Chris Gautier and his men’s group stayed at our farm last weekend and phoned to report that a large family of mice had taken up residence in the house, so I drove down on Tuesday, stopping at Menards to purchase a variety of traps and poisons. It occurred to me, as I drove through the countryside, that as far as the mice were concerned, I was the moral equivalent of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, and even though I went ahead and set the traps and spread the poison, I felt strangely uneasy the whole time and talked out loud while building the gallows, telling the mice this was so unnecessary, that if they left the house now, they could escape injury. I’m going back this week to see the consequences of my treachery. This past Thursday, I received an e-mail from a lady who had read one of my sermons and wrote to tell me I was “a fine moral example” and I thought if only she knew the real truth about me, she would not say that.
This got me thinking about the phrase “the sanctity of life.” This last week, I performed a marriage and during the ceremony quoted a line from the Quaker wedding service. “Marriage is honored and blessed of God as the fulfillment of God’s supreme design for us, who alone of all creation bear God’s divine image.” That line leapt out at me. Alone of all creation bear God’s divine image. Even though I’ve said that hundreds of times, it struck me in that moment as a rather presumptuous claim to make about ourselves.
I wondered if the mice at the farmhouse had weddings in which they also announced that they alone of all creation bore God’s divine image. Of course, we know the origins of that language. It dates back to the book of Genesis, to the sixth day of creation, where it was written that God made humans in God’s own image. But it should be pointed out that humans wrote that, so one might be forgiven for being a bit suspicious of its objectivity.
Whenever I hear a claim being made over and over, especially when that claim is accepted without question, a part of me begins to wonder if it is really so. These claims, usually having to do with our unique pre-eminence, become the accepted, unquestioned truth of cultures and religions. America is number one! is such a saying. What does that mean? That we’re better at everything than everyone else, more accomplished, more ethical, more virtuous? That strikes me as arrogant and I bet the Swedes wouldn’t agree with that.
Here’s another saying: Human life is sacred!. Or Humans alone of all creation bear God’s divine image! What does that mean, and is it true? If we could ask the rest of creation, would they agree with that? Heck, for that matter we wouldn’t even have to ask other species, we could just ask other people if they have been treated as if their lives were sacred. I’d be interested to know if black people believed they had been treated as if their lives were sacred. Or Native Americans. Or Hispanics. Or women. Or the poor.
There’s no evidence that our belief in the unique sacredness of human life has caused us to treat one another more kindly. We’ve been saying it now for over two thousand years, but that didn’t stop us from killing 123 million of our fellow humans in wars the last 100 years. It seems clear that despite our claims to the contrary, we act as if humans can be as easily disposed as mice.
Oh, but people say, the God who created us has made our lives sacred. Then why us, and not the redwoods trees? Why not the rivers and streams? We believe God made them too, yet we feel perfectly free to destroy and pollute them. Why has the title of sacred been the sole domain of humanity, and nothing else? Did God do that, or did we do that? I’ve been thinking about this since Tuesday when I killed all those mice. Sometime around then, I had this radical thought that maybe humans weren’t the only things created in God’s image, that maybe all of creation contains the divine presence, which we ignore at our own peril.
When I studied theology, specifically the historic development of the doctrine of monotheism, I learned our ancestors saw the sacred in many forms and beings, or polytheism. I was taught that as we became enlightened and civilized, we moved away from polytheism to monotheism, the belief in one God. We formed new religions and declared to the world, “God is not in that. God is not in this. God is not in her. God is not in him. God is not found there.” Remarkably, we saw this shrinking of God as an advancement, as progress.
George Carlin once observed that people used to believe in many gods, but now believe in only one. Then he said, “You see where this is headed, don’t you?” Now George Carlin was arguing for the possibility of atheism, but I think this shrinking of God also explains our diminishment of awe. For once we start saying God is here, but not there, in that person, but not in that one, with that species, but not that one, once we lose our sense of divine imagination and identification, nothing is sacred. Not the trees, not the animals, not the rivers, and finally not the people. There is no more awe, no more wonder, no more fascination, no more appreciation, so we can do to others, we can do to creation, whatever we please. It is ours, and ours alone, to diminish and destroy.
To be holy is to see the holy everywhere. Not just see the holy where the church has told us it exists, but to see it shining through in all the world.
I used to wonder why if birds could fly, why if birds could go anywhere and fly anywhere, why they lived in the noisy city when they could live in the peaceful country. I used to wonder that. Now I realize birds have this wonderful capacity to see provision, promise, and potential wherever they are. Don’t you want to be like that? Don’t you want to see the divine presence not just in people, but in all the world, in all creation.
“Life is this simple,” said the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time.”