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The Hymn to Biblical Humanism

Hilton Head Island, SC – April 18, 2018
The Fraser Chapel – Seabrook (A Revised Version of TCWW042609)
Gen. 1:26-31; Psalm 8
A Sermon by John M. Miller

Text – Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. – Psalm 8:5 (RSV)


The Book of Psalms is the Bible’s hymnal.  Originally all of the Psalms were sung.  They still are sung every day in every monastery and convent around the world. 


I chose Psalm 8 for today’s sermon theme specifically because it is a paean of praise to the human race.  Presumably  it was David who wrote it, or at least that’s what the superscription at the beginning says.  In any case, this is the quintessential hymn to biblical humanism.


David starts the Psalm by noting what every ancient human understood, namely, the immensity of space.  However, they couldn’t know how vast it was, nor can we, really. “When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (8:3-4)  Standing in a desert at night, with no artificial light to obliterate the brilliance of the night sky, David was able to grasp intuitively that it was a colossal expanse out there.  So what difference would human beings make to the God who created the entire expanding universe?  (David didn’t know it was expanding.  Neither do we.  We are left trusting that  Einstein and his astonishing cohorts are right about that.)


However, the glorious creation and the magnificently interconnectedness of nature is not the whole story, David concluded.  “Yet Thou hast made (human beings) little less than gods themselves, and Thou hast crowned our race with glory and honor.”  Who has dominion over nature?  We do, says David.  Who has power over all the animals and plants, over birds and fish?  We do.  Who are the masters of the Earth?  We are.  God, said David, has placed Homo sapiens at the apex of earthly creation.


I know what you’re thinking.  “That’s a highly debatable point,” you’re saying.  “A fine mess we’ve made of things,” you’re saying.  We’re killing off hundreds or thousands of species every year, we’re using up definitely limited natural resources like there’s no tomorrow, we may well be rendering the planet uninhabitable because of climate change - - - and we’re the brightest and best on Planet Earth?  Yeah, right!”


The creation story in Genesis 1 and 2 clearly proclaims that God intended humans to be His sole caretaker species on this particular planet.  It was believed by the biblical Israelites that God intentionally gave us the intelligence to rule the earth.  We were to do it well and wisely, but we were definitely meant by our Creator to do it.


Allan Effa is a professor of intercultural studies at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta.  Referring to the notion of creation, Prof. Effa said this: “All Christian traditions call for a shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric concept of creation.  A Copernican revolution must take place in our theology of creation; instead of existing primarily for human benefit, creation is to be understood as God’s creative masterpiece, an object of his pleasure and a witness to his presence and power.  Humans are God’s image bearers, but they are only part of the divine expression.  Other elements of creation declare the glory of God in ways that humans cannot duplicate.”


That is an important insight, and all of us need to incorporate it into our thinking about our place in the world.  The communication of whales is little known, but enough is known for us to realize that other species have intelligent conversations with one another.  Years ago our family saw a mass of white and purple and blue lupen flowers blowing in the fields of Prince Edward Island like waves on the turbulent sea in one of nature’s innumerable hymns of praise to its Creator.  If I live to be a hundred and twenty, I will never forget last summer’s total eclipse of the sun. It was inexpressibly magnificent.  Nature provides numerous oratorios to God without human involvement at all.


Nonetheless, the Bible in both the Hebrew and the Greek versions proclaims that human beings were meant by God to be the highest and most dominant species on our planet.  It is certainly debatable whether that is actually true, and many Darwinian evolutionists would dispute it, but it isn’t debatable that the Bible makes the claim.  Both Testaments have much to say about sinful behavior among all of us, but curiously, it is the New Testament much more than the Old Testament which devotes much of its vigor to an exposition of the wages of sin.


There certainly are numerous instances of abhorrent actions by our species.  A heartless dictator kills and sickens hundreds of his own fellow citizens with chemical weapons.  Armed Taliban Islamists beat and behead women in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I recently read something quite appalling about Roger Taney, who was the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court just before the Civil War.  In the notorious Dred Scott case, the chief justice wrote that black people could never become citizens.  He said that blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”


Who are the people whom God created as little less than angels (as the KJV says) or little less than God Himself (as the RSV says)?  White people?  Western people, deriving from European ancestry?  Americans?  Who?


There are many definitions of humanism.  Most of them are positive, but some are very negative.  The American Religious Right, for example, has used the epithet “secular humanism” in a very pejorative manner and as a rallying cry to political battle.  But through history there have been numerous Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist humanists.  They sought to elevate our species, not by attempting to pat us on the back, but to say that we have the capability to make moral and ethical decisions which no other species on Earth can match.  A cheetah has no moral qualms about catching and eating a very young or very old gazelle.  Without even thinking about it, he says to himself as he takes off at sixty miles an hour, “A cheetah’s gotta do what a cheetah’s gotta do.”  Poison ivy and rattlesnakes and black widow spiders never hesitate to do what to them comes naturally.  We are confronted, as Tennyson said, by “nature, red in tooth and claw.”  


But humans have, or at least should have, a moral compass.  We have the intellectual ability to reflect on should and must and ought, or on should not or must not or ought not.  Animals cannot do that.  God has created humans with free will.  It is both an awesome and an awful gift.  It is a great blessing and a great complication.  Sadly, we do not always use our free will wisely.  All of us use it badly from time to time.  But we use it, and only we, of all earthly species, have it to use.  Free will is an enormous burden, an incomparable gift, and an immense responsibility.


We also have the God-given gift of creativity.  True, a very few animal species can create art forms of a certain sort, but no one can create art like people.  Think, for example, of Barbra Streisand singing People, or Kiri Te Kanewa singing Un Bel Di Vedremo from Madame Butterfly, or the Pieta in St. Peter’s by Michaelangelo, or Pinkie or Blue Boy by Gainsborough.  Think of the Navajo potters in Arizona or the wood carvers of China or Africa or the rug weavers of Iran or Turkmenistan or Turkey.  They are little less than God Himself, and they are crowned with glory and honor.


Last Thursday and Friday I was in Memphis visiting my son and his family. While there I went to the National Civil Rights Museum. It is located in the totally renovated Lorraine Motel, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. A charitable foundation was established to purchase the motel, and then to turn it into a museum chronicling one of the most important humanitarian movements of the twentieth century, or any other century. They had continuously-playing videos of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and his sermon the night before he was cut down at age 39 in the prime of his life, the last public utterance Martin Luther King ever made.  He began the last prescient, poignant paragraph of that last sermon quietly, and he ended abruptly and triumphantly.


“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to have a long life. Longevity has its place. I’m not concerned now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” And instantly he left the pulpit and walked away quickly, never again to preach another word.


What kind of person would assassinate someone like Martin Luther King?  What has humanity done to despoil our planet? Despite all that, the extraordinary ministry of that young black preacher surely resulted in that cagey Texan, Lyndon Johnson, shoving through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The United States of America of 2018 is a much better place for everyone than was the USA fifty years ago, in 1968. That is the kind of humanism of which Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 speak. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?” Speaking to God about humanity, David said in Psalm 8, “Yet Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.”


Last Saturday, on a very rainy day, I was in the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. At the end of my six-hour visit, I went to see the magnificent 4D theatrical summary of what Studs Terkel so truthfully and terribly called The Good War. Before going into the large theater, a younger, more svelte Tom Hanks in a video reminded us sixty-five million people were killed in World War II, both military and civilians. By the end of the extravagant presentation, called Final Mission, nearly everyone would have been convinced that it was a war that had to be fought, especially given the countless missteps leading up to it, and had to be won, given the many beneficial results which emanated out of it.


 “What a piece of work is man!  How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!” (Shakespeare)  No species, other than Homo sapiens, Wise Man or Man of Wisdom, can imagine what can be out of what is not.  What minds we have!  What a blessing it is to be able to imagine and then give birth to a novel like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, or a composition like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or a sculpture like Rodin’s Thinker, or an idea like Einstein’s theories of relativity or thermodynamics, or a movie like that inspired by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks called Final Mission.


What is humanity, that God pays any attention to us?  Who is God, if not the progenitor of the best that humanism can produce?  For all of our faults, of which there are multitudes, there also are legions of lasting masterpieces, human creations which shall undergird and inspire and uphold as long as there are any humans still alive to draw breath, human behaviors which shall elevate our race to its zenith as long as our race endures.


The Code of Hammurabi was put together by the Babylonian king in the 20th century Before the Common Era, nearly four thousand years ago.  The Temple of Karnak was the largest religious building ever constructed in the history of the world.  It was begun about five thousand years ago and was completed four thousand years ago.  Archaeologists working in Allendale County, SC have discovered artifacts from people who lived less than a hundred miles from here 13,000 years ago.  What is man, that God is mindful of us?


The entire universe is encapsulated in the fictional village of Grover’s Corners, NH, as Thornton Wilder gives us a lengthy tour of Our Town.  Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) stands beside an open grave at the crest of one of the Ngong Hills in western Kenya, and she reads a poem in honor of Denis Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford), who has been killed when his 1920s biplane crashed. The poem by A.E. Housman is called To an Athlete Dying Young: “The time you won your town the race/ We chaired you through the market place.” 


Driving home from New Orleans on Sunday, I listened to the Third Symphony of Camille Saint Saens, the Organ Symphony. In its last movement, where the organ comes in with all the stops pulled out, and the orchestra begins the glorious theme which culminates in the last few soul-stirring measures, I was transported to the very gates of heaven --- while carefully keeping my God-granted eyes on the rain-and-windswept highway.


Just after she has her first serious loss of memory, Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) looks at Hoke (Morgan Freeman), and she, the Jewish patrician Atlantan, says to him, the black chauffeur-caregiver-confidant, “Hoke, you’re my best friend.”  Then, at the close of the outstanding film, when she is very old and in the nursing home and Hoke goes to visit her, she asks him, “Hoke, how are you doing?” “The best I can, Miss Daisy.” “Me too,” she says, and one of the finest movies, ever, ends.   


The Hebrews had a word nephesh and the Greeks had a word pneuma and the Romans had two words, spiritus and animus, and the English had a word spirit.  They all refer to that unseen inner reality in every individual which identifies that person.  It is also used about animals, as when there is a very spirited or animated horse or dog or lion.  Our spirits connect us to God, who is both an unseen inner and outer reality, the reality of all realities.  Only we, of all species, know we have a spirit.  Only we can know we are related to God.  We are created as little less than angels, because it is what God wanted for us.


When he was the mayor of New York City, Ed Koch used to ask his constituents, “How am I doing?”  When God asks us how we are doing, to be true to ourselves, we should answer as Hoke did to Miss Daisy, “The best I can.”  That’s the best any human can do.  Doing our best is what defines biblical humanism.



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