Pentecost 9

Proper 10  ~  Lectionary Year  A  ~  July 13, 2008

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


For you shall go out in joy,

and be led back in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

shall burst into song,

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands



+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity


At the end of the nineteenth century, a fascinating controversy went on between two well-known intellectuals, Sir Thomas Huxley and Prince Peter Alexeyevivh Kropotkin, over the meaning of Darwin and evolution. It illustrates a difference in what we have come to call paradigms.


From the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as the gladiator's show. … Life was a continuous free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence 


So wrote Thomas Huxley in 1888.  He developed his view of  “nature” into a theory that has come to be known as Social Darwinism, according to which, since nature’s law is a law of competition, weeding out the unfit, it will not do to help the weak and unfit survive to reproduce. That is a recipe for the “degeneration” of the human race.


Kropotkin disagreed, to put it mildly. Here is the opening paragraph of his great work in response to Huxley, entitled Mutual Aid:


Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find – although I was eagerly looking for it – that bitter struggle for the means of existence among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.


“Don't compete!” Kropotkin concluded.  “That is the watchword which comes to us from the bush, the forest, the river, the ocean. Therefore combine—practice mutual aid!”


Faced with the same data, the two scientists arrived at different conclusions. This illustrates how paradigms work.  Stephen Jay Gould, in a recent article rehabilitating Kropotkin from his caricature as an anarchist crank, would say that the difference in paradigm included a difference of data, because Kropotkin studied sparsely-populated Siberia, while Huxley and the British concentrated on the crowded tropics. But Gould points out that Kropotkin was anything but idiosyncratic: he represents the mainstream of Russian evolutionary thought, which remains untranslated and almost unknown in the West.  Prince Kropotkin seems singular to us only because he is the only such thinker who wrote in English.


Now this difference in paradigms ~ the lens through which we agree to look at the world ~ is what Paul is talking about, I believe, in his Spirit / Flesh dichotomy. The Huxley-Kropotkin controversy may serve as an analogy of the difference. It is very important not to misunderstand Paul. Spirit vs. flesh is not material vs. immaterial. Although many have interpreted it that way, such a dichotomy is, in fact heresy.  Material creation is what the bible says God pronounced it to be: Very Good


The heresy that holds that what is wrong with human beings is our material bodies and our lives in the world is NOT what Paul is talking about. He is talking about two different ways of viewing human life ~ two different paradigms, and the very different ways of life that proceed from each view of life. The flesh , rather like Sir Thomas Huxley, sees the human person as in competition with everybody else: the “war of each against all.” Therefore, my job is to advance my own interests, and get as much wealth as I can. The Spirit, rather like Prince Kropotkin, sees the human person as part of a great whole characterized by mutual aid.


This is a difference, which I have called a difference in paradigm, might also be called a difference in spiritual temperament. And what one perceives as reality depends greatly on one’s spiritual temperament; whether one sees reality as the dance of Cosmic Love or as gladiatorial combat  ~  “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”. Remember who uttered those words: the murderous Macbeth, his soul deformed by his own ambition, one of the most frightening depictions of Pauline flesh in all of literature.


Prof. Gould rightly warns us against the trap of reading our own political preferences into nature, as both Huxley and Kropotkin most certainly do.  But from the perspective of religious history,  I think one may also conclude that Huxley’s fleshly conclusions naturally proceed from a prior inclination to view the world as competition. Kropotkin, on the other hand, grew up as a nobleman in feudal times, for the rural Russia of his youth was entirely feudal. It was also entirely Christian, and whatever Kropotkin’s conscious atheism, there is no doubt about the influence that Orthodoxy had on his consciousness  ~  it was part of the paradigm by which he experienced the world. That is, it was spiritual in the Pauline sense.  


For all its pain and death, the material world is beautiful, and human beings are the image of God, however distorted. And as his great compatriot,  Dostoevsky, wrote: “the tragedy of humanity is that a paradise of beauty blooms around us and we fail to see it.”  That failure to see is flesh. That is what brings death. The Spirit is the divine gift of seeing the Beauty and Love that in fact rule the world ~ what our Lord called the Kingdom of God.  Anyone who has that gift is led by the Spirit, in Paul’s terminology. Like Prince Kropotkin, they may not be aware of it, but nevertheless, they are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.