Friday, December 26, 2003

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made 

Creation and Agency
(As a note, Sundays are typically themed by the World Church, and although it is not required that a speaker stick to it, the theme does provide some organizational unity to the ones preparing the service, and so I try to acknowledge that as much as possible. This would not have been my choice for a theme, but it does make for a challenge.)

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
Highland Park Congregation
[Flannel Christian], Speaking
January 19, 2003

Before I begin, I want to point something out. When we talk about knowledge the prevailing analogy is one of sight: “I see” means “I understand” or “Open your eyes” means “Can’t you tell?” And even most of the early puzzles of philosophy work only if you’re looking at them—like, for instance, why does the stick bend in the water but come out straight? This dates back to early Greek philosophy and how they imagined the mind to work: it observes the world without being affected by it. It doesn’t have to touch it, or smell it, or even be near it. And the world doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us. Knowledge goes unilaterally, and we affect the world unilaterally: without it really knowing or affecting us. This is too bad, because we miss a whole lot of the world this way.

I want to submit to you fine folk the possibility of another analogy for knowledge or for interaction with the world: that of touch. You see, when the toucher touches something, she is necessarily touched back—knowledge, or at least affectation, goes both ways. That’s why hugs are so great, because whenever you hug someone you’re getting a hug back. And touching is a much more intimate thing than seeing—it connects two people more closely than simple sight. If we start applying some of these images to knowledge, we get a different “picture”—or better yet: “sculpture”—of reality.

Just keep that in mind as we go through this today. And now to the story…

God, being infinite and timeless and the cause of all things throughout the vast emptiness of space, is alone; and as one might get spending infinity alone, God becomes infinitely lonely. Perhaps God gets to see a Big Bang or two, vacations by a supernova or black hole, but has absolutely no one to share all these things—or anything—with. So God, being a pretty smart fellow, gets the bright idea of creating someone to hang out with, and sets about to escorting one little corner of the universe through a long series of peculiar developments: cooling of the earth’s crust, evaporation and condensation of water, the importation of amino acids and the painstakingly monotonous (and surely disappointing) development of simple life-forms, the transformation of the carbon-monoxide-rich atmosphere to our beloved oxygen-dominated one, the progress from single- to multiple-celled life-forms, plant-like and animal-like things, to the strange appearance of “woody fibers” making things like stems and trees possible, to the surprising benefits of “flowering reproduction” and other similar gene-scrambling methods (for those of you who are not picking up on the idea I’m talking about, think about the big difference between how amoebas procreate and how animals like us do it).

What you kids are looking at are plants and animals that lived just like you and me—only more than 300 million years ago. They were born, grew, lived and died just like we do—and were lucky enough to be covered with a lot of dirt and set in stone for us to look at. Perhaps 300 million years from now some other animal will be looking at one of us or one of our toys, and wonder what it must have been like to live so long ago, and what the world must have been like.

But God isn’t done with the story—not when those plants were alive—and whether you sympathize with the Biblical or Darwinian stories (or some other account between to two) it was a surely tedious, labor-intensive, excruciatingly slow walk to the appearance of creative conversational partners. So, for brevity’s sake, let’s skip all that and pick up the story again in that primordial wonder of wonders, the curious Garden of Eden.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve didn’t do much—they just sort of sat around and waited for God to give them something to do: name the animals, walk around the garden with god, that sort of thing. They actually really closely resembled dolls that you might play with—utterly at peace, but not very creative in their own right.

Now, as any young lady or young man will be able to tell you, dolls after a while aren’t much fun. They’re fun at the beginning because you can make them do whatever you want—they go with you when you want them to, and lie quietly in the trunk of the car when you don’t; they listen to you and may even talk back, saying exactly what you want; you make them move, feel, speak, and be. In fact, you have to make them do that—without you they really don’t do much at all. You can hug them, but they don’t hug back, and after a while the pool of potential conversations grows pretty dry.

Thank goodness we all have friends with minds and opinions of their own—but notice that we don’t “make” friends, at least not in that sense, we “become” friends, which affects us as much as it affects the other person.

Now think about God, this poor friendless chap who makes up these people—the people are polite enough, after all, they’re just his imagination—but these people really don’t do anything but walk around and react to God. They’re like little babies who are too young yet to have really developed a personality of their own, and simply blink or wobble in response to what other people are doing to them. God has to somehow make them independent thinkers, make them somebody with their own thoughts in their own heads, perhaps even someone to disagree with.

So God, again being a pretty smart person, creates this tree—you’ve heard it was an apple, Christie next week will tell you it was more likely a fig tree, but it could’ve just as well been a persimmon tree or even just a nondescript shrubbery for all it mattered to God—and God sets up a puzzle too good to ignore. God endows this plant with a peculiar kind of knowledge: good and evil. Now, the plant doesn’t tell us which to choose, or give us any other kind of knowledge like how to build a Harley Davidson or homogenize milk; this shrubbery of the knowledge of Good and Evil is just that—and since up to this time the only thing in the universe with any idea of good or bad or kind-of-questionable is God, this shrubbery offers to those who eat it’s fruit the opportunity to become like God. Pretty tempting, huh? But remember, Adam and Eve wouldn’t do anything God didn’t make them do, because they didn’t know any better. They were like the play-things of God, and God wanted them to be more than that.

So let me ask you this: what does a parent say to a child when she wants the child to do something? What happens if she says “do this”? Almost sure as heck-fire the kid is going to run straight in the other direction, right? But if the mom gets a little tricky and says “don’t do this,” or “you can’t have this”—don’t watch this channel on the television, don’t look at these books, don’t take cookies from the cookie-jar—what is that child going to do?

So God plants this tree or shrub or whatever, tells Adam and Eve strictly and in the most unequivocal terms to absolutely not eat of this tree, and then runs behind a bush giggling to godself and waits to see how long it takes. And woop!, not 16 verses later Eve and Adam are munching happily away. You can almost hear God hopping up and down out of excitement. “Finally, somebody to talk to!”

Now, there are some that will tell you that this was the beginning of the end; that this was bad news for humankind; that humanity could never recover from this “fall.” But not us. In our religious tradition we have a slightly different take on the story. We believe in what some people call “felix culpa”—which is a fancy Latin way of saying “fortunate fall.” We believe that the knowledge of good and evil is a gift, a blessing, and that our ability to choose freely is essential to becoming all that we can be. Let me read from First Nephi 1:111-15:

And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed, he would not have fallen; [and] he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created, must have remained in the same state which they were, after they were created; and they must have remained for ever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; … they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. … Adam [and Eve] fell that men [and women] might be; and men [and women] are that they might have joy.

Without that fortunate fall we would all be puppets, boring both to ourselves and to anyone wishing to engage us in conversation.

Now some will tell us that this is all bad—that we ought to have stayed in that Garden of Eden, blissfully ignorant. Or that knowledge is bad unless it is only knowledge of good. Or that it would be better to be without choice and with God than the necessity of being distinguishable from God to have real choice. And it is these people who also tell us that everything in the world is of God and meaningful and “meant to be.”

I hope I don’t offend anyone by putting forth the following line of reasoning, but if we have genuine freedom (and not some seeming-freedom where it just feels like we’re choosing of our own free will but really acting out the will of God)—God cannot force us to choose anything, and all God can do is present us with options, opportunities for choice, and the more choices the better. Choices that close us off to more choices, more freedom, are bad; while those that open us up to more and more opportunities for creative choices are the greatest good—and offering to us constant creative transformation—the becoming what we thereto couldn’t even imagine. But the greater the scope of our decisions, the greater the potential for bad decisions. And if we are making at least some of our decisions on our own, then things happen that were not intended by God, things can even happen by chance—these may be good things or bad, or even non-descript. But if we believe that our own minds matter and that God’s matters, then there are at least three forces in the universe: God’s will, my will, and chance. And if there is genuine chance in the world, then nothing is guaranteed.

Now, some religious traditions see this conclusion as somehow having misunderstood the nature of the universe, and even though it doesn’t make sense they claim that whatever seems like uncertainty in the universe is mere illusion, and that there is really sense and certainty in all things—and some trace that confidence back to a man we all know as Jesus, and how much he revealed about the nature of God. They see the end of my line of reasoning and back away from it, sure that somewhere along the line my thoughts took a wrong turn, because uncertainty is scary, the idea of no guarantees is a fearful one, and surely, they think, God would not want us to be fearful.

I think this is a shame, because I see Jesus really revealing the nature of God only in a world where faith is a genuine risk that we genuinely choose to take.

For some people the idea that we have real choice and that those choices have real effects (and not just peripheral ones against the backdrop of God’s plan) is a fearful one—and wanting not to fall victim to fear run away from the world and hide in the idea of a God who will take care of the world for them. Ironically, it is they who, not wanting to fall victim to fear, in the end do. For them the world is fearfully made.

For other people, people like Jesus and us, the really scary thing about reality is that it might not work out as anyone planned or hoped, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to work toward the world we really wish to see—because if it is going to happen, it is going to happen because we helped bring it about. If Jesus had known what was going to happen in Jerusalem, or if he knew at least that everything would definitely work out, then it doesn’t make a very good story. Perhaps Jesus might not lose his temper in the Temple, or perhaps the Pharisees wouldn’t be so resistant, or Pilot so unforgiving, or the public more receptive, or that he might not be crucified at all—only if he genuinely didn’t know does his story mean anything for us, because that is what we must do every day: make decisions based on our convictions, not knowing if or how they’ll turn out. As Christians we don’t work with guarantees. It may not turn out, but we work. That’s it. We work, and come hell or high water we don’t give up.

I want to tell you a story that takes place at the same time these leaves were falling over to be pressed into stone, 300 million years ago. God, hard at work for some three and-a-half billion years already, finally sees the greatest creation ever—the most beautiful, the smartest, the most-loving creature ever to be seen anywhere—and just as it is born a hungry dinosaur walks by and eats it. When you think about discouragement, think about that. And this may have happened more than once—it might happen every day (except, obviously, not with dinosaurs). But God does not give up. Our god is an adventurous god, willing to take risks, hoping for the best. God every day calls each and every one of us, and every molecule in the universe, in a way, to be more loving, more creative, to stick together and become new and better things, and to enjoy existence all the more.

There is a question put to young philosophy students reading Plato: would you rather be a happy pig or an unhappy Socrates? The rub of course being that we would nearly always choose to be Socrates and feel the depth and richness of his experience, even were it unhappy, than the simple joy of the pig. The Bible says the same thing in the oft-quoted Ecclesiastes: He that increaseth knowledge increaseth suffering. But no one really expects someone—even though they know this to be true, oftentimes—to stop learning.

We could all be relatively happy puppets of God in the Garden of Eden, or have the whole world of joy and pain open to us as agents with choice. Being human means having that freedom, and with that freedom the responsibility that comes with being able to act in the world, and the knowledge that the world will act in return upon you and others—and not always nicely. Still, that’s our job, for Adam and Eve fell that we might be, and we are (we hope) that we might have joy.

This is the wonder of creation: that we can deliberately act in the world and be acted upon by it—we have the possibility of change on a scale unimaginable to flowers or hippopotami or volcanoes, and from our potential for change and growth we can, as individuals and as a gathering of people, change the world in profound and meaningful ways. We can make war, or pursue peace. We can feed the hungry and clothe the naked, or we can not. We can work in industries that promote the sustainable consumption of resources, or simply consume without any thought to the effect of our actions. And we can be killed in war or nurtured by peace, fed or kept hungry, clothed or made to be naked. We hug and are hugged at the same time. We can take big steps and small ones—like buying fair-trade coffee or sending an email protesting our nation’s dedication to war in Iraq. And the world may answer: it may change, or it may not—but as any physicist (or chaos-theorist) will tell you: it all matters, to some degree everything matters. In space, you may feel weightless, but you never fully escape the tug of gravities from even the most distant stars. And you tug on them, too, remember. We are inescapably and constantly embraced and embracing.

I think that is perhaps the most wondrous thing of all: the part of our nature that makes us vulnerable to what is around us, makes us malleable, changeable, influenced, as well as changing and influencing. There are lots of things out there to affect us and be affected by us—cars, pencils, ideas, other people, and chance. As the Book of Mormon pointed out: if we didn’t have knowledge, choice, or brains that learned things about the world around them, then we would never change, and as much as I like all of you right now, I still think that would be a real shame—I can’t speak for any of you, but I know I could still use some work. And I look forward to how I might change the world and how it might change me—what happens in our hug, so to speak.

So, in all our actions let us ask the question: what will increase our options of what to become? What will widen the breadth and deepen the richness of our experience? What will make us, or those around us, more creative? What will make us feel more in the world, rather than less. What would, in short, Jesus do? He wouldn’t ignore; he wouldn’t forget; he wouldn’t run away. He wouldn’t just pray. He would, even being aware of the possibility of complete failure and even death, have confidence in the possibility of growth and new life.

Let us make ourselves worthy conversation-partners for God. Let us grow beyond seeing the world as fearfully made, and realize our role in the wonderful part of creation. God isn’t done with this place or with us any more than God was done 300 million years ago. Let’s make our embrace of this world of growth and wonder something to remember—let’s be more than just shapes set in stone.


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