There is No “Last Word”

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I begin with a caveat, one given by Wendell Berry this past October to a crowd of 2,000 gathered to hear him read some of his writing in Madison, Wisconsin. “There is no Last Word,” Berry said. In that spirit, I offer these thoughts.

As I write this, it is almost Christmas. Perhaps more than 2 billion people worldwide are liturgically anticipating the life of an unborn child, a child who comes so “that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10)

What is life? And what about its abundance?

I recall a blustery winter night when I was invited to give a lecture at the Lutheran School of Theology in the midst of the University of Chicago campus. After a journey through heavily falling snow, I was met by several dozen divinity students, gathered to learn about ecology and evolution.

One of the things I wanted to share that night was my understanding of the interconnectedness among living things. The science on the relatedness between humans and chimpanzees, for example, has become widely accessible. What amazes me about these studies is not just the percentage of relatedness between humans and various living things (which is remarkable), but that there is relatedness at all. We share the stuff of life, not just with chimpanzees, but with daffodils and yeast. While we sometimes do not easily recognize other living creatures as kin, we are all intimately related.

There is relatedness, and then there is relationship. Our interconnection with the rest of life goes beyond genetics—family ties, so to speak. To me, this is one of the deeply beautiful revelations of evolutionary history. We are not only related to the rest of life, but also we are in relationship with it. Over time and across space, organisms shape one another and the world around them, just as they themselves are shaped by these interactions. The upshot of this is not necessarily “survival of the fittest,” as most people assume. In fact, as evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has noted, the process of evolution shifts between forgiving periods where there is only “elimination of the worst” and more bleak periods of “survival of the fittest.”

What may come as a surprise is that we humans are shifting the evolutionary trajectory away from the more forgiving path, putting life on the harsh road of survival of the fittest. And with that comes abundant suffering of life. Viewing the history of humanity within the evolutionary context does not free humans from moral considerations, but on the contrary forces us to face our responsibilities to the rest of life and the relationships we are shaping within it.

We humans have a moral obligation to address the critical changes to the system of life we are affecting with respect to climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. These are the nine “tipping points” recently outlined by the Stockholm Resilience Centre that are shifting life as we know it. (For a review of these issues, see “Tipping Towards the Unknown,” We humans are responsible for creating these tipping points and the accompanying negative relationships they create within the web of life.

When I finished my lecture, one of the students asked, “What do you want us to do with this information?” It was a great question; I didn’t have an answer. So, I stumbled on with a few sentences and then responded to several more questions. Suddenly, it came to me how I wanted to answer. I told the students I would share some of my core beliefs about Jesus. I could see their curiosity piqued.

Jesus broke down barriers in ways that were unthinkable to the spiritual elite of his day. St. Paul distilled the radicalism of Jesus’ teaching in the following way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). What did I want the students to do with what I shared about ecology and evolution? Jesus broke down barriers among different kinds of people, including all people in God’s love. In the same way, I hoped these emerging faith leaders would break down barriers to love within the greater web of life. I hoped for a time when our care for the poor, tired, and hungry would be extended to the entire family of life. The Good Samaritan came to mind, and I told them I hoped we would begin to be neighbors to the plants and animals with whom we share this life journey, with whom we share both relatedness and relationship.

In this season, as we anticipate the birth of a child who comes to bring abundant life, let us expand our definition of “life” and how we will protect it. Let us redefine ourselves as well—more humbly, not lording ourselves over the landscape but recognizing our place within it, as kin and neighbor to life.

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