Dirt to Dust

Do Unto Others

Read in tandem, Genesis 1 and 2 state perhaps the most fundamental polarity of human existence.  Genesis 1 describes God’s creation of humankind in God’s very own “image and likeness.” It is difficult to imagine a more definitive declaration of the dignity and significance of being human. Humans bear God’s image; every human being is like God. Of course, being like also entails being unlike. Likeness is not sameness. As if to answer the question concerning the difference implied in likeness, Genesis 2 recounts God kneeling in the dirt to mold Adam (Hebr. = “humankind”) from the dirt (Hebr. adamah = “earth, ground, red clay”) and to breath into the clay figure the “breath of life.” Human beings are creatures with all the limitations, fortitude, and mortality inherent in that station. Indeed, as God reminds the first human pair later, “You are dust and you will return to dust.”

Recently, I assigned my Old Testament students the task of reflecting on what it means to be a human being in the light of the poles of human existence established in Genesis 1-2. Somewhat to my surprise, almost without exception, my students devoted their essays to discussion of the glorious dignity, responsibility, and possibility promised human beings by virtue of our god-likeness. Most virtually ignored the Genesis 2 reminder of human finitude, and some expressed discomfort with the image of the animated clay figure, arguing that it undermines human dignity as bearers of God’s image.

I grew up in a Christianity still perceptibly under the long shadow of “sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God” theology. In my youth, we sang hymns about what ‘wretched worms’ we were. We celebrated that God extended love and grace to vile, depraved, unworthy beings such as ourselves. In the early phase of my theological education, observations that, in fact, God called all of God’s creation “good,” and that the notion of redemption involves God’s determination not to abandon God’s good creation, explicitly that part of it stamped with God’s image and likeness, came as a liberating recognition. The shift from one imbalance to the other is still imbalance, however.

Like many, I hope, I have become increasingly perplexed and alarmed by the growing incivility evident in contemporary American society – No, that puts it too blandly – by the growing rudeness, crudeness, coarseness, and downright meanness evident in contemporary American society. A presidential candidate brags that he is not a gentleman. (I chose that phraseology on purpose because the fact that it sounds to old-fashioned highlights my point.) Worse, his attitude only replicates the attitudes of many men across our country, an attitude that finds rich soil for replication in the jock and fraternity cultures on our high school and college campuses. Ethan Anthony Couch, after driving drunk on a restricted license and plowing into a group of people, killing four, violates the already lenient terms of parole at an under-age beer pong party and flees to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  His attorneys had argued that he suffered from “affluenza” and should not be sentenced at all, but be given rehabilitation instead. Internet/online shaming , slut culture, sexting, and a host of other digital phenomena represent other examples of the arrogant disregard for the dignity of others, or stated in the converse, a denial of one’s own finitude. Perhaps in reaction to our Puritan cultural heritage, for at least the last half-century, we have emphasized self-esteem, self-assertion, self-definition – in a word: self. Should there be any surprise that a culture of “you’re not the boss of me,” “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me,” “I want what I want when I want it,” “My mind is made up,” “Me first, you take care of yourself the best you can” thinking produces arrogant, rude, uncompassionate egocentrists?

The biblical definition of human nature as a polarity reminds us that, in fact, we are finite, limited. At least two dimensions of this finitude provides an antidote for rampant selfishness.  First, while I may be somehow like God, unlike God, I am not absolutely capable. I am often wrong (and so are you); I have talent in some things, but even in them, I can still develop further, learn more. In fact, one could argue that the supreme expression of human wisdom is a healthy awareness of what one can and cannot do.  Healthy self-esteem reflects both recognitions. Second, my ego meets a firm boundary when it encounters yours. I bear the image of God, but so do you. If I assert my will without regard for that boundary, I violate the dignity and respect due another created in God’s image.

Human existence involves a polarity, but not a dichotomy. (Appropriate) pride and (appropriate) humility are not opposites; they are complements.

I hope that we can remember this truth the next time we drive on the interstate, jockey for a parking place at Walmart™, or post something political on FaceBook™. Please God, may we remember to teach our children how to have dignity and how to behave with it.

“Do unto others” might be a good starting place.