Abruptly my father stopped the car, pulling to the side of the road where Holt Boulevard, which runs through my home town of Ontario, California, merges into Interstate 10. It was a dry, clear night—perfect for looking at a brilliantly lit, star-studded sky.
We parked our Volkswagen bug on the verge, climbed out of the car, and made our way through a line of towering, sparsely limbed eucalyptus trees that framed the roadway.
Stepping from beneath the tree coverage, we looked up. I gazed in awe.
Glowing stars crowded the sky. They peppered the heavens to the borders of my vision. The Milky Way blazed in transcendent glory.
And as I looked at that brilliantly lit night sky I sensed a living presence, bigger than myself, or my father, or even the expanse of stars that filled the sky. It was a pressing presence, a voice of a different kind, so clear that I cannot forget it to this day.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).
This encounter was my first inkling of faith. To me, creation became the sanctuary where faith became incarnate. As faith became incarnate through creation, creation became something to respect and care for.
A few months ago, I heard two stories arising from science that added to my awareness of the sublimity of creation and of the challenges humans face in protecting it.
During NPR’s Ted Talk hour, historian David Christian described the amazing confluence of events that occurred with the big bang and led to the emergence of the human species. Our species, he explained, is unique among all others in our ability to create language “so powerful and so precise that we can share what we learn with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals.” He calls this “collective learning,” and says this learning enables us to transform our environment in ways far beyond the abilities of all other species.
But Christian reminded his audience that this ability also creates dangers, for us and the entire planet. “Collective learning,” he argued, is a “powerful force, and it’s not clear that we humans are in charge of it.” He noted that some of our weapons could destroy the entire biosphere, and our rapid burning of fossil fuels may alter the conditions under which humans have flourished over the last ten thousand years. Our story, he argued, which shows us how special it was that we arrived as we did, also suggests that we should stop focusing on our differences—family, tribal, national, cultural, religious—and concentrate instead on our similarities as a unique species on earth in a vast universe.
Earlier that day, though, I read another story that explains, at least in part, why we don’t.
In The Book of Joy, which records a conversation by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “narrator” Douglas Abrams (yes, a book by a Buddhist, Christian, and Jew) mentioned a discovery from neuroscience. Neuroscientists have learned that humans have three deep, evolutionary “innate (and often unconscious)” goals or drives. One of them is to cooperate.
Sounds good. But…
They also discovered that we have been “hardwired to cooperate with and be kind to those who look like our caregivers.” Meaning we cooperate with those we think of as in our “group,” and we are wary of or less likely to cooperate with those we consider outside our group.
Our dilemma lies between the big picture and the small one.
The big picture:
Seen from a religious point of view, a real being exists behind this amazing creation. Creation speaks; it gives voice to its creator and beckons us through what has been made. It is a sanctuary pointing us to a living God. How can we not cooperate to protect this precious planet, which is a means by which our creator reveals himself to us?
Seen from a scientific point of view, we are a rare outcome of eight billion years of evolution, a fantastically complex species at the far corner of a vast universe. How can we not unite around our similarities as a species, our interconnectedness within this limited biosphere, and use our unique abilities to protect this fragile planet that is our home?
Behold, they agree!
But… the small picture:
The religious view: We sin. We think of ourselves first and struggle to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We look out for ourselves and our groups before we look out for others, because we are self-centered and self-loving.
The scientific view: Our individual hardwiring makes us more interested in cooperating with our tiny group—our family, tribe, social class, nation, or religious affiliation–than with the whole of our unique species.
Fundamentally, and remarkably, they still agree.
We are one species, but we fail to love others. We are one, but we distrust others.
We are one, though; we are interconnected to all the creatures on this planet, and even to the fabric of the universe, however you understand that fabric.
We need to stand in awe of this biosphere, this interconnected world, this amazing universe, made, I would like to suggest, by a remarkable God in a very big bang.
For the sake of our planet, we who were given responsibility to nurture the earth, we who are uniquely gifted to pass on information to the generations who come after us, need to set our minds to stand with the big picture. And resist the little one.