Help for Unbelievers

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“But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” [Mark 9:22b-23]

 “ ‘If you can’?”—

 The NIV translation is best here, because it brings out the nested entendres of Jesus come-back to the hapless father. “If you can?” “If you can?” “If you can!” And so on. The variety of possible meanings in this retort are tightly woven threads in a tapestry of meaning. Only on the lips of Jesus is their beauty revealed, as he mirrors the interlocutor’s phrase, and sends it back into the ears of all in this sharp retort. Is he chastising the father’s lack of belief? Is he pleading and encouraging the panicked man to have faith? Is he emphasizing his personal power, for the sake of the witnesses? Is he drawing a connection between faith and answered prayers? Is he admonishing his disciples and all within earshot to give up the hopeless argument that has embroiled them in a dispute with the scribes? Is he teaching by Socratic Method the meaning of belief? Perhaps he is doing all these things, and much more also, as he transforms the father’s plea into a speech-act which creates the possibility of revelation.

 Then immediately, before Jesus can shed any further light on the meaning of his retort, the father blurts out, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!”[1] The father demonstrates his understanding of this encounter. He feels ashamed as well as frustrated that he has not had enough faith to heal his son. He stands condemned before the rabbi Jesus as one who has not enough righteousness in his life, in his home, to escape the torment of his beloved son by demons. “Help!” he screams.

 I am this father. So are you. In belief we come before the god-man Jesus to bring our petitions. In unbelief, we find condemnation in our failings. If only my unbelief, my lack of faith, were less severe! Then perhaps I would have enough faith to get it right, to have the power to heal my own family, or to trust at least that God would answer my prayers.

 And Jesus transforms my plea. He absorbs it and sends it back into my own ears, as my eyes see him heal this boy. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Jesus demonstrates that he himself is the man who believes. Jesus is the one who has the power to help, because Jesus is the one who believes. The question no longer centers on whether or not the boy’s father, or you or I, have enough faith. It’s decisively not a question of whether this father believes strongly enough to balance out his unbelief. It’s not a matter of getting faith and doubt in proper proportion. No, but rather the question is whether we know Jesus as the one who has faith for our sake.  He does. And all things are possible to him, because he is the one man whose faith is perfectly embodied in right relationship with God the Father. We have enough faith therefore, not by our force of will to believe ever more strongly, but by our encounter with the one who believes in proper proportion, and that proportion is to be wholly, personally and perfectly one with the Father. Amen.

[1] Here the NIV is not so good, for it inserts the verb “overcome” in the father’s request: “Help me overcome my unbelief!”

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.