“You don’t think the Quraqua experiment will work?”
“No.” She sipped her drink. “I’m not a pessimist by nature. At least, I don’t think I am. But no: I think the nature of the beast is intrinsically selfish. Quraqua is to be the new Earth. And I suspect it will be. But education makes a difference in the short run, at best. Train a jerk all you want; in the end, you’ve still got a jerk.”
Carson leaned forward. “You think we’re that bad?”
“Homo jerkus,” she said. “Just read your history.”
--Melanie Truscott on the terraforming and settlement of the planet Quraqua by a group of humans hoping to start humanity anew without all of its baggage and problems (from Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God)
As I’ve mentioned before, Jack McDevitt is one of my favorite science fiction authors—and the scene above is one reason why. By his own admission McDevitt’s not a religious man but, by golly, he’s got human nature nailed down tight—and more than one of his characters reflect on that reality in The Engines of God.
We human beings—all of us—are bent. If we were really determined, we could probably make the ethically and morally bad choice every time we were faced with one. But, even if we were really determined, there’s no way we could make the ethically and morally right choice every time were faced with one—and even if we could direct our actions this way each and every time, our hearts would betray us. Jesus gets at this when he tells folks that refraining from murdering someone doesn’t get you off the hook; harboring or giving into anger puts you right back on it. Or sleeping with a woman who’s not your wife isn’t good enough—even lusting after one is missing the mark (Matthew 5-7). At this point in the Story, our bent towards failure and selfishness is part of our human nature. And that’s why utopias on this side of eternity aren’t possible.
But that’s not all there is to us. McDevitt’s stories are populated with people who exhibit moments of great strength and goodness. Indeed, that is also part of our human nature. We seem pulled towards virtues, sometimes (or perhaps most of the time) in spite of ourselves. We—all of us—have great capacity to act with love, sacrifice, faithfulness and just-ness. These are the echoes of our original blueprint or DNA. These are the echoes within us of our creation in the image of God. C.S. Lewis talks about this as our inside knowledge that there is a greater Law or sense of right and wrong outside of ourselves that calls us to these actions when we face a choice. I like Scot McKnight’s image of humans as broken Eikons—those made in the image of God but having to deal with being cracked. The light of our original intent and creation still struggles through the cracks and crevices.
Dallas Willard says whether we acknowledge it or not we are all being transformed—it’s just a matter of towards whom or what we are being transformed. Our bent is away from God, a direction fueled by our own desires; or as Truscott puts it, “the nature of the beast is intrinsically selfish.” But here’s the thing (and a common refrain on this blog): God doesn’t leave us like this, transforming towards that bent within us with only echoes of our intended potential and nature. Instead, he invites us to that life we were created for now. An abundant and boundless life lived from and with and in God as we were made to be—dripping abundantly with love, faithfulness, just-ness. A life of being restored and redeemed and recreated by the same breath and voice that spoke all that is into being. A life that isn’t sinless yet one in which we sin less. A life in which we start becoming what we already are. An already-but-not-yet life of living in the wide-open spaces of his grace and glory and love and just-ness and right-ness that is-now-and-will engulf all that was ever made.
Inexorably, this life is lived with others—and lived with the yearning and drive to see this broken world and all we broken people healed, loved, redeemed and freed in those wide open spaces of life, glory and love. Here especially, attempts at utopias cordoned off from the rest of humanity have no part in this new life. This new life is immersed in the real world and a mission that flows like water into a parched and cracked soil, a salve on torn and burnt flesh, a sea that swallows brokenness and pain. It is about going out and going in, not about pulling away and shutting out.
I loved a post I read a couple of months ago about the power of this kind of living-together:
Well, if I were living out my faith in seeking to follow the Great Commandment (love God/love your neighbor), some people who formerly knew me as ‘jerk’ might take notice. But then they could rationalize that I had matured, or that it was a freak of nature, or that religion did me good, or whatever. They might even listen to what I have to say just because I was a curiosity – an anomaly of human nature. BUT if there were an entire community like me, a people who place the needs of others first, a people who reach out to the disenfranchised in the community, a people who give attention and build relationships with those that society deems marginalized, a people who do not seek retaliation, and above all a people who openly and unashamedly care about one another – well, that’s a different story! They couldn’t very well blow that off, now could they? They would come face to face with evidence of the Kingdom of God – and they would find a nurturing community in which they could be discipled in understanding the way.This is how we are meant to live. Ultimately, this new life is an engagement, a going-out-and-enfolding-within, missional. As Brian McLaren puts it, this life is the dream of God, the dance of God, the revolution of God, the mission, party and network of God. And, this is key: we do what we do because that is what he does. We are what we are because that is who he is. It all—all of it—comes from, flows from, in born in and explodes from him.
Yes, we are bent in dreadful ways. We are indeed homo jerkus. We are far worse. But that is not who we are created to be. This is not who we are destined to be. This is not who we are left to be. Those echoes and broken shards of light left over from our creation are not all we have. We have so much more. We are so much more. It's all there, a gift beyond measure, a life beyond imagination.