Everyone comes at the question in their own way, with different assumptions and with different motivations for seeking out the knowledge, but eventually almost all of us humans will end up wrestling with the question of meaning in our lives: ‘Why am I here?’; ‘What is my purpose?’; ‘What really matters?’; etc. And when we begin to work through these a logical place to begin is, well, at the beginning – if we were super heroes, these would be called our ‘origin stories’.
In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind this is exactly where Yuval Noah Harari starts, the beginning….. like the very beginning, 13.5 billion years ago. In the span of a few paragraphs of the first first page of his massive tome, Harari goes from 13 billion years to 3.8 billion, to 70,000 years, then 12,000 years and finally 500 years ago.
In our super hero stories, the origin story always gives insight – and, in fact is essential – to the innate qualities and character that make our hero super. So the beginning is, no doubt, important. And what, exactly, does Sapiens tell us about our shared history as humans? This: ‘The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment that gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish’. (Harari, 4)
That is not the origin story of a super hero. In those hero stories, it is through the origin story that we find the thing that makes our hero special, unique, important and it is that unique history that gives the story depth, but also what gives it meaning. So, this declaration of our, shall we say, ‘humble’ beginnings is an interesting and likely unsettling place to start.
So in a sense, this history doesn’t begin with dates or places or even the biology that will become so important, but rather with a metaphysical question: How do we respond to the reality of our insignificance in the world? Or to put it another way, which reality do we want to believe in – the biological one or the ‘imagined’ one.
From a theological perspective, the question takes a slightly different bent – If we are to believe the words of the Bible, then no less than the creator of the universe has called us not just significant, but Beloved. So the question then becomes, why? Why – or maybe what – is it that makes us significant.
If we believe that our significance rests solely in our own uniqueness or our own greatness, then the origin story that Harari tells is a real issue. If our worth, value and importance is about us and is wrapped up in our uniqueness and importance – in and of ourselves – then concepts like evolution and a timeline that begins 13 billion years ago are genuine threats to our self-understanding and our theological worldview.
On the other hand, if you are able to get over the insult of not being ‘special’ on our own and consider just how much more powerful and ‘special’ it is to be chosen and adopted by God because of God’s own love and goodness – not because of some external trait or quality of our own. That is a significance of a whole different sort.
Our understanding of ourselves and our significance or lack there of, in large part is about the story we believe about where that significance originates from. Harari speaks about ‘imagined communities’ (Harari, 405)and part of this title brings with it the implication that there is a element of these communities that isn’t ‘real’. Harari makes this claim based on the fact that not everyone in these communities can actually know each other (Harari, 406).
Setting aside that assertion [because I don’t cede the premise], in my reading of this book, I get the definite sense that Harari would set the ‘imagined’ he speaks of on one side and the definable, measurable, biological elements of life. But this leads me to think of the ‘gorging gene’ that is talked about in the chapter ‘A Day in the life of Adam and Eve’ (46). The biology of our DNA ‘tells’ of a reality that hasn’t’ existed for centuries or longer, as it yet to adapt to the reality that we are no longer roaming the savannas, having to gorge when the opportunity for sustenance presents itself. The biology of our bodies is imagining a reality that no longer exists. So what, then, is ‘real’?
It is often our imaginations – the divine spark of the creative imagination – that creates the reality we later live in. That which we imagine to be real, so often becomes our reality.
Sapiens is a fascinating read, and there is much to be gained from it, but there is a danger to limiting what is real to what we can measure or know. The family of God, the body of Christ, might be classified by Harari as an ‘imagined community’, but it is only in and through our connection to that community and our savior in it that we find significance for ourselves and in this world.