Look to the Bonobo!

He was glad to see me again.  The cabbie had picked me up at the airport last month whereupon we engaged in a forty-minute discussion concerning world housing and other scintillating topics.  Perhaps he enjoyed the repartee.  I had questioned his assumptions on three arguments.  “Look to the Bonobo,” he began.  “The what?” I asked.  “The bonobo is a primate that has altruistic tendencies.  This loveable mammal has not a bad bone in his body.  He always does what is best for the group.  Humans have much more in common with the bonobo.”  We were off.  “Correct me if I’m wrong,” I began, “but you seem to be making two huge assumptions.  First, you presuppose that we’re animals and second you think we’re good at heart.”  “Exactly!” came his excited reply.  “Yes!  Humans can be better than we are now.  Look to the bonobo,” came his repetitious refrain.

The conversation was a give and take between two faith systems.  I questioned the cabbie’s basis for his arguments because everyone begins somewhere.  Everyone’s belief affects their behavior.  The hope that we have core goodness passed on by our primate ancestors ignores that lions kill wildebeests and people murder people.  One result of thinking we are perfectible may be if students don’t learn the fault rests with the teacher.  Another fallout of such accepted wisdom could be that a governmental welfare system is more important than personal responsibility.  Still others might argue that capitulating to terrorist demands by admitting national policy failures would stop terrorist attacks.

An alternative view suggests we humans are inherently corrupt.  We are shot through with tendencies that rebel against God and His law.  Can teachers inhibit student learning?  Sure.  Yet students also bear responsibility for their own efforts to learn.  Indeed, the reason why pupils must take exams is because they are sinners: we don’t want to work if we don’t have to.  Difficulties of the unforeseen may necessitate a state welfare system as a “safety net” for those unable to stop calamity.  A natural tendency toward laziness since The Fall, however, suggests some are listed on welfare roles because they don’t want to work—period.  Do some national strategies upset people to the place that they take up arms against the so-called “oppressor?”  Without question.  But power has a draw all its own and humans will not give up their grasp for control seeded in us since Genesis three.  If killing civilians in an attempt to defeat a nation’s terrorism policy is a means to an end, terrorists will not be stopped by the panacea of peaceful coexistence.

Ideas change people.  Advertising agencies, political spin, religious hucksters, and con artists all live to sell an idea.  Three essential concepts fuel all human attempts to get our points across: (1) “I believe something,” (2) “My beliefs affect my daily life,” and (3) “My beliefs affect other people.”  Our thinking will sway our point of view on any given subject.  Not only that, but my ideas affect decisions made through all matters, significant and insignificant.  And whether we admit it or not, choices I make do change others.  Whether we believe in the possibility of human perfection or in a warped, bent, twisted nature our preconceived ideas color what we think, say, and how we live.

I love comic book heroes.  Why?  I believe the tenet ingrained in each superhero: we have a titanic flaw and exceptional human abilities.  My interest in Batman or Spiderman resonates with my deepest hope that I can battle evil, overcoming my own imperfection. Yet I am constantly perplexed in the battle.  In his book Who Needs A Superhero H. Michael Brewer suggests that each comic book character reflects the belief that our struggles in life need help from an outside source.  In the movie Hellboy, for instance, the lead character faces an identity crisis and a decision for or against evil.  I suspect that many people respond to the comics because in them, they see themselves.  We do believe something even if we cannot fully explain it to ourselves, or others.

Those beliefs then affect my everyday living.  Chris Van Allsburg in his children’s classic The Wretched Stone suggests that television may turn us into apes.  Sailors on a ship discover a magical, flat, pulsating rock on an island.  Hoisting it aboard, the ship sets sail again only to have its crew hypnotized by the infectious draw of light from the stone.  Soon, the one-time sailors have become primates, incapable of work due to the attraction that captivates their attention.  Van Allsburg’s belief is that television has a compelling as well as a corrosive affect on humans.  The author’s point of view is clearly seen as his belief warns all who read the text that daily life is affected by undisciplined viewing.

But ultimately, my beliefs affect other people in addition to myself.  Robert Maslow conceived a way of explaining how human beings function at the most elemental levels.  His views of human “self-actualization” are promoted in his fabled “hierarchy” which graces many educational texts.  Christians, too, have “bought into” the perspective in various “ed-psych” books.  Yet, Maslow was an atheist.  There is no supernatural foundation that suggests anything other than a view of humanity tied to “here and now” rather than “then and there.”  Maslow’s humanism affects how educators view themselves, their subjects, and their students.  Focus on “self” is pervasive in classrooms around the world in part because of Maslow’s hierarchy which is tied directly to humans rather than God.  Personal belief affects me and others around me too.

Some would want to argue, “But that’s your perspective!”  I would have to agree.  But I would want to know if anyone could refute the basic argument—our beliefs affect how we respond to the world around us.  In the movie Secondhand Lions Robert Duvall tells Joel Osmet’s character, “It don’t matter if it’s true or not.  Sometimes you just gotta’ believe in some things like courage and honor ‘cause that’s what it’s all about.”  Really?  If truth is up to the individual, then there is no secure foundation for being courageous or honorable.  A pop-rock band Hoobastank sings, “So why does there only have to be one correct philosophy…I’d like to think I can go my own way and meet you in the end.”  Wishful thinking is nice but forms a porous position, especially if philosophies contradict each other.  The problem that confronts Secondhand Lions, Hoobastank, or my cabbie is certain beliefs lead to certain ends.  Acting on my principles produces certain results.  Like it or not, my behavior is premised on my point of view.  Books, movies, songs, how a class is conducted is dependent upon an outlook of life.

And I suspect, were researchers honest, we might even see fights between the bonobos. [Since I wrote this article in 2004, bonobo researchers have admitted there is violence in the primate culture.  See http://lolayabonobo.wildlifedirect.org/2008/07/27/bonobo-violence/]

Mark is delighted that the bonobo has shown himself to be just as infected by sin as the rest of creation.  [This article was first written in 2004 while I was Associate Professor of Educational Ministries at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, IL and was used as fodder for a course I developed there entitled Faith and Learning.]

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  1. Mark, I agree with the idea that, as Christians, we need to examine the underlying philosphical supports for the various ideologies we encounter in daily living. As I was reading your article, I was reminded of Richard Mouw’s book, “He Shines in All that’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace”. One of Mouw’s over-arching themes seems to be the balance needed to both receive the blessings God bestows on us all through mankind and be repsectfully critical of that which is in opposition to the Christian world-view. Mouw writes, “It is important for us in these difficult days to to cultivate an appropriate Calvinist sense of modesty and humilty in our efforts at cultural faithfulness. But we cannot give up on the important task . . . of actively working to discern God’s complex designes in the midst of our deeply wounded world.”

  2. Hi Donna. Thanks for your good thoughts while referencing Mouw’s wonderful work. Colossians 4:5-6 moves my desire to interact with my culture. I always pray that my approach will be generous, gracious, and tenacious. We walk a fine line between alienation (of our audience) and accommodation (of our message). It’s always good to see your name pop up here!

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