An Instinct to Fail

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:28

One argument I often bristle at in a conversation comes when a person is trying to defend an attitude, action, or behavior with the line, “It’s natural.” People often make this assertion in a way that equals natural instinct with “good” or “right” behavior. All animals are subject to natural instincts and we are no exception, when a human is exposed to the stimuli of the world that human has built in behavioral responses which will engage. We understand there are natural responses to physical situations like: hunger, thirst, pain, sexual attraction; there are also natural responses to emotional events: anger, desire, compassion, etc. We are all familiar with the instinctual responses to fear known as “fight, flight, or freeze”. In certain high stress situations we are each going to respond to the stress according to one of the three characteristic human impulses which is most natural to us.While these impulses are natural to us, mental health professionals also recommend learning to control this response to outside stimuli. In a situation where you are being actively threatened a fight, flight, or freeze reaction may save your life, but in a healthy society it is not an ideal solution to stress. And so, religious and mental health professionals help people curb this instinct so that we can form a healthier society, in which people can cooperate more efficiently and effectively.

How does this concept fit with Genesis 1:28? God’s command to humanity is to “subdue” and “rule” the earth; all of creation is put under humanity to govern on God’s behalf, and this includes us. The word translated “subdue” has a note of force behind it, but not necessarily violent force, particularly since it is in combination with the idea of governance. Rather, we should view “subdue” with the approximate force used in training animals like dogs or horses. Sometimes, the more wild an animal is at the outset of the training the greater force must be exerted on the animal until the animal is subdued and can be governed. God wants humanity to be governors over a garden run in God’s name, therefore all life must be subdued in some form and all life must be wisely governed. We can think of this process as domestication; the process of making an animal fit to live in the home. And the first animal which must be subdued and domesticated is the human.

Even though Genesis 1 gives to humanity a unique status within the created order, God’s representative on earth, there is also a strong connection to the rest of the created order. We are in one sense “a little lower than Divine” (Psalm 8:5) and in a second sense just another animal. This reality has been difficult for us, there is always a temptation to view ourselves and others as one or the other Gods or brutes, but we dangle precariously somewhere in between. If you have read C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew you will undoubtedly be thinking of a comparison with his talking beasts. In the book, certain animals are separated from the rest and given human-like intelligence and the ability to communicate. The selected beasts are also given what we might call “a soul”, and with that gift Aslan charges them not to act like their dumb counterparts or else they will revert to their former state. (We see this happen to a certain Ginger the cat in The Last Battle.) Lewis is putting into this children’s story a concept that humanity must develop the God-like characteristics within our nature or risk reverting to our animal past. Put another way we have a calling to domesticate ourselves.

There is a anthropological concept that humanity has domesticated ourselves in ways which has led to physical changes within our species. If one can make the claim that technology and other lifestyle changes has had an impact on our physical development as a species, then it what would happen if we overcome the animal instincts in other ways? There is a temptation to look at human actions and put them under the category of instinct as if that justifies the actions. In doing so we stagnate ourselves by focusing on what we are instead of focusing on what we can be. We repeat the phrase “To err is human” while forgetting Alexander Pope added, “to forgive is divine”. We remember the first half and frequently remind ourselves we are only human, we are only a product of our culture. But in doing so we forget our divine calling; we forget the role we are supposed to take on, that of governor of the world.

I do not intend to say that we can, by sheer force of will, reach our full potential in God; but we are called to develop as God’s children. The human task is to overcome at least some of our instinctual predispositions to become God’s images on earth. The ancient practices of meditating and fasting were directed toward precisely this overcoming of the more animal impulse in humanity. It is not that impulses like hunger, sleep, or our sex drive are inherently wrong, rather if we are able to temper them and resist the natural push toward satisfying those urges, then we can also overcome other instincts which are more detrimental. Fasting then teaches me to lay aside my instincts for a greater cause, to engage in an activity because it is healthy, not simply because my body desires it at the time. Meditation helps an individual to focus the mind on a specific target. This specific focus allows the person to recognize negative stresses and lay them aside in the moment. I know that practicing meditation helps me to overcome my impulse to lash out in meetings when I am being unfairly attacked. I can more readily focus on the topic at hand, and distance myself from the negative reaction to the stress around me. We are each to take on the mantle of humanity, governors of creation and image of God, to do this we must first work to reject the base instincts of an animal and begin to take on the nature of sons and daughters of God.

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