers: Abraham and his seed forever’).

I suggest that this story was the essential factor that held the Jews together when Isaac’s grandson Joseph took the entire tribe into Egypt. The story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain had sufficient drama to be repeated down through those generations. Enough people took enough from it for there to be an Israelite nation to be saved out of Egypt. Indeed, this and the other biblical stories have preserved the Jewish people in exile ever since.

Through real people whose lives are recorded in the Bible – prophets, kings, shepherds, soldiers, ordinary men and women – God told us stories about how to live, and how not to live. And these stories have become the foundation for all three religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is no exaggeration to say the sacrifice story of Abraham and Isaac is the lynch pin; the story to which many of the others refer back; the story on which all the others in some sense depend.

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You have only to pick up a newspaper or turn on a television to see that the scientific name for human kind lacks something as a descriptor. Homo sapiens. Wise (or rational) man. Yeah, right.

As it happens, there are a number of other candidate descriptors – some serious; some not so much.

A species name should be something unique to the species; some identifying characteristic that sets that species apart from others. Felix domesticus is the domestic cat. Dendrobates azureus, a certain type of tree frog, is blue tree walker.

So what are our identifying characteristics as a species?

In God’s image

Another way of asking the same question is: in what way are we in the image of God? (Genesis 1: 26 ‘God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’.)

Clearly, physical characteristics don’t count – God is pure spirit. Although we repeatedly recreate God in our image, this doesn’t tell us anything about the defining characteristics that set us apart from other species, but not apart from our Creator.

Creativity, aesthetics, language, and laughter all seem to be good candidates.

We have only to look around at the sheer joyful profligacy of the natural world to see that God is creative; and creativity seems to be built into us, showing up as soon as we are old enough to start decorating ourselves and our environment. Homo creator? But other animals use tools, and other animals make things. It’s impossible to say whether they enjoy doing so, but it does seem that they only do so when they have another end in view. An ape tears a stick to the right length in order to insert it in a termite mound and extract breakfast. A bower bird spends hours creating an ornate pattern in order to attract a mate. People make things for the sheer pleasure of creation. The creative impulse seems to be more highly developed in our species; so highly developed that creation itself becomes a motivator. But undoubtedly the seeds of the impulse are found in other species.

Aesthetics is another suggested separator, which would make us homo aestheticus. God saw the world he had made, and it was good. We take pleasure in beautiful things to see, to hear, to taste, to smell, and to touch. Is this our unique characteristic? We see in other animals a pleasure in sights, sound, tastes, smells, and touch that we would call aesthetic if the perceiver were human. More highly developed in humans? Perhaps so. But again, not unique.

The hominid that talks?

For a long time, the ability to communicate was suggested as the strongest difference between us and the rest of creation. Communication is a clear characteristic of God, and a powerful human drive. Are we homo loquens – talking man? But two types of research have narrowed the gap with the other animals. On the one hand, animals have been taught to understand human languages, and even to communicate in a human language (sign). On the other, animal studies have shown that complex messages are passed between animals of the same species, and some messages are even understood across species. We have a spoken language that is (mostly) under our voluntary control, but this is still a matter of degree rather than type.

laughing donkeyWhat about homo ridens, the animal that laughs? That God has a sense of humour most believers know. But so do dogs and other domestic animals (ask anyone who owns donkeys).

Other contenders are homo amans – humans as loving agents, or homo generosus – generous man. Christians have always claimed love to be a defining characteristic of God. And certainly it is a defining characteristic of the humans at their best. But unique? I don’t think so.

The meaning seekers

I like homo poetica – the hominid that searches for meaning and significance. This is certainly a strong identifier of humankind. The search for meaning and significance has built societies and civilisations. As a scientific name, it works. But it doesn’t fit the other criterion; it doesn’t describe how we are in the image of God.

But there is one more way that we are like God and unlike any other animal. We are the animal – the only animal – that tells stories. And so does God. We see this pre-eminently in the public life of Jesus. He didn’t content himself with saying ‘do this,’ or ‘this means that’. Instead, he told stories that carried the message people needed to hear. We’re still mining those stories for meaning 2000 years later. But God has been telling stories all the way through history. Much of the Old Testament comprises events carefully selected and structured to become stories for future generations. And for 2000 years, when the Church needed a new way of doing things, or a reminder of an old way, God has sent us a saint to be a living story, showing us the lesson we need to learn.

To my mind, we are homo narans, the storytelling hominid. What do you think?

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