What’s Dignity Got to Do with It?

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Reflections upon Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical letter: Caritas in Veritate

Benedict XVI signs the papal letter, Caritas in Veritate (Charity/Love in Truth)

Benedict XVI signs the papal letter, Caritas in Veritate (Charity/Love in Truth)

 In his recent encyclical letter Benedict XVI takes on the topic of globalization, with his eye fixed on the ethical issues raised by the emergence of the modern global marketplace.  His message is clearly shaped by the present context of global recession (aka, “credit crunch”), which he takes as evidence of a need for more enlightened ethical thinking and behavior.  The root of the problem, in Benedict’s view, is that while the global interdependence of peoples and nations has become the overarching reality of economic development in our time, this global economic interdependence has not been matched by a corresponding global ethical interdependence.  He calls for an “ethical interaction of consciences and minds that would give rise to truly human development.”[1]  By human development, he refers to a vision of human dignity and vocation which proceeds from the Church’s social doctrine of charity (caritas).[2]

 As he reflects upon the sources of the problems which have led to the current economic crisis, Benedict recites the usual laundry list of general principles and hot-buttons for business ethics: the sins of short-term financial strategies, and the need  for more attention to long-term results, sustainability, transparency, respect for the diversity of stakeholders’ values (not just stockholders’ wealth), “social capital”, and the moral value of investments.  This has all been said before, and with greater depth of analysis.   But it would be unfair to criticize the pope for not having pursued these themes with more intellectual rigor.  He has a bigger goal in mind-namely, to offer a theological approach to business ethics in the era of globalization.

 This he does with cogent insight into the idea of human dignity as the basis for any discussion of economic development.  Since economic development exists for the sake of human beings, we must ask of any economic theory, what vision of human development does it provide? This is the foundational question for economic ethics.  Biblically speaking, human dignity is determined by the mystery of relationship with God.  To arrive at a coherent description of what makes humans human-that is to say, what ascribes value to human life-requires an understanding of the human person as being created for, and existing within, relationship with God.  This requires a doctrine of the whole person, the integrated self, as existing in relationship with God.  Non-theological theories (e.g. secular economic theories) lack the basis for establishing this transcendent significance of human dignity.  Benedict identifies transcendence at the very core of what it means to be human, and thus the ultimate vocation for all persons is to live in congruence (and “solidarity”) with the God-given transcendence that defines human dignity.  Responsibility to this vision is thus the ultimate vocation for all persons:

 [I]ntegral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God[3]

 And because “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension”, the dimension of eternal life becomes the decisive event for valuation of human life and calling (vocation).[4] If life held no transcendent value, then ethics could be reduced to a mere metaphysical structure grounded in materialism and/or determinism.

 But human worth transcends death, precisely and only because human life transcends death.  Human dignity pertains to the event of life, and the way in which a life is lived, as can be judged by the impact we have upon other lives.  The significance of eternal life for ethics is that it places eternal value in human persons-real persons in real circumstances, not abstract or idealized persons.   Lives are not to be relativized therefore, in comparison with other values, such as moral absolutes and conceptual ethical principles.  Of course, Dostoyevsky has said all this before and much better, in his portrayal of Ivan’s moral despair in The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no resurrection, then everything is lawful.”

 In the resurrection therefore is to be found the ultimate justification of belief in human dignity.  This dignity pertains not to any natural endowment of homo sapiens,  nor to any moral “goodness” which we possess within our own self-reliant capacity to judge moral truths, or to will ourselves to be good, but rather, the ultimate source of human dignity is to be found in active, living relationship with the living God.  Karl Barth also identifies this transcendent source of human dignity, as being the natural endowment granted to all people, regardless of their faith or moral aptitude-

 But just because God is human in this sense, it is actually due to man and may not be denied him through any pessimistic judgment, whatever its basis. On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him on this assumption.[5]

I think Jüngel gets it right when he says that this makes Barth the champion of an even greater, more transcendent vision of human dignity as a “natural” endowment, than any version of traditional natural theology could possibly conceive.

 In this, Barth has in some measure christologically surpassed the conception of all natural theology.  One can hardly any longer make the charge Barth’s rejection of any natural theology withheld from humanity the significance which is its due.[6]

 The strength of Benedict’s encyclical derives from his effort to apply a “transcendent vision of the person” to business ethics.  We’ll take a look at some of the implications of this proposition in our next posts…

[1] Caritas in Veritate, 9 (emphasis added).

[2]  Benedict claims that this social doctrine promotes “development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value”, 9.   As representative of church doctrine on this score, Benedict draws extensively upon his predecessors’ encyclical letters, especially: Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, and several writings from John Paul II.

[3] Caritas in Veritate, 11.

[4] Caritas in Veritate, 11.

[5] Barth, The Humanity of God, 50.

[6] Eberhard Jungel, God’s Being Is in Becoming, 97.

A ‘Saving Interruption’

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A ‘Saving Interruption’: Moral Knowledge and Participation in Christ 

The heavens are telling the glory of God;       and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.       [Ps 19:1]

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made…          [Rom. 1:20]


Lake Louse, Alberta

Lake Louse, Alberta

What can we learn about the moral order through the power of natural reason?  Is there moral content in nature?  These questions have perennially challenged the doctrine of theological ethics.  The challenge lies in the inescapable tension between the school of lex naturae, and the school of prayer.  I might express this same tension in other words, as tension between an ostensibly ontological concept of moral order, and the experiential reality of participation in Christ. 

  I presented a paper on this topic this week at the Scottish Universities Theology Conference here in St Andrews.  If you would like to read the paper (7 pages) you can download it from this link: saving-interruption paper

 Synopsis: Toward a “more natural” theology

 As an entrée to creative wrestling with this tension, I should like to explore briefly Eberhard Jüngel’s notion of a “more natural” theology.  In his commentary on the Barmen Declaration Jüngel recognizes the need for the Church in every age to:

 …outline a more natural theology than so-called natural theology: a natural theology which knows Jesus Christ as the one who has reconciled both human beings and the world (2 Cor 5:19).[1]

 I shall explore briefly the epistemic significance of Jüngel’s approach, drawing particular attention to ‘participation in Christ’ as the epistemic event in which moral knowledge occurs, and then to interpret Jüngel’s statement that truth is to be understood christologically as an event of a “saving interruption.”[2]  Following Jüngel’s lead then, the task I am assigning for these next few pages is to look at natural theology through a christological lens, and consider what implications may ensue for the doctrine of moral knowledge.

 The first question that comes to mind is: Can there really be a “christological natural theology”?  Does this not seem a contradiction in terms?  Are “christological” and “natural” mutually exclusive modifiers for theology?  Not necessarily.  In view of Christ as the one in whom, through whom, and for whom all natural things are created [Col. 1:15ff], we might find these to be eminently compatible adjectives. Even the great opponent of natural theology, Karl Barth admits that

  …we are certainly not always wrong, if we believe we hear a song of praise to God in the existence also of Sirius and the rock crystal, of the violet and the boa-constrictor.[3]

 Thus, while Barth may reject the premise of traditional natural theology, he does not reject the questions it asks regarding what can and cannot be discerned and known through natural capacities of human comprehension.[4]  Indeed, he even goes so far as to consider what a “Christian” natural theology might entail, though he does not develop this concept in depth, preferring instead to apply his energy to polemics against the pseudo-theology that he saw lurking in the motivations of traditional natural theology.[5]

 Eberhard Jüngel has blazed a helpful path in this direction of seeking a christological natural theology.  Picking up where Barth seems to have left off, Jüngel presses on in pursuit of “a new approach to solving the old problem of natural theology.”[6] Jüngel rightly frames the problem in christological terms, asking how the doctrine extra Christum nulla salus (outside Christ there is no salvation)[7] can be reconciled with natural theology.  In other words, how can it be that “this exclusive truth claim becomes an inclusive granting of a truth that concerns every human being as such”?[8]

 Jüngel sets the cornerstone for construction of his christocentric natural theology upon Luther’s statement that “justification by faith is the theological definition of the human person”.[9]  In this paper I show how this christocentric basis for natural theology leads to the understanding of truth as a ‘saving interruptoin’ (in Jungel’s phrase). 

 Here is the significance for theological ethics–      Moral knowledge is saving knowledge.  It interrupts.  Something happens.  It is not merely an interruption of our attempt to explain morality in ontological categories; but rather, it is a participation in the event which brings understanding to morality.  It is thus a “saving interruption”, not only in the sense that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” [Rom. 10:13]; but also in the sense that it saves our understanding by interrupting the premises by which we might otherwise explain things. 

 [1] Jüngel, Barmen; Kirche Zwishen Versuchung und Gnade, E.T. Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration, trans. by D. Bruce Hamill and Alan J. Torrance (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1992), p. 26.

[2] Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming: the Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. A Paraphrase, trans. by John Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 138.

[3] Barth, Knowledge of God, 41.

[4] “But the problem [of natural theology] itself we cannot reject. If God is knowable, then it is necessary also to ask how far He is knowable to man”, CD II/1, 129.  Cf. Barth’s remarks on the Barmen Declaration, CD II/1, 178.

[5] CD II/1, 94.  Barth goes on to diagnose the concept of a “Christian” natural theology as problematic due to the dilemma of desiring to “really represent and affirm the standpoint of faith” and at the same time to arrive at knowability of God through the “unbelief” which he attributes to traditional statements of natural theology.

[6] E. Jüngel, “Extra Christum Nulla Salus-a Principle of Natural Theology?” (1989) p. 174. Jüngel takes his cue from “the problem which [Karl] Rahner indicates by speaking of anonymous Christians”, 173-4.   We need not analyze Jüngel’s interpretation of Rahner’s statements here; the essential point for our study is that Jüngel’s response to Rahner addresses precisely the same issue of the epistemic role of faith which concerns our thesis.

[7] Cf. Acts 4:12; John 14:6.

[8] Jüngel, Extra Christum., 175-6.  The easy answer of course is to insist that there are two distinctly types of knowledge-salvific vs. non-salvific-and that the Gospel belongs to the former, while ethics and natural knowledge of the moral order belong to the latter category.  This is, of course, a non-solution, in light of the inseparability of ethics and dogmatics, which is a point we need not rehearse here.

[9] M. Luther, The Disputation Concerning Man, thesis 32, LW 34, p. 139, quoted by Jüngel, Extra Christum, 180.

Mirror Neurons & the imago Dei

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Natural Theology & Ethics

rembrandt-the-return-of-the-prodigal-son-the-hermitage-st-petersburg-prodig26   The age-old argument goes like this-“Just look around… The glory of god is there for all to see… Nature is speaking… So just pay attention… Reason things out and you can discern what is right and good and true…”  This is the conventional wisdom about nature, right and wrong. The case for natural reason as the source of ethics is gaining support these days from advances in the biological sciences and derivative ideas such as “evolutionary psychology”.  Brain researcher V. S. Ramachandran has predicted that, “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.”[1]  The evidence of mirror neurons suggests that certain neurons contribute the property which enables higher primates to say “I feel your pain”, because the mirror neurons are “fired” by observing another person suffer.  This could theoretically provide evidence of an evolutionary link to traits like compassion-and hence, ethical behaviors such as altruism.  This new line of inquiry is called “evolutionary psychology.”   

 Is this what it means to be ethical?  Do ethics reduce to deterministic responses to brain wiring?  These are really just new variants of the same old questions regarding “natural theology” that have been around forever (well, at least since persons had enough brain wiring to ask them).  But do we really discover the source of morality in nature? 

The most commonly cited Bible passage with respect to this question is Paul’s meditation in the opening section of Romans-

 …since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. [Rom. 1:19-20 (NIV)]

 Some interpreters take this as support for “natural theology”, because it might suggest that natural reason is capable of acquiring knowledge of God.  And a few paragraphs later, we find this-

 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) [Rom. 2:14-15 (NIV)]

 This can also be used to argue for “natural theology”, because the “Gentiles” are not the God-knowers (those are the Jews), yet they still have the law written on their hearts.

 What are we to make of this?  Is Paul the first Natural Theologian?  No, I don’t think so.  First of all, Paul is saying that nature shines by God’s eternal power and his glorious being.  These things are even self-evident, and plain to anyone who looks for them.  Thus there’s no denying that nature gives evidence of this divine power.  But this is not the same thing as knowing God.  Obviously so, or else there would be no point to Paul’s entire argument. These words immediately precede this passage and thus set the context:

 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness  [Rom. 1:16-18]

 Paul states it plainly-God is known by faith, and he is revealed by the Gospel, and this applies to both Jews and Gentiles.  Knowing God is obviously not the same thing as observing his power at work in nature.  As further evidence of the difference between natural theology and faith, Paul explains that one of the natural consequences of not glorifying God  is the following:

 their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. [Rom. 1:21b-23]

This is the peril of natural theology-it leads not to God, but to any and every possible conception of God that human beings have ever been able to conceive.  It leads not then to the God who is known through his self-revelation in Jesus, but rather to the many and various gods who may be argued as reasonable theories based on the human powers of observation, applied to nature.

 Eberhard Jüngel writes insightfully on the effort of natural theology to discern God.  He considers the possibility of knowing God without benefit of the revelation of the Gospel, and comes to this conclusion that while it might be possible to know a lot about God’s creation from natural theology, it is not possible to know God, or what it means to be in relationship with God, through natural theology.  What happens in the attempt to know these things through natural theology, is that

 every such statement thereby changes from a statement of the gospel to a statement of the law, from an unequivocally beneficial statement to one which is ambivalent.[2]

 In other words, whatever knowledge is derived from natural theology fails to convey the significance of the gospel, and thus becomes inevitably a law unto itself.  This would seem to be the same conclusion Paul came to.  We may by nature do the things the law requires, but will amount to nothing more than to make up a law for ourselves.  There’s no grace in it if we do not know and glorify God [cf. Rom. 2:14-15].

 This is the ultimate problem with all natural theology, whether based on mirror neurons or any other naturalistic theory.  Mirror neurons may reflect the glory of the God, and shine by the power of the Gospel, but they are incapable of reflecting the imago Dei as revealed in Christ.


[1] Malcolm Jeeves quotes Ramachandran as an example of the “current excitement [over] the discovery of so-called mirror neurons, since they form a natural link between neuroscience and an aspect of evolutionary biology-namely, evolutionary psychology.” Jeeves, “Mind Reading and Soul Searching in the Twenty-first Century”, in What About the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, ed. by Joel Green (Abingdon, 2004), p. 24.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel, “Extra Christum Nulla Salus-a principle of natural theology?”, in Jüngel, Theological Essays, translated by J. B. Webster, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 186.

Humus Sapiens, Part IV

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Ascension Sunday, 2009

What gives meaning? Order.

What gives order? Direction.

What gives direction? Purpose.

What gives purpose?  Wrong Question.

     Who gives purpose.


In our previous essay, we looked at the human capacity to discern order.  Order is in the eye of the beholder, however.  Two people can look at the same stars and see different orders.  One might see the outline of a bear in a constellation.  Another might see a big dipper.  Similarly one person might see a star as a massive, photon-spewing ball of atomic nuclei held together by gravitational force.  Another might see that same massive photon-spewing ball within the larger context of a universe created by the Living God.  The order is not within the arrangement of particles themselves, but rather the order is in the meaning discerned by the observer.

This is why we say that religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  There is direction to it.  There is purpose.  And the purpose lies outside the object.  Meaning will always transcend the particles and the events of their interactions.  Meaning requires a greater context in which to discern purpose.  That is the realm of religion-the transcendent realm, the realm beyond the meaningless collision of particles. 

This is the realm in which events have meaning because they are contingent upon a purpose which lends order to what would otherwise be purposeless and random.  And as we peel the next layer of the onion, and seek the source of purpose, we ask where purpose comes from.  Purpose comes from persons.  A persons lives, creates and designs with intent.  If purpose could exist in an impersonal something, a ‘what’, then that ‘what’ would not transcend itself.  It would be without intent or the capacity to design & create.  That’s why “what gives purpose?” is the wrong question.  The right question is “Who?”

That ‘who’ is either me, or us, or God, or all three.  If it’s just you and me, and if we are part of the ‘what’ of creation-random fluctuations in space-time-then that’s not much of a purpose.  Here we see why there is a great divide between theological and non-theological interpretation of the orders within creation.  Theological interpretation can and must discern order in creation, precisely because the creation exists within the context of the living God.  Indeed, this theological interpretation looks like a closed circle of thought to those who stand outside it, looking in. But it is not a closed-minded circle of knowledge.  To the contrary, it is the only circle which can logically and rationally claim to possess knowledge of the meaning of it all, even though that meaning remains shrouded in mystery and only partially discernable.  To stand outside the theological circle, looking in, is not merely a stance which finds no hope in theology.  Even worse, it is to adopt a stance that finds no hope in any discernable purpose, from any source.  Purpose is to be found in the ‘who?’ not the ‘what?’ of creation, and this is the realm of the theological circle-to wrestle with the ‘who?’ question.

Karl Barth reminds us of this distinction which belongs to the theological circle of knowledge-

The distinction between this order and what is customarily called “order of creation” elsewhere is clear and irreconcilable. To be aware of this order we do not leave the closed circle of theological knowledge. We do not in some way read off this order where we just think we find it. We do not understand it at all as an order which can be discovered by us, but as one which has itself sought us out in the grace of God in Jesus Christ revealed in His Word, disclosing itself to us as such where we for our part could neither perceive nor find it. We not merely suppose it; we see and know it. We do so in the secret of revelation and faith, but in this way really and authoritatively.[1]

When the meaning of creation is revealed to us, we see and know.               When our eyes see that which by grace is revealed by the one who beholds us,  then we have a reason to say, “seeing is believing.”

[1] Barth, Church Dogmatics  III/4, 45.

Humus Sapiens, Part III

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Do-it-yourself DNA kit Whence telos?

We have seen (previous essays on this page) that a sufficiently complex and highly ordered arrangement of elements and molecules, gathered into pattern-carrying structures of proteins, enzymes, genes, DNA, cells and so on, can display the properties of consciousness and thoughtfulness.  “Thinking dust”, we called it-humus sapiens.

Our abilities to think, reflect and be conscious of ourselves and others would seem to be distinctive capacities which make us “human”.  According to evolutionary theory, these complex capacities and behaviors have emerged over time, as biological organisms became more and more highly ordered.  Through countless iterations of mutation and adaption, the biological structure of humus sapiens eventually became sufficiently highly organized to support emergent properties like consciousness, thought, and even “soulishness”.[1]

 Neurobiology and theology agree that this “soulishness”, whatever its origins–whether derived from divine inspiration or emergent from chance mechanistic mutations–is a trait of humans, a property of this being we call humus sapiens.

 And from experience we know that this “soulishness” gives us the ability to discern meaning in the world around us.  We discern patterns and purpose in our surroundings, both in the impersonal realm of nature, as well in our behaviour and relationships.  Order is there to be seen.  We can think about it, describe it, study it, measure it, admire it, paint it, even write a poem or sonata to display it.  But toward what end?  Toward what direction?  Toward what purpose?

 This is the “teleological” question–the question of “ends” (telos).   This is also a fundamental question of ethics–by what ultimate purpose, goal or end (telos)  shall we evaluate the choices and direction of life?

 Since the order seems to be built into the creation, we may sensibly look at the “orders of creation”, and ask what we find there.  There are patterns to be seen.  Sometimes the patterns seem obvious, like the crytalline structure of a snowflake, and sometimes they seem hidden, like the problem of innocent suffering.  Our inclination however, is to look for patterns wherever can find them.  This pattern-seeking exercise seems to be the motivation underlying scientific pursuits of knowledge in every category of exploration, from physics to sociology. 

We proceed in intellectual pursuits by recognizing and analyzing patterns (order) in our natural surroundings and our personal experiences. But what gives those patterns meaning?   Meaning and prupose (telos) seem to lie outside the realm of the pattern itself.  Meaning demands a context within which to interpret the pattern. 

Whence meaning?  Whence telos?  Here is where religion comes in, again, as a distinctively human behaviour.  What has religion got to do with it? Michael Polyani answers this question well:

The representative element in all religious orientations portrays the world as meaningful; that is, it portrays the world as something more than a conglomeration of physical and chemical interactions issuing, to no purpose whatsoever, in whatever ephemeral globs the equilibration of forces renders necessary or probable.[2]

 Religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  More on this in the next essay…

 (Did you spot a pattern or find meaning in the photo above?  It’s a do-it-yourself DNA kit.)

[1] Neuroscientist Warren Brown describes these as “emergent levels of causal efficacy.”  In other words, the soul does not really exist as an entity; but rather, the property of “soulishness” emerges as a trait of the highly organized biological entity. W. Brown, “Neurobiological Embodiment of Spirituality and Soul”, in From Cells to Souls-and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature, ed. by Malcolm Jeeves (Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 58-76, esp. 65-7.  Brown attempts, with questionable success, to show that his understanding of human “soulishness” is a theologically tenable idea because it is compatible with “the potential of an embodied physical person to be cognizant of a nonmaterial world and to experience relatedness to the divine”, p. 76.

[2] Michael Polanyi & Harry Prosch, Meaning (University of Chicago, 1975) p. 161.

Humus Sapiens, Part II

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  creation-handsWhat are man and woman made of?    What makes them alive?


       These are very different questions.  The first can be answered in a word, dust,[1] or in a long string of words that amount to as much.  We might, for example, describe a human as “a physical arrangement of chemical elements and molecules, arranged into pattern-carrying structures of proteins, enzymes, genes, DNA, cells and so on…”    Now, this is a highly complex bio-physical structure, to be sure, and it displays remarkable talents; nonetheless, it’s still just dust, of one form or another, and death proves that point.  Humans and animals are made of the same stuff, and they all return to dust.

But the second question–What brings life to this dust?– is not so easily reduced to the barest elements.  Sure, the human body is made of dust, but what makes this complicated structure of dust come to life?  This second question requires a different sort of answer.  Mere physical description isn’t enough.  Nouns and adjectives don’t seem to be able to define what makes a human being human.  The answer to the second question seems to require the use of some verbs, which complicates things, of course, because verbs implicate relationships between subjects and objects.

 When you hide your face, they are terrified;  when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.    [Psalm 104:29-30]

The verbs used in the Psalms to answer the question of life include “send”, “create” and “renew”.  And then there’s “breath”, which of course comes from the verb, “breathe”.  Breath is a crucial word in the poetry of the Psalms, because the same ancient Hebrew word for breath (ruach), which here refers to “that activity which makes creatures alive”, is the same biblical word for the Spirit of God, their creator.  Thus, the difference between death and life is the literally the breath of God.

 Since dust–that is, material, physical stuff–can be studied in a scientific laboratory, whereas the breath of God cannot, some people prefer to believe that the material, physical stuff is all there is.  Donald MacKay calls this idea, “Nothing Buttery”.[2]  In other words, a person is “nothing but” dust.

 As it turns out, the “nothing buttery” idea is not as simple, nor as easy to live with, as might be desired.  “Nothing buttery” ideas have a hard time explaining life, thought, human relations, and human behavior.

 Take religion, for example: Why does religion seem to be so human?  And perhaps the tougher question is: Why would creatures evolve to believe in something that doesn’t exist? What is the evolutionary advantage of believing a lie?  Some researchers are thinking up answers to that question, and the latest ideas suggest that “religion is an inescapable artifact of the wiring of the brain” which evolved over time due to the advantage of having gullible children who would believe what their elders wanted them to believe.[3]  Thus, the gullibility of creatures to believe in the lie that there is anything meaningful in life turns out to be an evolutionary advantage.  Based on this explanation, Richard Dawkins claims that “slavish gullibility” emerged as an advantageous hereditary selection in the origin of our species.[4]

 If that’s the case then the better name for our species homo sapiens would not be humus sapiens, as I suggested previously, but rather, humus perfidiaens.[5]  It kind of makes sense.  After all, can dust really amount to anything? Of course, that would mean that faith, hope, love, humanity, culture, morality, religion, and yes, even science, which is based on the belief that our minds can discern reality, are all nothing but a meaningless pack of lies,as worthless as dust, and as meaningless as a random pile of it. Hmmm.  Really? How gullible can a person be?

[1] See “Humus Sapiens, Part I” below.

[2] Donald MacCrimmon MacKay presented the 1986 Gifford Lectures, and wrote widely on the mutual implications of brain science, theology and metaphysics. He presented a paper in 1976 for the American Scientific Affiliation titled, “Basic vs. Piecemeal Integration; Economy vs. Nothing-Buttery; The Deterministic Bogey”.

[3] Michael Brooks surveys current research on this topic in “Born Believers: How your brain creates God”, New Scientist, 4 February 2009.  If Dawkins is right about this, we can only praise him for his valiant publishing efforts to reverse the tide of natural selection which has so favored gullible creatures as to place them at the top of the food chain.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Latin for faithless, treachery or falsehood

Humus Sapiens

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Humus Sapiens: Part I

 What is a human being made of? 

planet-forming dust being blown by stellar winds in the W5 region of Cassiopeia

planet-forming dust being blown by stellar winds in the W5 region of Cassiopeia

The scientific answer would be: the same stuff that everything else is made of–the same fundamental sub-particles, particles, elements and molecules which can be found in the earth, the stars, the dust of the earth and the interstellar dust as well.  Indeed, the dust of the earth was originally stellar dust.  It took billions and billions years and stars to make up enough of the stuff to form the earth from the heavier elements like carbon, oxygen and iron, so that soil, water, rocks and humans could exist.

Thus, the scientific name, homo sapiens, derives literally from the Bible.  There’s a profound truth here, supported both by the physical sciences and the Bible: a human being is made out of the same stuff that makes up everything in the universe.  As the Bible puts it in the poetry of ancient Hebrew–

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.                   [Genesis 2:7]

That’s what we are made of: dust.  Literally, the star-dust from which the earth was formed.

Being formed of the dust of the earth, it’s fitting that man should also be named after it, as indeed he was.  Adam is the name taken from the biblical Hebrew word Adamah, meaning “earth”.  Thus, “Adam” is literally the word for “earthling”. And it’s likewise fitting that the scientific name for us earthlings, homo sapiens, would also derive from the ancient Latin word for dust, soil, and earth: humus.  This is the etymological explanation for the word homo as representing mankind.[1]  Thus, homo sapiens is Latin for sapient earthling, literally, “thinking earthling”: the earthling that has enough consciousness to think about things like etymologies and interstellar dust.  We might as well call it “thinking dust”, or humus sapiens, since that’s what we’re made of.

“Thinking dust” doesn’t sound too impressive, perhaps.  But oh, what dust it has become!  Dust that is capable of writing and enjoying Mozart’s symphonies.  Dust that wonders why there is beauty and strangeness in things.  Now that’s something to think about.  humus_hands1


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, for one, notices this etymology in Man: Christian Anthropology in the Conflicts of the Present, trans. by John Sturdy, (London: SPCK, 1971), p. 12.

Inaugural Scripture

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Still on the theme of hope, which our new president has providentially chosen to preach at every occasion…obama_inagu_mall

 President Obama delivered another message of hope in his Inaugural Address, and named the ideal of that hope, echoing the Declaration of Independence: “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”  Here again, Obama has taken his cue from the master speech-maker, Lincoln, who repeatedly drew upon the idealism of the founding fathers.  Lincoln recognized that belief in those ideals was crucial to the existence and survival of the young nation and its new form of constitutional government. President Obama likewise claims that we are still youngsters on the grand stage of history, and that our raison d’être hasn’t changed; our spirit remains grounded in the same ideals in which Lincoln trusted:

“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

What I find most hopeful here in Obama’s words are not the ideals themselves, but rather the source of hope: God.  The Scripture he cites-about setting aside childish things-is (like 99% of Scripture) decidedly non-idealistic.  It is above all, realistic.  The full verse reads like this:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. [1 Cor. 13:11-13]

This is a message about the reality of living in a messy world, in a messy time, a time in which the consequences of prosperity and greed, irresponsibility and fear have reached crisis proportions.  But these things remain, undiminished: faith, hope and love.  This Scripture names the only reality worth hoping in-the reality of knowing fully, even as we are known.  And we know that faith, hope and love will survive today’s moment of crisis, and abide throughout every moment to come for all time.

I find Obama’s choice of this Scripture hopeful because he uses it to remind of the true source of our hope:

“This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny…”

We won’t find hope in ideals, which always appear in tarnished form; nor can we take confidence in our ability to get all the hard decisions right in matters of government.  Our confidence rather lies solely in God.  As Christians, our job is to live lives that bear witness to him, pressing on even though we can’t see very far ahead.  Being witnesses in uncertain times, in the midst of crisis, yet unafraid and full of hope.  That’s what it means to put aside childish ways.  I hope that’s what Barack H. Obama meant when he chose to cite this Scripture.

Inauguration of Hope

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Ok, I can’t resist the opportunity any longer, to blog on the inauguration of Barack Obama.  So, like every other blogonaut out there, here goes…  It is indeed a hopeful moment.  An amazing, global, historic, sincere, and much-needed hopeful moment.  I can’t think of anything the world needs more right now than hope. Obama

And I say this not so much because I hope in Mr. Obama himself, however much I admire him; but rather, because I am hopeful that deep down he seems to understand that real hope must come from something much deeper, more powerful, and longer-lasting than his presidency or his personality.

Listen to this pre-inaugural comment he made in Philadelphia yesterday as the embarkation of the “2009 inaugural train to D.C.”-

 “What is required is a new declaration of independence not just in our nation, but in our own lives-from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry-an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.”[1]

President-Elect Obama seems to understand, as his speech-writing predecessor Lincoln did, that the beliefs underlying the institution of our government are the source of hope, not the personalities whom providence and fate have cast into the breach of uncertain times.

Where are we to find hope?  In instincts, or faith?  Angels are the biblical messengers of hope, while instincts are born by pheromones.   Obama’s quote above points to the only source of real hope.

The only instinct that could possibly be “true” would be an instinct for hope, an instinct that the transcendent goodness we perceive in life is indestructible  And the only way such an instinct could possibly be really true, would be if it were more than mere instinct. 

[1] Jeff Zeleny, NYTimes, 18 January 2009.

St Andrew's X: The ultimate factor of life

St Andrew's X

Sitting in the coffee shop this morning while catching up with a friend who’s been out of town, the lilting chorus of “Hallelujah!” began raining from the ceiling-mounted speakers, spilling into my consciousness, and interrupting our conversation, as the word shone through the high-decibel din of the noisy university crowd.  I hadn’t heard a single other thing played on the radio the whole time my friend and I sat there with our cappuccino and hot chocolate.  But that word snapped me to attention.  I stopped and said, “Listen!”  How does this softly sung word have such power to dominate the din?

Of course one answer is, “It’s the X-Factor”.  This national icon of British TV staged Leonard Cohen’s song as the grand finale, and it’s become the instant mega-hit of Christmas. It was about the fifth time I’ve heard that song in public over the past two days.  But of course there’s more to it than that.  Cohen himself answers, “It’s got a good chorus.”[1]  But of course there’s more to it than that, too. 

How is it that this nation which in the main treats biblical faith as a bygone, having tossed it aside like a child’s outgrown clothing, enjoys the chorus of Hallelujah’s so much?  My friend pointed out that it’s considered a “secular” song.  Well, he has a point there.  The version sung on X-Factor left out some of the more religious biblical verses.  But it also included some.  And the chorus of course, meaning “Praise God!” is the only part that most people know by heart.  Have they read Cohen’s lyrics?  It’s about King David and other biblical heroes, and although there are well over 100 different recorded versions in play, Cohen himself has closed it with this verse:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

That’s nothing less than amazing Grace: redemption and praise to the Lord, in spite of our failures in life.

And so, I know there is something more to it.  Something more than X-Factor hustling, something more than air time, something more than secularization can achieve.  That one-word chorus, sung over and over again, is something more.  It’s a word that sums up a whole life’s hope.  It’s word that can sum up the human hunger for hope in a world of hurt.  A word that finds beauty in life starved for worship.  A word that reminds us that every human being was created to praise God.  No matter which version of the song’s verses is sung, “Hallelujah” sums it all up.  Like Cohen says, “It’s got a good chorus.” 


[1] Neil McCormick, “Hallelujah: the Perfect Christmas song”, Telegraph, 17 December 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3814916/Hallelujah–the-perfect-Christmas-song.html

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