Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Am Not A Dog

As I gaze over at the little bundle of hyperactivity that is now napping on the mat by the front door, I marvel at just how genetically similar she and I are. Of the twenty-four thousand or so genes that make up the human genome, we share around 75% with our canine pals. That's a significant majority, the kind of majority that Nancy Pelosi can only fantasize about. You know, when she's not fantasizing about Fabio, human cloning, and hot tubs full of ghee. But that's a mental picture best left unvisualized.

Yet I am quite evidently not a dog, as much as that lifestyle might occasionally have appeal. The 25% of my genetic material that is not shared results in an entirely different species of mammal. Through the addition of different genetic material, the entire character and nature of a creature is changed. Though I share varying proportions of genetic material with most organic life, it's why I am not a dog, or yeast, or a bonobo monkey.

Which leads me to wonder why so many folks are so incapable of seeing Christianity for what it is. Here I flagrantly steal from De Debbil Dawkins Himself, who introduced to the world the concept of memetics as something that defines the norms of a culture or subculture. Memes are the symbolic equivalent of genes, units of information that self-propagate within and across cultures. They are ideas, thoughts, and concepts, all of which transform the character of a society or social organism.

In order to fully grasp the nature of a culture or a movement, you need to look at the totality of it's memetic context. Only by understanding the complex interplay of those norms and symbolic frameworks can you get a handle on the nature of the critter. If you leave something out, miss something, or willfully overlook something, then your understanding of the entity you are observing will be waaaay off. Yeah, we share 96% of our genetic material with baboons. But though the mechanics of things like human digestion can be partially understood by observing baboons, the complexities of our culture and our capacities for reason and symbolic exchange are significantly more than four percent different.

Tea party participants excepted, of course.

Which is one of the many reasons it strikes me as absurd to approach any tradition based on a refusal to honestly assess the full scope of it's memetics. Within my tradition, there are those who blithely ignore any intimation that Christian faith shows the memetic influence of other traditions. Like, say, some of the evident traces of the cultic practices of the Canaanite High God El, who merits a direct shout out in a couple of places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Or the rather more destructive spin introduced by dualism, which makes it's entrance into Jewish thought immediately following the Babylonian diaspora. That binary Marduk/Tiamat cosmology clearly informed Jewish apocalyptic, and then spilled over into Christian apocalyptic thought. There it remains, despite the best efforts of Jesus to subvert it. Recognizing the pastiche of cultural norms, insights and observations that have formed the symbolic framework of a tradition is essential if you are to truly grasp it's nature.

Then again, those who would dismiss Christianity as ignorant or inherently destructive based on a carefully selected subset of our textual material aren't getting it, either. For Christians, the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth are radically defining. He is, for our worldview, far more influential than that 4% of genetic material that differentiates me from a creature that seeks to impress the ladies by parading around with a big blue butt. And no, I don't, not even in the privacy of my own home.

The love ethic Christ embodied is so intensely defining as to transform the nature and character of the entire Christian worldview. If you look at the totality of our conceptual genome, it is what makes us what we are. It makes the difference.

Of course, when we go beyond approaching Christianity academically, and it becomes experiential and existential and...spiritual, things get a bit different. Those of us who know ourselves as Jesus people know it goes deeper than norms and symbols and memetic epistemology.

But to get there, you have to be a part of it.