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Sun, Jun 07, 2020

Who Are We?

Duration:17 mins 7 secs

“Who Are We?”

Sermon on Psalm 8

Trinity Sunday/Graduation Sunday  2020

            In the last ten years or so, I’ve noticed a number of stories in the print and broadcast media about discoveries in the field of neuroscience, or brain research. Many of these stories have to do with how modern imaging technology can show brain activity in response to certain stimuli. For example, neuroscientists have discovered that fear or anger or pleasure cause certain areas of the brain to light up, so we can map mental function as easily as we might create a topographical map showing mountains, valleys, and rivers. The question is, what does neuroscience really tell us about the human mind? Are its workings just a matter of signals and receptors? As Marilynne Robinson has noted,[i] the fact that fear lights up a certain area of the brain as it is scanned does not mean that we have explained fear. When it comes to thinking about who a person is, it’s much more important to know the context of that fear. Is it triggered by a spider, an airplane ride, an exam, a disapproving parent, death, or the Last Judgment? It matters to an understanding of our humanity to know what it is that makes us afraid (which is more the province of literature, philosophy, and religion than of science).

            So while many of the findings of brain research are fascinating, the field’s explanatory powers are limited to what its own technology can show. Neuroscience, in spite of many of its practitioners’ claims to explain human nature, leaves a very large remainder: what we have traditionally called, each with a distinctive emphasis, the mind, or self, or soul. Human beings have an inner life, a capacity for self-examination and interpretation of their experience, that cannot be scanned. I can’t imagine any technology that can describe what it feels like to be me, or for you to be you.

            There is no place in this purely mechanistic, chemical conception of the human being for the poet who looks at the night sky and speaks to God: “What are human beings, that you are mindful of them?” I imagine that poet of so many thousand years ago lying on a hillside on a summer night, looking up at the stars and wondering: at the vastness of creation, the majesty of God, and the unexplainable significance of a single human being. “What are human beings, that you are mindful of them, O God? What are mortals, that you care for them?” How does brain research explain a question like this? As far as I know, it is a uniquely human question.

            The psalmist reflects on the frailty and dependence of the human creature. We are mortals – finite, contingent beings. We did not make ourselves, and like all creatures, our time to die will come.  Geologists say that if the measurable course of the life of planet Earth were reduced to one year, the entire history of human civilization would occupy the last minute of that year. In the face of such immensity, how can we not feel insignificant, lost in the cosmos? What are human beings, that God is mindful of them?

            The psalmist, in contemplating this question, is filled with awe, but not existential dread or despair. This ancient poet is a person of faith, and his poem both begins and ends with a joyful acclamation of praise: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

            In the world of the psalmist, human beings had been used to thinking of the sun, the moon, and the stars as deities, who controlled human lives and destinies. It was a breakthrough for humanity to be able to look on these celestial bodies as having no power of their own but as the creations of a loving and careful God – a God whose “fingers” delicately traced the heavenly firmament. It meant that it was now possible to know the Creator and Sustainer of the universe as someone human beings could be in relationship with.

            The psalmist says that human beings have a unique, God-given identity and vocation. They exist for a reason. Their role begins, but does not end, with being stewards of the rest of creation. As problematic as the biblical concept of “dominion” has been for the world, it was never intended to give human beings free rein to use the earth and its creatures in greedy or careless ways. God’s plan for humanity and the rest of creation certainly never included fracking or carbon overloads in the atmosphere.

            Nevertheless the Bible has allotted a unique place for human beings. Genesis 1 says that human beings have been made “in God’s image.” We don’t know exactly what that means. Some people have said that it has to do with our intellect, our capacity for reason – but we now know that many animals have reason, shown in a capacity for language and problem-solving, and many animals show evidence of great emotional depth as well. So what makes human beings in any way unique?  Sociobiologists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, like many in the brain sciences, deny there is anything special about the human species, that we are simply organisms guided by our self-interest.

It may be that being made “in the image of God” has to do with our capacity to be in relationship with God: to desire and seek God, to pray and worship and want to serve God, and to imagine a future with God. Our humanness is realized in this relationship. As John Calvin said, we have no knowledge of ourselves without knowledge of God. We find our identity in this relationship.

            “Who am I?” is the most basic question of the human creature. We want to know our place in the world and be able to say what it is. On one level, I can say I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a Presbyterian minister. If you take away any one of these pieces, my self-concept changes. Here in the Washington, DC, area, we’re taught to define ourselves primarily by what we do for a living – but where I grew up, people were defined by who their family was or where they went to school. Decades after high school graduation, if I meet someone from Louisville, KY they ask me where I went to high school. It’s an identity marker, the way careers are around here.

            The Bible, of course, tells us that none of this has anything to do with who or what we really are. Who we are has been given to us by God, who is mindful not just of the human race in general, but of each human being.

            Graduates [Abbie, Emily, and Collin], as you continue your education and prepare for adulthood, there will be many people who want to define you, tell you who and what you should be. In our commodity culture, there is a tendency to think of new graduates as future units of economic production, so young people entering college are encouraged to look primarily at how their educations can be monetized. I encourage you to reject this one-dimensional thinking; I urge each of you instead to remember that you are a unique human being, a son or daughter of God. Recognize your minds and imaginations for the gifts they are, not just to an economy that wants to train them for specific purposes, but to other human beings and to you yourselves. Don’t let your desire for beauty and meaning be dismissed as “elitist” or unimportant to the “real world.” What the “real world” needs are people who are real human beings, with many dimensions.

             This generation of graduates has already demonstrated that they have an affirming, accepting, even celebratory attitude toward difference and individuality. We will be looking to them to help heal some of the painful divisions in our society, the divisions caused by racism, extreme partisanship, and pure selfishness. Right now our graduates are inheriting a world on fire, so rent with division, distrust, outrage and hatred that there is no way back from it, only a way forward – which will take imagination, courage, and love. We will be looking to them to show us a more excellent way of incorporating and honoring differences, while still working toward a shared vision – for the church, for our country, for the world.

            Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day of the church year that is dedicated to a doctrine, an article of the church’s teaching that outside theological circles is generally thought to be unnecessarily confusing. But “Trinity” is simply the Christian way of talking about the love that animates the universe. Father, Son and Spirit do not exist independently, but in relation to each other, constantly giving and receiving love and giving it back again. Because of this divine loving action, we don’t exist independently, either. We are made to receive the love of God and reflect it back into the world. That is our God-given identity and vocation.

            It is by the grace of God that we human beings are what we are. It is true that we are frail, dependent, fallible, sometimes foolish, and often sinful. But we are also the object of divine love and care. In fact, God has loved humanity so much that Christ has come into the world as one of us, taking on our nature so that we could take on something of his. It is the Christ in us that God loves.

            What are human beings that God is mindful of them? We are created and formed by God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, brought into communion by the Holy Spirit, and set into the world for a specific purpose. We are to be faces of God’s love in the world, shining like a thousand stars.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

June 7, 2020

 

[i] In The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

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