The Gospel of Luke

David Cowles

Feb 28, 2022

In the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer questions Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) The question resonates through all eras and across all cultures. Our mental apparatus is tuned to notice differences among otherwise similar entities; we find it much harder to pick out similarities. Intelligence tests given to children often ask them to distinguish differences: e.g., which of these shapes is not like the others? The same tests given to adults (e.g., MCAT and LSAT) are more likely to ask them to find similarities (i.e., analogies).

In the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer questions Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) The question resonates through all eras and across all cultures. Our mental apparatus is tuned to notice differences among otherwise similar entities; we find it much harder to pick out similarities. Intelligence tests given to children often ask them to distinguish differences: e.g., which of these shapes is not like the others? The same tests given to adults (e.g., MCAT and LSAT) are more likely to ask them to find similarities (i.e., analogies).

Human beings classify. It is how we organize (and therefore understand) the external world. The story of creation in Genesis produces a classification matrix: light vs. dark, earth vs. sky, water vs. dry land, humans vs. other animals, etc. Sigmund Freud explored this phenomenon in Totem and Taboo; anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss traced the origins of social order to totemic classifications.

Animal, vegetable or mineral? Red, green or blue? White, black or brown? Sometimes the ability to classify is crucial to survival (friend or foe?). But the ‘classification habit’ (like most habits) can put us in a straight-jacket.

This is especially so when our classifications are hierarchical. Now we are not only saying that y is ‘different’ from x, but we’re saying that y is ‘better’ than x! When differences of ‘kind’ become differences of ‘worth’, we are on a very slippery slope. Of course, there are perfectly valid value differences: e.g., Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs (I date myself), but when we equate differences with gradations of worth, things do not go well for us.

Consider color. Some of us have a ‘favorite’ color but few of us would say that one color is intrinsically ‘better’ than another. We imagine the color spectrum horizontally. But when we apply the same logic to racial differences, for example, we sometimes get a very different result. In the minds of many, white, black and brown are imagined vertically, not horizontally.

The classification problem goes beyond race. It extends to our view of humans vs. other primates, primates vs. other mammals, mammals vs. other animals, animals vs. plants, plants vs. inanimate objects. So, who is my neighbor? My family, my village, my tribe, my nation? What about our pets? What about the buffalo and the deer that fed generations of Native Americans? What about the forests that are the lungs of our planet? What about alien life forms on other planets? What about inanimate objects (celestial and terrestrial)?

In so-called Eastern religions, it is common to find the concept of ‘sacred creation’, i.e., the notion that everything that is shares the same ontological structure and status and therefor qualifies as “my neighbor”. The Judeo-Christian tradition in the West is grounded on the same idea: everything that is, to the extent that it is, is a participation in the Goodness and Being of God (Augustine, et al.). However, the classification habit dies hard. To some extent, Gnosticism is to blame. For some reason Westerners have tended to gravitate toward vertical classification systems that contrast the material world (evil) with the spiritual world (good).

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