Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
– Job 38: 4-7 (NRSV)
Some observers say that it is precisely our ability as humans to ask questions that has helped us to evolve to our present stage of development. It is what allowed humans to transcend the challenges and limitations they faced in each current moment by continually improving themselves and the technologies that allowed them to survive. That is why we need to raise the important and challenging questions of our own time now. We need to ask and answer them anew for our own time – and in the process find ways to move us safely beyond our current moment of crisis, both personal and collective.
One way I see humanity’s growth in maturity taking place is in our new relationship to Earth and our Universe. Psychologists tell us that to become healthy adults, children must be guided and supported in the process of moving out of their dependent phase as infants and toddlers into becoming independent. Through this process, often painful and fraught with emotional turmoil, young children grow to become individual adolescents and teenagers. The hope of every parent is that his or her children will move then from independence to a capacity for interdependence, as they recognize the need to establish healthy relationships and soon create families of their own.
Some scholars suggest that this same growth dynamic, which we have learned to expect to be the pattern for individual human beings, may also be true for us as a human species. As a species, in other words, we overall have been on a psychological growth journey reflected in the patterns by which people have shaped their society and culture. Anthropologists suggest that our ancient human ancestors seemed to experience themselves as dependent upon Earth and the natural environment, just as a child is dependent upon its mother for life and nourishment. These first humans developed rituals and behaviors that expressed their sense of dependence upon nature for their survival. Some of these rituals are known to us today through study of the remaining so-called indigenous cultures. Their ancient wisdom is contributing to our journey of learning to become interdependent with our planet’s life processes.
In the interim, however, a large segment of humanity grew to think of themselves as separate, or independent, from Earth, particularly within the culture that developed in Western Europe and then spread across the planet through colonialism. Our planet became thought of in this mindset as no more than a material resource to be manipulated and used up for our benefit (sounds a bit like the attitude of teenagers toward their parents, doesn’t it?).
Today, we are becoming conscious in this new phase of our growth as a human species of our interdependence with Earth and everything around us. This change in awareness has come about primarily due to our ability, through science and technology, to view aspects of our Universe – from the inside of tiny molecules to the endless expanse of space – through technologies that our ancient ancestors could not have even imagined.
As a result of the ongoing advances in science and technology, we are attempting to ask and answer the ancient human questions of meaning and purpose within a context never before experienced by human beings. We are the first generation to see the planet Earth from space in its entirety, to know that we are one planetary people, living together on a fragile globe floating in a vast Universe that is still mostly mystery to us. Within the last half of the 20th Century, the context for our thinking about ourselves and others has switched from an identification with our tribe, our country, or our continent, to the planet. This is the most dramatic shift in human consciousness to occur since Copernicus put our Sun and not Earth at the center of our Solar System.
Along with the view of our Earth from space, in recent years the Hubble telescope has showed us views of a vast and seemingly ever-changing Universe; and the farther out our view reaches, the further back in time it stretches, almost to the origins of our Universe. At the same time, we have put man-made devices on Mars to roam about seeking answers to questions that are Universe-size.
How and where did life begin?
Is there life on other planets?
This reality has never before been experience by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Jains, or any other faith or religious tradition.
Whose God is THE God?
If God loves me, and you are not like me, can God love you, too?
In some ways, my meaning questions always have been Universe-size. For as long as I can remember, I have thought of myself as living in a Universe. My context for myself seems always to have included the far reaches of that starry domain above us, even before humans traveled to it for the first time in my lifetime. Consequently, for a time, I felt lost and confused in my attempts to find answers to life’s questions suitable to the context I held within my mind and heart. But, thanks to the work of our scientists, in little more than the course of my lifetime humans have looked farther and deeper into the very essence of things around us, and farther and deeper into the reaches of space and time than any humans before us. The results of these explorations and their impact on our understandings of ourselves and of our place in our Universe is dramatic indeed.
Theologians and philosophers – the ones whose job it is to provide us with answers to the meaning questions in life – are just beginning to catch up with the scientists and to help us to interpret what these new scientific revelations might mean in terms of our understanding of ourselves and our world and our God.