Scientists, Celebrities, and Yahoos … Why Are We Here?

YanceyThe next chapter of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? makes a great followup to Tuesday’s post the “scientific” answer to the question “why are we here?”. Yancey addresses this question by illustrating several of the views running around in our society and contrasting them with a Christian answer to the question.

An Accident of Evolution. Yancey begins with the view put forth by Gould that humans are simply an accident of evolution. We simply are. There is no cosmic significance to our presence. And he considers the fact that some scientists go further than Gould. There is nothing significant that separates us from other animals. But Yancey finds this a bit troubling:

I find the evolutionary psychologists’ account of animal behavior fascinating. When they apply the same principles to human beings, however, my alarm bells go off. To mention the most important one, displacing God knocks the human species off its pedestal as well. If human beings are not made in the image of God, how can we claim any special rights and privileges? Zoologist Paul Shepard admits, “Rights’ implies some kind of cosmic rule … something intrinsic or given by God or Nature.” Candid atheists agree that any discussion about human or animal rights is pointless – which has a huge impact on how we view ourselves and the world.

“There is really no rational reason for saying a human being has special rights,” says Ingrid Newkirk, cofounder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” (p. 198-199)

Yancey even found a group that advocates voluntary human extinction to allow the majority of earth-dwelling species to thrive. Humans are the primary threat to many of these. If humans have no special place perhaps the best, most altruistic action, is simply to commit suicide as a species. Not many go this far, of course. And even many atheists and naturalists will point to human consciousness and creativity as a feature that sets our species apart.

The Christian answer to the human question, the purpose of mankind, differs greatly from that of Gould and from that of our surrounding culture.

Or at least it should differ greatly, although it doesn’t always seem that way.

Consumers and Celebrities. Modern Western culture concerns itself little with the grand philosophical questions.

The average person brushes aside philosophical questions and the latest trends in evolutionary science. Most of us drift along in the cultural current, buying the newest electronic gadgets, watching movies and television, paying bills, taking the kids to soccer practice. We live in the “broad way,” to borrow Jesus’ term, which rarely attends to such grand questions as “Why are we here?” Instead popular culture provides an endless stream of trivia – news items, games, sports, Hollywood gossip – that have a tranquilizing effect. (p. 203)

And If I look to modern culture for an answer to “Why are we here?” I can only infer that we are here to laugh, make money, become famous, and look as good as possible. (p. 204)

But it is even more insidious. We focus on celebrities to a damaging excess.

We have invented a two-tiered society of watchers and the watched, like sixty thousand spectators in a football stadium who focus on the tiny figures on the field below. … (p. 206)

Every society has elevated the rich and powerful: Chinese bureaucrats crept on the ground before the emperor, the serfs of Russia lowered their heads in awe as the carriage of the czar thundered by. What’s new is the illusion of intimacy. … The illusion of intimacy allows me to feel close to my heroes, though actually if I went up to any of them and started a conversation bodyguards would swiftly whisk me away. (p. 207)

For those who follow Jesus there is a true intimacy in the good news he offered. There is intimacy with the God of the universe offered to all. Jesus ate with sinners, he didn’t hang out exclusively with the rich and famous and powerful.

To a woman shamed by an embarrassing malady, to a social outcast with leprosy, to a thief hanging on a cross hours from death, to a common prostitute – to all these people and many more he held out the bright promise that significance is not something attained but rather bestowed by a gracious God. And thus we who follow Jesus should treat those who rank low on society’s scale – “the least of these,” in Jesus’ phrase – as he did, proclaiming by our deeds what we believe about the image of God in every person. (p. 208)

Yancey doesn’t go in quite this direction, but I must reflect a bit … Unfortunately, the celebrity culture has permeated to the core of the church. Not taking over completely, but like a slime oozing into the nooks an crannies. We bow before our heroes and produce a two-tiered church of watchers and the watched. Celebrities and stars who are watched by the masses with an illusion of intimacy. We mirror the greater culture … and measure success by measures of the world. The more successful the man the larger the crowd he attracts to himself (baptized in God words of course). This applies to women as well, of course. But this celebrity culture has no legitimate place in the church. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. We are all his servants and disciples, nothing more.

No place for losers. Our shallow celebrity culture has another corollary. There is little place for losers. And we must identify the winner. As I read this chapter an example of the pervasive nature of this pressure occurred to me. Consider the changes in college football over the last many decades. Even college football now must be structured to provide a clear winner with everyone else branded a loser. No ties, no distributed system of bowls – a clear champion with a winner and many losers. The people want it, our culture pushes for it, and it makes a great deal of money.

Back to Vanishing Grace … Yancey quotes the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies:

The greatest idiot and yahoo can be saved, the doctrine goes, because Christ loves him as much as he loves Albert Einstein. I don’t think that is true. I think that civilization – life – has a different place for the intelligent people who try to pull us a little further out of the primal ooze that is has for the boobs who just trot along behind, dragging on the wheels. (p. 213)

In fact, it is not just that the idiot and yahoo can be saved, but that there are no losers in God’s kingdom. Even those Davies might term the idiot or yahoo have a sense of destiny and a part to play.

The good news of the gospel means that every one of us can have a sense of destiny, a part to play in God’s great story. We are more than a collection of neurons, more than an organism directed by a script of selfish genes. A receptionist, a truck driver, a kindergarten teacher, a banker, a stay-at-home mom or dad can all realize that destiny: not by adopting cultural standards of wealth and fame but by loving God and neighbor. It’s the difference between just living, and living for God’s sake.

Why are we here? We, all of us, are here because of this Creator’s love, who seeks both our flourishing and our response of love and gratitude. “Find out what pleases the Lord,” Paul told the Ephesians. We are here to please God. It brings God pleasure to see us thrive, and we thrive by living as God intended. (p. 214)

There are no winners, losers, or celebrities in the kingdom of God. We are all disciples. In fact perhaps from Revelation we see that celebrity is reserved for martyrs – who die to enjoy it.

The Christian answer to why we are here is different from that of the world and it raises up each and every human as the image of God. All are important.

Why are we here?

What difference does this make in how we live?

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