Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Christianity and the Religions: A Zero-Sum Game? Reclaiming "The Path Not Taken" and the Legacy of Krister Stendahl

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Christianity and the Religions: A Zero-Sum Game? Reclaiming "The Path Not Taken" and the Legacy of Krister Stendahl

Article excerpt

1. Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Acclaimed journalist and scholar of natural science, anthropology, and religious history, Robert Wright, in his richly awarded book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, (1) and in his sequential, recently released The Evolution of God, (2) has been making a rather simple argument that he supports with a broad array of biological, anthropological, and historical data. In the early pages of Nonzero, he summarized his central claim: "My hope is to illuminate a kind of force--the non-zero-sum dynamic--that has crucially shaped the unfolding of life on earth so tar." (3) Or in an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times of August 23, 2009, he stated crisply: "... non-zero-sum dynamics ... are part of our universe." (4)

Through a broad and wary analysis of both cultural and biological evolution, Wright has made an engaging and persuasive case that the evident movement that we call evolution--"[f]rom alpha to omega, from the first primordial chromosome on up to the first human beings" (5)--has been animated or oriented by conflicts that become the occasions for cooperation. Entities, whether molecules or humans or cultures, clash in zero-sum relationships in which "for me to win you have to lose," but these very clashes can lead to the recognition--not always but often enough--that "for me to win and survive, you have to win and survive as well." Of course, on the pre-human level, this is not a conscious dynamic, but it is a dynamic.

In other words, there has been a widespread misunderstanding of Darwin's "survival of the fittest"; the fittest are really not the strongest and the meanest but, rather, the smartest and the most cooperative. As Wright put it, "interdependence is just another name for non-zero-sumness." (6) He marveled, almost like a theologian: "That's the magical thing about non-zero-sumness; it translates rational selfishness into the welfare of others." (7) He called this dynamic, on the human level, a natural "moral sense." "[E]volutionary psychologists have developed a plausible account of the moral sense. They say it is in large part natural selection's way of equipping people to play non-zero-sum games--games that can be win-win if the players cooperate or lose-lose if they don't." (8)

A. A Threshold

At the end of his two books, Wright somewhat apologetically removed his journalist's or scientist's hat and uncomfortably donned that of the preacher. He believes that the data clearly shows that evolution, in the human species, has reached a point at which we either consciously assume a non-zero-sum relationship with each other and with the world, or evolution may have to start all over again. Mainly because of the level of technology we have attained, our interdependence is tighter, and more delicate, than ever before* If up to this point, we were all in our separate boats on the same ocean, now we are in one big boat on the same ocean. "That's what happens when the zone of non-zero-sumness reaches planetary breadth; once everybody is in the same boat, either they learn how to get along or very bad things happen." (9)

In other words, we have reached a point where we no longer need, nor can we actually bear, zero-sum energies to propel us toward non-zero-sum relations: "More than before, non-zero-sumness can thrive without zero-sumness as it ultimate source." (10) Indeed, it has to thrive without zero-sumness. Collaboration must replace conflict. If it does not, it is not going to be a matter of one tribe's being bloodied by another but of all the tribes destroying each other or destroying the earth that sustains them.

So, we do stand at a point in history where we either go forward with a nonzero-sum morality, or we do not go forward. Wright has posed the possibility "... that we are passing through a true threshold, a change as basic as the transitions from hunter-gatherer village to chiefdom, from chiefdom to ancient state. …

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