Robert Barron and the nature of the world

In a review of a pop. movie, Robert Barron writes that

The Revenant is unremittingly honest in its portrayal of people caught in the awful reality of this fallen world, which is marked through and through by violence, suspicion, hatred, revenge, and the constant struggle to survive in the context of an indifferent nature. For the denizens of this universe, the correct mottos are indeed “kill or be killed” and “love your friends but hate your enemies” and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

If there is no God, as Fitzgerald suggests to one of his underlings, survival at any cost, the law of the jungle, is the supreme law. But if there is a dimension that transcends nature, if there is a God who provides a moral compass and presides over human affairs, then one can let go of vengeance and seek a higher justice. The film ends just as this consciousness of God dawns on Glass.

This characterization of a world without a certain conception of God echoes early naturalists’ descriptions of the natural world ‘red in tooth and claw’, characterized almost completely by zero-sum competition.

Yet, the actual natural world is characterized by both competition and cooperation. Both of these dynamics are engendered by more basic variables in the natural world. Although some have thought aspects of cooperation more difficult to explain than aspects of competition, my guess is that this is a bias, perhaps created by Christian notions of man’s (and the world’s) fallen nature.

What are some examples of cooperation? It’s all around us.

Multicellular creatures function because they have a bunch of different cells cooperating together. The cooperation dynamic is occurring basically whenever you see a multicellular organism.

Cooperation and altruism, more broadly speaking, are widespread in nature, found most often between kin (prominent examples include many parent-child relationships, or ant or bee colonies).

Yet, symbiotic (and similar kinds of) relationships outside of kin are also quite common.

The point here is that the natural world is not simply ‘kill or be killed’, or what have you. Indeed, even the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ was intended to limit a spiralling cycle of violence. Retribution had to be proportional to the offense.

Two significant points of Jesus’ teaching to let go of anger and hatred are that it improves a) one’s society, but b) one’s own life. The primary person affected by one’s anger (and so on – various negative emotions) is oneself. These dual insights are what make his teaching so powerful – for the individual who adopts it in his own life, and for a society that figures out how to implement it.

Coming together as a group, people can recognize a), and put into place various societal measures (laws, customs, and so on) that lead to an improvement in the mutual society.

Regardless, one can put into action b) in ‘enlightened self-interest’.

The point here is that Jesus’ teaching, at least in significant part, isn’t dependent on ultimate retribution by God, but rather by more basic psychological and sociological insights.

Similarly, cooperation in nature or between men makes sense in many cases – it comes about by the same basic dynamics that can lead to competition.

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