July 19

The Limits of our Exceptionalism

By Marsh Chapel

There are those who believe religions can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, except for Christianity. Other religions are humanity’s search for God, while Christianity is God’s search for humanity. Religions are human endeavors, except for mine. This way of thinking could be called Christian exceptionalism.

If one nation consumes significantly more than most of the rest of the world, and has a foreign policy based on keeping its citizen’s desire to consume sated, and if this nation uses its military to police its foreign policy, this nation would usually be called an empire. If we say that nations that become empires are inevitably oppressive of others, except for my nation because my nation, unlike other nations, is good and well-intentioned, this might be called nationalist exceptionalism.

A Boston University professor named Andrew J. Bachevich has written what I think is one of the most important books of the decade. Bachevich is a retired bird colonel, a student of the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, a long-term opponent of the war in Iraq, the father of a soldier who gave his life in Iraq. His book is a stinging critique of American consumerism, foreign policy and military policy. The book is entitled The Limits of Power. It is subtitled “The End of American Exceptionalism.”

Galtism — the idea that the rich are rich because they are superior to the poor– is an exceptionalist way of thinking. There are lots of examples.

One of the reasons Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was so shocking at the time it was published 150 years ago and continues to be at the center of the cultural wars of our time is that Darwin’s theories challenge and undermine pretty much every expression of exceptionalism.

Darwin discovered in his study of nature a radical egalitarianism. Life has evolved the way it has not because some forms of life were especially ordained or superior but simply because the organisms that are best adapted to their environment tend to produce more offspring while those less well suited tend to diminish.

The phrase “The survival of the fittest” does not mean the survival of those who go to the gym the most. It means the survival of those who happen to fit best within the environment in which they find themselves. It could just as well be called the survival of the luckiest … the survival of those species that find themselves in the time and place that happen to fit them best.

Not divine selection, not moral selection, not even intelligent selection –I’ve known some folk who were exceedingly intelligent and have not tended to produce more offspring (watch an episode of the TV show “The Big Bang” sometime). Not selection by any merit but natural selection.

Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, says: “Darwin’s theory challenged the notions of human exceptionalism and brought to light this idea that humans are a result of natural processes, meaning we are not as ‘special’ as we once thought.”

The new book Darwin’s Sacred Cause argues that a major driving force behind Darwin’s study and research was that he believed nature shows that there is no basis in nature for slavery, prejudice and human suffering. One of the authors James Moore says that Darwin believed nature teaches us that there is “no high or low, better or worse. Things [are] just different.”

What do we think about this, those of us who read poetry and pray and sing hymns and listen to sermons?

Well, clearly we human beings are special. It wasn’t raccoons that built this beautiful chapel, was it? It wasn’t chipmunks who wrote the music we hear the choir sing.

Of course, we are special, just maybe not as special as we once thought. Whatever else we are, we are animals too. We need to eat.

I travelled in Africa some with a bishop I used to work for who had visited Africa many, many times. He used to tell me that when you travel in Africa and someone offers you food you eat it because you can never be sure when you’ll eat again.

I asked him once why he thought a certain African nation kept electing an obviously corrupt president. He said that when you have experienced starvation, you will elect anyone you think will feed you. This is not that different from the “It’s the economy, stupid” election campaigns here in the US, is it?

We do not have to be enslaved by our appetites but we usually get in trouble if we try to deny they exist. I know eating disorders are a complicated thing and I don’t want to trivialize their causes, but the Jungian therapist Marion Woodman, who was anorexic as a young woman, believes that one of the things that food disorders, and their prevalence in our society, symbolizes is a desire not to be bound to the earth, not to be dirty, not to make dirt, not to be human. The prevalence of food disorders symbolizes a desire to be more than human, to be angels, to be gods. She calls it an “addiction to perfection.” Maybe all addictions are.

We don’t have to be enslaved by our appetites but, as my mother used to say, “You’ve got to eat.” I knew an exceptional person years ago who starved himself to death as a protest against homelessness in America. I never want to see such an exceptional thing happen again.

Whatever else we are, we are animals too. And part of it is that we are sexual. We don’t need to be slaves to our sexual drives and feelings but it is generally not very smart to pretend they don’t exist. You know who was very practical and down-to-earth about this? Some of you will be surprised. The Apostle Paul. I’m not kidding.

Apparently for some of his life Paul was celibate, and he writes in one of his letters that he wishes all Christians could be like him in this way so that they could concentrate all their energies on ministry, but then he adds this proviso. However, he says, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (I Cor. 7: 6-7) It is not a good idea to pretend that you are not sexual. It is better to find healthy ways of expressing our sexuality. It seems to me a pretty enlightened way of thinking for the times, admittedly in a guy sort of way. I think if Paul knew what we know today he would agree with Massachusetts and Connecticut and Idaho. It is not a good idea to expect human beings not to be sexual.

Whatever else we are, we are animals. We are sexual. And we are subject to the vicissitudes of earthly existence. We have not figured out how to do away with disease and death yet.

I miss Sue Zable. Sue was an ordained clergyperson and a seminary professor, but she plunged into congregational life like any rank-and-file Christian. Sue even took a turn at chairing our finance committee. You know how rare it is to find a seminary professor who’d be willing to chair a local church finance committee … or capable?

Sue got cancer and too soon died. You know the scripture she quoted to me most often as she was fighting her cancer? She quoted the words of Jesus saying that God “makes [God’s] sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45}

Cancer happens. Disease happens. Death happens. We
can study disease and try to eradicate it and we should, but apparently God or nature does not except us from natural disasters, disease, physical anomalies, congenital disorders, or any of the rest of it. Apparently God or nature does not dole out diseases to those who deserve them or grant good health to those who deserve that. We are not excepted.

A friend sent me this week a photo of somebody’s great-grandmother sitting in front of a birthday cake with three candles on the cake. The candles were in the shapes of the letter 1, 0, 0 and spelled out 100. She was leaning forward toward the cake using the flame of the second candle to light her cigarette. Go figure.

I love listening to your choir on your podcasts but on the treadmill at the gym, I sometimes to listen to a British guitar player and songwriter named Mark Knopler. I like him because his lyrics are often a combination of profundity and fun. He wrote these lyrics:

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug
Sometimes it all comes together, baby
Sometimes you’re a fool in love
Sometimes you’re the Louisville slugger
Sometimes you’re the ball
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re going lose it all

You gotta know happy – you gotta know glad
Because you’re gonna know lonely
And you’re gonna know bad
When you’re rippin’ and a ridin’ and you’re coming on strong
You start slippin’ and a slidin’ and it all goes wrong, because

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug …

One day you got the glory
One day you got none
One day you’re a diamond
And then you’re a stone

Everything can change
In the blink of an eye
So let the good times roll
Before we say goodbye, because

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug …

John Richard Newhause said, before he died, that the mortality rate seems to be holding steady at 100 percent. No exceptions.

Apparently God doesn’t make the sun shine on the good or grant them health and wealth and advanced degrees, nor does God make it rain or send trouble and hardship to only the unrighteous. Apparently God doesn’t make an exception for me or you. So where is God in all this?

Of course, it is too big a question to answer in one sermon. But I think there are a couple of hints in the book of Hebrews as to where God might be in the midst of natural selection and evolution.

I turned to the Book of Hebrews because it asks the question, What is a man? What is a woman? What is a human being? But I found there some hints to the question: where is God?

The Book of Hebrews says (I think this is absolutely delightful): “Now God did not subject the coming world about which we are speaking to angels.” (Hebrews 2:5) Then. Later, talking about Jesus, Hebrews says; “It is clear he did not come to help angels but the descendants of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2: 16-17)

Whatever God is doing in the universe, it is not in the angelic realms of elevated and lofty sentiments and nobility, not in the rarified purity of heavenly places. It is in the world where whatever else we are we are animals and we are sexual, and where we are healthy and full of life sometimes and where we get sick and die other times. No exceptions. That world. This world. The world of windshields and bugs and Louisville sluggers and balls.

Warren Zevon was another song-writer. His lyrics too were often smart and funny. He abused substances severely and then found sobriety and then was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer. He knew he was dying. He agreed to go on the David Letterman show. It was an amazing show. You can watch it on YouTube. You should.

Zevon talked with Letterman openly and with a sense of humor about his impending death. At one point in the interview Letterman asked Zevon, “Is there anything you know from the place you are at now that I might not know?” At the edge of death, is there any knowledge that you can share with me who will be there someday too?

Zevon said, “Not really. The only advise I could give you is: enjoy every sandwich.”

Where is God in the world of natural selection and evolution? I think God is in the sandwich. Isn’t this what we Christian say we believe – that God is in the bread and the wine?

Every four years Methodists elect delegates to national and regional conferences, and they pass the rules of the church and elect bishops. Back in Washington there is a very funny resolution that some people wrote that we will be voting on next year. It says that Methodist clergy shall not campaign to be elected as delegates to General or Jurisdictional conferences neither shall they campaign to be elected as bishops. This is a very funny resolution.

Passing a law that Methodist clergy should not jockey for position and power and prestige within the church is like passing a law that hound dogs should not sniff nor monkeys scratch.

See, I think God is somewhere in the midst of grubby church politics. God is in the midst of the fervent departmental wars in this university. God is in the midst of the wheeling and dealing in the halls of Congress. Whatever God is doing in our world, God isn’t doing it in the realm of the lofty and angelic. God is doing it in the world where we eat and mate and practice politics. God is in the bread and the wine. We ought to taste every bite, laugh at everything that is funny, cry about all the sadness. God is in the sandwich.

The other hint I see in Hebrews is that God is somewhere in the rules to which we are subjected. Not the rules we make but the rules we can’t do anything about … the rules with no exceptions.

God is somewhere in the rule that when the humidity in the air reaches a certain point at a certain temperature, it is going to rain on us whether we are righteous or unrighteous.

God is somewhere in the rule that determines the sun is going to set at 8:16 p.m. tonight in Boston whether we are good or bad the rest of the day today. Test it if you want. Be as good or as bad as you can be today, and the sun will still set at 8:16 p.m. in Boston tonight. Check it out.

No matter whether we are righteous or unrighteous during the night tonight, the sun is going to rise at 5:26 a.m. in Boston tomorrow morning. No exceptions.

God is somewhere within the rules to which we are subjected. The rule that the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent. The rule that none of us gets out of here alive. The rule that a sperm and an egg will meet and seed new life. The rule of survival of the luckiest.

God is somewhere in the rule that we more or less reap what we sow … the rule that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time …. Malcom X’s rule that chickens come home to roost …. Dr. King’s rule that truth crushed top the earth will rise again.

God is in the sandwich and God is somewhere in the rules to which we are subjected.

Eight years before he completed The Origin of the Species 1851, Charles Darwin’s 10-year-old daughter, Annie, the light of his life, died. It was a massive grief. After her death, Darwin concentrated even more on his work. He plunged into it to it almost to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe he was just compensating for his pain.

But something else may have been at work in him. It may be that when our world has fallen apart the rules of the universe can feel to us like everlasting arms.

We find God in the sandwich and somewhere in the rules that we can neither make nor change. No exceptions.

~ The Rev. Dr. Dean Snyder,
Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C.

Leave a Reply