We all know what a dramatic difference it can make how we look at things.
Hamlet famously mopes to Rosencrantz that both the good earth and the breathtaking heavens have lost their lustre for him: “it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory … this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.”
Whether we think of our species as a freak accident of nature, a machine to be optimised, or a huge extended family will matter a lot for how we direct our energies and what we count as success or happiness.
His fellow humans, too, seem strangely diminished. He knows that, objectively, humanity is pretty remarkable – “What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! … the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” – but looking on himself and others with a jaded eye, all Hamlet sees is “this quintessence of dust.”
Competing accounts of what humans are and what we exist for swirl around us. There’s the Freudian self, neurotic and in need primarily of psychological management – or the self of evolutionary psychology, its every behaviour accounted for in terms of survival value or the pressure to find a mate – or the curated self of social media – just for starters. Whether we think of our species as a freak accident of nature, a machine to be optimised, or a huge extended family will matter a lot for how we direct our energies and what we count as success or happiness.
Christians have their own versions of these disagreements. Some conceive of the world as a sinking ship, their urgent role on deck as getting as many people as possible into lifeboats – saving souls. Others see their task as bringing both culture and the political order under the influence of Christ and/or Christian principles. Yet others are convinced that Christians should be communities set apart from the mess of the world, witnessing to an alternative way of being. And some are just doing their best to carve out a balanced, workable, preferably pleasant life, with a bit of service and evangelism thrown in.
Most of us, most of the time, are too absorbed in the concerns of our daily round – work, family, life admin, a bit of leisure time – to articulate to ourselves the point of it all, what our efforts really add up to.
Both caution against the well-intentioned attempts of thinkers such as Peter Singer and animal rights organisations such as PETA to efface the distinction between humans and other creatures, reaffirming the unique brilliance, the capacities and duties, and also the destructiveness of our kind.
The question of “the meaning of life” has become almost an embarrassing cliché – something for undergrads to ponder as they sip their long blacks before going on to actually do something with their lives. The release of two very different books with very similar titles, then, is refreshing. Both Marilynne Robinson’s latest book of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, and John Stackhouse’s Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World unabashedly devote themselves to perhaps the biggest question of existence: What is it to be human? All else – right and wrong, possible and impossible, purpose and responsibility – flows from this.
Stackhouse, a Canadian academic, addresses himself specifically to the Christian, Robinson to a secular and literary readership, but both take an overtly theological approach. Both caution against the well-intentioned attempts of thinkers such as Peter Singer and animal rights organisations such as PETA to efface the distinction between humans and other creatures, reaffirming the unique brilliance, the capacities and duties, and also the destructiveness of our kind.
This defence of human exceptionalism is an ongoing project for Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. Her crystalline and often wry prose has the effect of seeming simply to point out what is blindingly obvious. “There is no disputing the fact that we human beings have abilities not found in other animals, for example, the ability to split atoms,” she writes in her previous volume, The Givenness of Things:
“In some quarters it is considered modest and seemly for us to take our place among the animals, conceptually speaking – to acknowledge finally the bonds of kinship evolution implies. Yet … it seems fair to wonder if the beasts, given a voice in the matter, would not feel a bit insulted by our intrusion. History is the great unfinished portrait of old Adam. In the very fact of having a history we are unique. And when we look at it we are astonished. Only in myth or nightmare could another such creature be found. What a thing is man.”
Robinson is clear-eyed about our proneness to error and to harm; her preferred theme, though, is the sheer marvellousness of the human mind, “that luxuriant flowering of the highest possibilities of the material world.” We are not separate from what we call the natural world, but we have to discount an awful lot of what we experience, as well as what we make happen in the world, to convince ourselves (in the vein of much contemporary neuroscience) that consciousness is a mere by-product of the organic matter of our brains.
Stackhouse’s focus in Why You’re Here is on the particular role humans have been assigned within creation. The first command the Bible records God giving to humankind, he notes, is to multiply and to tend the world: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).
This commission, often referred to as the “creation mandate” or “cultural mandate,” gets a bad rap in some quarters because of how badly we have so often performed it, plundering the earth instead of drawing out its astonishing potential. But our failures, Stackhouse insists, don’t give us permission to throw up our hands and retire from the stage. He quotes cultural commentator Andy Crouch on the inescapability of human exceptionalism:
“In the whole known universe we are the only species that takes responsibility for the others; the only species that demonstrates the slightest interest in naming, tending, and conserving the others; that indeed is accountable for the stewardship of others; and the only species that feels guilty (however fitfully and hypocritically) when its stewardship fails.”
There will be no “Christians” in heaven: “we are humans first and last,” writes Stackhouse, “and ‘Christians’ only temporarily.”
Stackhouse describes the task of human beings on earth – every single one of us – as “maximising shalom,” bringing about what he calls “global flourishing”:
“Usually translated ‘peace,’ shalom means not only something negative – ‘no war or conflict of any kind’ – but also something wonderfully positive: the flourishing of all things. This flourishing is not only of each individual thing – each human being, yes, and also each animal, tree, landscape, and waterway – but also of each relationship among individuals, each group that individuals form, each relationship among groups or between groups and individuals, and the whole of creation in loving harmony with God.”
There is plenty here to be getting on with. And Stackhouse is emphatic that, while the Great Commission – the task of “making disciples of all nations” that Jesus entrusts to his followers in Matthew 28:18-20 – is a crucial calling for Christians, it cannot be all the church does. Salvation is not purely an end in itself but part of God’s plan for shalom for his world.
There is always a larger scale, and by God’s grace, a place for our apparently puny efforts within it.
There will be no “Christians” in heaven: “we are humans first and last,” writes Stackhouse, “and ‘Christians’ only temporarily.” And the claim of the Bible is that the task of cultivating our world and ourselves will continue – free of the thorns and thistles of our current experience, free of frustration, exploitation, absurdity, and waste – in the promised new heavens and new earth.
Why You’re Here wades dauntlessly into what that looks like for political engagement, for art and sport, for war and peace and science. In particular, it looks pragmatically but with firm hope at what it means to work side by side with people who think very differently from ourselves to bring about piecemeal and messy but real shalom in our fractured, fractious, but overwhelmingly fruitful world.
Both Why You’re Here and What Are We Doing Here? are full of riches and restless with energy to know, perceive, and accomplish more, together. Both do the reader a service in drawing our attention away from the ceaseless stream of the everyday-urgent to a reality that is larger, more breathable, more demanding, and more exhilarating.
There is always a larger scale, and by God’s grace, a place for our apparently puny efforts within it. Robinson updates Hamlet’s “goodly frame” and “brave o’erhanging firmament” with the insights of contemporary astrophysics, calling us to wonder, to worship, and to work:
“Yes, we cannot resist the pull of gravity, and no, we cannot really take in the fact that our cluster of galaxies is flying at 392,000 miles per second toward something called the Great Attractor, driven in part by pressure from an expanding void. Reality on its grandest scale bears no analogy to daily life here on our singular, weather-swaddled little earth. But there it is, and here we are, the great rush of the cosmos silent and impalpable to us. And within our starry calm exotic things can flourish that are unimaginable without it – history, memory, hope and doubt, love and loss, good and evil … this earth is so minor an exception to the generality of things that it is insignificant in any account of the universe, unless, of course, it is the very quintessence of significance.”
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. Visit www.publicchristianity.org