Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Incomplete Restoration

by Robin Allan Jones

In a time when both sea levels and unemployment are rising, as we come to the end the church year and we are regaled by Luke with imagery of the End of Days, it is easy to turn one’s thoughts to the eventual demise of the human race, however that might come about. Recently, my wife and I watched a fascinating production of The History Channel titled Life After Humans. We saw it on NetFlix , and if you haven’t seen this yourself, you really ought to, because the folks at History Channel, through the magic of computer graphics, depict a marvelous world of replenished seas once again teaming with life, of lofty forests growing on the towering skeletons of skyscrapers, populated with songbirds and flying cats—something not improbable; actually there’s a lot of evidence flitting about the Internet that your common house cat contains genetic and evolutionary potential for, among other things, bipedalism, and gliding flight similar to that of flying squirrels. And of course, the rain forests and the redwoods and the chestnut trees reassert themselves, and in a few thousand years, planet earth seems to have healed itself from the short-term, self-limiting disease of infection by Homo sapiens. The air starts to clear of all the toxins and particulates, and above the skies now musical with the return of songbirds, the heavens, once again visible with stars so long masked by artificial light, sparkle in the night sky. It’s all heart-explodingly beautiful--except for one thing:

There are no humans to appreciate it.

Now, most of you didn’t see it, but right in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal, back in the spring of this year, in the play Sam: An Original Comedy About Unoriginal Sin, I depicted a rather frustrated Satan refusing to let humankind completely die out lest her collection of souls become no more than a museum piece. In fact, I got the idea from a Facebook group, The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, whose goal seems to be the gentle hastening of all that the History Channel describes in Life After Humans. In fact, when we started rehearsals, I really
didn’t have a very good ending for the play, and Voluntary Human Extinction inspired what I think is a pretty clever ending, and endings, as we know, are really important.

But The History Channel rightly points out that the natural world is pretty good at coming up with clever: chimpanzees, dolphins, velociraptors . . . cats . . . But humans, a species capable not only of building great cities, inventing medicine and flying machines, quite capable of its own destruction, but also of music and poetry, and marveling at the sheer magnificence of towering mountains, conceiving with morbid fascination the lethal power of a shark, and peering into the heavens and casting imagination beyond the stars, beyond one’s own lifetime, well that is something unique. For all our shortcomings as a species, we at least have the imagination to conceive of beauty. Thus, this heartening, gladdening restoration, which can happen only without us, with no one to perceive it, is incomplete.

What I think this means for us as Christians is that what we do beneath our steeples, what we carry into the world at large from our places of worship, is an expression of that very human-ness. It is thought by some scientists that there may be some sort of genetic material that compels us as a species to—for the sake of convenience, let’s make it a verb—“to religion.” Now, I pulled down only middling ‘B’s in college genetics, but I’d suggest that there likely isn’t one gene or chromosome for this, but rather it’s the complex neuromuscular structure we call
being human itself that is responsible for that compulsion. And while there is the notion flitting about in scientific circles that the conception of God is simply an imaginative human construct, I’d suggest that that hypothesis overlooks the very existence of humankind. What this means, is that what we do beneath our heaven-aspiring architecture is real; for us at St. Paul’s our simple, graceful liturgy—which takes into account squalling, bored children—goes to the very
core of what it is to be uniquely human.

But this uniqueness carries with it the seeds of discontent: Your cat, however clever, likely does not perceive the inevitability of death while not accepting its finality, and it really doesn’t think much about whether there may be cats in other countries, but we, as part of our intrinsic humanness have trouble accepting our uniqueness, and so, in 1977, NASA sent out two space probes with gold-plated copper discs bearing record of what can only be tidbits of our civilization. Granted, there have been statistical predictions that there are enough stars out there that there are probably several thousand planets where they not only have intelligent life but
intelligent life that speaks English and argues over who has control of the TV remote, but when you consider the vastness of space and dinkiness of Voyager probes, we speak here of hard scientists with incredible faith. Voyager I slipped the solar system in 2004, and by August of last year the two probes, cruising at about 38,000 miles an hour, were on separate courses between 13 and 16 billion miles from the sun. In about 40,000 years the two spacecraft will each come within two light-years of two separate stars.

And then what happens? Well, let’s just say, hypothetically, somewhere between here and there, sometime between now and then, some extraterrestrials—my personal Advent wish is that they resemble the Klingons in the more recent Star Trek movies, such Barbarian vigor, at the same time, so Shakespearean--perhaps inspired by having received broadcast signals of I Love Lucy, are out cruising space, looking for “extra-extraterrestrial” life, and they snag one of the Voyager probes. At last! Our human voice can be once again heard; we can tell our story however many thousand years after our demise and intellectually inoculate undreamed-of species from only-
imagined worlds, and the restoration may then be said, at least in a manner of speaking, to be complete.

So they find this record—which, by the way, for all its sophistication, resembles an LP, the sort of thing that pretty much went extinct on this planet in about 1990—and now they have to figure out how to play the damned thing. Now, I know people who have trouble getting their DVD player to work right out of the box from Best Buy, so, while I admire the faith of the NASA scientists of 40 years ago, I must confess to some doubts about the plan. The Episcopalian in me, the part of me that likes a simplified, graceful liturgy that takes into account bored children, thinks we should have put the whole thing in box with a bunch of buttons, any one of which
activate the player if our aliens in any way accidentally touch one of them . . . Then the restoration will be complete.

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