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Dirt And Magic: Some Thoughts On Human Origins


vadarama
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For decades I took the Bible’s creation account as historical fact. I knew the world’s first human was molded by the same hands that knit me together in my mother’s womb.1 God’s own breath infused brand new dust to create a conscious body. Other species were spoken into spontaneous existence before having their naming ceremony casually outsourced, but Adam was fearfully and wonderfully made.2

We humans were the big stars all along. Earth was a backdrop for our high-stakes drama- a prelude to eternal bliss or agony. Though God had worked on it to the point of exhaustion, He wanted us to be “in the world but not of it”3 - divine beams of light trapped in fragile jars of clay.We were doomed to our prisons of expiring flesh until our eventual homecoming in paradise. I expected that realm to be much more hospitable, since up there, no earth quakes, no cancer spreads and no heart splits in two. Mostly, I yearned for the boundless joy, unmediated worship and buffets overstocked with purely recreational eats. Sometimes, I secretly wondered how I’d survive the tedium of infinity.

But it wasn’t right to question God’s power. Saved by a measure of grace that no mortal could merit, I shouldn’t ignorantly evaluate the Kingdom based on my limited perspective. I should “live in light of eternity”5 rather than cling to comforting conventions like space and time. And if things ever got hairy, I’d be a willing martyr- the highest calling. I was encouraged by the words of C.S. Lewis: “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”6 I mentally prepared for Judgment Day to avoid being caught off-guard. As a child, I daydreamed about the guillotine and mark of the beast, hoping Jesus would return before the Antichrist took power. In high school, the fantasy involved being singled out by a gun-wielding classmate with deep scars from Sunday School. When he spat in my face and asked if I really believed in God, I’d sob, nod, choke out a ‘yes’ and brace myself.7 I hoped my loyalty would secure me a spot in heaven if my belief alone could not.

Driving my faith was a keen sense of my intrinsic worthlessness. God could’ve merely willed me to life like He did everything else. But He personally gifted His spirit, and I immediately betrayed Him with sin. I hadn’t lived in the Garden of Eden myself, but I was just as accountable for my “fallen” state,8 and I couldn’t escape my estrangement from The Father by natural means. To willingly align myself with my traitorous flesh was to choose death over life. If only I’d offer myself as a living sacrifice9 by inviting the Spirit to replace my instincts with God’s, I’d avoid the horrific fate of the unredeemed.

Now a few years removed from Christianity,10 I can appreciate the symbolic power of the Genesis story. The book’s authors hadn’t yet examined their genetic heritage when they pinpointed humanity’s main ingredients. Whether manually molded by a personified deity or perpetually regenerating on the fuel of our innate intelligence, we’re essentially a mixture of dirt and magic. Either way, it’s clear our bodies are made of the ground beneath our feet. And our consciousness is still such a perplexing phenomenon that even the least spiritual among us are sometimes enchanted. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran writes, “How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe-inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago.”11

So we really have been the big stars all along. But the makeup of our species isn’t unique; as writer Jostein Gaarder points out: “A hydrogen atom in a cell at the end of my nose was once part of an elephant’s trunk. A carbon atom in my cardiac muscle was once in the tail of a dinosaur.”12 The imagery sets my heart on fire and my mind at ease. Since I literally belong to the earth, I can settle in for good. I can live this life instead of steeling myself for the next. I can trust my gut rather than compulsively censor thoughts that might summon The Enemy. I’m not ashamed of being human, and I don’t feel hopelessly alienated because of my personal relationship with an authoritarian god. The fact that I’m no more objectively significant than the chair that props me up really takes the pressure off.

Still, I am an inconceivable miracle- a bright flame of consciousness temporarily animating a tiny speck of Earth. While the matter will recycle, the light will flicker out- I hope not a moment too soon or too late.


1. Psalm 139:13: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (NIV)
2. Psalm 139:14: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (NIV)
3. popular Christian phrase that I always took for a verse in scripture; may be based in part on Jesus’ prayer for new converts in John 17:16: They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
4. 2 Corinthians 4:7: But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
5. another ubiquitous bit of Christianese that might as well be scripture.
6. June 17, 1963 letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3 
7. Columbine victim Cassie Bernall was a martyr in her mom’s book She Said Yes, a story later undermined by eyewitness reports. Fact or fiction, it made a huge impact on me. I was intimidated by the daunting standard she set but inspired by her bravery.
8. Romans 3:23: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
9. Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
10. Read my “Christian Extimony” here.
11. from the introduction of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human
12. from his 1991 novel Sophie’s World

 

(also posted on my blog)

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Great essay. Welcome to ex-c.

 

I had issues with the whole "made from dirt" thing when I believed. Dirt is made from decaying matter and minerals. It is also full if life (bacteria, micro organisms, worms, insects, etc). Yet insomuch as dirt is living, it is to it that our dead bodies return. To be created from the dirt implies that we are somehow reincarnated. We are recycled beings, not original reproductions.

 

If this is the case, we were not appointed to live once, but many times. Over and over, we enter the dirt. Those atoms that compose us were once part of the dirt and when they cease to be a part of us, they re-enter it. The atoms could just as easily be a part of an elephant, a tulip, or an atomic bomb, but they are not. Until we die and give up our right to self, that is. When we stop existing, we are no longer ourselves. We are part of the "other", part of the dust in some distant future, and part of a new life somewhere along the line.

 

------

 

The part about the school shooter resonated with me deeply. I was in high school around the time of Columbine. I wasn't a believer during those times. I thought that it was weird how Christian kids would want to meet a bloody end for Jesus. People singled me out for being a goth and listening to "evil" music. As if I were the enemy, destined to blow them up during social studies. Not to say that I didn't fantasize about putting the asshole bullies in their place, but it seemed idiotic to just spray bullets everywhere and hope that Joe Blow Asshole was caught in the crossfire.

 

I suppose that I never understood why believers felt the desire to be a martyr for such a tired cause. If God is all-powerful, then why does he need a bunch of dead followers on earth to prove a point? Let's say for a moment that Cassie B., the girl who was "martyred" at Columbine, was shot because she said she believed in God. So what? How many people were impacted by her answer? How can anyone know that the shooters wouldn't have shot her anyway, even if she had said no or told them that the Great Unicorn was going to judge them. Or what if she had been a Muslim or a Hindu or a Wiccan? Would belief in Allah and the prophet, or Krishna, or Ganesh, or the Earth Mother have led to her death? Would Flyleaf have bothered to write a song about her if she had believed in another god?

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 The fact that I’m no more objectively significant than the chair that props me up really takes the pressure off.

 

Christians warned us that this nihilistic perspective would hurl us into existential despair. Instead, I've found it to be incredibly freeing. They don't know what they're missing!

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You guys have no idea how much I appreciate your feedback. I'm in a better place (not heaven) with my writing, and I realize I'll probably need to explore this ExC thing for awhile, to help me process. I really had no idea how deeply some of my experiences had affected me; I broke down emotionally when remembering how much I used to ready myself for the end times. Freaky stuff when you stop to think about it.

 

 

 The fact that I’m no more objectively significant than the chair that props me up really takes the pressure off.

 

Christians warned us that this nihilistic perspective would hurl us into existential despair. Instead, I've found it to be incredibly freeing. They don't know what they're missing!

 

 

It really is so freeing! As a Christian, I definitely wouldn't have been able to imagine how it could be. But now I relish not feeling like the inevitably disappointing product of a perfect being's intentional creation. It was way too stressful. 

 

 

vadarama: What a beautiful essay. I hope you will continue to bless us with the fruits of your considerable talent for writing frequently.  bill

 

Thank you, Bill! I will keep posting for sure; sometimes I overthink things instead of getting them out in writing, so this is a new resolution of sorts. It's so helpful to get feedback and to know I'm not alone with my thoughts.

 

 

 

vadarama,

I enjoyed reading your essay. Your style is quite fluid with colorful language and substantive imagery. You're obviously a natural writer. Your earthy sentiments resonate with me. I feel the elements, "heart," "fire," and trusting one's "gut." I totally concur with your key statement, "I’m not ashamed of being human." I love the humanistic sense so clearly conveyed: "Still, I am an inconceivable miracle- a bright flame of consciousness temporarily animating a tiny speck of Earth."

Thanks for inspiring me.

Human

 

Thanks for your words, Human. :) It's still strange to feel comfortable in this skin, or even to desire that comfort! But oddly, I feel more appreciative of these revelations as an ExC adult than I might have been if I were born into rational humanism and took it for granted.

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Great essay. Welcome to ex-c.

 

I had issues with the whole "made from dirt" thing when I believed. Dirt is made from decaying matter and minerals. It is also full if life (bacteria, micro organisms, worms, insects, etc). Yet insomuch as dirt is living, it is to it that our dead bodies return. To be created from the dirt implies that we are somehow reincarnated. We are recycled beings, not original reproductions.

 

If this is the case, we were not appointed to live once, but many times. Over and over, we enter the dirt. Those atoms that compose us were once part of the dirt and when they cease to be a part of us, they re-enter it. The atoms could just as easily be a part of an elephant, a tulip, or an atomic bomb, but they are not. Until we die and give up our right to self, that is. When we stop existing, we are no longer ourselves. We are part of the "other", part of the dust in some distant future, and part of a new life somewhere along the line.

 

------

 

The part about the school shooter resonated with me deeply. I was in high school around the time of Columbine. I wasn't a believer during those times. I thought that it was weird how Christian kids would want to meet a bloody end for Jesus. People singled me out for being a goth and listening to "evil" music. As if I were the enemy, destined to blow them up during social studies. Not to say that I didn't fantasize about putting the asshole bullies in their place, but it seemed idiotic to just spray bullets everywhere and hope that Joe Blow Asshole was caught in the crossfire.

 

I suppose that I never understood why believers felt the desire to be a martyr for such a tired cause. If God is all-powerful, then why does he need a bunch of dead followers on earth to prove a point? Let's say for a moment that Cassie B., the girl who was "martyred" at Columbine, was shot because she said she believed in God. So what? How many people were impacted by her answer? How can anyone know that the shooters wouldn't have shot her anyway, even if she had said no or told them that the Great Unicorn was going to judge them. Or what if she had been a Muslim or a Hindu or a Wiccan? Would belief in Allah and the prophet, or Krishna, or Ganesh, or the Earth Mother have led to her death? Would Flyleaf have bothered to write a song about her if she had believed in another god?

 

seven77, thanks for your thoughtful response! I looove the idea of being a part of new life in the distant future- it's something we can not control and will have no concept of, which I find exciting. 

 

And it's great to hear about the school shooter fantasy from another perspective. My high school self was pretty cool with everyone, but I did assume my goth classmates were one inch from snapping at any moment. I wasn't ever afraid of anyone or concerned for my safety; I just hoped God wouldn't call me home via a shooting, though it would have been an "easy" out if the loyalty trick worked for getting into paradise. But you make a good point about the uselessness of martyrdom; I just wouldn't have thought of it that way when I had my God glasses on.

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It's like we don't need Heaven to live forever. We can be eternal...atoms! It is freeing. I will look forward to seeing you around. Stop by the chat room sometime, when you see a lot of us in there. :)

 

The school shooter thing was of interest to me when I was in the church. There was a lot of talk about school violence and some people used it as a justification to homeschool their kids. Personally, I think modern schools are like prisons. Cameras everywhere, guards at the doors, uniforms, no real silverware in the lunchroom. It was degrading for me, anyway. I was pushed out thanks to the fear about goth kids and also because I was gay before it was cool. Oh well. Past is past.

 

God doesn't call people home via shooting. If that worked, there would be no gangbangers left on the corners. Martyrdom has always been useless to me. My former church taught that you had no right to self, that we were all little Christs. The Messiah gave his life for us pathetic worms. Dying was seen as an easy out and martyrdom was the epitome of misguided self-glorification. Only the saints of old were really martyrs!

 

After five years of that sort of teaching, who could believe that God cared enough to call any one of us home?

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