Posted by: dacalu | 17 September 2018

What are Humans?

I had the honor of preaching at Church of the Apostles today. We remembered Saint Hildegard of Bingen and reflected on the place of humanity in creation. The image below comes from a 13th century copy of her Book of Divine Works. (I have listed other resources on the same topic at the end of the post.)


Prayer for Hildegard’s Day

O God, by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the Fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Readings on Humanity

Genesis 1:26-28     AND     Genesis 2:15-17

Psalm 8:4-8     AND     Job 7:17-21

Philippians 2:1-8

Mark 10:41-45


I pray at least twice a day.
I ask all sorts of questions and, I’ll be honest: I never get a straight answer.
	I get clear suggestions, pointed remarks, even the occasional suggestive silence.
	The brief, but excellent television show, Joan of Arcadia summed it up well.
		Our protagonist, a suburban teenager, has just met God, 
who is trying to explain the whole prophet thing.

Joan: "Are you — Are you being snippy with me? God is snippy?" 
God: "Let me explain something to you, Joan. It goes like this: I don't look like this. I don't look like anything you'd recognize. You can't see me. I don't sound like this, I don't sound like anything you'd recognize. You see, I'm beyond your experience. I take this form because you're comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I'm "snippy”, it's because you understand snippy." 

For a slightly darker version, we can turn to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman,
	who, in a footnote on page four of Good Omens say this.

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of the players (i.e., everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.

God can be obscure, even about the most important topics.

So, we turn to scripture, which – it must be admitted – can be equally challenging.
It’s not that we don’t get clear answers,
	but that we get multiple answers to the same question – 
	multiple answers that don’t always agree.
This can be…frustrating.

After many years of this,
	I have come to the conclusion
	that there is something fundamentally askew in my way of thinking.
I must be asking the wrong questions, or, more to the point,
	I must be thinking along the wrong lines.
God is encouraging me to shift my perspective,
	to go deeper.

I genuinely believe that God redirects us from the questions we ask
	to the questions we really need answered.
And, as with any good teacher, this move is,
	in roughly equal parts, wondrous and infuriating.
With that in mind, I’d like to dive into the question of human significance.
How do we fit into the grand scheme of things?
Are we important?
Are we unique?
Are we good?

The bible addresses human significance multiple times in different ways.
To my frustration, many Christians use the bible like a reference book.
	They read from the beginning, find an answer, and then stop.
This often provides a decent, but simplistic answer.
In the case of human significance, it can be misleading.

I have a reasonably high view of God’s action in the inspiration of scripture.
	I don’t think there are a few good bits, 
with the begats and proverbs and lesser prophets
thrown in as padding.
If God answers the same question multiple times,
	there must be a reason.

Bible Quiz.
I know, I’m an Episcopalian, but I figure I can get away with it in this crowd.

How many creation accounts are there in bible?


In his book, Seven Pillars of Creation, Bill Brown explores seven different creation accounts:
	Genesis 1, Genesis 2, the end of Job, Psalm 104, 
Proverbs 8, Ecclesiastes, and Second Isaiah.
All seven place humans within a broader creation,
	but they do so in different ways.

Genesis 1 describes a hierarchical universe,
	with us at the apex of the physical world.
	We were given dominion over all the other animals,
		and God found it very good.
Genesis 2, on the other hand, claims that we were made for the earth,
	to till it and watch it.
	We are gardeners, who failed in our task,
		and all the evils of the world stem from
		our inability to care properly for a single tree.
I don’t think one account is right and the other wrong.
I don’t think that one account is a summary 
or an expansion or a commentary on the other.
And I don’t think it was an accident
	that both versions appear at the start of the bible.

I think the truth is complicated,
	and the world is complicated,
	and we are complicated.
And that God is inviting us into a deeper understanding.
From the very beginning – the first two chapters of scripture –
	God is telling us to pay attention
	because the truth is beyond our experience.
We are fundamentally good, in the image and likeness of God.
	We are unique among the animals and miraculously wise.
AND we are also, from our birth, in a state of trespass.
	We live on someone else’s land, but act like we own it.
		We don’t even treat it well.
	We live in the midst of unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety,
		but act as though we were in a mall,
		with things carefully placed to catch our attention
		and serve our needs.

Job and Psalms remind us that we are not the sole end of God in creation.
	The wide wild world exists without us:
		lions and tigers and bears;
		goats, horses, and deer;
		ostriches, hyenas, and crocodiles.
	Countless lives begin, continue, and end, oblivious to human concerns.
	The laws of nature go on without the slightest concern
		for human well-being.
	The titanic creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan have become bywords
		for everything God does
		that has nothing to do with humanity.

Proverbs 8 reminds us of God’s Spirit,
bringing order to the cosmos from eternity to eternity.
Ecclesiastes and Isaiah tell us of our final dependence on God.
	We are nothing without God’s spirit moving in us.
	Our lives are fleeting like the grass,
		that lives for a day and then disappears.
And so, we are both rulers and trespassers,
	mighty and weak,
	special to God, and one among many.
When people ask me if humans are special, I usually make a comparison.
	Many of you have more than one child.
	What would you say if one of your children asked you, “Am I your favorite?”
	I would say, “Of course you are my favorite…
just like your sister, or brother.”
This is how I feel when people ask about human uniqueness.
	It is enough to say that God loves us
		and wants our love.

Second question:
What are humans, that you are mindful of them?

Most of you will be familiar with Psalm 8.
	I know that I have heard it many times. 
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, 
mortals that you care for them?
you have made them a little lower than God,
 and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

But, did you know that this same question comes up four more times in the bible?
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”

We heard the passage from Job.
“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, 
that you set your mind on them, 
visit them every morning, test them every moment? 
Will you not look away from me for a while, 
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”	
In other words,
O God, why are you picking on me?
	Why do my actions matter?
	Why can’t you just leave me alone?
Psalm 144:
“O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them,
or mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.”
Ecclesiasticus 18 makes the same point,
	praising God for his care,
	much as God cares for the lilies and the sparrows in Matthew’s Gospel.

Hebrews suggests that our lowliness is temporary.
	We have been made mortal and powerless,
		but may regain our place 
by participating in the suffering and death of Christ.

What are humans?
	Rulers of creation, 
God’s special project, 
underfoot and fleeting as grass,
and a work in progress.
We are nothing in ourselves
	and everything in God’s eyes.

So much for the Bible Quiz
	What’s the good news?
	What are we to make of God and scripture being snippy about humanity?

Here, I think we can turn the gospel.
And I must admit, Mark may be the snippiest of the gospels.
	Jesus shows little hesitation 
telling the disciples that they just don’t get it.
And yet, Matthew tells the story as well.
James and John ask to be the favored disciples,
		to sit at Jesus right and left hand in the coming kingdom.
	“We want to be special.”
	“We want to be your favorites.”

And Jesus tells them that the kingdom doesn’t really work that way.
	They must change their perspective.
	Among the nations, 
people strive to be better than their neighbors,
more special, more powerful, more famous.
	“But it is not so among you; 
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, 
and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Paul puts it much the same way in his letter to the Philippians,
	“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
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.”
The language is uncompromising.
	We cannot be special alone.
	We cannot even be special in comparison: better, greater, more.
	We can only be special in community
		and in service to others.

A king is no king without a kingdom.
And a gardener is no gardener without a garden.

Our lives have no meaning in isolation.
And our species has no meaning by itself.
To be fully human is to be serving.
	As individuals we serve our neighbors.
	As a species we serve creation,
		in its unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety.

Darwin complained about parasitoid wasps.
Modern skeptics worry about viruses, selfish genes, suffering, and selection.
I make no claim that these are good or understandable.
But I do claim that they are our neighbors,
	neither more nor less than the Samaritan, the sinner, or the eunuch.

God calls us into community
	because I alone am never enough.
	I am never solely to blame for my offenses.
	I am never solely responsible for my success.
I am complicated.
Humanity is complicated.
The world is complicated.
Hildgard of Bingen saw this in her visions.
She imagined the cosmos as a human
	with Christ as its soul.
She saw each human as a microcosm,
	with God moving in us and moving us,
	and making us part of something greater.
Each of us is broken, as the world is broken.
We are each being mended,
	because we are all being mended,
	as God mends the world.
For God, in God’s fullness, was pleased to dwell
	in creation, in human flesh, in us.

God in God’s fullness is beyond our experience.
	But we can, quite literally, wrap our mind around Jesus.
We can understand Jesus as our king.
	And so, we have just a glimpse 
of what it might mean to be the rulers.
	We can be kings and queens to the extent
		that we can imagine a king,
			suffering for our salvation.
We can see Jesus as shepherd, hen, and vine.
	And so, we have just a glimpse
		of what it means to care for the world.
	We can be shepherds and gardeners to the extent
		that we can imagine Jesus as the life of the world.
We can even understand Jesus as Logos, as the order behind creation,
		by studying the universe.
	We can look into the reality of God,
		by gazing in wonder, curiosity, and true humility
at the unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety
that God has made.

We can know as we are known,
	give as we have received,
	forgive as we are forgiven,
love as we are loved.
Humanity has meaning, significance, uniqueness 
	but always in the context of God and neighbor.
	We are part of something greater than ourselves.
Otherwise we miss the point.
Our humanity is grounded in God and manifest in creation.

For this reason,
I think that resurrection life
	will have more than humans.
We will not be alone in God’s kingdom.

There is no I alone.
There is no humanity alone.
There is only God, 
moving in us 
and moving us to love one another.

It is an ineffable game,
	but it need not always be.
God is telling us about the rules,
	every time we ask the question,
	every time we turn to nature with curiosity,
	every time we look to scripture with humility,
	allowing the answer to be greater than the question.
We are complicated,
	gloriously so.

Other Resources

The relationship of humans to other living things forms one of my core areas of research. This is a sermon geared specifically toward Christians considering humans in the universe. If you are interested, you can find a more philosophical approach here. The topic was also covered in a graduate seminar with a scientific focus here and here. The topic of non-human souls is covered at length in my recent book. A theological reflection on how science shapes our perception of the place of humanity in nature appears in the journal Zygon.

Mix, LJ (2016) Life-value narratives and the impact of astrobiology on Christian ethics. Zygon 51(2): 520-535.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: