A couple weeks ago our family watched the film Babies. If you are a Netflix person, Babies is an instant watch online. It’s a French film released in 2010, although there’s no French spoken. There’s very little spoken at all. The film follows four babies in different parts of the world, from birth to one year old. Two of the babies are from isolated rural areas – Ponijao from Namibia, in southern Africa; and Bayar, from Mongolia. Two are from industrialized urban areas – Mari from Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie from San Francisco. Without any commentary or voiceover, the film moves back and forth between these four babies, as they cry, nurse, sleep, crawl, and walk their way through their first year of life with their parents and, if they have them, siblings and other family.
You can imagine some of the contrasts. Right after seeing the simple clinic where Bayar is born in Mongolia, the scene changes, with the camera panning over all of the medical equipment, IVs, monitors, in a city hospital, where Hattie is having her first day in San Francisco. You see small huts with campfires outside where Ponijao’s family lives, the only people for miles and miles in this rather desolate part of Namibia, and then you see the skyscrapers and jam packed sidewalks of Tokyo where Mari is getting her start on life. You can also imagine some of the common themes: rocking the baby to sleep, bath times, playing and laughing, babies getting upset when they want something but can’t have it, babies discovering their own bodies and exploring their environment.
It’s a very simple film. You might watch one of the babies crawl around inside or outside for several minutes, with nothing else really happening, before moving to a similar scene in a completely different part of the world.
Part of the entertainment for me was watching how transfixed Eve and Lily were the whole time and seeing how they responded to different scenes. One of their favorites was when baby Bayar in Mongolia was sitting in a basin of water near a doorway, taking a bath by himself. After a little while a goat peeks its head through the doorway and then walks in and starts drinking out of the basin, with Bayar completely unphased by the whole thing. The girls thought this was hilarious. Bayar turns out to be quite a little farmer and can often be seen crawling around among the roaming farm animals, which the girls also found very intriguing.
Even without commentary, the film invites the viewer to ponder one of the most basic questions we can ask of ourselves: What does it mean to be human? How do we, through nature, and nurture, come to be the people that we are?
If this is a question that intrigues you, you’re in luck. The worship theme that has been created for us this Lenten season fits right in line with this: “Becoming Human” will be our focus over the next number of weeks as we make our way along the road that eventually leads to the cross of Christ, with Easter resurrection just on the horizon. “Becoming Human” implies that human is not just something that we are, something we’re born into, but something that we become, a particular identity that we grow into, a way of seeking out and embracing the highest calling of who we can be.
The lectionary planners’ selection of the two primary scripture passages for this Sunday feels like a similar kind of pattern that the producers of Babies had in mind with the contrasting settings. In Genesis we are invited into a garden scene, the infancy of humanity, the man and woman surrounded by a creation teeming with life, trees bursting with fruit, nearly all of it available to them for their sustenance and enjoyment. In Matthew we are invited into a wilderness scene, the infancy of Jesus’ ministry, this man surrounded by a barren landscape. There is nothing outwardly available for sustenance, but inwardly he is wrestling with different possibilities made available to him in his life. Let me read just the introductory verses of each of these passages:
Genesis 2:15-17 – “The Lord God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the human, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Matthew 4:1-2 – “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”
Which setting – the lush garden or the barren wilderness – might we anticipate being most conducive to human flourishing? Where is it that we become human, in the very best sense of the word? These stories suggest a surprising answer.
First, a bit of history. Or pre-history.
However many hundreds of thousands of years ago, the Creative Cosmic Spirit – that we’ve gotten into the habit of calling God – set out on a bold experiment in the evolutionary process: Animals with reflective consciousness. Creatures who have the ability not only to pass on genes and instincts and biological likeness, but also have the ability to think about who they are and make choices about who they will become. Beings with the power to not only shape aspects of their own lives, but also to re-shape the very environment in which they live. Beings with god-like power. Creations that themselves create.
We could call all of this God’s big gamble. Homo sapiens. Humanity. French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin referred to humanity as “evolution become conscious of itself.” What happens when life reaches the point where it can reflect on its own existence and ask itself what its own point is? Maybe this is God’s idea of entertainment, a long unfolding drama – a comedy and a tragedy. Or maybe this is a demonstration of God’s gracious willingness to share part of God’s creative capacity with part of creation. Either way, it’s a major risk. An experiment in divine power sharing.
And so, after the baby planet earth emerges from the cosmic fire, after the rocks and atmosphere and water, and soil and microorganisms and plants and animals emerge from everything that came before them, the human being peaks its head into the world and walks out to explore this place that it will come to call home.
How are we to understand such a creature? What does it mean to be human?
This, in many ways, is where the Hebrew Bible begins. One of the initial questions it seeks to address is this very one. It presents both an exalted and a humble picture. The human is exalted by being given an identity unique among all other beings. Humans are created in the image of God. They bear those divine qualities of creativity, of consciousness, of the power to choose. Nobody else gets this title.
The Latin and the Hebrew languages maintain the sense of humble beginnings of where these humans come from. In Latin, human comes from the same root as humus, soil. In Hebrew, human, adam, Adam, comes from the same root as Adamah, ground. On Ash Wednesday we put ashes on one another’s foreheads and reminded ourselves of this truth: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Humans are both exalted and humbled. As the Reverend Jeremiah Wright says: “God donated some divinity to some dirt.” We are a strange brew of divinity and dirt.
So how are these divine dust creatures – which I think sounds a little better than divine dirt bags – going to fare? How are they going to harness their tremendous big-brain capacity for decision making? How are they going to channel all of this desire and will to create and explore and discover?
Chapters three through eleven of Genesis use mythical stories and scenes to give the answer: Not so well. The grand experiment in reflective consciousness gets off to a pretty rough start. As it turns out, there’s a fine line between being given the gift of being like God, and trying to like God on their own. Forbidden fruits are tasted (Garden of Eden, Gen 3), brothers are murdered (Cain and Abel, Gen 4), violence breaks out between all people (the time of Noah’s flood, Gen 6), and, when people finally do get their act together and start cooperating, they try and build a tower to heaven in order to elevate themselves to the place of God (The tower of Babel,, Gen 11). Whoops. Experiment in crisis. God’s note to self: maybe reflective consciousness not such a good idea after all. Humans not catching on. Sigh.
Adam (Human), and Eve (Mother of the Living), can’t make a go of it in the garden. Despite being given everything they need and more, the gift of choice means that there are also temptations to misuse the gift. To use their power in ways that hurt, rather than help, life.
If humans can’t flourish in the garden, in the place of abundance, where might they learn to thrive? Where might they learn what it means to be human, all the while unlearning their previous destructive habits and inclinations? How about wilderness. Desert.
Out of the empire of Egypt, itself an embodiment of human creative capacity gone awry, this Creative Cosmic Spirit leads a people who are to be another experiment in becoming human – the Hebrew slaves, the Israelites. This time rather than a garden, they are in the wilderness – for 40 years. The wilderness – with all of its trials and struggles – becomes the training ground for a community in the process of becoming human. Here they must learn trust, humility, and grow in awe and wonder of God.
When Jesus goes out to the wilderness, or, as Matthew puts it, “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,” it is in this very same pattern. His 40 days in the wilderness is very much meant to echo the 40 years of the Israelite people. His wilderness experience is very much a facing down of those temptations and struggles with which humanity had been living up to that point. The kinds of temptations that steered the human experiment off course from its beginnings.
When Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, it is much more than a personal, individual set of temptations. Yes, he has been fasting, for 40 days, and yes, he was very hungry; but the temptation to turn stone into bread was much bigger than a matter of filling his belly. His answer to the devil – “A human does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” is an acknowledgement that human desires are not meant to fulfill strictly physical needs, biological impulses. Our desires, our longings, were created in us to point beyond mere personal fulfillment, created to direct us toward God.
When Jesus is tempted to hurl himself from the top of the temple the devil goes on to say that if God really cared for him then God would save him. This is the human temptation toward glory and immortality – that nothing can harm us, no matter what we do. Jesus refuses.
And when Jesus is tempted to give his allegiance to the devil rather than God in order to gain all the kingdoms of the world, this is the temptation of power. Gaining power and control at any cost, even if it involves selling your soul to be devil. Jesus refuses this kind of destructive power.
When the Apostle Paul later writes to the Romans, in chapter five, he holds up Adam and Jesus alongside each other. Adam, Human, failed to live out his high calling of God’s image bearer. Jesus, however, redeems all of humanity by living out his high calling as God’s image bearer, bringing life where Adam brought death. Paul depicts Jesus as the second Adam, the second Human. Human 2.0. The wilderness experience, for Jesus, becomes a course correction in the Divine experiment in reflective consciousness. Jesus redeems the human project by resisting temptations that come with such responsibility. Rather than allowing his humanity to be a source of destruction, it becomes a vessel for the flourishing of life.
Several centuries later, when the “Christian” church was coming under the control of the Roman Empire, a cousin of the earlier Egyptian empire, people again discovered the wilderness as a necessary setting for the flourishing of their humanity. This was the beginning of the monastic movement – the 3rd and 4th centuries: the desert fathers and mothers, who kept alive the vision of Humanity 2.0 by resisting the temptations of power and glory that the Roman Empire offered the church. It began with St. Antony in Egypty, was formalized by St. Benedict, and was revived by St. Francis. In the 16th century the Anabaptist entered a different kind of wilderness. Again, refusing the temptations of abusive power, entering a period of persecution and isolation.
There’s a great thread that runs throughout history of people rediscovering their humanity in the wilderness.
The season of Lent, 40 days of fasting, prayer, and reflection, modeled on Jesus’ and the Israelites 40 days and years in the wilderness, is the church’s way of incorporating the wilderness into our lives – bringing monastic disciplines into our non-monastic settings. Even though we might not live in the wilderness, or go to a literal wilderness, we are invited, during this time, to enter a voluntary wilderness of the spirit. To strip down life to its most basics. To pay attention to what we’re doing with this incredible gift of humanity that we’ve been given. With our ability to create and set our own course and shape the world according to our desires. How are our desires leading or misleading us? What is it that is being created through us? How are God’s hopes for the world being fulfilled through us, or, how are we missing out on our highest calling?
We who live in the garden, who are surrounded with all that we need plus more, who have an abundance of material resources, also suffer from a great spiritual poverty. We still don’t know how to live in the garden.
I suppose my final word here is to note that as important as it is for each of us to set out on this journey on our own, I don’t think it’s enough. I don’t think it’s enough for us as individuals to enter our personal desert and figure out some personal things. That’s part of the picture, but it can’t be the whole picture. There’s really no such thing, I don’t think, on a practical level, as individual Human 2.0. What we’re in need of is Human Community 2.0. A way of doing our relationships, our economics, our communities in a way that truly brings life. The idea of church is the same idea as Israel, with the Hebrew slaves in the wilderness receiving the Torah – the idea of Human Community 2.0. It is together, in our relationships, in what we create together, that we become human. So we’ll have to work at this as a community and ask what might be our highest calling as a community at this time in history. We can use our congregational visioning process as one of the ways that we work at this question.
To be perfectly frank, in my darker moments, one of my biggest fears with the church in general is that we are merely helping each other cope in the midst of a system that is on its way down. We’re just helping each other maintain some sanity in a world gone insane and about to self-destruct. This experiment would either be over, or at least set back several million years. I don’t know about you, but I’m rather fond of this earth that we’ve come to call home and would like to see it continue for many generations to come. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I’m confessing that things feel very fragile right now.
So let’s approach Lent as if it mattered. As if our very humanity is at stake. And let’s pray that the Spirit lead us into this wilderness to be tested and teach us what it means to truly become human.