Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Next Step

We have heard of the epic struggle of life, up from a single organism that struggled to survive. We have heard of the grand battle of this organism and its children to overcome the odds and live and reproduce and change. This great odyssey through the eons has become the narrative of our age, the modern story of our creation.

I often wonder about the story. What would it have been like? There were many great changes throughout the ages. Birds, for example, were one of these great changes from one category of creature to another. Did each of these first pioneers know the implications for the countless creatures that would follow? How long did the capacity to fly exist before the first proto-bird took to the sky? How many of those who could fly did?

It must have been a critical moment in the history of any species at such a point in evolution. Any creature who did not take the leap would die, out-competed and outlived by his courageous fellows who freed themselves from the shackles of gravity. His proud ancestral line of survivors, unbroken from the dawn of life to that day, was finally shattered by the great and cruel rod of selection. Perhaps his memory was not lost in the darkness of history; perhaps our knowledge of this race of creatures was informed by his inability to fly from a flood. If this is the case, we can thank him for teaching us of his failed strategy: stagnancy.

I have pondered what it would be to observe this phenomenon, and sometimes disappointed not to see it dramatically playing out in the animal kingdom. I have often wanted to see such a transition. I would have loved to see the first ambitious step onto dry land, or the first bold avian leap from a branch. It seems that we have reached something of an equilibrium, or at least it feels that way to a creature with a lifespan under a century.

But I’m not so sure that we're at equilibrium. I have a feeling that something is afoot; or rather something has been afoot. Unique amongst our fellow creatures, we are the first to begin to change our environment, rather than be changed by it. We have reached a critical point in intelligence where we have categorically become a different kind of creature: a reasoning one. One cannot study the natural history of art, religion, or morality. These all arise with humans, as if our step in intelligence was the one that crossed some sort of threshold, making us the first creature to enter the palace of reason. Like the early birds, have we finally developed some new capacity?

The twists and turns of evolution are so dramatic. Like the characters of a play, the bacteria, the plants, the fish, the land-creatures all take their places on the stage. In one scene late in the play, we can see the rise of the reptiles in an escalating battle for survival. The claws grow longer, the teeth sharper. Armor builds up on the backs of the great lizards like plating on battleships. Then, when one would predict the plot of ever thickening armor, the king to succeed the great Tyrannosaurus turns out to be the meek mammal. These small and unassuming creatures out-survive their reptilian masters, and then begin an arms-race of their own. Bigger and bigger brained creatures struggle for dominance. Then, humans enter, stage left, and we find ourselves on the stage of natural history. We are the biggest-brained of the big-brained creatures. So what’s next? Will our brains get bigger as reptilian armor got thicker? Or should we expect something unexpected?

It seems that we have already entered into the realm of reason; more brain power is not a dramatic change. And besides, our brains have produced machines which have more computing power than we could evolve in a millennium of millenniums. If we look to history, we should expect the change to be something dramatic, something new. How do we seek something new? And what hints can we look for?

If we were early birds, we could have contrasted ourselves to other creatures. We could have noticed that we were lighter than other creatures. We might have tried jumping and seeing that we could jump higher than other creatures. Then by progressive jumps, we would have learned to fly. So what is unique about humans? How could we jump?

We see the beginnings of our jumping. Though now we are not simply escaping the law of gravity, but the realm of matter. We have seen even the earliest of humans jumping to escape the rigid laws of death and decay through ceremonial burial. We see philosophers suggest the existence of forms and ideas, believing they transcend the material world. We try to read mathematicians who propose immaterial mathematical laws which they believe are foundational to the physical. We read authors and poets who write of places never seen and ideals never known. And we hear prophets who bear witness of a reality which is more real than any material thing. If these poets and prophets are not all mad, then truly we are at a critical point in the history of the cosmos: we have reached a point when we are no longer confined to the cosmos.

These men were those who jumped and glided. None of them ever said he could break out of the physical. But then there came one of us who claimed he could fly; he claimed that in himself, the visible and the invisible met. Moreover, he came with the message that we all could fly, and he showed us how. In so doing, he made sense out of our humanity. As the inexplicable and inconvenient feathers of the early birds finally made sense in flight, so too did this man make sense of humanity’s otherwise incomprehensible yearnings and graspings for invisible things.

Anyone who looked at his life would have believed that he made sense of humanity; he was the ideal human being. Every virtue to which we all aspire was fulfilled in him. The strange conflict between “ought” and “is” was resolved in his life. He was courageous and strong in fighting proud oppressors; he was kind in healing those who were hurting. His life provoked many to jealousy; but even they could say nothing against him. He was humble and did not glorify himself, but was in truth, born a king. He was deft at debate, and passionate in prayer. He loved others to the point of death. And then, to prove that he was no longer bound by death, he resurrected from the dead.

The first bird to spread its wings and fly was the greatest among the birds; it expressed the full essence of the species through flight. But soon, all birds became what they were destined to be: flying creatures. And now we can follow that first man who constructed a bridge between the visible with the invisible we all yearn for.

As eyeless creatures gained the ability to detect physical light, he suggested that the next step for our race is to use our new eyes and detect spiritual light (“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” ). As the first men rose above animal instinct, he teaches that we now must rise above human instinct to divine nature (“He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature” ). As animals developed teeth for eating newer and more nutritious foods, so he calls us to eat a new kind of food altogether (“I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” ). As the first organism transitioned from non-life to biological life, he promises us that by following him we could transition from biological life to spiritual life (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” ). As humans developed socially complex society, repenting of our tribalism, he urges the New Men to rise above complex societies to a heavenly kingdom (“Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” ). This man is calling us to evolve to something more than human. Or rather, he is calling us to express the fullness of our humanity.

Will you not follow this man to the sky? Will you ignore the glimpses your young spiritual eyes have seen when the light is brightest, in the power of the thunderstorm, the grandeur of the mountaintop, or in the passion of a kiss? Will you watch as your fellow creatures reap the rewards of this new kind of existence while you debate within yourself whether wings can work? Will you remain a flightless bird?

Take flight! Take the leap into the air and fly! Or if you’re more hesitant, jump a little first and see how high you get. But for heaven’s sake, at least try! Try to open your spiritual eyes and see what of heaven is visible, or open your mouth to taste spiritual food. See what comforts and joys are to be experienced in this new Kingdom. One of those New Men who had new eyes saw this image of our race: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Let us take the next step. Let us fly into eternity after Jesus Christ!


  1. You rock. An unexpected but beautiful turn.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Nice work Dave, it is quite a trip - very Hegelian, which reminds me, check out Jakob Böhme over break.

    Also, in the nits catagory, paragraph 2. I imagine you mean, "proto" unless of course the bird is being compensated, in which case "pro" is appropriate ;)

  4. "Hegel's writing style is difficult to read; he is described by Bertrand Russell in the History of Western Philosophy as the single most difficult philosopher to understand." - Wikipedia on Hegel

    Thanks! :P

    And the nit has been picked. Much obliged for pointing it out!

    Oh, and before I go too far, I should probably cite CS Lewis as the inspiration for this. Read the chapter "The New Men" in Mere Christianity.

  5. David, your writing here appears to come from a theistic evolution viewpoint on the origin of species? As a Christian, how do you read/explain the book of Genesis? Have you considered the young earth creationist view? A great website that answers many questions about this subject is