Are We Just Dust?

During Lent, Christians focus on the fact that we are made of dust. We are made out of mere dust, and someday, we will return again to dust. In science, and especially biology, we deal with the fact that we are dust all the time, or rather that we are big bags of biochemicals.

The question that this causes me to ask is, are we just dust? Consider the point of view of the scientific naturalist, who believes that the only things that are real are those we can measure in a chemical reaction. He would say that human beings are the random result of biochemical processes and natural selection. Our reason for being is simply to propagate our genes. 

The idea that human beings are simply and totally the sum of some very complex chemical reactions is common among scientists. Some would sneer at the superstitious idea that human beings have a soul or some spiritual component.

Many naturalists would say that that idea comes from a primitive, unscientific world view, where processes you don’t understand must be due to ghosts or spirits or God. They would say that science will someday finally and completely describe the chemical reactions that make up human beings, and any idea of a soul will be left out.

Let’s consider the full implications of the world view that says all we are is biochemicals. One is that an idea of “meaning” in life must be an illusion. What we call “great ideas” (like the Constitution of the United States) and “great works of art” (like the Mona Lisa) are really just the result of bunch of neuropeptides being released by the synapses in the white matter compartment of one of these bags of biochemicals.

And what meaning does suffering have? What we call “pain” is really simply an adaptation that increases our possibilities for propagating our gene pool by causing us to avoid damaging stimuli. By having neurochemicals released that cause a response in our brains which we label “unpleasant,” we avoid the situation that produces them.

If this is what pain is, why should I spend my time and energy trying to prevent this release of neurochemicals in other human beings? Naturalists would answer that by helping others I increase my own chance for survival, which I really doubt is true. But why do I feel compelled to help others when I know it won’t benefit me? What do I care about the hunger of the people in Africa?

Another conclusion that we are forced to make is that “morality” is an illusion. I could take some of these biochemicals, mix them up and cause a reaction to occur, perhaps photosynthesis. After I got done watching it for a while, I could pour it down the drain and that would be the end of it. And my question is, what is the difference between stopping the biochemical reaction in this beaker and the biochemical reaction sitting over there? Why should I care any more for the person than I do about the beaker? Was the holocaust really a tragedy of monstrous proportions, or just the ending of a lot of biochemical reactions all at one time?

If science has finally shown that all we are is bags of biochemicals, then I think that we are forced to conclude that the human race has been laboring under a delusion that life has meaning and purpose for thousands of years.

I don’t understand why we don’t toss off all the superstitions we have of meaning and higher purpose in life if we have genuinely concluded that there really is none. Just as people stopped fearing that comets and eclipses were omens of evil when they knew what they really were, why don’t we live according to the ideas that naturalism forces us to conclude? That our efforts toward altruism at our own expense are ignorant and misguided.

Scientific naturalism leads to conclusions that I doubt that anyone is comfortable with if they really think about them. I think there are naturalists who realize that these are the conclusions that they must come to, but they still live their lives as if there was meaning and purpose to it all. Why is that?

I think that deep down in our heart of hearts, people all instinctively know that human suffering really is a tragedy, not just a biochemical response. We know that there must be a meaning and purpose for our existence, and that human lives are precious in a way that science cannot define.

I’d like to look at the Christian response to this idea, and bring in my text for the day. I discovered this text after singing in the Messiah, and there is something about it that really amazes me. Listen closely, and see if you can’t figure out who wrote the text, and who it’s about.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

I think its obvious to anyone who listens to it that the text is talking about the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the source of several songs in the Messiah, including my favorite, “Surely He Hath Borne our Griefs”.

The thing that really astounded me about the text is that it is not in the New Testament! Even though it is obviously talking about Jesus, this is actually Isaiah 53:3-11, which was written by Isaiah about 700 years before his birth.

I don’t know if it will have the same effect on you as it had on me, but to me it answered my question in two ways:

For one, it is remarkable that an ancient Hebrew writer could have such a remarkable and complete grasp on an event that would happen centuries into the future if he was not somehow inspired by a Being that did know the future.

The other insight is more theological. The Bible declares that human beings may be made of dust, but they are far more than that in the eyes of God. Human beings are precious in the eyes of God, so much so that God was willing to take on the form of one of these little beings to try to communicate with them and show them himself. Human suffering is tragic and the evil that humans do is real, so much so that God was willing to suffer with them to show he cares, and to die a humiliating death in order to bring them back to himself.

(Adapted from a talk given at Luther College, my alma mater, when I taught in the biology department there in 1995.)


Photos: Kunj Parekh on Unsplash, Louis Reed on UnsplashLaura Dewilde on Unsplash