I usually don’t post two things in one day, but it’s been a good day. I’ve been reading Ed Wilson’s book Consilience for a class I’m teaching and was struck by his “empirical” explanation of religion. I can complain to Ed about that use of “empirical,” but it brought up a broader question of how we understand religion and, I think, a common misconception.
Ed likened God to the ultimate Alpha Wolf and suggested that religious authorities derive their status from being lieutenants of said Wolf. He compared religious dominance structures to mammalian dominance structures where the primary male displays status by erect stature, open gaze, and intimidating and defeating rivals. The dominant male secures right to objects and fertile females.
I’ve seen this pattern in some cults and even, sadly, in some Christian communities. Still, it doesn’t really fit with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Judaism as I’ve experienced them. I don’t have time to go into all of those, but I do have time to go into Biblical Christianity and ask the very specific question of whether Jesus was an alpha male. No real Biblical witness on the erect stature and open gaze, so we’ll give those to Ed for the sake of argument. Jesus may have been tall with good posture and a tendency to stare at people without fear. So far so good.
Let’s turn to intimidating and defeating rivals. To the best of my knowledge, nowhere in the Bible does Jesus fight off any rivals. The closest he comes is turning over tables in the Temple. Notably at this time he does not secure power in the Temple. Caesar is a rival (Mk 12:17). Caiaphas is a rival (Jn 18:14). Satan is a rival (Mt 4:10). Nothing bad happens to them. Judas kills himself (and only in Matthew’s account). Nothing happens to Pilate. Jesus doesn’t even allow the disciples to defend him on the Mount of Olives. Intimidation and defeat just doesn’t happen. Jesus does overcome death, but that seems a little intangible for Ed’s purposes.
Surely Jesus got the girl, right? Well, no. No evidence in the Bible for Jesus having any romantic encounters or any children. It certainly could have happened, but Christians have been sticklers over the centuries for saying it didn’t. The Bible just doesn’t support Jesus as alpha wolf.
So, maybe he was sneaky. Advocates of what I call “ninja Jesus” seem to think that Jesus got his way indirectly. On the short term, Walter Wink (for whom I have great respect) suggests that turning the other cheek and going the extra mile were passive aggressive ways to get what you wanted. (You’ll have to read Wink if you want to know how that’s supposed to work.) But no, even there Jesus appears to be genuinely humble.
“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus was not about dominance. Full stop.
Ed could rightly point out here that maybe God the Father is dominant. Jesus was, after all, subject to his will. What better way to show dominance than to humble God? I’m not sure forcing yourself to be humble really makes sense as a sign of dominance, but even if it did, Christian religious authorities don’t get their authority through being lieutenants of God the Father; but through imitating Jesus. Jesus said, “no one comes to the Father except through me.” The road to righteousness in Christianity lies in the example of Jesus, in humility, suffering, and love.
If Christians do practice mammalian dominance patterns (as I’m sure we do), it doesn’t come from the New Testament. Biblical Christianity just doesn’t fit the model of alpha wolf religion.