Jul 29 2014
For decades I took the Bible’s creation account as historical fact. I knew the world’s first human was molded by the same hands that knit me together in my mother’s womb.1 God’s own breath infused brand new dust to create a conscious body. Other species were spoken into spontaneous existence before having their naming ceremony casually outsourced, but Adam was fearfully and wonderfully made.2
We humans were the big stars all along. Earth was a backdrop for our high-stakes drama- a prelude to eternal bliss or agony. Though God had worked on it to the point of exhaustion, He wanted us to be “in the world but not of it”3 - divine beams of light trapped in fragile jars of clay.4 We were doomed to our prisons of expiring flesh until our eventual homecoming in paradise. I expected that realm to be much more hospitable, since up there, no earth quakes, no cancer spreads and no heart splits in two. Mostly, I yearned for the boundless joy, unmediated worship and buffets overstocked with purely recreational eats. Sometimes, I secretly wondered how I’d survive the tedium of infinity.
But it wasn’t right to question God’s power. Saved by a measure of grace that no mortal could merit, I shouldn’t ignorantly evaluate the Kingdom based on my limited perspective. I should “live in light of eternity”5 rather than cling to comforting conventions like space and time. And if things ever got hairy, I’d be a willing martyr- the highest calling. I was encouraged by the words of C.S. Lewis: “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”6 I mentally prepared for Judgment Day to avoid being caught off-guard. As a child, I daydreamed about the guillotine and mark of the beast, hoping Jesus would return before the Antichrist took power. In high school, the fantasy involved being singled out by a gun-wielding classmate with deep scars from Sunday School. When he spat in my face and asked if I really believed in God, I’d sob, nod, choke out a ‘yes’ and brace myself.7 I hoped my loyalty would secure me a spot in heaven if my belief alone could not.
Driving my faith was a keen sense of my intrinsic worthlessness. God could’ve merely willed me to life like He did everything else. But He personally gifted His spirit, and I immediately betrayed Him with sin. I hadn’t lived in the Garden of Eden myself, but I was just as accountable for my “fallen” state,8 and I couldn’t escape my estrangement from The Father by natural means. To willingly align myself with my traitorous flesh was to choose death over life. If only I’d offer myself as a living sacrifice9 by inviting the Spirit to replace my instincts with God’s, I’d avoid the horrific fate of the unredeemed.
Now a few years removed from Christianity,10 I can appreciate the symbolic power of the Genesis story. The book’s authors hadn’t yet examined their genetic heritage when they pinpointed humanity’s main ingredients. Whether manually molded by a personified deity or perpetually regenerating on the fuel of our innate intelligence, we’re essentially a mixture of dirt and magic. Either way, it’s clear our bodies are made of the ground beneath our feet. And our consciousness is still such a perplexing phenomenon that even the least spiritual among us are sometimes enchanted. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran writes, “How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe-inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago.”11
So we really have been the big stars all along. But the makeup of our species isn’t unique; as writer Jostein Gaarder points out: “A hydrogen atom in a cell at the end of my nose was once part of an elephant’s trunk. A carbon atom in my cardiac muscle was once in the tail of a dinosaur.”12 The imagery sets my heart on fire and my mind at ease. Since I literally belong to the earth, I can settle in for good. I can live this life instead of steeling myself for the next. I can trust my gut rather than compulsively censor thoughts that might summon The Enemy. I’m not ashamed of being human, and I don’t feel hopelessly alienated because of my personal relationship with an authoritarian god. The fact that I’m no more objectively significant than the chair that props me up really takes the pressure off.
Still, I am an inconceivable miracle- a bright flame of consciousness temporarily animating a tiny speck of Earth. While the matter will recycle, the light will flicker out- I hope not a moment too soon or too late.
1. Psalm 139:13: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (NIV)
2. Psalm 139:14: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (NIV)
3. popular Christian phrase that I always took for a verse in scripture; may be based in part on Jesus’ prayer for new converts in John 17:16: They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
4. 2 Corinthians 4:7: But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
5. another ubiquitous bit of Christianese that might as well be scripture.
6. June 17, 1963 letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3
7. Columbine victim Cassie Bernall was a martyr in her mom’s book She Said Yes, a story later undermined by eyewitness reports. Fact or fiction, it made a huge impact on me. I was intimidated by the daunting standard she set but inspired by her bravery.
8. Romans 3:23: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
9. Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
10. Read my “Christian Extimony” here.
11. from the introduction of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human
12. from his 1991 novel Sophie’s World
(also posted on ExChristian.net)