Decades ago I heard a talk by Daniel C. Maguire that included a thought that deeply impressed me: that the missing link between apes and true humans is actually us! In Maguire’s Christianity Without God, I learned that this shape-shifting concept came from biblical scholar Gerd Theissen.
I also like the title of an article by Walter J. Ong, SJ: “Where Are We Now?” Given all we’ve learned from physicists and cosmologists, we are not where, or who, we thought we were a century ago. The new context bumps us from our former self-understanding.
Our self-identity plays a key role not just in personal issues, but in the epochal transition of our time, as we leave one era and co-create the next one. Consider an insight found in Changing Images of Man (O.W. Markey and Willis W. Harman) that posits four levels of reality. Too often humans focus on identifying problems and how we deal with them. But this depends on what motivates us, which in turn results from our basic values and worldviews, the overarching stories that determine how we identify ourselves and others, including the divine and creation itself.
Willis and Markey use different sizes of wavy lines, but their insights work without them:
1. Substantive problems: What we see (e.g., poverty, pollution,
climate change . . . .)
2. Process Problems: How we deal with these problems (e.g., deny, ignore, respond)
3. Normative Problems: What motivates us (e.g., acquiring wealth, concern for creation)
4. Conceptual Problems: What forms our values and motivations; What are our basic perceptions (e.g., our cosmic view, sense of identity, image of the divine, how these are interconnected)
The many creation stories of the major faith traditions (level 4) began when knowledge was intuitive: flat earth with a level above it, a level below it. No one questioned the true age of creation. Believers today must adjust their identities to the world as we now know it. Change challenges the mind and heart — but change we must, and the Mystery given many names is active within us to assist when/if we are open.
To start with perceptions of self: If our basic story convinces us that we are
– isolated from, and superior to, the rest of creation,
– on Earth temporarily to care only for humans, and
– here to earn a place in heaven above,
that percolates up into our values and decisions. As a result, we might not protect the climate, air, water, soil, and other species upon which all life depends. We might miss the new awareness that humans, divinity, and all creation form one distinct but interacting community that has evolved over billions of years. We might not appreciate that we are stardust webbed with the rest of known creation!
Small wonder that Thomas Berry called for the reinvention of humanity at the species level! He famously said: The great work of our times is moving the human community from its present situation as a destructive presence on the planet to a benign or mutually enhancing presence.
Might this describe “true humans”? How did Jesus contribute to this reinvention?
Willow Harth expresses this new identity poetically. Despite her title, this is definitely for each of us:
This poem is not meant for you
This poem is not for you
unless you too have been underground
choking on your life’s debris, and
playing peek-a-boo with death seriously
then the surprise of ten thousand buttercups
out of nowhere on every side where they’d
never been before on my daily walk
might have had the effect on you it did on me
I wanted to understand how these particular
flowers came to be — the whole evolutionary
history of mosses, ferns, and angiosperms,
the miracle of photosynthesis and DNA, not
to mention the longings of the Milky Way
to reflect itself in the form called flowers and
in these buttercups, which seemed like a
visitation from the sun, urging me to tell you, in
case like me you had forgotten
we are the universe’s latest way of blooming.