Wednesday, March 30, 2016

2. Worth and Dignity of an Individual (Outwardly Focused Spirituality)

This world is our home.

I have some reflections based upon the science of our time. I hope you will be patient with me. Even if you disagree with what I say about science, I hope the reflections on the providence of God and human responsibility and freedom will be challenging.

The more scientists study the universe and the human body, the more aware we are that the human body truly belongs here.

            The significance of this is that we often sense our separation and alienation from each other and from nature. Although we have good reason to sense this as well, we need to grasp the significance of the fact that this world is our home.

            I want to discuss some science in this context. I know some elements of the Christian community want to argue with the science I am about to mention. My approach will be to assume that the science, in particular, in biology and physics, is a reasonably accurate description of the world in which we live. If so, I want to suggest some ways in which this belief affects the Christian community.

            Science will locate the universe as having a beginning about 14 billion years ago through an immense explosion of energy. Life evolved on this planet largely due to the abundance of water and the distance from the sun. The human body and brain evolved through a random process of natural selection. The earth will fall into the sun in about two billion years. The universe will likely reach its end in emptiness and nothingness in about one trillion years.

            Yet, science also hints another possibility. Although scientists do not often go in the direction, I want to suggest that meaning and purpose are questions that lead human beings beyond themselves. Human beings are part of a wholeness of which we are aware but can never define analytically. Religious experience suggests that human beings individually and corporately have a responsibility to the divine. The divine realm provides whatever meaning and purpose humanity will experience.

            I want to begin with the concept of patience. Let us assume that God exists. Let us also assume that this God wanted the world to exist, and chose the evolutionary process to do so. Imagine the immense patience God has to see life emerge and evolve the way it did. God patiently nudges and pulls the universe toward life. Our view of divine sovereignty and power, often called omnipotence and providence, often suggests God as one who dictates and directs, much as we imagine we would do if we were in charge. Yet, evolution suggests that God patiently cares for and treasures each level of this universe. The universe is not perfect. Only God is perfect. This universe is full of finite things. A finite creature, not even you and I, can envision the whole. Yet, God has placed us in this universe. We have our place in it. We can believe this by a clear vision that a good and competent God is here with us, guiding life toward its fullness. Life with God locates us in a world adequate to our nature as creative beings who are always in the presence of God.

            Frankly, this view of God makes more sense to me than the view that God dictated and planned everything that ever happened. The idea that everything in the universe acts out what God dictates brings little encouragement or comfort to me. When I think of the tragic character of human history, as well as of the tragic character of human life, it brings little comfort that God dictated these things to happen.

            Further, some dimension of good and bad fortune is part of a human life. Although human effort and setting of goals are important elements of a well-lived life, few people are bold enough to suggest that everything that happens in their lives is solely the result of their efforts. The best of human efforts sometimes fail, and the weakest of human efforts sometimes end in success. Although we can play our hand in cards the best we can, the result in the game depends on how others in the system play their hand. Human life is a chancy matter. Good fortune and bad fortune influence our lives in sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle ways. Some of the risks we take are of our choosing. Many risks come into our lives unbidden and unwelcome. Even if we grant providence moving the world toward the end that God intends, we can also admit some unpredictability in matters close to us.

            I suggest here a God that loves each part of the universe enough to grant genuine independence. This means some genuine unpredictability in terms of the future. This independence achieved its greatest extent in human beings, who have the capacity to deny the God who made them and continues to sustain their lives. At this point, we have no idea what humanity will achieve in the future. Given enough time, what we consider science fiction today becomes reality tomorrow.

            Further, this scientific description suggests that the way human life emerged is a process of nature. Human life is not an imposition upon nature, but rather is a product of nature. The most significant aspect of this process is the development of language. Most evolutionary scientists today will agree that the capacity for thought distinguishes human beings from other high order animals. In whatever way such thought occurred in humanoid creatures, it longed for expression. Such expression began with gestures and sounds, production of primitive art, moral considerations, primitive cultural formulations, and religion. In other words, religious questions were present with the first thoughts. Language was the primary expression of human thought. Everything suggests that our brains are wired for language. The symbolization required for language is complex, but it arose out of natural processes. Language arose because it assisted human beings to survive and thrive on this planet. We are at home here. The only home this body will ever have is here.

            Yet, we justly recognize our apartness from the rest of nature. Language has opened up for us a space of experience that no other creature can have. Human beings do not simply live out of instinct. Language is the capacity to reflect upon why we did what we did, how we can change toward something better, and imagine a better future for self and for others. Language is the capacity to engage others in the journey of life. Language is the capacity to connect with people from the past, to learn from them, and move beyond them. Language is the capacity to connect with a possible future, one that begins in our imagination of it today. Every other living organism, no matter on what continent, no matter what generation, acts the way it does out of instinct. A dog is a dog, no matter in what country, or if it is alive today or 2000 years ago. Language opens up possibility beyond pure instinct for genetic survival. Even the most primitive of human beings paint pictures and design objects, moving beyond simple utility and toward the aesthetic. Even the most primitive person is aware of the moral nature of the encounter with another human being. Language opens up possibilities for choice and responsibility for those choices that human beings cannot attribute to other living beings. We recognize that we are agents in history. We have some responsibility for our future as individuals. We have a responsibility to past generations. We have a responsibility to future generations.

            Thus, although I cannot scientifically prove what I am about to say, I would like to suggest that language creates such a difference with the rest of nature that it actually makes us closer to God than to the most developed primate. Human life is not about getting God into human life. Rather, human life is about growing in the God who already embraces us. The Bible says that God made human beings in the image and likeness of God. The New Testament says that God wants to shape us into the image and likeness of Christ. This is why we experience difference and even alienation from the rest of nature. We know we are different, even if we are not aliens to this planet. Therefore, we have a responsibility to God. We make an important step in this direction when we accept that every part of our lives belongs to us. The patience of God in working through the evolutionary process helps me to see God as caring for every part of nature, and therefore for me. We are co-creators with God in making a future that we can only imagine now. We have some responsibility in determining the shape of our future. We have no idea today what future human beings will have the capacity to make. We have the responsibility to do the best we can with the life we have today. Each generation has its own unique responsibility to improve life on this planet. That improvement includes learning better ways of governing our social world, living economically, treating each other well, raising children, and building strong communities.

            God has loved the world enough to send his Son. We need to love the world enough to make it our home. The moral and religious question we answer with the way we live our lives and build our cultures is this: What kind of home will we make for ourselves and for others?

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