Blessed Are The Meek – An Evolutionary Perspective

The statement by Jesus Christ in the Beatitudes that the meek will inherit the earth is counterintuitive and controversial. We usually think the strong, the powerful and the assertive will inherit the lion’s share. The meek are seen as weak and ineffectual. The Bible tells us that this vision of the meek inheriting the earth will be despised and rejected.
However, we can also read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 as Jesus presenting an accurate long term vision of power, seeing the power of love and integrity as the key to the kingdom of God, not as an afterlife but as a necessary vision of sustainable living on earth.
Implementing the prayer of Christ that the will of God may be done on earth as in heaven means transforming the current fallen state of depraved corruption into an enlightened community of grace and love, confronting flawed worldly assumptions with a higher wisdom. The divine blessing on the meek challenges our instinctive beliefs with a vision of salvation that we can interpret in terms of natural evolution.
What does it mean to inherit the earth? Natural evolution is all about scientific understanding of who will inherit the earth. The biological question is which genes will prove most stable, durable and fecund over the long term.
Think about the long term – not just decades and centuries, but millions of years. Who will still inherit the earth in a million years?
For humans to survive that long, we need to engage with the earth with humility. In evolutionary terms, those who inherit the earth are those who adapt to selective pressures. Will humans have overcome our current madness? Will we go extinct? Will the earth be inherited by bacteria, algae and insects? Do humans have the brains to transform our destructive culture to create a path of sustained flourishing and abundance for all?
The Bible presents a stark challenge to this prospect of evolutionary transformation, with the apocalyptic vision of global catastrophe. The bleak prophecy of the future is that the power of evil delusion is so great that civilization collapses and human population falls to a tiny number. War, famine, plague and death stalk the planet as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The only hope of salvation the Bible presents from this destructive outlook is through Christ, who provides a vision of how to connect our lost culture to the enduring eternal truths of God.
Such prophecies can be read as more than supernatural fantasy, in presenting symbolic parables for the current planetary risks posed by climate change, and how we can respond to these risks. Human arrogance imagines we can ignore the power of nature. The last great catastrophe was 65 million years ago with the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Only the meek survived, while the powerful creatures that required a large quantity of energy could not endure the crisis. We are now causing the sixth planetary extinction, illustrating that on the current trajectory, humans could well follow the example of the dinosaurs and go extinct.
Our world is highly fragile, even though at first glance things might look robust. We need to think and plan carefully if we are to understand the forces at work determining our planetary fate. Against this planetary agenda, we can read the ideas of Jesus in terms of the power of meekness as a way to respond to the power of evil.
Jesus says in the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 that in the global clash between good and evil, victory will go to those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit prisoners and welcome strangers. These works of mercy provide a definition of meekness as the moral understanding that what we do to the least of the world we do to Jesus Christ. This old parable of the saved and the damned is not a story of supernatural magic but a deep prophetic analysis of our evolutionary situation today.
How can being meek be an adaptive evolutionary trait? In evolution, we can look at traits in the animal kingdom to see how they might apply in human culture. The opposite of being meek is dominating and controlling. In nature, any organism that has a dominant role is an apex predator. Everything else must meekly submit to its fate, relying on its natural abundance to prosper in the ecological system. Generally only a small number of apex carnivores are sustained by a large number of herbivores, who in turn rely on abundant plant food which depends on the microbes forming healthy soil and stable climate, and similarly for the food chain in the ocean. The predator can only flourish when the whole food chain is healthy and productive.
The evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest does not at all refer to the strongest physically, but favours creatures which are best adapted to their niche. Natural selection favours the genes that are stable, durable and fecund. In terms of cultural evolution, this natural law has a long term power, including through our ability to see love and compassion as adaptive traits.
Evolution points to a human path of cooperation rather than competition as the main condition for success in our global civilization. Human adaptation requires that we harness intelligence as our primary selective advantage, overcoming the dangers of a world run by dumb instinct. This triumph of intelligence over instinct is a key to understanding what Jesus meant by saying the meek will inherit the earth.
For cultural values, who are the meek? Those with the humility to adapt to the world as they find it. Those with the detachment to avoid being ensnared by ideological delusion. Those who do not try to force false beliefs onto others in order to control the world through the power of money and weapons and ideology.
What does this say about the story of Jesus? The long term vision in the Bible presents a story of human fall from grace, and then Jesus showing the way to transform our culture to achieve redemption. Jesus is portrayed as coming at the bottom of the cycle of grace and depravity, representing the spirit of truth in a world ruled by lies.
The resurrection shows the vision of grace and love gaining victory over the instinctive impulses of control represented by the cross. The inheritance of the meek is about the victory of a messianic faith as a basis of planetary salvation, as distinct from the traditional Christian focus on the power of the church.
We tend to imagine that victory goes to the strongest, not to the meek. The Bible reverses this assumption by setting spiritual vision above the power of instinct. Jesus tells us the least of the world will be first in the kingdom of God, with the metaphor that the stone the builder refused will be the keystone of the bridge. The meek are like the stone that the builders ignore, the ones who do not conform to the superficial patterns of worldly success, but who seek integrity and honesty, aiming to achieve results through respect and dialogue, not through domination.
Jesus’s vision of how we can inherit the earth is summed up in his statement in Matthew 25 that what we do to the least of the world we do to him. His statement that we are saved by works of mercy for the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, sick, naked and strangers tells us the values of the world are the opposite of the values of God. The values of God are the practices that are sustainable, that will deliver long term stability and prosperity to human societies, clashing with the instinctive desires for power and control.
Transition to the values of Jesus Christ involves a paradigm shift for our global culture. The story of climate change shows we are on a trajectory towards destruction. Even looking at the Paris Accord, there is no globally agreed vision of how to avoid dangerous warming that could turn our planet into a hothouse. It is possible to turn that trajectory around, but the shift has to understand evolutionary process. Evolution in a stable system builds incrementally on precedent, and in culture that means defining a theory of change that can transform our current world into a sustainable global culture.
The Biblical value of meekness is confronting for the dominant values of the world. Nations and companies cannot deliver stability and prosperity by meekly giving in to every pressure they face. Nor can these goals be achieved by arrogantly ignoring the real pressures at work.
Competition is central to human life, and is recognised in the parable of the talents, also in Matthew 25, with its vision that the works of mercy of the Kingdom of God can only be paid for through the abundance created by everyone using their skills to the full, including by taking risks rather than the safe course. We should not meekly bury our talents in the ground or hide our light under a bushel, but work in the world to develop a vision of transformation.
The model of the meek inheriting the earth is speaking about a long-term transformation of human values. Saying the meek shall inherit the earth is not calling for a revolution to a communist or anarchistic society, but rather an evolutionary vision of a gradual transition to an ethical vision of the values of the kingdom of God, understood in a practical and scientific way as central to our ongoing life on earth, as we transform our communities to make earth as in heaven, seeing the vision of Christ in the Bible as our moral guide.

Robert Tulip

Talk given at Kippax Konnex Retreat, 15 September 2018

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