From the Psalms:
What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 8:5 (BCP Version) – May 9, 2013.)
It’s sort of the basic existential question, isn’t it? I mean it strikes me as equivalent to asking such questions as “What is the meaning of life? Who am I? What is my purpose? Is there a god, and, if so, what is God’s nature?” These are the questions that, in my life, occupy the “wee hours,” the dark times. I never seem to ask these questions when it’s bright and sunny, when it feels like “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” It’s when things aren’t right that these questions arise.
I’ve noticed that my “atheist” and “agnostic” friends — I put those terms in scare quotes because I’m never sure that those who use them mean the same thing by them that I do — whenever I hear them use those words I remember that line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Anyway . . . I’ve noticed that they actually use this same question to argue against the existence of God. They don’t actually quote the Psalm, but they make the assertion that it is ridiculous to think that the creator of all that is should take any interest in humankind at all. Although they call themselves “humanists” — by which I assume they mean that humanity is the pinnacle of their belief system — by answering the Psalmists question negatively, they actually denigrate human beings. Their reasoning must lead to the conclusion that, assuming there might be a God, humankind is nothing in which that God would be the least bit interested; in a word, worthless. Mere dust.
Obviously, I reject that notion. Rather, I like Shakespeare’s answer to the Psalmist query, as expressed by Hamlet, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.” Human beings are, as Hamlet added, the “quintessence of dust” — the fifth, or purest, extract from the dust of which all things are compounded.
Of course, Hamlet in his melancholy rejected is own description of humanity. “Man delights me not,” he declared. There is much to criticize in our species. We have been terrible stewards of creation. We treat each other badly. We make incredibly stupid decisions and terrible, terrible mistakes. And, yet, God is mindful of us; God does seek us out.
Us . . . the quintessence of dust. Think about just how wonderful that is. Especially in the “wee hours”, the dark times, when things aren’t quite right.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.