Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fair distinctions…

I recall little about eleventh grade English beyond the following conversation. My class was discussing a short story when the topic turned to humanity’s relationship to our animal cousins. For whatever reason, I grew passionate, and offered a theory about what makes us unique, “truly human.” Basically, I claimed it was our ability to create, to enjoy beauty. Perhaps predictably, the English teacher agreed. The other students, by contrast, chafed at this seemingly obvious attempt of kissing up!

Anyway, that vignette comes to mind whenever I encounter the Christian doctrine of (pretentious Latin warming) the imago dei. That translates into the Image of God, and is based on Genesis 1:27, which claims God created humankind in “God’s Image.” That’s what makes us unique.

The oft-asked response is “What does that mean?!” My high school English teacher enjoyed my answer privileging creativity, beauty art. And there’s something to that interpretation. All Genesis readers know so far about God before verse 27 is that God’s a Creator. So if we follow the Bible closely, being made in God’s Image could mean being endowed with the gift of creativity.

I recently encountered another claim, though, that- while related- takes it in a different direction. But it wasn’t made in a theology book. Instead, this was a book about science. Specifically, it’s called The Sixth Extinction, authored by science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, who details the story of how many species are currently going (or have recently gone) extinct, compared with extinction trends and events over Life’s 3.5 billion years on earth. The short story: It’s not pretty; in fact, it’s terrifying. Pray for the earth, and forgiveness.

Still, when discussing humanity’s evolution and the not-long-after extinction of Neanderthals, she extensively quoted a Neanderthal expert. He pointed out that, genetically, modern humans are really similar to these now-extinct close cousins. What makes us different species is but several DNA mutations. What those are, he’s still trying to identify. But one thing we know, through fossil remains, are migration patterns of humans and Neanderthals. Turns out that Neanderthals migrated like every other large mammal, while humans did something…unique.

The key, he says, was ocean. Neanderthals never crossed the ocean, while humans found a way. Neanderthals crossed the English Channel, but at a time when sea levels were low enough to walk. Prehistoric humans, though (primitive to us technologically, yet identical genetically), they- or we- ventured across the ocean. We sailed toward a watery horizon we couldn’t see over, into a blue beyond we could only imagine, hoping something…else…lay in wait.

He described that as a kind of “madness,” and he’s probably right! Consider what it took for the first humans to say, “Enough of this close-to-shore sailing. Let’s see what else there is to explore!” And when they didn’t return- because surely many tried and died- what prompted those remaining to try again? Bad memory? Perhaps! Severe starvation? Could be, though I doubt it. Hunter-gatherers weren’t living luxuriously by our standards, but they were adept at survival across many climates. Their skeletons, in fact, were healthier and larger on average than those of typical humans after we settled into farming. That comparison of average hunter-gatherer vs “settled” human skeletal size and health only reversed in the past century!

Instead, I like this biologist’s instinct that something genetic drove us. An inborn madness, a need for exploration (as he further defines it), a created capacity for imagination other species lacked. Indeed, those three descriptions seem like one-in-the-same, and not in real contradiction with my imago dei definition above. Couldn’t we describe creativity, after all, as a mad leap of imagination into horizons we’ve yet to explore beyond?! The results could be maddeningly terrifying, of course. God could create a creature so imaginative, so powerful, it alone can destroy all Life. But creative madness could work another way too. God could create a creature perpetually aching to explore, to imagine Life’s unknown potential. Requiring it, therefore, to protect Life, to work with other species in harmony, even to save Life when the need arises and it has the chance. Sound similar to what God did for us in Jesus?

God’s image, indeed.

Grace and Peace,

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