By John Rieping | Published 30 May 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
The first book of Jewish scripture, Bereishit (aka Genesis), tells of the creation of the universe — once. Yet the origin of humanity is told twice.
As a writer myself, I suspect the author wanted us to pay particular attention to that part.
One sentence from the first telling has always delighted me: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (1:27)
As a Christian, such words speak to me of the equal dignity of men and women. For Christianity sees our creation in the image and likeness of God as the root of our human dignity.
Now notice another implication: the image of God is displayed in humanity, but humanity is fully revealed in a couple -- not an individual.
That's hardly an American stance there. After all, the U.S. is a nation that especially prizes independence and self-reliance. Tough individualism marks our mythology, from the western frontier heroes to many of our superheroes.
However that isn't the only challenging thought of this verse.
Consider this: we may take the sexes of humanity for granted, but it is no absolute necessity. Some creatures do fine with only one sex (look up the female-only New Mexico whiptail lizard). Why would humanity's two sexes, together, show the divine image better than only one would?
As the rock band Boys Like Girls sang in a 2009 duet with Taylor Swift, "Maybe two is better than one," though I think we can go deeper than that.
The medieval thinker Tommaso di Aquino (A.D. 1225-1274) once claimed Christians had to admit that the abundance and variety of God's creations were intentional.
God, Tommaso wrote, wanted to share and show the divine goodness with and through creation. So God made many and diverse creatures because the creator's goodness "could not be fittingly reflected in just one creature." Thus "what each individual thing lacked in order to reflect the divine goodness would be made up for by other things." ("Summa Theologiae," 1, q. 47, a.1)
One just isn't enough. It is not that we, as individuals, are incomplete. Rather all creatures, at their best, offer little glimpses of the divine. We form a mosaic.
Even so, there's a more subversive idea here. For if humanity's two sexes can show the image of God better than one, then it seems they must not be identical. Men and women are equal in dignity, personhood, and humanity, but we differ. And we do so in more than where our mushy parts can be seen or are absent.
These differences, far from being bad, show the divine creator more fully than either sex could alone.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is when a man and a woman, acting according to their natures, take part in creation itself by together bringing a new life into existence. It is hard to be more creator-like than that.
That relies on those aforementioned mushy parts and such, but that isn't all there is to it. There's a natural result of offspring that, ideally, shows us God in a special way: motherhood and fatherhood.
The Jewish and Christian scripture often uses such imagery of mother and father to describe God, as well as the image of a husband. As a spirit, God transcends male and female. Nonetheless, God is paternal, maternal, and spousal in the most wonderful of ways.
We can't reflect that in solitude. Others evoke our parental or spousal sides in us. Thus it is we cannot reach our human potential in isolation. Instead, it is our relationships with others (especially God) that expose us most fully, even to ourselves.
As God reportedly said in the beginning, it is not good for us to be alone (Bereishit/Genesis 2:18). So let we who claim to believe in God dare to love, patiently and perseveringly, like God loves us.
"Listen, and tell your grief: But God is singing! / God sings through all creation with His will. / Save the negation of sin, all is His music, / even the notes that set their roots in ill / to flower in pity, pardon or sweet humbling. / Evil finds harshness of the rack and rod / in tunes where good finds tenderness and glory.
"The saints who loved have died of this pure music, / and no one enters heaven till he learns, / deep in his soul at least, to sing with God."
— Jessica Powers, aka Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (1905-1988)
By John Rieping | Published 15 May 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Empowering affirmations have perhaps become some of our era's most popular cliches, doomed to be drained of meaning and impact by casual overuse.
Even so, one made me think when I heard it on social media. It says: "You are enough."
To me, the phrase begs for the reply: enough what? Am I enough of an annoyance? Enough of a man? Does it mean my body mass index is healthy? Or that my income is above poverty level?
How am I enough?
The more I pondered the words, the less sense they made to me. If anything is clear, it is that humans are social animals by nature. We're not self sufficient.
This is especially clear in the U.S. today, in which most of us rely on others to feed, house, and equip us in exchange for money. We lack the skills to survive on our own.
But, even if we did, we still would need other creatures around us for the sake of our hearts and minds.
In the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin studied the effects of solitude on rhesus monkeys, who were placed in an inverted pyramid they could not climb out of. After a day or two, most monkeys seemed to lose hope.
They became "profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in places for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves," Harlow said.
Most recovered after returning from isolation, but not all. "Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially," according to Harlow.
The results of solitary confinement on human prisoners are similar.
In one study, psychiatrist Stuart Grassian of Harvard Medical School found about a third of such inmates were "actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal." Being cut off caused hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, hypersensitivity, severe obsessions, difficulty thinking, and more.
Half of all prison suicides in California from 1999-2004 were by those in solitary confinement.
On our own, we are not enough, and we don't have to go to extremes to discover that.
In 2014, a series of 11 studies led by University of Virginia researchers found that most people would rather do something — even if painful — than be alone and undistracted from their own thoughts for 15 minutes.
Among this majority, two out of three men and one out of four women even preferred to self-inflict an electric shock instead of think while undisturbed for 15 minutes.
Not everyone is like this, of course.
I, for one, am an incurable daydreamer and can happily spend hours lost in idle thoughts, whether inventing worlds or solving puzzles in my imagination. During my years as a Benedictine monk in temporary vows, half a year could pass without the itch to walk down the hilltop on which the monastery stood.
I tend to be content.
Yet I too am not immune to loneliness, restlessness, frustrations, failures, pain, or so many other aches that remind us we are not enough.
We humans have a longing for "enough," for fullness, that drives us to connect with the world around us to find what we lack. It is a universal hunger and, if we deny it, we devour ourselves.
This hunger is the "emptiness" I wrote of near the end of my last column.
Neither pain nor pleasure can do more than distract us from this ache, and nothing in our lives can ease it for more than a time. As a Christian, I suspect it is this hunger that led our first parents to aspire to become like gods -- self sufficient -- by rebellion (Bereishit/Genesis 3:1-6).
It is a hunger for divinity.
We who claim to be Christians must offer this emptiness to God by resisting the urge to fill it with anything less than the divine.
That can be hard.
In heaven, Christians believe, we will be united with God fully and be fulfilled utterly. So much so that sadness will be impossible. Our hunger, so endless, will be satisfied by the infinite one.
Meanwhile, though, we don't experience this. We may love God, but we ache even so.
That is what makes the offering of our emptiness so pleasing to God. It is the yearning of a faithful lover.
"No gift is proper to a Deity; / no fruit is worthy for such power to bless. / If you have nothing, gather back your sigh, / and with your hands held high, your heart held high, / lift up your emptiness!"
— Jessica Powers, aka Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (1905-1988)