Vanity and everlasting value


For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them? --Ecclesiastes 3:19-22
Yet another dire forecast of ecological catastrophe made the news a couple of weeks ago: according to one prediction, the world's ocean fish supply will essentially die off by 2048.

This is the kind of forecast that makes me glad that I'll either be dead, or on the verge of death, by the time 2048 rolls around. I won't be around to face a world without ocean fish or polar ice caps. The 1973 movie Soylent Green depicted a future in which the food supplies were so depleted that they had to use human beings to feed the ever growing population. Movies like that used to be considered merely speculative fantasy. Now I'm not so sure.

It isn't like we don't have the capacity to solve our problems. We humans understand concepts like "overpopulation", "ecology" and "global warming", and we have tools to solve them. It used to be that nuclear war was the biggest threat to the future of the planet, but now there is ecological catastrophe looming on the horizon. Of course, as we are all aware, it isn't like we live in a particularly peaceful world either.

Forgive me if I sound like a curmudgeon. I am certainly hoping that the world really doesn't go to pot. But if it does, the tragedy of it all really does get to me. Not just because our descendants will inherit the mess we have made for them, but also because there is a grand, cosmic implication to such a massive failure as a species. We humans are, after all, the product of ten or twenty billion years of cosmic history, going all the way back to the Big Bang, and it would be really ungracious of us not to demonstrate that we deserved the time and circumstances that went into making us. One could argue that it took a lot of work on God's part to help evolve us humans into existence. I do not believe that God ever created by simple divine fiat, but rather by continual acts of offering possibilities to an evolving universe. It was only through a virtually infinite series of such lures of possibilities that the universe evolved into what it is now. This means that cosmic evolution was not a single creative act with a certain outcome, but rather an endless series of acts with uncertain results. It was involved and complicated. And now here we are.

Consider the main points, as seen from the perspective of my interpretation of process theology. Starting with the Big Bang, we can say that God called forth the universe. How this happened, I have no idea, but we do know that the Universe emerged into existence billions of years ago. God did not only call forth the universe, but did so in such a way that it would behave according to certain physical laws, laws that emerged into their present form after the Big Bang. Those physical laws, if they had varied even slightly in one direction or another from what we actually experience, never would have allowed for the conditions necessary to produce life as we know it (the acknowledgment of this fact is known in various forms as the Anthropic Principle, which is sometimes offered as a demonstration of the existence of God.) After a few billion years of cosmic history, stars and planetary systems formed in response to the continual creative Divine call; this process of creation eventually led to the existence of life on a previously barren planet orbiting around an unspectacular star in an otherwise insignificant galaxy. After a few billion years more of further Divine acts of creative lures directed at the biological processes occurring on this planet, among the creatures on this planet there evolved one highly self-conscious species--a species able to contemplate itself and God in ways that no other life form on the planet can.

And what's the thanks God gets for all this effort? Will we destroy ourselves and the beauty of God's creation on this planet?

It is certainly possible that there are other self-conscious life forms on other planets in the universe besides our own. We have no way of knowing this. When I feel despair about our prospects, I find myself hoping that there are other, more successful experiments in consciousness than our own has proved to be. But what if we really are the only beings with this level of intelligence, anywhere in the universe? How tragic would our failure prove to be then?

Tragic, yes--but would the grand experiment of human existence have been a monumental waste, after all that went into our creation? John Cobb argues in his book The World and God that, from the perspective of process theology, our very existence has enriched the Divine experience, regardless of our final outcome as a species. Cobb, who wrote this book in 1969, writes,
Not only does God influence every occasion of experience, but also, he is in turn affected by each. He takes up into himself the whole richness of each experience, synthesizing its values with all the rest and preserving them everlastingly in the immediacy of his own life. Even the miseries and failures of life are so transmuted in the divine experience as to redeem all that can be redeemed....

The Christian not only understands his faith as a continual challenge to do and dare, to take responsibility upon himself, and to venture out beyond the limits laid down by the past; he also finds in his faith the grounds for confidence that what happens matters. Even if man destroys his planet in the near future, our efforts to preserve it are not worthless. Because what we are and do matters to God, our lives are meaningful when we recognize that in the course of history our accomplishments may soon be swept away.
In a way, the tragedy of a death of humanity only mirrors the personal tragedies that all of us face in our own mortalities. Will everything we do be for naught? Is it true, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, that "all is vanity?"

Cobb also writes,
Perhaps our experiences are retained in the divine memory forever. If so, neither individual death nor the extinction of the human race will be so total a loss as it otherwise appears. Even our little virtues and petty triumphs are not ultimately in vain. And perhaps even our meaningless suffering can be subsumed into a larger meaning within the divine life. If all we do contributes everlastingly to God, otherwise ephemeral values take on importance.
None of this contradicts the tragedy of mortality, or the potential mortality of the human race. I still agonize over the shortness of my life, something that is more apparent to me with each passing day as my hair gets grayer. But it is also in some sense deeply satisfying to consider that my short life, and the short lives of others, has an everlasting value.