As all of us continue to process the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, one of the foundational questions inevitably is this: What does it mean to be human?
It's a question to which all the great religions try to give answers, some more complete and definite than others, but none so full as to exhaust the question's possible answers.
I have been thinking about that question with the help, believe it or not, of two webcams -- one trained on the business district of my small hometown of Woodstock, Ill., and one trained on a polar bear at the Kansas City Zoo. (The camera in Woodstock got frozen over in the recent storm but the nice WavTek people who installed it have thawed it out.)
I know it seems like an odd juxtaposition -- and it is. But it has reminded me of both what humans have in common with other animals and what makes humans unique.
Yes, I know that various species of animals share a lot in common with humans in terms of their genetic makeup. The genetic material of chimps, for instance, is reported to be 96 percent the same as humans. And mice and humans share 99 percent genetic similarity.
But that really doesn't tell us much about the deeper differences between humans and other animals -- questions about intelligence, self-reflection, souls and all those other questions theologians and philosophers raise about what makes us humans civilized (if, in fact, we still can claim that designation after reading the news every day).
What I can tell you after watching people in my hometown move around what we call The Square (or central business district centered on a park seen in the photo above) versus watching the polar bear Nikita move around a reserved space at the zoo is that there are lots of surface similarities: Seemingly random movement, impulsive changes of direction, patterns of activity and inactivity and so forth. In some ways, humans and other animals are all free agents -- but within boundaries.
But the humans seem most human when they are with other humans. I've seen parents in Woodstock pick up their toddlers and hug them or hold their little hands as they cross the street. I've seen children gather on The Square to meet Santa Claus and to watch a dog team pull a sled around the park. All acts of intentionally seeking joy.
Nikita, by contrast, sometimes seems to relate a bit to the people standing outside watching through glass. But mostly Nikita seems locked into a world that must seem baffling, if polar bears can be baffled, or purposeless, though I doubt polar bears have any idea of what purpose means. Nikita seems to do a lot of what looks like mindless pacing -- sort of like a human on a treadmill. (Hmmmm.)
There is a remorselessness to mere biological activity, no matter how entertaining it can be to watch. Part of what makes us humans is that we can recognize that reality and transcend mere biological activity -- even if sometimes our transcendence turns to incomprehensible violence against our own species.
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MORE CHIMNEY TRAFFIC?
Did you know there's now another late-December holiday? Yep, the secular humanists have created a holiday called HumanLight. I haven't looked into it deeply yet, so I still don't know if an atheist comes down your chimney.
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THE BOOK CORNER
The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God's Love, by Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma and Stephen G. Post. This interesting book is a bit hard to categorize. In many ways it's an academic report on sociological studies about how people's personal experience of God affects their willingness to be benevolent. But it's also, at least indirectly, an encouragement to be open to the kinds of direct experiences of God that mystics describe as well as the more extravagent spiritual experiences reported by Pentecostals. Indeed, the authors -- two sociologists and a theologian -- cite evidence that American Christians, in searching for more personal experiences of God's transforming love, are adopting more Pentecostal expressions of the faith, even if they're not in Pentecostal denominations. The authors have interviewed lots of people to be able to write this book, exploring with them such subjects as "how this experience of deep prayer helps prevent wrong decisions, reduces worrry and anxiety, fosters inner healing and peacefulness, invites God into daily activity, produces confidence, sharpens discernment, increases energy for action, prevents distractions, and helps distinguish mere 'busyness' from real fruitfulness." In all of this, they write, their "aim was to investigate the relationship between spiritual empowerment, benevolence, and the experience of God's love. . ." They sought to do this in a way that would satisfy the rigorous demands of academic scholarship while also producing a book that regular people of faith could understand. You'll have to judge how well they accomplished that. I found it a worthwhile read but the book seemed not quite fish and not quite foul because of the desire to please two audiences. Still, there are some inspiring stories here of how the experience of God's love changed lives. (Small complaint: I'd have hoped that a quality publisher like Oxford University Press wouldn't have allowed the authors to misuse the word "hopefully" in the common way it's misused in daily dialogue. But perhaps I've lost the battle against "hopefully," as I seem to have lost the battle for "whom.")