October 04, 2015
Today is “Episcopal Schools Sunday.” This sermon was written with that in mind—and this question from the psalmist:
What is man, that you should be mindful of him? The son of man, that you should seek him out?
It is a good question for a school: What is a human being?
That question resurfaces through the history of philosophy and science. It is an obviously important question, and it is good to have an answer ready, because the world is full of know-it-alls and experts who are eager to inform us. Professor Jerry Coyne, an expert in evolutionary science at the University of Chicago, tells us Charles Darwin first showed us what a human being is: an accident of evolutionary history – an “aberrant ape,” to be specific.
Though I agree with Jerry Coyne that Darwin showed us how we got here, I don’t agree that Darwin showed us what a human being is.
Unfortunately, in the literature of modern science, that is the way the story is often told. In this connection, Sigmund Freud is often mentioned. Freud spoke of the three great “narcissistic wounds” (self-inflicted) to modern humans’ self-image: the first wound happened when Copernicus discovered our earth was not the center of the universe. The second was Darwin’s discovery that we are descended from apes. The third was Freud’s own insight that we aren’t as rational as we like to think, that our thoughts are guided by subconscious currents, complexes and neuroses.[i]
Karl Barth, the theologian, calls this the “great irony” of the Enlightenment. Barth found it ironic that an intellectual movement that began as a celebration of the powers of humanity, and then proved those powers through the remarkable advance of modern science, decided in the end that science had shown us that we are not so powerful, not so important, after all.
That’s a modern take on the question of what a human being is. Chances are, it is the self-conception our children have absorbed from school, television, movies, and the various devices we all carry in our hands.
Barth, the theologian, called this the “phantom” image of the human. Looking in the mirror, this is what we see when we forget to see ourselves in faith.
Barth did not mean to imply that Darwin, Freud or Copernicus had been wrong concerning science. He was claiming that neither science alone, nor science and philosophy together, is able to paint a full and accurate description of a human being. For that, philosophy and science are helpful, but you are also going to need to read the Bible.
I love the audacity in Barth: For the phantom picture, try Harvard, Duke, or MIT. For truth, get yourself up on Sunday morning and come on down to Trinity Cathedral.
And here we are. So let’s re-phrase the question. In faith: What is a human being?
According to St. Paul, we are creatures whose lives can spin in either of two opposite directions, depending on our choices. The first is a way of life that revolves around myself at the center. To spiral down in this direction leads to death, a way of life that Paul considers slavery. The opposite choice is life according to the Spirit, an upward spiral centering on faith, and hope, and love in Christ. This life bears fruit, Paul says, in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It leads to everlasting life and freedom.
Spiritually speaking, that’s our promised land. How do we get there? Initially, by fits and starts; eventually through habits; inevitably with lapses and fresh reminders of our need for reconciliation and redemption -- which need, thank God, is filled in Jesus Christ.
So that’s our answer. What are we as human beings? In faith we understand ourselves as physical beings with a spiritual capacity. Through evolution, God has armed us with the intellectual and emotional tools to live beyond self-centeredness in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.
That’s what you see each morning looking in the mirror, when you remember to see yourself in faith, seeing through the phantom image to the full truth of who and what you are.
Last Sunday I spent a glorious afternoon at Central High School, a welcome back concert for a 1927 Steinway grand piano that had been headed for the scrap heap, but was saved through intervention by some Trinity parishioners and lovingly restored to its full glory as a piano. It was an afternoon for Little Rock to smile.
That shiny black piano could be a metaphor for redeemed, restored humanity in Christ—including some who thought they were headed for the scrap heap. On Sunday, the beautiful piano filled the auditorium with music: Chopin, Michael Jackson, Mack the Knife.
Today is another Sunday afternoon and another bright and beautiful occasion. At five o’clock we will install Christopher Tompkins, another Trinity parishioner, as the sixth Head of Episcopal Collegiate School. This handsome room will overflow with music. Last week was Mack the Knife; this week:
Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.
Today our songs are also prayers.
These two Sunday afternoons are my own education in a nutshell. Grades one through twelve I spent six years each in episcopal and public schools: five years at St. Andrew’s, Jackson and one at Kent School in Connecticut; first grade at Central Grade School, Harrison; two years at Pulaski Heights; one high school year at Hall and two at Central. Of all those schools I liked St. Andrew’s and Central best and Pulaski Heights and Kent least. I am not sure we can blame that on the schools. Those were grades seven through nine and, no matter the school, for me puberty was the pits.
Public schools and religious schools can both be bad or good and when they’re good they’re good for different reasons. Public schools take all comers: from every religion, tribe, and walk of life. There is no tuition, nor screening for admission. I met my first atheist in the seventh grade at Pulaski Heights. In my time, the black-white racial mix at Central High was half and half. I believed that changed me for the better. For the first time in my life I knew blacks as peers—frequently as friends and a time or two as adversaries. Dr. King said judge by character and content, not by color. That means “yes” to character discernment, and “no” to racial discrimination. “Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” Central was a place to put my faith in practice.
It was not the place to learn it. For me, St. Andrew’s School in Jackson, Mississippi was. Faith was in our music and in the teachers’ talk in class. Confirmation class was an extra-curricular activity. At Christmas, we celebrated Christ. Seventh graders read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. At St. Andrew’s, if you paid attention you might learn what a human being is. You might learn to recognize that Central High Steinway grand piano as a picture of restored humanity.
In The Idea of a University Cardinal Newman wrote that a Catholic university provides its students with a “connected view or grasp of things.” Faith, with every branch of knowledge—mathematics, science, literature, and history—fit within a comprehensive understanding of the world and God. Back east, some prestigious schools have through the years abandoned their Christian identity. (In New York City, I think for example of Trinity School, which seems less and less Episcopal. Harvard and Amherst College definitively have done this.) These are superior schools in some respects: first rate teachers engaging exceptional students on important subjects. But socially they are far less interesting and instructive than Little Rock Central High School; while intellectually they no longer aim as high as Little Rock Episcopal Collegiate. The “connected view or grasp of things” lies beyond the reach of their curriculum. Absent faith, students are left to puzzle over partial and misleading views of what it means to be a human being.
Episcopal schools can do more than that. They are well equipped to draw students into faithful knowledge of themselves as complex creatures with both animal and spiritual endowments—an evolutionary past ascertainable through science with a present role, and an eternal future, in the great drama of divine redemption. This is a story authored by God, the source and goal of all that is, who yet is mindful of and seeks us out as human beings.
In Episcopal schools, science and faith can come together, a meeting that is tragically rare in our society. All the elements of student life, intellectual and social, are drawn into a profound, elevated understanding of what we are and can become as human beings. I call that an education.
[i] Alister McGrath, Science and Religion: A New Introduction 2nd edition (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 17.