by Pastor Doug Kings
“Is the world out to get us? Is nature our enemy?” Such thoughts have occurred throughout history as humanity has confronted plagues, pestilence, violent weather, earthquakes, and a host of diseases. Given the destruction and suffering caused by such events, it’s not surprising that we have been obsessed with eliminating or restraining them as much as possible. When it comes to the biological world, however, a new book by Robert Dunn cautions that many of our efforts are backfiring on us.
Dunn, a professor of ecology at NC State, is the author of A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FUTURE: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species. One of his primary messages is that many of our attempts to eradicate the countless germs that threaten (or just annoy) us are actually resulting in new, more problematic organisms. As The New York Times’ review summarizes:
Life is not a passive force on the planet, and much as we might presume to sit in judgment of Creation — even sorting species by their economic value to us — we live on nature’s terms. The sooner we recognize this, Dunn argues, the better.
As humans retreat into more and more sanitized spaces, and our homes become spotless, Febrezed bunkers of sterility, we’ll increasingly find that we’ve not only failed to eradicate our microbial opponents, we’ve actually helped create new, more virulent forms of them.
This falls under the category of “we should have known better” because what we are again confronting is that well-known nemesis, evolution. It is the power that has made all life possible (including human life) and works to keep life going, in all its forms.
Advances such as antibiotics have caused us to underestimate the resilience and adaptability of life to human interventions, whether as medicine, chemical treatments, hygiene, architecture, engineering, agriculture, or environmental pollution and degradation. In short, it is impossible to eradicate life forms we don’t like and multiply those we do without unexpected and sometimes disastrous consequences.
A primary teaching of ecology is that we live as part of a complex and interdependent system. This is what makes Earth the glorious marvel that it is. Our attempts to “fine tune” it for our benefit, however, threaten to put that system catastrophically out whack. As the reviewer says, “We simplify this chaos, this riot of life, at our peril.”
Understanding the science is one essential step for humanity’s continuing prosperity. But we also need to understand why we are resisting and reacting so dangerously to the realities of our global home. Why are we missing a fundamental truth known by countless generations before us, that “we live in a cosmos of inter-being”, as one comment on the review said? Nothing on earth exists in a vacuum; we are all in this together.
In his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts (1915-1973) describes how the endless human search for security is driving us crazy and paradoxically making us more insecure.
[T]here is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure…. To put it more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing.
In other words, the security we want in life translates to not living in this world. We don’t want to be here; we’d rather be “somewhere else.” But we do live in this universe, so our wanting to live elsewhere leaves us feeling disoriented, dissatisfied, and insecure.
Next week on Christmas Eve we will hear again the familiar story of Jesus’ birth. For centuries, it its simplicity and earthiness has been its great appeal. The larger narrative in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke adds to the awareness that, amazing as it is, this is nonetheless a very human story.
But Jesus’ birth into a loving family yet in a stable is also a birth into a dangerous and often hostile world, a reality acknowledged by the liturgical calendar. For good reason the week after Christmas commemorates St. Stephen, the first martyr, and remembers the Slaughter of the Innocents, Herod’s massacre attempting to eliminate Jesus as a rival to his power.
On one occasion when someone offers to follow Jesus unconditionally, he urges caution, saying that “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” The life of discipleship accepts that insecurity is an inevitable dimension to life and that the search for security easily becomes the worship of an idol, a false god.
An obsessive quest for security isolates us from other people and the world around us. Watts again:
What we have to discover is that there is no safety…. [I]f we can really understand what we are looking for—that safety is isolation, and what we do to ourselves when we look for it—we shall see that we do not want it at all.
In Galatians, Paul says that in taking human form Christ, in effect, “let go” of God and took the radical risk of human servanthood. The only security he sought was in a life of love, giving himself for the world.
For followers of Christ, this is the life of faith. It is the life of giving up life to find life, abandoning our quest for security for a life of risk and love, for the two are inseparable. That is what we celebrate at Christmas: that God risks all, in love for us, in hope that we will do the same for one another.
Blessings in your life and ministry.