by James P. Wind

One of the things that fascinates me about congregations is their paradoxical character. Regularly, they surprise us with their contradictory behaviors. A newcomer can visit a congregation one weekend and find it a very welcoming place. The next weekend, another visitor can have the opposite experience. Actually, both experiences could and do occur on the same Sunday in some of our churches and synagogues. One budget cycle, members may act in amazingly bold ways to take on a new mission; another year they may hunker down, table new mission opportunities and focus on their own institutional needs. Many congregations can combine both kinds of behavior within the same fiscal year. On one social issue, congregations may visibly lead their community, on another they may be invisible. Often, these leadership and abdication behaviors go on at the same time.

One response to this paradoxical character is to fault congregations for being inconsistent. Another is to recognize that paradoxical behavior is part of their nature. After all, they are made up of humans, and express in their decisions and behaviors the finitude and fallenness that our religions regularly warn us about. One option can lead to dismissal of congregations for their sloppiness or inefficiency. The other can open up the possibility of respect for them, perhaps even wonder about their remarkable capacity to comprehend human complexity and their special character as places where that complexity is negotiated.

A new book by the United States’ pre-eminent sociobiologist, Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, has challenged me to go deeper into the second option.The Social Conquest of Earth is the culmination of a lifetime of careful study of what Wilson calls eusocial behavior. Out of the dazzling menagerie of species that inhabit planet earth, only a few taxonomic species (homo sapiens being the most highly evolved) form groups that contain “multiple gererations and [are] prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor” (p. 16). Wilson has specialized in the study of leaf cutter ants and termites, but his expertise ranges across the spectrum of evolutionary history. It is easy to get lost in the weeds when he begins to discuss specialized genetic adaptations of ants or mole rats or when he examines the archaeological traces of human development.

But if one follows Wilson when he draws conclusions from all the detailed scientific studies, a larger picture emerges. The story he tells is of a rare occurrence of a special kind of behavior—the eusocial. Out of 2600 families of insects and arthropods, only 15 exhibit this behavior. Out of all the lines in the evolutionary tree that leads to modern humans, only one, homo sapiens, is eusocial. We are, evolutionarily speaking, rare birds.

For Wilson, the ancient, foundational characteristics of eusocial behavior are nest building, cross-generational communities, divisions of labor, and altruistic actions—individuals working for the common good, defending the nest, even to the point of sacrificing one’s life. He traces the emergence of these behaviors and follows their development across eons and the vast realm of nature and helps us see that we are part of a grand evolutionary epic, one that few of us know very much about.

A special moment in the human evolutionary journey occurred when humans learned how to control fire. A few generations later our ancestors began to gather around campfires, speak, and tell stories. From these behaviors came the first burial ceremonies and the emergence of toolmaking, singing, and art. Larger nests learned how to domesticate plants and animals. Over centuries tribes and civilizations emerged. These developments did not occur suddenly. The evolutionary story is one of glacial movements—slowly species adapt and develop new capacities.

Few of us think of our congregations as a part of this epic evolutionary story. But in many ways our congregations are places where these ancient eusocial behaviors take place. Cross-generational nests are built. Now as way back then, people gather to sing and tell stories, to deal with death, to build new forms of human community across generations, and to find new ways to divide labor and counter the survival of the fittest with behavior that seeks to further the common good. When we recall Robert Putnam’s assertion that half of U.S. social capital is formed in congregations, we begin to see just how critical these eusocial places are in our lives (Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 66).

Toward the end of his review of the evolutionary story, Wilson reminds us that “we are the growing point of an unfinished epic” (p. 287). What comes next? After reviewing the achievements of the eusocial humans—their creations of culture, religion, morality, technology, and the arts—he suggests that we are at an evolutionary hinge point. Our tribalism is being challenged by two realities that call for another major adaptive breakthrough in the evolutionary journey. The migratory intermingling of humans (we call it globalization) and the new possibilities of the internet are challenging us to build new patterns of community, more cosmopolitan than tribal. Human survival is at stake. As the summer’s shootings in at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and the Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin make clear, these adaptations will not be easy. They will take time and not every human being will be able to make the change.

How does this play out in our congregations? In countless ways. Across the country, congregations are negotiating increasing numbers of intermarriage and welcoming mixed families into their midst. They are sharing their facilities—from sanctuaries to parking lots—with people from different cultures and faiths. At a rapid rate they are finding ways to use the latest internet technologies to build community across old barriers of time and space. Individually and collectively these congregations are trying to help humans build the nests they need to live in 21st century America. They continue the long eusocial journey begun hundreds of thousands of years ago as they seek to open a new era of human community building. Like the patient ant-watcher, Wilson, we need to pay attention to what they are doing and support their efforts.

James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute.

Congregations magazine, 2012-09-11
2012 Issue 3, Number 3