Awe and Wonder in the Contemplation of Creation: A Distinctly Human Trait

03
Oct

A sermon preached on October 3rd, 2021 based upon Psalm 8, entitled “Awe and Wonder in the Contemplation of Creation: A Distinctly Human Trait.”

The 150 psalms that make up the Book of Psalms were written at least 2500 years ago. The psalms are poems and prayers that have been used by both Jews and Christians alike in turning their hearts to God in prayer. Jesus himself would have routinely turned to the psalms to pray. In the course of reading the psalms, you will encounter every possible human emotion – including grief, fear, rage and a guilt. This morning we will listen to psalm 8 – a psalm of praise – with the emotion expressed here that of awe and wonder.

Listen for the word of the Lord.

O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;  what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

We can imagine the psalmist gazing at the wonder of a new born baby and the sounds of its cooing, and feeling awestruck, and then going out under a clear night sky full of stars and once more being awestruck.  This awe inspires him to ponder the “big picture” — to be humbled before the majesty of God reflected in this wondrous creation, and to ask the sort of big questions we tend to overlook when our nose is to grindstone“Why are we human beings here?  How do we fit into God’s awesome creation?”

The psalmist reflects on all of the other creatures God has made — the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea — each a wonder in themselves.  And yet it seems clear to the psalmist that we humans have a higher place in the order of creation –  that we have been made “a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor.”

So, why are we here?

What is it that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom? — though in asking the question, I would add the caveat that there are certain creatures — dolphins and the hump-backed whales come to mind – that seem to have capacities we humans do not yet comprehend that put them in a league of their own — a league, perhaps in some ways comparable to the “human league.”

But putting aside what is unknown about dolphins and hump-backed whales and such, the basic question is an important one:  What distinguishes human beings from at the very least the vast majority of the animal kingdom? 

There are lots of good answers we could give to that question, but one distinctive capacity we humans possess is expressed in the very act in which the psalmist is engaging:  We have the capacity to contemplate creation and feel awe, and with this, the capacity for self-reflection. We have the capacity to ask the big questions.

The fact that this is a distinctively “human” trait, one concern immediately comes to mind, and that is the fact that in our modern world — so fast paced, so often cut off from the natural world and the invitation it offers to experience awe and ponder big picture and big questions – the experience the psalmist describes becomes less common – perhaps, vastly less common.

So, questions to tuck away for consideration:  what price do we pay when we live a life that doesn’t leave much room for such experiences?  Do we become somehow less truly “human”?   And what would it mean for us to give more space in our lives for such moments?

In the realm of science, perhaps it is astrophysicists who have opportunity to contemplate the big picture and ask big questions.  In the last century as they have contemplated the complexities of how our universe is structured, they encountered a perplexing observation.  Given the inherent randomness with which science generally assumes the universe operates,  it is startling that the governing principles of physics and chemistry are calibrated precisely in a way that made it possible for life and eventually intelligent life to one day evolve.  So many fine calibrations regarding how the universe works was required for you and me ever have a chance to exist.

If the universe is ultimately governed by randomness, from the point of view of a strict materialist the only way to explain the existence of we human beings is incredibly good luck – countless calibrations could have been off by just the slightest, and no earth, no life, no humans.

For instance, there is a great deal of carbon in our universe, and carbon is an element necessary for there to be life. The English astrophysicist Sir Fred Doyle spent years studying carbon atoms and the complexities of what is required to bring about a carbon atom, and the facts he uncovered challenged the atheism he had previously held.

Writes Doyle, “A common sense interpretation of the facts, suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.  The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to be so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” 

I don’t want to give you the impression that the interpretation of Doyle and others – that the structure of the universe basically proves the existence an intelligent designer – to God – is the conclusion reached by the majority of scientists.  That isn’t how science operates.

But nonetheless it is an extraordinary thing to ponder:  In the big picture of a universe believed to have been in existence for about 14 billion years, we homo sapiens have made an extremely recent appearance.  We evolved a mere 300,000 years ago.

In a certain sense, it was only with the appearance of humans that the creation reached a point of being conscious of itself, capable of this distinctly human experience the psalmist expressed in the words he wrote 2500 years ago.  Given the precise calibrations of the universe that were there from the outset, is it possible that in some sense we have been anticipated from the very beginning of time?

A rather sarcastic objection to this whole line of thought was raised by the great mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote, “If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I would not think Man much to boast of as the final result of all my efforts.”

He has a point.  Given our long history of endless wars and injustice perpetrated against one another, well, was it worth the wait? What indication is there that we are – in the words of the psalmist –“crowned with glory and honor?”

Which brings us to… Jesus.

This is faith and not science, but Christianity has always viewed Jesus as the “first born child of God”, which is to say, that with the coming of Jesus, what you might call an evolutionary leap took place — an altogether new species of human being made an appearance, a new “proto-type” of an entirely new level of evolving humanity, one whose appearance makes it possible for the peaceable kingdom spoken of by the prophets to begin to take hold where war and injustice have seemed to prevail.

The words of the Apostle Paul from Romans 8:19 come to mind:  “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”  When through the grace of God we begin to do what I called last week “the Jesus walk” — when as Paul says we “take on the mind of Christ” – we embrace our deepest identity as children of God – becoming that for which the creation has been longing over the course of its 14 billion years of existence.

That which the psalmist glimpsed – our place “little lower than God” comes with responsibility.  The whole web of life is “under our dominion” – a truth all the more evident as we ponder our absolutely unique capacity among all living species to do good and do harm to the very creation out of which God had us evolve. To consider our impact upon all other human beings, but also what is called our “carbon footprint” on the creation as a whole.  To ponder the teaching of Jesus who taught us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as expressions of God’s all-encompassing love and care.

So, in this sacrament we call Holy Communion, we are invited to ponder with awe and wonder, the biggest of picture of all – to commune in our hearts and minds with Jesus the first-born child of God and uncover our kinship with Him — to see with Jesus that all human beings are worthy of love — worth dying for – and the web of life for which we are called to be good stewards.