Thought for the Week 18 December 2011
Nature and Nurture
The debate between nature and nurture as the source of our character has ebbed and flowed. Once, the human psyche was regarded as a tabula rasa, a clean slate. It was not that the mind was a library waiting to be stocked with books; the library itself had to be built. Talk of genes altered all of that. We carelessly talk about any action or thought as being the result of the form of our DNA. It has become a cliché. The source of our Lord’s divinity was the subject of, doubtless, cruder speculation in the past which centred on his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ancient speculation and doctrinal formulation now compete with or are supplemented by modern genetic or psychologically-based comments, some better supported by fact than others. All relate to the conviction that human beings appear, however freely and autonomously they claim to live, as children of their parents, biologically and socially. Mary, the mother of our Lord, is still a source of thoughtfulness as well as wonder which only sectarian bigotry ignores
Modern parents, considering how different their children are from each other wonder at the genetic mix which makes of children such different human beings and ask themselves, particularly when their children become unhappily dissociated from their parents’ world, how their attempts to treat them all fairly and the same resulted in such difference. No one however doubts that upbringing, which we can control to a degree, as well as genetics, which we cannot control – except in our choice of spouse – is hugely important.
Scripture, innocent of modern theories, nevertheless notes the introspective fidelity of the mother of Our Lord. Just so, only children know themselves to be particularly precious, and often thus assured, make their way confidently in the world. These are but small clues. The country healer who knew himself to be loved by God his father, open to a world of need most fully epitomised in crowds who sought nourishment from him, though unknowingly, must have owed the first formulations of his vocation to his mother. Not only must she have thought her child precious, but also as not hers to possess but a gift to be shared, a vocation to be fostered. His openness to painful truth, his consciousness of the danger of power, of the importance yet potential oppressiveness of rules, must have found their origin in her teaching at her breast and at her knee. She must have taught him that he lived in two worlds and that to be too comfortable in one was to deny the call of the other. His self-discovery, like that of every thoughtful child, that he was special, was first fostered by her; learning how to live he must have begun to learn from her how to die. Those paintings which show the toddler Christ with a cross in his hand, even as his mother looks on, cannot have been so far from the truth. What blessing she conferred on us!