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2019-10-17

From the Sabbatical Minister - October 17, 2019

O What a Piece of Work Are We!

How wondrous is the human mind and its infinite capacity, that we are able to learn and explore and think new things, that we are adaptive and adaptable, and that we can imagine not only all manner of things beyond ourselves – that is wondrous indeed.

I identify as a Universalist theist, finding myself fascinated by and informed by what I perceive as God’s love and our capacity for goodness. And part of that fascination draws me to a sense of awe about how our minds work – these minds can both ponder Mystery and build our human future.

I have these moments every now and then when I am taken completely aback by something a human has created or thought. Sometimes it’s amazement at the spectacle of skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue. Sometimes it’s awe as I video chat real-time with a colleague in England. Sometimes it’s realizing that an operation that once caused 8-inch scars and weeks in the hospital is now an outpatient procedure with a one-inch incision.

I was listening to a podcast about Charles Darwin recently and it was noted that Darwin was definitely a man of his age – like many upper class Victorians of the time, he was interested in art, nature, and science. But in 1859, Darwin made a rather simple observation that has absolutely changed how we perceive the world. That observation, of course, is evolution by natural selection. What struck me, however, was not the awesomeness of the theory that has since been proved as fact by biology, anthropology, paleontology, and other sciences. No, it was the fact that the human brain is so amazing that it can incorporate positively new ideas and actually adapt to new technologies.

In fact, our minds are so adaptive that how we learn, how we use new tools, how we process even more and more information is evidence of a mind that is constantly seeking to extend itself, to grab on to new tools it has never experienced before and merge with them. We wonder with horror at how easily people become glued to their smart phones, but it would be surprising to biologists if we didn’t – as we are, in some ways, natural-born cyborgs.

It is stunning when you think that we constantly incorporate life-shaping ideas such as evolution and heliocentrism… we take space travel as fact, not fantasy… we have spent centuries developing cars and combines and phones and lasers … we construct buildings that scrape the sky … we come up with ingenious ways to adapt to our changing climate… we know thousands more words and absorb more information in a year than we did in a lifetime just 100 years ago… and yet we are still human, in human communities, in human relationships, propagating the species and adapting to the world.

We humans, in human communities, also have room in our fabulous brains to create art and worship together, to be social and committed together. We naturally form in groups of like-minded people so that we can not only learn from one another but also strengthen our empathy and compassion, which helps us survive and helps us do the work of justice.

These brains and bodies are marvels – we celebrate them every time we say ‘hello’ or offer a seat or ask ‘how are you’ and care to know the answer. We celebrate them when we show care and kindness. We celebrate them when we share our joys and sorrows, when we share meals and hearts.

Oh what a piece of work are we, so marvelously wrought.

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