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Essay

Your eyes sweep over the clear summer night's sky. You see space. You see home. We are spacemen, everyone of us hurtling through the cosmos at unfathomable speeds, living in a mechanism that gives us a warm bubble of life support.

We're time travelers, too — passing along the fourth dimension on an infinitely sharp razor edge we call now.

But mostly we live outside space; outside time. We live in thought, in imagination. Our senses bring in enormous amounts of data and our minds somehow fit the pieces into a coherent whole.

You stand before the mirror. You examine the image. You put your face up close to the glass. Who is this? You stare into the eyes. What's behind them? Are you looking through windows into a soul or at light receptors on a biological machine? You're different from the bar of soap on the counter, but do the differences matter?

You think, therefore . . . you wonder what you are.

"Something Way Down Deep"

Beneath the Planet of the Apes ends with a nuclear detonation destroying the world. A narrator's voice says, "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium size star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead."

As discussed in other essays, Carl Sagan used much of his great power as a communicator, trying to convince us of earth's irrelevance, and he wasn't alone. Films, television shows, books of all kinds are full of such references.

Here's the problem. If we deem insignificant the thing that makes our lives possible, it follows we must also deem our lives insignificant.

In his classic play, Our Town, Thornton Wilder gave the opposing view:

Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losin' hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.

Are we eternal beings of value, more significant in our way than the very stars and galaxies, or are we the accidental and temporary offspring of a green and insignificant planet? Do our lives mean anything at all?

A mother might say, "When my baby smiles at me, it means something."

To which, a materialist might reply, "It means she has gas."

"When I hold her and she knows she's safe and warm and loved; when we play and she touches my face with her hands . . . it means something."

Reply: "It only feels like it means something because evolution has built into you a pleasure in caring for your child. It does this for the propagation of the species. That's all evolution is interested in."

Truth Rooted in the Being of God

Christians believe human beings have value and each of our lives has meaning, not in an artificial attempt to build self-esteem, but because it is truth rooted in the being of God. If you say, "I am somebody," or, "I can do anything," or "I'm special," trying to build yourself up, you might as well say, "I am an astronaut flying through space at twenty times the speed of light and will soon arrive at Alpha Centauri." You can say it all you want, but your words have no impact on the objective truth that you are not an astronaut and even if you were, you could not travel at twenty times the speed of light.

On the other hand, if the God described in scripture as rooted in infinity, the God who is self-existent, who is all in all, says, "I have made you in My own image, and I love you," your worth becomes established based on something absolute.

What makes His words more significant than yours or mine? We can illustrate it geographically. If someone asks your location, you might give a street address, a city, a state, or a nation. To an extra-terrestrial you would answer, "earth." In the Star Trek universe, you might say "Sector 001." (In the 23rd and 24th centuries, earth apparently returns to its old position at the center of the universe.) We express location only in relation to other things, but our streets and towns, our world, its sun and galaxy, are all subject to the same self-limitation. Each is finite. Without God, there would be no final context and therefore the cosmos and all it contains would be without orientation or knowable position.

God is an infinite being. Omnipresence and omniscience make Him the ultimate reference point — geographically because He is everywhere, and philosophically because He is the Absolute Being. His words and opinions carry the "weight" of infinity. If He says, "You are valuable to Me," then, absolutely, beyond all possibility of contradiction, you have value and are a being of purpose — not only in the realm of the finite, but of the infinite. That kind of meaning, by definition, cannot end.

Equal Versus Created Equal

In the United States Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson declared it self- evident that all men are created equal. How could so brilliant a man say so foolish a thing? To most of us, in every visible area of our lives, it seems self-evident we are not created equal. Our bodies are different. Brains and abilities to learn differ. Some have a better outlook than others. Some have more involved and caring parents. Some conform more readily to social norms. Athletic power, communicative skill, education, wealth, and a million other things differ about us, often at birth.

Jefferson did not mean all people are the same, but are equal in worth, given inalienable rights by Someone who has the authority to give such rights. He said, "Created equal," because to be equal in any meaningful way, we had to have been created that way. Who but the Creator can meaningfully pronounce our worth? Worth, like location, needs context, orientation.

The Alternatives

Where, other than God, can humans find worth? If we're special, what makes us so? Here are some possibilities.

LIFE — What value does life itself bestow? Is it as a mystical force or merely a word to describe a biological machine in a functioning state? If being alive is the only thing that gives worth, then each ant would equal each of us — for the ant is just as alive. If that is the case, would any human being's existence justify the loss of life necessary to sustain it? As Mr. Spock points out, "In a strict scientific sense, Doctor, we all feed on death — even Vegetarians."

INTELLIGENCE — In Star Trek IV: The Journey Home, Kirk and crew must go back in time, beam up a couple of hump back whales, and take them forward to the twenty-third century in order to save earth. Two twentieth century whale biologists are talking about the whales. One of them, Bob Briggs, says to another, Dr. Gillian Taylor, "We're not talking about human beings here. It's never been proven their intelligence is in any way. . . ."

"Oh, come on, Bob!" Gillian says. "I don't know about you, but my compassion for someone is not limited to my estimation of their intelligence!"

NUMBERS — We learned earlier in the movie that hump back whales eat shrimp. Since hump back whales weigh over one hundred thousand pounds, they must eat a lot of shrimp. Dr. Taylor says her compassion is not based on intelligence. It must not be based on sheer numbers either, because she shows no concern for the thousands of shrimp that must die to nourish each whale. What then makes her feel compassion toward some creatures, but not others?

SIZE — Perhaps it has something to do with size. We humans like elephants, whales, and dinosaurs at least partly because they're big. If that's the measure, we're in trouble because, as Sagan and others point out, in the great scheme of things, we're kind of tiny.

CUTENESS — We also judge by cuteness. We like dogs, especially puppies. We don't usually like bugs, though we do like ladybugs which are cute. The individual shrimp eaten by Dr. Gillian's whales are neither large nor cute, so who cares about them? Humans also like furry things, but if shrimp grew fur, we wouldn't need to worry about them because the whales probably wouldn't like the way they would feel going down.

On the cuteness scale, babies and small children do well, but those of us with a few decades on the clock, hardly qualify.

BEING ENDANGERED — Perhaps Dr. Gillian values the whales because they are endangered and represent to her, not just two whales, but a whole species. When I worked for Harald Bredesen, he got a letter that asked, "Why are you Christians so worried about abortion? The human race isn't an endangered species!"

The letter was chilling.

Our society struggles with how to value people. We've become ambivalent about individual humans, but are taught from earliest years that endangered species must be protected at all costs. If you ask the next logical question, "What makes a species important?" you will get the answer, "It might impact our ecology in some way."

"Why is our ecology important?"

"Because damage to it can kill us."

Which brings us back where we started. "Why are we important?"

BECAUSE WE SAY SO — Is it a decision we make? Those who see humans as the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, good and evil, are left with this position. What else can they say?

The problem comes when the human arbiters declare someone or some group unimportant. If people or groups of people are only important as a matter of our choosing, what if we say they aren't? What if we decide they have no value?

Someone answers, "We won't do that."

But we have done that. We are doing that.

"It's wrong when we do."

Why? . . . Who says? . . . Who decides what is wrong?

"Some things are just wrong!"

If so, then there must exist an absolute out there somewhere — the law of God, nature, or of something by which we can orient ourselves in order to be "right." (I recommend reading Mere Christianity for a fuller discussion of this.) If something or Someone exists by which we can definitively say, "Some things are just wrong!" then we must do everything possible to find it.

On the other hand, if each generation makes up its own right and wrong, we're apt to say a particular race doesn't deserve the same rights as others. Most of us believe (though we don't always act like it) that every human being begins with the same intrinsic value as every other human being (though there is much debate over when the being in question begins to be human). But why do we believe it? Is it that we've heard it all our lives or that it sounds good? History proves that isn't enough.

Jefferson gave the definitive answer — we are "created equal." For that to be true, we must have a Creator. And if humans are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," then the Creator must care how we conduct ourselves, how we treat one another, and His laws must be absolute, whether we carry them out or not.

Leave God out of the equation and we fall into a lot of traps like valuing based on intelligence or productivity. We fall into valuing sons more than daughters, or the first born more than the second, or start to see the person born most recently as the most significant. We value youth, beauty. Are bald heads worth less than hairy ones? Are athletes more valuable than nerds? Are you better if you come from a moneyed family, if your skin is a certain color, or you live in the "right" part of town?

If evolution gives humans beauty for sexual attractiveness, does that mean the more sex appeal one has, the more evolved he is, the better adapted for survival and propagation, and therefore more significant and superior to the less attractive or perhaps downright ugly?

A practical result of believing we're nothing more than the sum of the neurons in our brains, that there is no spirit, no soul, can be seen in the Nazis. People could be treated any way at all if thought lacking in value to society. This included Jews, non-Aryan races, and the mentally challenged. Medical experiments from this period horrify us. Are we on the same road?

Several years ago in the newsletter of the Los Angeles chapter of Mensa, the group whose members must have IQs in the top 2% of the population, an article appeared saying people who are so mentally defective they cannot live in society should "be humanely dispatched." The article seemed to propose extermination of the homeless, mentally retarded, old, and infirm. A writer in another story in the same newsletter said, "It is not clear to me why anyone would expend time and effort and money on the homeless. What good are they?"

The membership was outraged and the editor fired, but the ideas expounded in those articles are becoming more acceptable because, given the premise that we are each nothing but a bundle of neurons, they make sense.

Donny

In one of his Lake Wobegon stories, Garrison Keillor, tells about "Meeting Donny Hart at the Bus Stop." Donny was a boyhood friend known around the school and neighborhood as "slow." Years later, as an adult, Keillor (or the story's narrator) encountered Donny and a group of intellectually disabled adults. The story-teller describes himself as uneasy around such people — perhaps because "we feel that intelligence is the fundamental part of being human. That our minds, what we think and what we imagine — that's us, our minds. At least that's what we think."

He rides the bus with Donny and the others. The playful childlikeness of these people, meeting his old friend, even the smell of rain moistened clothes, makes him feel like they are children riding a school bus, "that it was not ‘them,' those people and me. It was just us. We were just all people together. . . . I remember a hymn we used to sing when I was young about heaven called, ‘There'll Be No Distinction There,' but I never really felt it until I saw [Donny] on that bus. . . . What a sweet relief to give up some of those distinctions. . . ."

Is a Donny Hart in any way as valuable as a Carl Sagan? Is there value beyond what we contribute or our ability to think?

God's Declaration of Human Worth

It seems so simple. According to the State of California, if young people would value themselves, they would have a much better chance of getting a good education, staying off drugs and out of gangs, of not getting pregnant before they're married. Self-esteem would make them less prone to violence and more constructive in their attitudes and approaches. Why don't they get it? Don't they want to be happy and productive? We load them down with trophies and stars. Aren't they paying attention?

Maybe they are. And maybe they hear our other message, the one that says stars and trophies are humbug. Maybe deep inside they realize when they are taught to have self-esteem they are really just being taught to pretend they have value, to simply decide they have worth. Who says it's real?

We hear a lot of talk about equality, but what does it mean? On the other hand, add "created" to "equal," and suddenly the words spring alive with meaning. If the God who created the universe and each of us, the One who "is that He is," declares our value, then suddenly it becomes an objective fact.

He declared your worth before the creation of humanity when He said He would make man and woman in His own image, and afterwards when he said of His handiwork, "It is very good." His greatest and ultimate declaration of our worth came when Jesus, God the Son, said, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."

The Meaning of You
©2007-2017 Tom Gilbreath All Rights Reserved
Posted: 6-6-2008

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