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Wired That Way

Earlier this week, Canada’s top military man, Gen. Tom Lawson said a very, very bad thing in an interview about sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. He said that sexual harassment remains an issue in the military due to “biological wiring.” Oh dear.

And, of course, this comment kicked into motion the lynch mob that is trial by social media. There were immediate howls of righteous indignation, there were impassioned pleas from Canadian politicians decrying Lawson’s ignorant comments and demanding his immediate resignation, and a stream of commentary from all corners declaring that these kinds of ideas have no place in Canada in the year 2015! Gen. Lawson has been dutifully tarred and feathered and exposed as the misinformed neanderthal that he obviously is. The Internet can take a deep breath and be satisfied that it has restored moral order to the cosmos.

But what if we were to pause, just for a moment, and examine our outrage. I realize that being outraged is deliciously fun and, well, just what we do on the Internet, but what if we were entertain the possibility that Gen. Lawson wasn’t an outlandish idiot that deserved to be summarily written off, that he might even have picked up a sliver or two of insights over long decades spent leading other humans? What if we were to give him the benefit of the doubt and consider that, however silly his comment might sound, it could actually be gesturing toward something worth paying attention to?

I listened to the interview. Gen. Lawson’s comment was pretty dumb, and he has since admitted as much. But it’s interesting to note the question that his ill-fated “biological wiring” remark came in response to. Lawson was asked, How, in the year 2015, the military could still have men sexually imposing themselves upon women?!” As if, at this advanced stage of human history, in an, ahem, morally exemplary nation like Canada, such a thing ought to be unheard of! As if, in a hyper-sexualized context where rape culture is still alive and well (the story of Jian Ghomeshi leaps to mind), where women are still regularly portrayed in film and in popular music as little more than sexual objects, as if in the year 2015 the idea that men might have biological inclinations that might play a role in sexual aggression toward women was little more than a dusty relic of some misogynistic medieval past!

Into this framing of the question and in response to these implicit assumptions, Gen. Lawson had the temerity to suggest—awkwardly and ill-advisedly, to be sure—that perhaps basic human biology might have a role to play in the persistence of sexual aggression in the military. And now? Well, God help him!

Because the idea that we might be “wired” for sexual aggression, of course, goes against our preferred and deeply cherished narrative of biology being something that can be shaped according to our preferences and choosing. Even the most cursory familiarity with recent news bears this out. Biologically white, but wish you were black and self-identify as such? No problem. Born anatomically male (or female) but wish you were the other? No problem. Gender and race are, increasingly, construed as social constructions, endlessly pliable and eager to be pressed into the service of human choosing. Biology is always subservient to human will. Except when we want biology to be determinative. Issues of sexual orientation and how this ought to be expressed are, for example, frequently thought to be resolved once the biology card is played. Being “wired that way” is often the beginning and end of the conversation.

So it’s interesting how biology and being “wired that way” plays out in social discourse. Unsurprisingly, we’re not terribly consistent. About the only thing that we’re clear about is that whatever “wired that way” might mean, we’re pretty sure that it ought to bolster the opinions that we wish to defend and the deeply cherished views about ourselves that ground our identities. “Wired that way” is admissible as an explanation for things that are laudable or desirable, but never for their opposites.

The truth that most of us realize quite quickly when we actually pause to think about things for a second—when we resist the temptation to stampede on to social media to register our outrage whenever a sound-byte threatens the ways we are pleased to think about ourselves—is that everything about who we are and what we do is the product of both biology and social context.

We are wired for good things and for bad things. We are socialized into good things and bad things. Our social location acts upon our biological impulses, just as the ways we are “wired” affect how we engage with our contexts (the social context of the Internet, for example, acts upon our biological instincts toward tribalism and narcissism and the result is, well, Twitter 🙂 ).  Some of our biological inclinations should be nurtured, while some ought to be repressed. This is simply what it is to be human.

Is “biological wiring” the (sole) cause for why there is sexual violence in the military (or anywhere else, for that matter)? No. “Biology made me do it” is about as sophisticated a response as “the devil made me do it.” But biology is certainly part of the story and it’s naive to pretend otherwise. It’s part of every human story.

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. Suzanne Allan #

    I have been following your blog for a while Ryan and am very thankful for your thoughtful words that challenge me to think about my Christian beliefs and life in the context of my family, church, community, and Canadian culture. I have shared your posts with several friends and family members. Keep up the great work!

    June 18, 2015
    • Thank you, Suzanne. I very much appreciate these encouraging words. Thank you for reading.

      June 19, 2015
  2. L #

    This is a truly brilliant post.. I tried to put similar thoughts into words at a clergy meeting today but was not as successful as you…will be sharing your thoughts with others, thank you.

    June 18, 2015
  3. mike #

    Outstanding job navigating through such a complex and nuanced topic, Ryan.

    “…everything about who we are and what we do is the product of both biology and social context.”

    I can’t help but ponder what differences our lives might be had we been born into a completely different social context, say in Bangladesh, Bogota or Baghdad. For instance, would I still be prone to Alcoholism had I been born a Columbian or an Iraqi?. And would I still have this insatiable hunger for God? .. Allah?…Buddha?. just thinking out loud here.

    June 18, 2015
    • Thank you, Mike.

      I often wonder along similar lines. It seems that social context, particularly in formative years, has a deep and lasting influence on how and what we believe. We are all born into certain “plausibility structures,” to borrow a term from sociologist Peter Berger—social norms, values, etc, that affect, some might even say determine, our worldview.

      I am not a social determinist. I do not believe the what we believe is down to the accidents of where and when we are born. There are too many stories of conversion, of people changing their minds, etc for me to believe this. But I think many people vastly underestimate the role that social location plays in worldview. I know that I am a Christian because I was born in a context that made this likely, just like someone in Baghdad or Bangladesh would have a similar story. We are not nearly the unshackled thinkers and believers that we are often pleased to imagine that we are—as if we were choosing in some kind of rational vacuum.

      I am convinced that God knows well the circumstances in which we are formed and informed as people. And that his mercy is very wide indeed. Far wider than ours often is.

      June 19, 2015
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Perhaps what the general was trying to not to say is that biology paired with military culture has historically produced violent, sexual aggressiveness in many soldiers. How do we kill without a violent, aggressive nature? And what do we do with this violent, aggressive nature when killing is no longer required?

    June 19, 2015
    • Yes, I think that might have been what he was trying to say. That’s what he should have said, at any rate.

      Thanks, Paul.

      June 19, 2015
    • James #

      Paul, I believe you are correct in saying that we can hardly teach people to behave aggressively and expect there to be no other implications But saying that would have been even more problematic than what he did say. The deep impact of Ryan’s post is trying to find ways to have substantive conversations in a culture that lives by sound bites. That’s a puzzle I’ve been pondering for some time now.

      June 19, 2015
      • When you figure out the puzzle, let me know would you, James. 🙂

        June 19, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        I don’t see a puzzle at all James. We simply need to live more intentionally Christian lives in more intentionally Christian communities. Finding the courage to make the commitment is the big problem. But it is a problem of will, not intellect.

        June 20, 2015
      • mike #

        “…Ryan’s post is trying to find ways to have substantive conversations in a culture that lives by sound bites.” In the past few years I’ve noticed a dramatic increase on the internet of people simply using clever quotes, one-liners, and sound bites to make a point in lieu of engaging dialog. This seems intellectually shallow and lazy to me. It’s as if we are being dumbed-down and dis-connected by the very technology that is heralded as a way to “be connected”.

        June 20, 2015
      • I’ve noticed the same trends, Mike. They trouble me. They make me determined to combat them in whatever way I can.

        I think the church can be a powerful witness to a better way simply by engaging in patient, honest, and humble conversations that refuse the easy outs of reactionary judgmentalism and tribalism that seem to come so naturally to human beings. Our discourse, like all of our lives, ought to be patterned after the way of Jesus.

        June 22, 2015
  5. rwwilson147 #

    Glad to see that someone–you Ryan!–is thinking deeply about the trajectories of our most common cultural arguments and sees some inconsistencies. Think clearly and sensitively in line with what he said and we’ll all be better off and farther down the cultural (nee spiritual) road we are traveling.

    June 20, 2015
  6. Paul Johnston #

    If everything about who we are and what we do is the product of biology and social context, are we not materialists? What is the point of God belief?

    June 21, 2015
    • mike #

      I don’t know, Paul, it seems fairly self evident to me that our lives are greatly influenced by genetics and local environment….and belief(s).
      Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who through process, reveals to us just how lost and adrift we are in a Culture of materialism and excess.

      June 21, 2015
    • If God is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being,” (Acts 17:28) then that would include biology and social context, would it not, Paul?

      As I wrote about in a recent post, I think that too often Christians have an implicit view of a God “out there” who periodically makes an appearance “in here.” Thus, we push God into some “supernatural” realm where he does “supernatural” things all the while forgetting that God is the one who underwrites and sustains all of existence at every moment. We cannot go where God is not.

      June 22, 2015
  7. Paul Johnston #

    “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away”…

    “… neither male or female; Greek or Jew”….

    ” I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, as I am not of the world”…

    Biology and social context are old creation persona’s. If we truly walk with Christ we are new creations. We will, by faith and the Holy Spirit, transcend our material identities.

    “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer selves are wasting away, our inner selves are growing stronger”…

    June 22, 2015
    • I don’t think any of those verses are addressing the question of whether or not our biological make up and our social context affect—note well, I said affect, not determine—who we are and who we become as human beings. It seems indisputable to me that we are the product of these things. Jesus himself was a product of these things (he wasn’t some generic context-less human being, but a fulfillment of the hope of Israel, son of Mary, adopted child of Joseph…).

      New creation does not obliterate our biological or social inheritance. This is the raw material which is encountered by the gospel of Jesus Christ and reshaped, transformed, healed, forgiven, enlivened… New creation redeems both biology and social reality and presses them into the service of forming us into the image of Christ.

      June 22, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        We will have to disagree here. 🙂

        What biology and social reality effect is the old creation. That creation passes away. Your new creation is oneness with God, through Jesus in communion with the whole of creation that the Lord chooses to redeem.
        You will be part of the transcendent divine. Note, I said transcending not obliterating…lol…sorry bro, I couldn’t resist.

        He is not of this world. Neither are those who are His. The Gospel of St. John seems pretty clear on the matter. The Eucharist IS Jesus. St. John is pretty clear on that too.

        The material world is our cross. How we carry it matters. It speaks to what kind of resurrection awaits us but it will pass away.

        Don’t find your identity in what is passing away. Have the courage, through faith, to surrender what biology and social reality seem to insist on.

        Let the dead bury the dead.

        June 22, 2015
      • I’m not “finding my identity in what is passing away,” Paul, nor do I lack the “courage, through faith, to surrender what biology and social reality seem to insist on.” I am acknowledging a basic reality in how God has been pleased make us as human beings, and some of the means through which God works to redeem and reclaim all that has been lost.

        I did not suddenly shed all of the biological traits that I inherited from my parents once I became a follower of Jesus, nor would I want to. Nor could I. Nor could you. Nor could any of us. I did not suddenly cease to be male or white or Western or a child of parents belonging to a certain church or a citizen of an ostensibly “Christian” nation where certain norms and assumptions hold sway. None of these things ceased being a part of my story once I made the conscious decision to follow Jesus. The same is true for you. The same is true for every human being on the planet.

        To say that who we are is influenced by the human beings who gave us biological life and the human beings who comprise the communities that our lives are lived within is to say something pretty unremarkable. It is simply to say that biological and social reality is the stuff God works with. Always has been, always will be. This is the soil from which new creation springs.

        June 22, 2015
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Without the Eucharist we can do nothing. It is the source and summit of our faith. It is the medium through which the Holy Spirit…..the ” greater thing” described by Our Lord and Savior….is made present. Without it we are defenseless.

    If I bring you to the Eucharist, I bring you to the Lord.

    Everything else is just talk.

    June 22, 2015
    • I would prefer to say that Jesus is the source and summit of our faith. And I am deeply grateful for the Eucharist as one of the ways in which he is encountered.

      June 22, 2015
  9. Paul Johnston #

    I’m still mulling over your phrase, in italics no less, 🙂 “everything about who we are and what we do is the product of biology and social context.”

    For me this statement is an advocacy of materialism. There is no need for God in this type of worldview….unless this…..the biological, socially contexted self, is in fact the “old self” as described in scripture and the “new self”, the true, fully evolved, eternal self, is a materially detached, spiritually centered being.

    Oneness but not in a singular way. One in the communal way. One with God, self, other and creation. Oneness as love. Love as oneness. Love is oneness.

    Biology and culture are pervasive, no doubt, but only to the lesser, older creation. The new creation through faith, by grace will transcend the limitations of materialism. God has. So will those whom he calls his own. It is His promise.

    Your understanding is accurate but only to a very finite, material point.

    In the end God is infinite and Spiritual. So shall we be.

    I want a bigger narrative then what your advocacy seems to offer me here. I’m a go big or go home kind of believer. 🙂

    We need to see more than what it is we see. With God’s help we can.

    If I did not believe these things to be true then God would seem very wicked to me. A ruthless, sadistic judge holding a biologically, socially determined creature to a transcendent standard that was simply unattainable.

    My best guess as to your misunderstanding is that you need to risk a supernatural encounter with the Lord your God.

    June 22, 2015
    • I don’t know what else I can say, Paul. I’m explaining myself as well as I am able, but it feels like you simply aren’t responding to what I am saying. Or are assuming I’m saying many things that I’m not. Or are assuming that there is some kind of spiritual deficiency or reluctance on my part that is the cause of my “misunderstanding.”

      Perhaps a few simple questions would be the best way to proceed.

      1. In your view, are human biology and culture domains of life that exist apart from God?
      2. Does new creation involve an erasure of biological and social reality? Or its redemption?
      3. It it possible that God might work through biology and human culture? Has God done this in the past? Is this not the story of Scripture?

      June 22, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        The terms, “biological and social realities” seem oxymoronic to me.They are simply material descriptives from a purely human perspective. To see them as anything resembling morality is to open a door to every heinous ethic imaginable.

        God will simply redeem what is of Him. No more. No less.

        Biological impulses and culture do not define us in God’s economy. They are to be transcended. Christ transcended Himself, His humanity, His culture. So must I. So must you.

        God can choose whatever means he wishes. Means are not ends.

        Best I can do for you, Ryan. 🙂

        June 22, 2015
      • If it seems oxymoronic to you to acknowledge that there were two physical human beings whose union led to your being alive and possessing some of the traits that you do, and that your being born in the time and place that you were plays a role in the choices you have made and the options that have been available to you, then, yes, I suppose we will have to agree to disagree.

        June 23, 2015
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Clearly I am struggling with the terms of your questions. …maybe I can do better…. 🙂 Forgive me but they just don’t seem relevant to worship, justice or salvation.

    1. In the material sense, No. Everything is God’s prerogative. Nothing exists apart from God. Tolerance is not affirmation. In the spiritual sense, yes. Man is presently altering plant and human biology, while simultaneously working to convince us that biology and culture is all we are. Believe this and God’s will for man will be denied.

    2. Redemption will mean erasure of some things, eternal glorification of other things.

    3. God ( The Father) introduced himself to humanity through the supernatural. So that we might be saved, God (Jesus) met us where we were in order to take us where he is.The medium now is again purely supernatural (Holy Spirit). To reduce God to Jesus is to risk denying our Trinitarian God. God must be met as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    June 23, 2015
    • Forgive me but they just don’t seem relevant to worship, justice or salvation.

      Well, that might be because my questions aren’t directly about worship, justice, or salvation. Those were not the (direct) topics of this blog post.

      Redemption will mean erasure of some things, eternal glorification of other things.

      Yes. Absolutely.

      Re: “reducing” God to Jesus… That’s an interesting way to describe things, in light of passages like Colossians 1:19 (and surrounding) and Hebrews 1:3 (and surrounding). I do not deny the Trinity, and am grateful for all its operations. But I am convinced that Jesus is the clearest and most accurate picture we have of what God is like, the fullest representation of his being, the truest thing that God has ever said and will ever say.

      June 23, 2015
  11. Paul Johnston #

    I’m not denying biology or culture, Ryan. 🙂 I am however, unequivocally stating, that they are impulses/identities that are to be overcome and subordinated to the will of God.

    Science will always portray man in his lower animal form. A creature bound by impulse and conditioning. The ethics that evolve from this understanding will always be exploitive…always.

    It is only God that loves. Only God that will elevate a man to his greatest potentials.

    Reciprocate God’s love.

    We shall overcome! 🙂

    June 23, 2015
    • As I look back at this thread and all the ways that we seem to be talking past each other, I am thinking that perhaps the easiest way to distill things might be this.

      I think that we both believe that God is both immanent and transcendent. You are emphasizing certain aspects of God’s transcendent work in the world, while I am trying to pay attention to the ways in which God is immanent in his creation. Can we at least agree that God is both, even if we emphasize one or the other at various points in various conversations?

      June 23, 2015
  12. Paul Johnston #

    …lol…. I am a demanding guest indeed. I always want to bring conversation back to holiness and what that might look like on the ground. A Trinitarian culture so to speak. :)….I know I must get wearisome at times.

    Culture is indeed pervasive and most of it not in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I instinctively ( the Spiritual kind 🙂 ) push back against it.

    Let the culturalists through social medias deal with lesser issues. With symptoms. With symptom management. I selfishly want our voices to speak of healing, of cures. Of Jesus. Of Father. Of Spirit.

    We are called to transform culture not be transformed by it…..

    Immanent and transcendent, yes of course. Here is the rub for me though. God’s transcendence, The Father, (to my mind) stands above and beyond all humanity; all creation.

    Jesus, God’s immanence, works with humanity through creation. (The Spirit mediating both Father and Son.)

    In this way I see God limiting His immanence proportionate to the love mankind freely expresses to God and His creation. In this way Mankind has influence over immanence. With influence comes accountability. With accountability, judgment.

    We have to change how we do things.

    June 23, 2015

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