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What is our human place in the grand scheme of things — if indeed there is a scheme at all? Carl Sagan, quoted by The Observer (ODT, January 9, 2020), wrote of our "posturing", "imagined self-importance", "delusion" when really "our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves." That’s bleak, given all the environmental evidence, also outlined in the Observer article, that we are in desperate need of saving from ourselves.
Nor is Sagan alone in this account of our place in the universe. Lisa Margulis wrote of humanity as "mammalian weeds," and Stephen Hawking of our being "chemical scum". Even Bruce Munro concluded his inspirational article on the beauty of dark skies, (ODT, October 28, 2019) with a quote from his subject, Naomi Arnold: "We are on a rocky planet spinning towards oblivion. It creates a sense ... that nothing really matters that much." Nothing? Not even dark skies?
None of this provides much help for those attempting to address our epidemic of youth suicide, for in this accounting our lives really do count for nothing, and the planet itself might be better off without us. Also, despite the hope of the Observer writer that we might give the earth much more care and attention than it is getting at present, this too is a vain hope in the face of such negativity. Why bother? Let’s just enjoy our moment of fun before we’re snuffed out in the eternal night.
These assessments are not only profoundly unhelpful in our current crisis, they are also actually untrue! The rocks that constitute this pale blue dot are rocks that have produced life; life in myriad expressions with an amazing story; life that has begun a tentative exploration of the universe in which it finds itself; life that may not be unique but so far is found to be so; life that loves and hurts and hates and pursues visions for justice; life that has produced the exquisite cave drawings at Lascaux and the mathematics which enabled Brunelleschi’s dome or the Hayabusa spacecraft’s six billion-kilometre return journey to an asteroid not much bigger than Dunedin’s harbour basin; life that has long been conscious of the immensity of the universe and of human insignificance; life that has reflected on this state of affairs and that has responded in the humility of worship. This tiny rock is a rock that prays and sings!
And none of this is mere delusion. These discoveries and beauties are an integral part of our unfolding universe, they mean something and point to deeper realities. The prayers and songs are not the noise of frightened children whistling in the dark. Contrary to Carl Sagan’s view there is a light that shines in the cosmic darkness. John’s gospel describes it as the light that shines on all humankind, which we have rarely comprehended, but which has never been put out. It is the light of the divine "Word" through whom all things came into being and by which they are all sustained. The "Word" which finds expression in the free beauty of Lascaux and the formal order of mathematics; the "Word" which enables the scientific enterprise to discern truth at all; the "Word" which in all times and places has generated hunger for justice, truth and love; the "Word" which through language reminds us that relationships and love are at the heart of our existence. This is the "Word" that has come out of hiding behind the things of the universe and become a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. Whether from deep within the underlying structures of the universe or from elsewhere or both at once, the event we recently celebrated at Christmas declares that help has indeed come to save us.
But will we welcome it? It would be tiresome to begin listing all the signs that we humans are not well disposed towards living within the light and love of this divine "Word." But our current global crisis is evidence enough. We do not love our earth sufficiently, nor do we love its creator and sustainer. We arrogantly resist the admission that we need help. Our whole current economic life is dedicated to consuming the earth rather than caring for it.
Yet if we are to live properly here, if we are to be saved from ourselves, it does seem that we need our humanity renewed. It was the experience of those who shared life with him that Jesus did represent a renewed humanity. His whole ministry and supremely his resurrection involved restoration of the earth. By the gift of his spirit of life he invites us to be radically remade, to participate in a new humanity that can find its place within the processes of the earth, rather than at enmity with this our only home.
Rev Dr Selwyn Yeoman is a minister in the Presbyterian Church, serving at present in the University of Otago Chaplaincy.