One of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, once said in an interview with Bill Moyers that human beings “exist wildly in excess of any sort of survival mode that could be posited for them.” She said that if you use animal behavior as a model or correlation to human behavior, “you’ve simply excluded everything that we call human….imagination, and art…things we have defined ourselves with over thousands of years.”
I would add poetry. The fact that human beings compose poetry is miraculous, if you subscribe to the notion that we are only animals. Art, imagination, poetry, introspection, philosophy, story-telling, our concept of beauty, the study of any subject under the sun, our yearning for justice (perhaps the most anti-evolutionary characteristic of humans), and, yes, love —time and time again we say about these things (when they’re done well) that they make us “more human,” or “restore our humanity,” or facilitate a deep “human connection.” In using these sorts of phrases, we never mean that we are more animal-like, or closer to our “animal” nature. There is something more—always something wildly more.
“We milk the cow of the world…”
It puzzles me when people who are human rights advocates, poets, painters, or professors claim to be atheists. That strikes me as very ironic. It seems to me that they are daily, moment by moment, living a contradiction with their professed worldview. In Richard Wilbur’s poem “Epistemology”, he writes “We milk the cow of the world, and as we do / We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’”
Think about what constitutes the majority of our thinking, energies, and time. We watch shows on TV, read novels, sketch cartoon figures, arrange bouquets of flowers for our spouses, fix our daughters’ hair, play baseball, cook gourmet meals, watch HGTV, create centerpieces on our holiday tables, crack jokes, complain about our current president’s amorality, wax our cars, write get-well cards, donate to charity, and shine our shoes—all miraculously in excess of survival. And it begs the question why? Why do we humans reach for a life more fully and justly and beautifully lived? Where does that desire come from?
Humans have always attempted to answer that question—it is the well-spring of all of our religions, as well as of agnosticism (which speaks to me of an honest but unfinished journey).
Our Best Stories
I know some of you reading may disagree, but I’ve not yet learned of a worldview paradigm that comports better with reality and with what it means to be fully human than the Christian worldview. The concept of an intelligent, good, just, holy, creative, powerful, merciful, and personal God who has made humans in his image (Latin, imago dei), and who has placed eternity in our hearts—this belief makes sense to me. The paradigm of creation, rebellion, redemption, and restoration explains for me the incredible order and complexity of the universe. It explains our shared human experiences of shame, brokenness, pride, love, and forgiveness. It is the deepest and truest theme running through all of our best stories—the stories that pay homage to the human spirit—whether in fiction, poetry, theater, or film (think of Les Miserables, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.).
One day, Ravi Zacharias, a prominent Christian apologist, was riding in a car with a young man who pointed out to him the first intentionally post-modern building in the city—staircases leading nowhere, random angles, tricks of light, unexpected placement of windows, etc. Zacharias found it very interesting, indeed, and asked, “Does it have a foundation?” The answer, of course, was yes. The only way to create a “post-modern” building that wouldn’t cause injury or death to its inhabitants was to lay the foundation according to natural scientific laws, according to rules of structure.
The Known Order Holds
John R. Erickson writes about a similar necessity for structure in stories. He says, “Children see structure in the world around them. It provides coherence from one day to the next. It reveals beauty and meaning. They consider structure normal and take it for granted until, as adults, they are taught that it isn’t there. I could never accept that it wasn’t there.”
I think, too, of mathematicians and astro-physicists whose knowledge of and faith in pattern, order, natural laws, reason, etc. lead them to incredible discoveries about our universe. They hazard hypotheses based on the idea that the known order holds. I think about biologists who study the form of a species—its intricate parts—to gather clues about the various functions of those parts. They assume—correctly—that form holds clues to function (teleonomy/teleology). In their study of anatomy, they don’t look at a human hand and think, Why, that appendage must be used to create poetry! (Though increasingly we humans in the West protest the teleological clues our bodies give us, denying that they mean anything.) Mathematicians and scientists trust the natural order—it makes sense and it holds.
Beauty, too, exists wildly in excess of a survival paradigm. The fact that humans yearn for beauty, recognize it, understand instinctually that it is a force that exists both within and outside of ourselves, seek to create it, seek to capture it—why is that? Perhaps we’re afraid to ponder that question—we may not like where it will lead or what it may mean for us.
I submit that there is beauty in metaphor. We poets love metaphor. We find metaphors everywhere in the natural order. Perhaps they were placed there on purpose, that there would be no end to our discovery of them, to our learning from them. In memoriam of Richard Wilbur (1921–2017), James Matthew Wilson writes that for the poet, “the ‘glorious energy’ of the world tends toward ‘pattern and shape,’” and that in his generation, only he “spanned the gap” of “holding in tension the fallenness of the world with the underlying goodness of creation.” I’m drawn to those writers who attempt the same today, whose work celebrates and enjoys life—even plays a little—but also probes the wounds of the world with empathy and attentive gravity.
Lately I’ve been reading and studying the writings of poet Czeslaw Milosz. In the introduction to A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, which he edited, he says, “By necessity poetry is … on the side of being and against nothingness.” As a writer, I hope that my words rail “against nothingness,” witnessing to the beautiful, ever-present excess.
(A recommended starting place for exploring “something wildly more” further is N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian. It may surprise you.)