The Kingdom of Heaven as Superorganism

Although I stumbled into the question of whether and how evolutionary theory and religion are compatible quite by accident (I’ve been considering dynamic equilibrium theories of economics for the past few months), I’ve gotten more and more interested as I’ve considered the terrain.

The application of evolutionary theory to culture, politics, and religion has been rejected by many (if not most) Americans for two very different historical trends:

  1. Because of precedents set by the Catholic and Protestant church leaders in the late-19th Century, religious believers have been fighting an increasingly absurd battle against atheist and agnostic evolutionary biologists ever since.
  2. Because of precedents set by the Nazi and fascist parties in Europe prior to WWII, both liberal and conservative political ideologies have rejected evolutionary explanations of social and economic inequality.

Taken together, these two historical trends have been sufficient to persuade nearly everybody in the Western world from applying evolutionary theory to culture, religion, politics — really any group behavior — since WWII.

The tide has turned, however, as some thick-skinned scholars from a variety of fields have (after duly noting the dangers of rushing to normative conclusions) reopened the question of whether evolutionary theory has anything interesting to say about social behavior. In part, this is because it most emphatically does.

In particular, as noted in an earlier post, the theory that natural selection at the level of groups can promote cooperation within groups (and conflict among groups) has very interesting affinities with some of what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven in the gospels. To my knowledge, this is not an observation that I have ever heard anybody in the church make. What’s more surprising, however, is that nobody outside the church has made it either. Wouldn’t that have been an effective way to win Christians over to evolutionary theory?

To be specific, the evolution of any population (of anything — chemicals, individuals, or groups) can be reduced to three basic conditions of variation, differential consequences to the variations, and heritability. The mechanism for producing variations can be fast or slow, producing small changes or big ones. The differential consequences can be drastic or minor. Heritability means any mechanism that propagates the characteristics of a member of the population in time — reproduction, phase transition, or synchronization. Please don’t confuse evolutionary theory in its general form with its embodiment in evolutionary biology.

These three basic conditions apply to at least some of the descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus provides in the gospels.

To begin with, two metaphors that Jesus teaches in Matthew 13 are helpful in understanding the connection:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

According to Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is at least like a living organism. Not inconsistent with this metaphor, Jesus elsewhere speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven as having a spatial location (e.g., “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Matt. 10:7).

Is the Kingdom of Heaven a group of people who shares Jesus’ commitment to serving God the Father? Several passages would seem to confirm that interpretation. Consider Matthew 5:19: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. ” And Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. ”

These suggest that Jesus may have had at least an organic metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven in mind. But is there evidence that he had something more literal in mind? Is there evidence that he actually meant that the Kingdom of Heaven was an organism subject to evolutionary theory? Consider the parables he taught about the Kingdom of Heaven:

The Parable of the Tares (Matt. 13:24) cries out to be interpreted with evolutionary theory. The two basic conditions of variation and differential consequences are the most prominent details of the story Jesus tells about the planting of wheat seeds among weeds (variation), the separation of the wheat and weeds at harvest (differential consequences). Heritability features explicitly in the explanation of the parable Jesus gives to the disciples (Matt. 13:37-43). Here Jesus makes it clear that the difference between the wheat and the weeds is an inherited characteristic (“the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one”).

If we go down the list of the rest of the parables, each may be interpreted as saying something of importance about the fitness of the Kingdom of Heaven as a social organism. The Treasure Hid in the Field (Matt. 13:44) and the Merchant and the Pearl (Matt. 13:45) suggest the fitness of the organism relative to its competitors (i.e., relative to other groups that individuals might cooperate with). The Parable of the Net (Matt. 13:47) again explicitly features variation and differential consequences. In the Parable of the Householder (Matt. 13:52), the dynamic quality of the Kingdom of Heaven is emphasized. Intriguingly, Jesus’ enigmatic aphorism “the last shall be first and first shall be last” might be interpreted to emphasize the same.

If the Kingdom of Heaven is understood as a social organism composed of individuals, how would those individuals have to behave in order to keep the organism whole? Wouldn’t each individual be dependent on others within the group for their needs in the same way that individual cells within our body are completely dependent on the cells around them for their needs? Could this be the explanation for why Jesus singles out children as model members of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 18 and 19? Conversely, might it be hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 19:23) because wealth confers independence on individuals, reducing their need to cooperate with any group.

And again if in-group cooperation is a characteristic of healthy organisms, then the Parable of the Cruel Creditor (Matt. 18:23) can be understood (especially in conjunction with Jesus’ teaching to Peter in the immediately preceding passage) as an exhortation to cooperate and reciprocate unselfish behavior within the group.

The rest of the parables concerning the Kingdom of Heaven flesh out a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven as organism. For example, radical in-group cooperation will inevitably result in redistributions of wealth among group members. The complaints of injustice that inevitably result are treated in the Parable of the Landowner in Matthew 20. In the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt. 22), we again find themes of variation and differential consequences in responses to the invitation and again at the banquet when one of the guests is removed for failure to dress appropriately. Similarly, in the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25) we find variation and differential consequences. But here the variation and differential consequences relate to a temporal scheme (of preparedness to meet the groom). So again the dynamic quality of the Kingdom of Heaven appears, albeit implicitly in this case.

Altogether the interpretation of the Kingdom of Heaven as organism stands up rather well in light of these passages and others in the New Testament. Over the next few months, I plan to explore in several posts the possible consequences, if any, that such a conception might have in understanding the role of the Christians. Serious mistakes have been made in drawing normative conclusions from evolutionary theory in the past. Nonetheless, with those disasters as a reminder, it seems worthwhile to explore how a conception of the church as a literally living — and evolving — body of individual believers might be impactful.

UPDATE: I decided to change the title to be consistent with the word used to describe a similar thing by E.O. Wilson. I am wary of neologisms, but I figure if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cooperation, Jesus' Teaching

7 Comments on “The Kingdom of Heaven as Superorganism”

  1. jenny Says:

    Fascinating. I am very impressed by the support of this collection of parables. Can’t wait for follow-up posts!

  2. Collin Says:

    Individual cells or individual members (hand, eye, etc.), we certainly do need to be connected to each other for the body to function. As Jesus himself prayed for us, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)

  3. […] If the Kingdom of God is an organism, it needs nourishment to stay healthy and to grow. As Jesus said, the branches must remain in the […]

  4. […] in France and died in 1955 in New York City. He also, to my delight in view of this earlier post on the Kingdom of Heaven as organism, held a view of the church as organism, which he elaborated at length in some of his books, […]

  5. […] and growth Thinking about the kingdom of Heaven as organism reminds me of something I learned as a schoolboy: that the role of blood in the body is like that […]

  6. […] keeping with the theme of groups as organisms on this blog, an alternative understanding of existence and knowledge might begin not with self, […]

  7. Bill Martz Says:

    Jesus was the Kingdom of Heaven. See “Jesus of Nazareth” by Pope Benedict XVI.

    Organism has merit. Jesus is the Bread of Life. The Church is the Body of Christ.

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