William Brown: God’s Mindfulness of Life: A Response to Lucas Mix

The refrain in Lucas Mix’s suggestive blog borrows from an ancient (and perennial) question found in the Psalter.  The psalmist, while surveying the starry night with only the naked eye, asks God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4 [NRSV]).  Directed to God, the question is posed out of a felt sense of smallness before the vast universe.  To be sure, the psalmist seems concerned only about life on earth, and specifically about humankind’s place and status.  Who are we on this “pale blue dot”?  But the question of human identity for the psalmist is also a matter of theology, hence a question of theological anthropology: “Who are we to you, O God?”  The answer marks an abrupt shift in perspective from humankind’s smallness vis-à-vis the universe to humankind’s greatness vis-à-vis the earth: humanity is “crowned with glory and honor” and receives from God the privilege of “dominion” over all the animals of the earth (vv. 5-8).

Lucas redirects the psalmist’s question to address not God but human beings by asking what it is that motivates our search for life “out there.”  But what if we tried to find a middle ground between the psalmist’s question and Lucas’s revision?  What if we revised the psalmist’s question to reflect an astrobiological scope, as Lucas wants to do, while retaining the question’s address to God?  “What is life that you (O God) are mindful of it—alien life that you take note of it?” (“take note” is a better translation than “care for,” contra the NRSV).  The question, then, has to do with what motivates God to attend to life, human and nonhuman, terrestrial and (possibly) extraterrestrial—a question of theological biology.

The great evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane was once asked what biology could say about God, so the story goes.  He allegedly replied, “I’m really not sure, except that the Creator, if he exists, must have an inordinate fondness of beetles.”  (There are, in fact, approximately 380,000 species of beetles!)  The sentiment is, unbeknownst to Haldane and many others, truly biblical.  Another psalm, for example, praises God for the rich diversity of life: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24), beetles included.  The psalmist imagines God “rejoicing” in creation, in a creation filled with variety, wild and domestic, from lions to Leviathan, human beings included (v. 31b), and all enjoyed by God.  Psalm 104 turns God into a biophile, the God who has an “inordinate fondness” for all of life.  Each species is deemed uniquely fascinating, and humanity is merely one among many, about 8.7 million species and counting, each with its own niche and rhythm of livelihood.  Indeed, the only difference between lions and humans, according to the psalmist, is that the lions happen to take the night shift (vv. 21-23).  The earth, in other words, is habitat not only for human beings but also for “lions and tigers and bears,” Amen!

The psalmist invites us astro-oriented humans to look down every once in awhile as we continue to look up, searching the heavens for life, and to do so in the joy and wonder of it all, reflecting God’s own wonder and joy.  Life on earth, the psalmist suggests, is just as strange to anything we might discover elsewhere.  By being epistemologically open to finding life “as we do not know it,” astrobiology highlights the strangeness of life even here on earth.  The very stuff of life, such as carbon, originates from the nuclear furnaces of stars and is carried forth by comets.  Life, including human life, is derived from recycled star dust.  Indeed, life on earth may have begun with a little help from organically rich comets and meteorites.  If we want to find alien life, we could start by looking at ourselves in the mirror . . . and through the microscope.  Each human body, as fantastic as it is anatomically, is also host to billions upon billions of microbes.  We humans carry with us a complex community of microorganisms known as the human microbiome.  Every surface and cavity of the human body is colonized by communities of microbes, and they constitute an essential component to human health.  Imagine that!  The wonder of life has not only to do with individuals and species in all their diversity, but also with the various kinds of community they form, from the microbial on up.

But whether we direct our eyes to the stars or to ourselves or to what is below us, the search for life, the psalmist reminds us, can be done with joy and wonder, reflecting something of God’s own joy in “manifold” creation.  The The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency(JAXA) has it right.  In its official “management philosophy,” there is the value and goal of “jubilation for human society,” to which I can only say, Amen![1]

[1]  Many thanks to Dominique Steiler for pointing this out.

About the Author: 

William P. Brown is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Brown has abiding interests in the use of Scripture in the life of the church and in contemporary theological discourse. Some of his specific interests include Psalms, wisdom literature, Genesis, and creation theology. His Ph.D. is from Emory University and his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.  He was a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology in 2007-08, and his research was published in 2010 by Oxford University Press as The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. His most recent books are Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Crisis, and Creation in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature (Eerdmans), the edited volume Oxford Handbook to the Psalms (Oxford), and Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Eerdmans).

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