Sunday, May 29, 2016

Anthropocentric religion?

One of the criticisms of Christianity I've heard a lot is that today we know how vast the universe is, and how small a place humans have in it, and therefore how insignificant we are, and therefore how silly it is to think there is a Creator of the universe who cares about us, loves us.

I suppose that would be a strong critique, if only the Bible were not so full of similar sentiments. Whether it's Psalm 8:4, "Whare human beings that you are mindful of them?" or Ecclesiastes 3:18, "I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals," or Isaiah 55:9, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts," the Bible is full of famous passages which demonstrate human beings' insignifance next to God. Job, the book of the Bible that most directly deals with the problem of evil, culminates with this haunting answer from God: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" If we cannot answer this question, the implication is that we have no right to demand an account from God for our suffering. In the Bible, human beings are very clearly put in their place.

Which is, of course, what makes its more "anthropomorphic" parts all the more powerful. The idea that God loves human beings is simply fantastic, as in Psalm 8:5-6: "Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all thins under their feet."

Now, let's be clear about something. No matter how much we increase in scientific sophistication, in our knowledge of just how vast this great universe is, Psalm 8 is still fundamentally accurate. There is a silly modern interpretation of the theory of biological evolution which states that human beings are not special, since we are just one of the many cousins descended from the same basic life forms billions of years ago. The silliness of this interpretation is self-evident. What other species even asks whether it is special? What other species has a word for species? What other species ever stops to wonder whether God is justified in creating this universe or not? What other species ever writes down extended arguments and passes them on, so that future generations may write back? What other species feels responsible for other species?

In other words, the Christian tradition is no more anthropocentric than mere common sense allows. The fact that the world is billions, not thousands, of years old and that our species emerged as a gradual process of evolution makes not a shred of difference. In fact, perhaps we should be all the more mystified and perplexed that humans exist at all. If intelligence is really the result of purely natural processes, why don't we see it more often? Why is it apparently so unique in the history of the world? And if it is not unique, what happened to all the other intelligent species?

(To be fair, it's a bit hard to know what a Christian would do if faced with intelligent species from other planets. But C. S. Lewis (as well as others, I'm sure) has dealt with this quite imaginatively in his Space Trilogy, so it's not as if Christians need be completely agnostic on that question. I have no idea if the Word became flesh on other planets. Would that be so troubling? It would certainly change certain doctrines, but to me that's hardly a concern.)

There is something troubling to me about a tendency in modern thought which, in a desperate attempt to get rid of theology, seeks to demean humanity as far as possible. Of course we are small, but we know we are small; of course we are insignificant, but we thirst for significance. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." It is not to feed our anthropocentric pride that we so desperately need the gospel, but, on the contrary, it is to remind us how far down God was willing to come in order to satisfy this desire for the transcendent.

Or are we simply a meaningless clump of particles, searching for meaning where there is none? In that case, what sense does the word meaning have in the first place?

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