Wired For Belonging

And the man and his wife were both naked and not ashamed” – Genesis 2:25

Howard J. Ross, in his bestselling book Our Search For Belonging: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing us Apart,[1] writes that all people have a “desire to fit into groups. The need for belonging is an inherent survival mechanism.”[2] He continues on to observe that it’s almost as if humans have been “wired for belonging.”[3]

While I don’t agree with all of the claims that Ross makes in his book, I do think that he’s right on this point. We really have been wired for belonging.

Made in the Image of a Triune God

The first two chapters of Genesis give us a theologically reflective glimpse at the creation of the world. And within them, we discover how humanity was originally wired.

After the earth is formed and filled by the voice of the LORD, Genesis 1:26 tells us that God speaks again. He says: “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.” This is followed up in 1:27 by a short poem summarizing the action just taken:

So God created humankind in His own image,

in the image of God He created them,

male and female He created them.”

A few interesting observations can be made from these two verses.

Why is the LORD speaking of himself in the plural in 1:26? Who is the “us” and the “our” that humanity was imaged after? Is the Lord speaking to a heavenly host of angels? Was the author of Genesis using a particular grammatical form in order to indicate YHWH’s royalty over all things? Was God personifying creation by referring to the previously formed and filled earth as an active participant in the formation of humans? We do learn in Genesis 2:7 that humanity was formed from the dust of the ground.

It is likely best to understand these plural pronouns as a proto indicator of God’s trinitarian nature. As the story of scripture develops, we come to learn that the LORD exists as a Trinity. That is, God exists in three persons that share one essence. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all mysteriously one God. And all three persons were present at creation. The Spirit hovered over the waters of the deep (1:2), and God the Father formed His universe in love and through the agency of the Son (John 1:1-3).

Thomas Aquinas makes a related point in his Summa Theologica. Aquinas writes: “When we say that in Him there is a procession of love [at creation], we show that God produced creatures not because He needed them, nor because of any other extrinsic reason, but on account of the love of His own goodness.”[4] In other words, God did not create humanity because He had a need that had to be met. He created humanity as an extension of the love that already existed within the Trinity itself. Humanity was created by, and in the image of, a community of self-giving Lovers.

This means that as God’s image bearers, humanity was meant to both embody the LORD’s love and offer up His commitment to unity toward all other humans.

We were made for each other.

And we cannot properly label ourselves as “the image of God” without one another. 

Naked and Not Ashamed

We come across another peculiar passage at the end of Genesis chapter 2.

After God forms man from the dust of the earth, plants a vineyard in the land of Eden, and fashions woman to fill a vital and nessecary role missing from creation, we are told in 2:25 that:

The man and his wife were both naked and not ashamed.”

There have been several answers offered up as to why this detail is included.[5] But it is interesting that only seven verses later, this reality is taken away. Adam and Eve lose their innocence the moment they eat from the tree of Good and Evil (3:7), and nakedness then becomes a synonym of shame. But what exactly did the first couple lose when their innocence was removed? And why would they be ashamed of their nakedness after eating the fruit?

To my mind, it seems like the author of Genesis is making another theologically reflective statement about humanity’s original wiring.

Vulnerable-togetherness, acceptance, and belonging was the Edemic ideal. Those attributes were normative. And practicing such things was the only way of life that Adam and Eve once knew. When the first couple wasn’t together, they always thought the best of each other and for the other’s good. When they were together, they were vulnerable, open, and thought of the other’s presence as a gift. Each person understood that they belonged the other; neither the man or the woman had a desire to lord over or control the other.

But, unfortunately, this ideal was ruined once sin entered into God’s creation.

After Adam and Eve ate from the tree, coercion and domination became humanity’s default mode of relation (Gen 3:16c).[6] And shameless “nakedness” is replaced with exploitation and humiliation (Isaiah 20:4, 47:3; Ezekiel 16:22, 37-39; Hosea 2:3; Amos 2:16; Micah 1:8, 1:11; Nahum 3:5).[7]

In other words, the belonging and togetherness that once permeated God’s good world has now dissolved into disunity and disorder.

Tribalism, Out-Groups, & the Corruption of Belonging

Howard Ross’ Our Search for Belonging is again helpful in highlighting how this corruption has taken form.

In his book, Ross cites several studies that have been conducted to document and track the contours of social behavior. One study intentionally divided groups of people based only on their preference of chewing gum flavor. But after all participants were able to observe other people’s taste in gum, certain individuals were given the power to anonymously allocate money to other participants in the study. What the researcher found was that participants would overwhelmingly grant money to other members who shared the same preference of chewing gum flavor.

Why is this noteworthy? It suggests that our inclination to form tribes, as well as favor members of our own tribe, is so engrained within us that it happens on even superficial levels.[8] It has become almost natural for humans to see the world through the lens of an “us-vs-them” mentality.

Ross also cites the conclusions of another study conducted by John Hopkins University which aimed to see how early tribalistic tendencies develop. In this experiment, very young infants were presented with a choice between two foods. They could either have a bowl of green beans or a bowl of graham crackers. But once their preference was established, researchers would then play with stuffed animals in front of the infants by pretending that certain stuffed animals also had similar food preferences. One stuffed rabbit would like graham crackers, while another liked the green beans. After this, both stuffed animals were offered to the children. These infants overwhelmingly chose to play with the toy that also shared their taste in food.

But that was only the first phase of the study.

Researchers then used these same stuffed rabbit toys to pretend-play with a rubber ball. They’d show the infants these rabbits bouncing their balls, but they would also have them occasionally drop them onto the ground. But when the ball would hit the floor, another set of toys were brought in: two stuffed dogs. One dog was nice. It would help the rabbit by returning its rubber ball. But the other dog was mean. It would steal the rabbit’s ball and run away.

After this phase of the experiment was repeated several times, these infants were again presented with a choice. Both stuffed dogs were offered to the infants. And interestingly, the infants strongly preferred to play with the helpful dog when the experiment used the stuffed rabbit that shared in the child’s food preference from the first phase of the study. However, the infants overwhelmingly chose the mean dog when the rabbit being used was the one that did not share their food preference.[9]

This again is evidence for the widespread effects of the Fall and how it has corrupted our desire to belong. Even at an early age, tribalism pervades. We prefer to interact with people like us and are often inclined to be hostile toward those who aren’t.

Instead of seeing all people as gifts, we now tend to only view people within our set social groups as worthwhile. If someone is of the same race as us, from the same country, of the same political persuasion, we are often more inclined to view them favorably. But if someone does not share our race, religion, political persuasion, or sexual orientation, we are usually inclined to think of them in mostly negative terms.

Because of this, we often choose to only associate with those in similar social groups as our own. We listen to their opinions and hold the information they share with us most dearly. And it’s almost inevitable that we create echo chambers where information or perspectives from outsider groups are filtered out and deemed inferior.

And, of course, this is the perfect breeding ground for fear.

Those we don’t have fellowship with, and who’s information we distrust, become an unsafe “other.” They become a threat to what we deem good. They begin to be viewed as potential hazards to our safety. And letting the “other” into our in-group is viewed as a risk to the collective unity.

That is, we still are wired for belonging, but some of those wires have been (intentionally) severed.

Moving Forward…Together

As new creations in Christ, we’re to strive to live out the Edemic ideal, the togetherness that was once lost.

But how do we do this when togetherness has been so wrapped-up into the effects of the Fall? How are we to move forward when tribalism becomes our modus operandi before we turn even a year old?

Learning to rewire ourselves is hard work. And when we attempt to do so, it will likely feel as if we are fighting against the very fabric of what makes us human. But it’s nessecary work if we hope to take seriously the calls, which are so frequent in the New Testament, that challenge us to belong to one another in spite of our worldly divisions (John 17:20-21, Acts 15:8-21, Romans 12:4-16, Romans 14:19, Romans 15:5-7, 1 Corinthians 1:10, Galatians 3:23-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Philippians 2:2, 1 Peter 3:8, and so on).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but doing these 3 things might be a good way for us to start this process:

1. Refuse to label any other person as anything else besides “loved by God.”

It’s tempting to identify others by their social labels only. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: “It is far easier to deal with people as problems to be solved than to have anything to do with them in community.”[10]

But instead of thinking of our neighbors as merely Republican or Democrat, or pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, it’s best to first understand them as humans loved by God. This will help us see them as gifts to us, potential siblings in the Lord, and ones whom we might have an opportunity to learn from.

Again, this is tough to do. Especially in such a politically polarized climate as the United States. But even if this means that we have to “unfollow” all of our friends on Facebook and Twitter so that we can remain naïve to the views they’re posting about and sharing online, so be it. It’s better to lose the opportunity to see our old classmate’s vacation photos than risk resenting someone who rarely has the opportunity to give us face-to-face feedback.

2. Intentionally seek out and learn from people who do not belong to any social group that you are a part of.

Most of us have little interaction outside of our normal social groups. Most of our friends think and look like us. But if we are to take seriously the command to belong, we need to begin to search outside our natural groups for friendship and connection.

Doing so will help us recognize our biases. It might also expose the ways we have succumbed to information echo chambers that have kept us from learning valuable insights foreign to the groups we normally deem safe. Join a club or a community rec-group. Visit a church of a different denomination within a different part of town. Get involved in helping out at a local after-school program. Take free online classes from a professor that looks nothing like you and who might not share your beliefs about everything.

3. Courageously embrace vulnerability even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

As was discussed earlier, “nakedness” has now become synonymous with shame. But it wasn’t always that way. Being vulnerable was once the default mode of existence. This means that a willingness to be vulnerable is another way we might welcome others well.

Most of us are afraid to be vulnerable. In doing so, we expose our weaknesses to those who may wish to exploit them. But by courageously relating to others with our defenses down allows them the opportunity to feel safe around us.

Answer questions honestly about how you are doing. Be willing to share about your painful past experiences if it would be helpful in the moment. Learn to recognize the defense mechanisms you employ when presented with criticism. Learn to silence the self-critical spirit in your head that tells you not to share something out of fear of embarrassment.  

We have all been wired for belonging. But, and as we’ve seen, some of our connections have been severely severed.

Nevertheless, this does not mean they can’t be repaired.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Our-Search-Belonging-Connect-Tearing/dp/1523095032

[2] Howard J. Ross, Our Search For Belonging: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart, (Oakland, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2018), 8.

[3] Howard J. Ross, Our Search For Belonging, 9.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I QQ XXVII-XLIX. Vol. 2.

[5] Is 2:25 a comment about intercourse? With these words coming right after 2:24’s description of family “unity,” should we understand this verse to signify that the first couple consummated their marriage? Or is it a comment about nudism as an Edemic ideal? That is, were humans originally created to be free of clothing? Coverings weren’t created until after the Fall (Gen 3:7, 3:21). It might also be the case that this passage is a comment about veganism as an Edemic ideal. In the first two chapters of Genesis, humans are never depicted eating or using products made from animals. It isn’t until after the Fall that humanity begins wearing clothing made from animal hide (Gen 3:21). For a more thorough argument about Genesis 1-2 and veganism, see: Ryan Patrick McLaughlin, “A Meatless Dominion: Genesis 1 and the Ideal of Veganism”, Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol 47 num 3, 144-154. It has also been argued that 2:24 is a comment about the first couple’s “child-like” innocence. After Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil, their “eyes were opened” (Gen 3:6) and their naivety about sin, evil, and shame was lost. See: John Walton, Genesis, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 179 and 206. However, in my opinion, I believe that 2:25 is best read as a theological statement about vulnerability, acceptance, and good intentions towards the other as normative in pre-fallen creation.

[6] Genesis 3’s curse upon the woman in 3:16c shouldn’t be read prescriptively. That is, it doesn’t prescribe to us actions that should be fulfilled now. This passage is descriptive, explaining the effects of sin upon a fractured creation. It is now the case that both men and women will attempt to “lord over” one another, and such actions are sinful. They are a deviation from what was once normal. See: John C. Nugent, Genesis 1-11, Polis Bible Commentary vol 1a, (La Vista, NE: Urban Loft Publishers, 2018), 62-63.

[7] For more on the relationship between “nakedness” and “guilt” in the Old Testament, see: Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 181.

[8] Howard J. Ross, Our Search For Belonging, 31-32.

[9] Howard J. Ross, Our Search For Belonging, 135-136.

[10] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1980), 173.  

One thought on “Wired For Belonging

  1. Pingback: Belonging in the Midst of a Broken World | Scripture Simplified

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