The Tortoise and the Hare

Michael Metzger

In his provocative new book Coming Apart, Charles Murray expresses hope for a “civic Great Awakening among the new upper class.” Awakenings are not unprecedented in American history. He believes this one however will be led by neuroscience. That would be unprecedented – as well as good news for a few age-old Christian traditions.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is a tour de force of data. Murray notes how 80 percent of America’s elites are “balkanized” in 882 U.S. zip codes. Most “do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.”1 Nor are they familiar with the founding virtues of industriousness and honesty as well as “the institutions through which right behavior is nurtured – marriage and religion,” he writes.2

The founders believed these virtues necessary for the flourishing of the American experiment. America’s elites – those who run our economic, political, and cultural institutions – are however largely unfamiliar with them. This doesn’t bother Murray. He believes neuroscience will usher in a “civic Great Awakening among the new upper class.”3 Genetic and neural science can serve as a new basis for the virtues by vindicating “many age-old ways of thinking about human nature.”

This is good news for a few age-old Christian traditions. It’s bad news for more recent renditions of the faith. The distinction becomes evident in America’s three Great Awakenings. The first began in the mid-1720s and is associated with George Whitefield. It reached its apex in the late 1730s, influencing urban cultural elites. The Second Great Awakening began around 1800 and lasted until 1840. Led by Charles Finney, it was markedly different than Whitefield’s. Finney’s revivals were highly individualistic (urging individuals to “make a decision for Jesus”), rationalist (an Enlightenment take on human nature), and rural. It launched modern evangelicalism (i.e., Methodists, Baptists, Bible and community churches, and the parachurch). In the third awakening, dated variously from the 1860s and to the early 1900s, these new evangelicals came under attack and retreated, creating parallel sub-cultures of schools, music, publishing, etc.

Modern evangelicalism is laudable for its concern for souls. Its rapid rise however is rooted somewhat in being cultural copycats. As the Second Great Awakening unfolded, Tocqueville noted how Americans had become “individualists.” Much of modern evangelicalism is “highly individualistic” writes Tim Keller. America is a nation shaped by Enlightenment rationalism. Much of modern evangelicalism is rationalist, with the sermon as a service’s centerpiece and small groups for Bible discussion. It’s mostly a head-trip – and why Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith critiques modern evangelicalism for assuming people are “brains on a stick.” It’s an Enlightenment understanding of human nature that’s being overtaken by neuroscience.

Cal Berkeley professor George Lakoff says neuroscience is discovering how 95 percent of our behavior is unconscious. It turns out human behavior is less rational and more culturally conditioned. That’s not determinism; it’s a more developed view of human beliefs and behavior – what Iris Murdoch essentially meant when she wrote, “that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”4 Our desires are shaped more by culture and less by cognition, or choice. The good news is this understanding of human nature is found in age-old Christian traditions such as Catholicism, Anglicanism, and many of the early European Reformers. They see the Cultural Mandate as foundational. They assume human nature is shaped more by culture and less by cognition. They understand the Great Commission as seamless with the Cultural Mandate, a reiteration of the original mandate. The Commission takes into account the fall and why followers of Christ are best suited to make flourishing cultures.

This is not how much of modern evangelicalism understands human nature. Focusing more on the Great Commission than the Cultural Mandate, discipleship is reduced to “think right, act right.” It’s worldview seminars and Bible studies. Nobel economist Robert Fogel says this faith tradition began to decline in the late 1990s. In The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, Fogel says the United States experienced a Fourth Great Awakening beginning in the 1960s. It was fueled by “enthusiastic religion” with the evangelical movement focusing on being born again. Megachurches mushroomed but culture deteriorated (Murray’s book tracks the tragic decline of marriage, honesty, and industriousness from 1960-2010). Fogel predicts that the “eventual result” of this Fourth Great Awakening will be “no specifically religious influence” on the making of American culture. Murray has a slightly different take.

Murray believes breakthrough findings in neuroscience will bring about the next awakening. “The more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives.” The age-old Christian traditions resonating with findings from neuroscience include Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the early European Reformers. They see science as catching up to scripture. Because of their view of human nature, these traditions could become critical resources for restoring the founders’ civic virtues. That can’t be said for the more recent renditions of the faith. They are being overrun by reality.

Almost 100 years ago, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, wrote “The Tortoise and the Hare.” It was a story about settling a bet regarding who could run the swifter. The hare thought it a ridiculous question. He was fast. The moral of the story is that tried-and-true always wins. Is it possible that much of modern evangelicalism is the hare? Its growth until recent times has been swift. Now it’s being overrun by genetic and neural research. Is neuroscience the tortoise, slowly but surely overtaking modern evangelicalism’s truncated gospel and Enlightenment take on human nature?

Some of America’s younger evangelicals think so. Savvy to science and culture as well as Christianity, they’re exiting modern evangelical churches for more age-old expressions of the faith according to journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell.6 David Kinnaman notes the same exodus in his new book, You Lost Me. He guesstimates there are as many as 20 million “exiles” between the ages of 18 and 29. They feel lost because they approach Christianity via culture. The good news is that if neuroscience is ushering in an awakening, those exiles joining age-old faith traditions will find the connection they long for. Their churches might even become contributors to restoring the founders’ virtues.

1 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 107.
2 Murray, Coming Apart, p. 130.
3 Murray, Coming Apart, p. 305.
4 Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.
5 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 300.
6 Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002).


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  1. The argument seems a little soft in that neuroscience is still dependent upon “the more we know” rather than responding to the light we already have.

    I do agree that science is always catching up with scripture and that when it does, good comes from it.

  2. Gerard:

    Not all science. There is such a thing as bad science; or misinformed science. I would also suggest that your dichotomy between neuroscience and “the light we already have” is false. Both can be based on “the more we know, the more we can know.”

  3. Agreed that both require knoweldge. The difference is where we put our hope: is it in future knoweldge (when we arrive at the right knowledge) or knowledge that has already been given.

    Question: was the article meant to show how new findings in neuroscience “supports” the importance of good culture or that it will “trigger” the development of good culture? I agree it supports, but hesitate to say that it will “bring about the next great awakening”.

  4. Regarding,
    ” The distinction becomes evident in America’s three Great Awakenings. The first began in the mid-1720s and is associated with George Whitefield. It reached its apex in the late 1730s, influencing urban cultural elites.”

    It should be noted that in England, Whitefield remarked that John Wesley did the greater work as he gathered folks in groups for transformation of lives, bringing shalom to many and perhaps saving England from such a revolution as was King Louis’ fate in France.

    Whitefield, reflectively said, ‘My converts are as a rope of sand’ when compared to the lasting effect of Wesley on England

  5. Dunsany’s ‘The True History of the Hare and the Tortoise’ embellishes Aesop’s original version, with the final tragedy that when fire threatens a nearby forest – guess who is sent to warn its inhabitants? Sometimes things happen despite us and our contribution, but we interpret outcomes and draw conclusions as we’re already predisposed – a recurring theme of yours, Mike.

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