Why Are We Complacent to the Point of Self-destruction?

More exactly, why did God create us to be such creatures? There is little doubt that we are such creatures and that this is one major cause of the problem pointed to by St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:3.

When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child and there will be no escape. [I use the Catholic Edition of the Standard Revised Version as published by Thomas Nelson & Sons for Ignatius Press.]

Our environments can switch rapidly from, say, a benign climate to conditions which cause famine, starving some and weakening the sick so that minor diseases become fatal. New disease organisms can sweep through large regions of the earth, killing many. Human predators can gain an upper hand on peaceful communities, enslaving or impoverishing prosperous communities. Why do such changes occur?

One of the true lessons coming from modern empirical knowledge, mathematics and physics and biology and history, is that complex and unpredictable events occur whenever two independent systems interact. This occurs even if the two systems are themselves simple and fully determined. The standard example is two pendulums of different length (different periods of movement) which are tied together. The resulting motion will be fully determined (by assumptions based upon physics and mathematics as we know them) and yet unpredictable.

When we consider living creatures, the two independent systems which interact are the living creature (sometimes assumed falsely to be defined fully by its genes) and its environment. That living creature can be a human being trying to feed his children in a world suddenly short of work or a virus seeking to survive and prosper in its way. To reduce living creatures and their contexts to a simple creature/environment interaction is clearly a great oversimplification of the sort which is necessary for making basic points.

I’m currently interacting with many systems including even my own damaged tendons as I type. In the past few minutes, I conversed with my sister and used her coffee-maker and microwave oven. I inspected her yard with its grass in some parts that is already dormant and the grass in other parts that needs at least one mowing before it enters winter sleep, and I made tentative plans to mow and clean up in a couple of days. I’ll be interacting with various human social and economic systems over the course of the day and also with the system I could call New England weather — unpredictable largely because this region sits at the point of interaction of so many continental and oceanic systems.

I’m trying to figure out how to do some important reading and some equally important writing while meeting a commitment for several looming projects at my parish. My schedule for the next month is getting worse at least partly because their is a shortage of workers on these projects and those who are willing have uncertainties in their schedules. In addition, New England’s weather can force me to mow the lawn and rake leaves at a time not convenient for me. There are also some logistical and supply problems on the parish projects and some odd jobs I’ll be doing for friends. Each of these interacting ‘systems’ is pretty simple but we all know how complex a situation gets when such ‘simple’ systems interact. One change to a seemingly settled part of my schedule and I’ll be rethinking my priorities and maybe scrambling to meet my most important commitments. Our everyday, boring schedule problems are often caused by interactions of independent systems.

The concept of complexity coming from the interaction of independent systems is pretty easy but the details can be overwhelming at the level of organizing supply lines for an army or forecasting the path of a storm moving towards colliding fronts.

The interesting and important problems of evolutionary biology, including many that affect us directly, come mostly from the results of interacting systems. Our character traits and our body structures are sometimes the result of compromises or bad results forced by the interaction of our ancestors with their environments, including other human beings. For example, many of us have sinuses that don’t drain properly or sciatic hips because of the ‘re-use’ of the body parts of crouching apes to shape the erect human body.

When we deal with human personality traits, we’re better off taking the Bible as a source of ‘wisdom’ and evolutionary biology, history, and other empirical disciplines as a source of ‘explanations’. The Bible can provide purposes and guide our direction while empirical knowledge can help us to develop strategies for dealing with, say, the likely emergence of new diseases. The Bible can warn of complacency and evolutionary biological thought can help us to understand why we’re complacent and perhaps suggest ways of moving towards the Biblical goal of being vigilant God-centered men and women, though for now I can only suggest we remain ever aware of our tendency to drop our level of awareness. This is a social goal, of course, as no individual creature lives for ever or remains ever alert when alive.

So, let’s consider the complacency that can be called a form of laziness that kills our children and enslaves our grandchildren. Attaining security and comfort require a lot of energy — high-energy expenditures in bursts and the slow drain of energy which comes from constant vigilance. In many ways, we don’t exist either inside our own bodies or outside of them in our environments but rather on the boundaries of these systems. It’s tiring to be always pushed this way by our desire to soar over the trees and then pulled back by gravity — that Superman cape around our shoulders isn’t so much a help as we would like.

Even when we mature, if we mature, our moral intentions — to serve God and country and to care for our families — can be frustrated by economic factors or by stupidity or criminality of the leaders of our country. We discover we’re on different paths from those of our loved ones and we fight through brush to meet only to bang heads. Our dreams often exceed our capacities or our financial resources. And we try to relax from this constant effort as much as possible. Our social and physical environments often seem no more than struggles between order and disorder. Sometimes disorder dominates and sometimes order. We’re finding now that disorder may be upon us some day soon in public health issues — our technological tricks are being matched by fungi that eat our crops and by retroviruses that chew up our immune systems. We seem to be running full speed to stay ahead of the approaching famine or plague and we only need to slow down for a second or to stumble and disorder will catch us and overwhelm us.

Because of the bursts of high levels of energy expenditure and the constant drain from the need for vigilance, we have strong tendencies to relax when possible. In recent decades, we Americans took our chances for soft jobs with corporate or governmental benefits. Many of us left our neighborhoods and worship communities, entering the public marketplaces for most of our needs and pleasures and jobs. We allowed the banks and stock-brokers to turn our family assets and local businesses into fungible assets which were soon enough sold to corporations. We encouraged our government to enslave us by various sorts of benefits, leaving us vulnerable to impoverishment of various sorts when that government and those outside interests no longer share goals with us — our government is increasingly interested in overseas adventures and our corporations find cheaper labor in Asia and also find they can profit from morally corrupt goods and services.

In my area, western Massachusetts, and probably in most of the United States, banks are now opening as fast as manufacturing operations were moving overseas in the 1980s and 1990s and as fast as family farms were disappearing before that. This excessive banking activity is nothing more or less than a massive liquidation of American assets needed by our children to survive but also needed by us to continue our soft ways of life. Even those who truly care about their children’s future have reacted by turning on the TV after getting home from their jobs at the local branch of a nationwide retailer or the marketing office of a computer manufacturer that has all its factories in Taiwan.

We took it easy because the world seemed so peaceful and orderly to us living the United States, so ready to offer us comfort and security. What we were really doing was emptying out the bank accounts created by the hard, smart work of our ancestors and now we’re taking reverse mortgages on all that we own. The next generations will pay the bills, either by living in relative poverty as other countries stop selling us hard goods on credit or by giving up their moral integrity if the United States uses its military power to become a full-fledged empire, stealing what its citizens can no longer produce or grow.

Again, St. Paul told us:

When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child and there will be no escape.

Surprisingly, he had already told us in the prior verse that this swing from peace and security to destruction is part of the day of the Lord, the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is always with us. Armaggedon isn’t in the future. It’s ongoing and times of peace and security are no more than momentary pauses in this struggle between order and disorder that leaves behind the corpses of so many innocent. We can’t win this battle because it’s a story being told by God but we have a moral duty to protect the innocent under our care and to properly form ourselves and our children to be God-centered human beings. We also need to keep our faith that this is a battle that serves God’s purposes, a battle that is part of the story of Christ’s work of salvation.

There is sometimes an ambiguous boundary between Biblical wisdom and empirical knowledge. History tells us the disorder of this world can overwhelm even a morally well-ordered society, and wisdom recognizes this. Wisdom also recognizes that prosperous human societies will often destroy themselves by complacency. Peace and security leads to a softening of moral and intellectual fibers, and woe to the generations that live when disorder dominates, when peace and security are mere memories.

Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish. [Psalm 49:12 and repeated as verse 20]

In his prosperity, man becomes as stupid as a beast, no longer making the effort to anticipate the future and to prepare for it, no longer even seeing the need to make that effort when his favorite NFL team is coming on the tube or when her favorite store is having a sale down at a nearby mall. No longer making any effort to serve God or the children of God — not even his own children and her own grandchildren.

St. Paul provides the wisdom to put this human tendency in perspective for Christians anticipating our salvation, our rescue from our own sins and frailties and from the struggle between order and disorder which is so much a part of God’s story in this mortal existence. Empirical knowledge, including the historical sections of the Bible, gives us some understanding of why we are like this, that is, why such creatures as human beings would have emerged in God’s story. The story of Jacob is that of a devious man who survived and prospered and left children who multiplied rapidly over the succeeding generations. This is pretty much the same story told by the more rational and hardheaded of sociobiologists.

I sometimes wonder about the blindness and rigidity of those Christians who are conversant with the Biblical view of human beings and then get upset when sociobiologists provide a very similar view in different language and a different intellectual context. We should be able to acknowledge the serious scientific content of Richard Dawkins’ work even as we filter out the philosophical and atheological babble. The world is one and it is God’s work. The truth in the work of even the most vociferous atheist is part of God’s story that I call a world.

Both the Bible and empirical knowledge can tell us what we need to do to play our role in this story, forming ourselves and our children into God-centered and morally well-ordered human beings who respond to our natural moral duties and to God’s commands rather than responding to our environments in the way of stupid and lazy beasts. The number of hours we Americans work and the number of hours we spend in school are meaningless — we train ourselves and our children to ‘learn’ and to ‘work’ at the command of the gods of the marketplace, political and economic, and to the needs of those idols. Hardworking men and women can be the most complacent of all.

We need to find ways to remain constantly aware of possible futures. We need to find ways of recognizing those who make good watchmen and those who can lead us wisely according to the reports of those watchmen. It’s the Lord of Armies who approaches with destruction in His wake. It is He who can save us.

Explore posts in the same categories: Biblical interpretation, Christian spirituality, Christianity, Modern culture, Moral Formation, Moral issues, politics, Religion, religion and science, The nature of sin

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