“What kind of creatures are we?”
Over the past few months, I’ve read three authors whose books tackle this big question in different but related ways. David Brooks refers to our species as The Social Animal. Jonathan Gottschall calls us The Storytelling Animal. And in James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he says we are ‘liturgical animals’ or ‘Desiring, Imaginative Animals.’ (p. 40). Then there’s a number of additional suggestions we could consider as well such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s description of us as Dependent, Rational Animals, or even Christian Smith’s vision of us as Moral, Believing Animals.
Now while each of these proposals has merit and certainly warrants our attention, I would like to throw out one of my own.
I believe that we should understand our species as ‘Disciple-Making’ or ‘Apprenticing Animals.’
We humans spend a monumental amount of energy and resources, more than any other creature, in training up members of our own kind. With only a few notable exceptions in the animal kingdom, human maturation takes the longest of any other species. From extensive (5 minutes :)) internet research I only found three: Elephants can take up to 20 years to mature sexually, but that seems to be only in captivity. There are some species of sea turtles that don’t reach sexual maturity until their 30s or 40s but they live on their own from birth. And finally, something called the Bowhead whale takes 20 years to reach maturity.
Looking closer to home we see that as a whole, our fellow primates spend a huge amount of time apprenticing their own. Orangutans, for example, stay with their mothers for about five to eight years. Gorillas take eight years to reach sexual maturity and chimpanzees take seven. But humans, in comparison don’t reach reproductive status until they’re early teens and then don’t become full adults in most cultures until even a few years later. So, even in comparison with high-end care giving primates we humans still spend about twice as long as the rest of them apprenticing our own for adulthood.
To summarize: While most mammals spend months or years apprenticing under the guidance and protection of their parents, human beings are unique in that they are dependent on caregivers for a period much longer than most any other animals.
Why do humans have such a long apprenticeship?
In contrast to other animals whose behavior is for the most part instinctive, human behavior is complex and culturally determined. Our species is born with very little software pre-loaded, so most of the important things we need to survive are transmitted by those around us. Both language and culture acquisition are multifaceted processes that necessitate a large investment of time and resources on the part of caregivers. So, we need a long apprenticeship in order to assimilate all the cultural rules and cues that will help us survive.
Amazingly, humans come out of the womb ready to start learning their way in the world. The most powerful tool that they have at their disposal is the capacity to mimic. An interesting New York Times article notes that, “Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington has published studies showing that infants a few minutes old will stick out their tongues at adults doing the same thing. More than other primates, human children are hard-wired for imitation, he said, their mirror neurons involved in observing what others are do and practicing doing the same thing.” The article goes on to talk about the ways that these neurons affect not only behavior but also our emotional responses. We humans readily empathize with others, literally feeling what they feel, even when it is not happening directly to us. This penchant for mimicking helps humans in their quest for acquiring all that learned behavior.
So, humans need a long apprenticeship before fully entering the world as adults and we are pre-wired to almost immediately begin apprenticing ourselves to our caregivers.
What kind of impact could seeing ourselves as ‘Apprenticing Animals’ have on our faith?
This understanding taps into a thread found throughout the Old and New Testaments. One of the most glaring examples would probably be Deuteronomy 6 where Moses tells God’s people to talk about the Lord as we sit at home, as we walk along the road, when we lie down, and when we get up. This apprenticing emphasis is seen clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus and made even more explicit through Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples in Matthew 28 where he told them to go and make disciples of every nation. Jesus’ vision was that humans would use this inborn drive to disciple and apprentice others into mature citizens of the kingdom of God.
Every culture around the globe apprentices or enculturates people into a certain way of thinking and believing and followers of Jesus are called to inhabit a certain way of living as well. I think understanding ourselves as ‘Apprenticing Animals’ can help us see disciple making as something that all of us have the capacity to do.
Our very nature, our DNA, has been encoded with the propensity for apprenticing. Disciple making is not something that only a certain group of people is called to do. Christ’s followers are capable of fulfilling our calling to disciple and train others to live a life in line with the coming Kingdom.
Grace and Peace,