When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you have set in place –
what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?
Who are we that you should care for us?
Psalm 8. 3-4
According to scientific observers, we humans have three primary characteristics distinguishing us from other creatures inhabiting our Earth: we walk upright on two legs, we use tools, and we ask questions.
While scientists often like to brag about the first two characteristics, it is the theologians and philosophers who focus on the third. Our propensity to ask questions is what has led us to the process of “meaning-making” – to explaining the world and our place in it. Theologians have for a long time suggested that it is this need for meaning in our lives that makes us “spiritual” beings. Today, medical science now claims to have identified the part of our brain that does this.
Dana Zohar and Ian Marshall (2001) call this our human capacity for “spiritual intelligence,” or our “SQ.” They suggest there are ways to measure the degree of someone’s “SQ,” just as we measure intelligence, or “IQ” and Daniel Goleman has suggested we humans have “emotional intelligence,” or “EQ.”
Whether asking questions makes us spiritual or merely human, or both, might be debated, but what is important to me is that my generation has grown up bathed in questions of life and death proportions experienced by no other before it:
Where to hide from nuclear fallout?
How the Holocaust?
One child or two?
The questions were even in the lyrics of the songs we made popular:
Where have all the flowers gone?
Is that all there is?
What’s it all about, Alfie?
The questions of my generation cut to the core of the fabric of the societies in which we grew up. For ours, and the generation to come, they challenge us to recreate a vision of the world and of ourselves that is life-sustaining rather than death-dealing.
Every one of us asks our meaning questions deep down in the pit of our own hearts. Most often, the questions and the answers we have given to them live beneath the surface of our lives, out of our everyday awareness. Sometimes, though, especially in a time of crisis such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or the loss of a job, these life questions come up to the surface and demand our attention. We are forced to find answers before life can become bearable again. At other times, as we go through the daily experiences of life, we sometimes encounter experiences which affect the old answers, and we feel a vague uneasiness or unsettledness until the questions can be asked and resolved anew.
Today, our world is in crisis. Old answers to the major questions of life are not working. The questions themselves, as Christopher Fry suggests, are now “soul-size.” For the first time in human history it is even a question as to whether or not our species will survive into future generations. Meanwhile, violent conflicts tear at the very fabric of our human society while more and more deadly weapons of mass destruction are produced. It seems to that at the core of these deadly conflicts and threats of destruction are more questions:
What does it mean to be human?
To have the right as a human to participate in the fullness of life and love?
To have the freedom and resources to grow one’s full potential?
To live responsibly so that others might live?
Some observers suggest that we humans are undergoing a spiritual reawakening today as part of our passing as a human species from adolescence to adulthood. I am intrigued by the idea, and hope that is true. Given the number of deadly crises we face as a human community, it seems to me we could use a more mature attitude. In fact, I feel compelled to be a part of the emerging conversation about spirituality as an integral aspect of what it means to be human. That’s right, human. Not religious, not saintly – just human.
Zohar, D. and Marshall, I. (2001). SQ: Connecting with our spiritual intelligence. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.