So, it turns out that human beings aren’t simply–to use Stephen Hawking’s term–“chemical scum” after all. A recent article in The Washington Post by Harvard University’s Howard A. Smith argues that human beings are, in fact, “cosmically special.” According to the article,
The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life. The strengths of the four forces that operate in the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions (the latter two dominate only at the level of atoms) — for example, have values critically suited for life, and were they even a few percent different, we would not be here. The most extreme example is the big bang creation: Even an infinitesimal change to its explosive expansion value would preclude life. The frequent response from physicists offers a speculative solution: an infinite number of universes — we are just living in the one with the right value. But modern philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and pioneering quantum physicists such as John Wheeler have argued instead that intelligent beings must somehow be the directed goal of such a curiously fine-tuned cosmos.
Christians (and Jews and Muslims, for that matter) have long asserted the uniqueness of human life, but in the wake of the European Enlightenment this idea has fallen on hard times. Human beings, some have argued, are simply a collection of elements that happened to achieve intelligence and self-awareness. Thus once again faith and science appeared to be at odds with one another. Now perhaps this conflict is becoming confluence.
I became interested in theological anthropology–a specifically Christian understanding of human existence– through my interest in theology and disability. In particular, it became apparent to me that people with intellectual disabilities, and especially profound disabilities, were commonly regarded as somehow lacking an essential quality that constituted humanity. Such a perspective is deeply at odds with some of the best insights of the Christian tradition. I think this is where I would go farther than the scientific insights presently take us. It is not just the intelligence of human beings that makes us special. There is an innate quality given to us by God that differentiates us. Most Christians would likely agree with this, but many denominations–particularly Protestant ones–lack sufficient theological resources to address this matter effectively. Along these lines, I highly recommend Hans Reinders’ book, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2008).
Some of you reading this post will have scientific backgrounds that will allow you to explore the topic of this post far more deeply than I have. Please do so. Please bring this topic more broadly into the arena of public discourse. Please tell me where my understanding is simplistic, naive, or otherwise off base. Let’s hash it out and allow the arguments to stand and fall on their own merits. If Smith’s claims are somehow spurious, we should know this. But if they aren’t, let’s take these claims seriously and think about how they relate to Christian theological notions about the nature of human beings.
I don’t need scientists to tell me that human beings occupy a special place in the cosmos, but I’ll take it. In this day in which human bodies are routinely objectified through pornography; over 20 million people are currently trapped in human trafficking; African Americans have to express loudly and publicly that their lives matter; people with Down syndrome are being systematically eliminated in utero; cases of euthanasia are increasing in Western Europe in the United States… . Shall I go on? It is as imperative as it has ever been that we understand and teach that, yes, there is something special, something unique about human life.
We are not just a collection of chemicals. We are not another commodity. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Our faith has always taught us this. If scientists teach it as well, so much the better.