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Why am I here? Our struggle for meaning, in the world and church

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[This is an edited version of a sermon delivered July 25, 2010, at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX.]

Let's approach the question "Why am I here?" at two different levels.

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The first is the question of the ages, which we all have asked at some point: Why is any one of us here? Why are we humans here, with this vexing consciousness and frustrating capacity for self-reflection? Are we the product of some larger plan beyond our understanding? Do humans have a purpose? Are we special?

The answer to that is easy: No. We are not special. We are an organism like all others, the product of an evolutionary process in a very big universe in which we are, as individuals, insignificant. But don't fret about that; we are also insignificant as a species, and the collection of entities on Earth that we call "life" is insignificant, as is the planetary ecosystem in which we live and our solar system and our galaxy. We are, in the big picture, insignificant beings floating in insignificance in a universe that is vast beyond human comprehension.

If anyone is still wrestling with that one, still searching for some essential meaning to our existence, I have some simple advice: Get over it, and start pulling your weight in the meaning-making enterprise. If there's meaning in any of this, we create it ourselves, and we need all hands on deck for that one.

The second, and more important, question: Why am I here, at St. Andrew's? That's a question all of us have asked at some point, and I suspect most of us ponder it regularly. Why are we members of a church, specifically members of this particular church, with its -- how shall we say politely -- tendency toward heresy and unwillingness to bend to the will of God as understood by John Calvin and his descendants in the Mission Presbytery.

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In a culture in which Christianity typically is associated with supernatural claims (understanding "God" as an actual force, entity, or being that controls the world, and accepting the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event), why do those of us who reject those claims continue to identify as Christian? When the Christian world sometimes seems split about evenly between intolerant fundamentalists and ineffectual liberals, why should we struggle for a Christianity that is truly radical in theology, ethics, and politics, in principle and in practice?

In the five years I've been hanging out here, I have heard a variety answers to that question that mirror my own experience: An affection for the stories in the Christian tradition, a desire for a sense of community, an appreciation of the lively intellectual atmosphere, the sense of fellowship. And, of course, the strangely seductive nature of Mr. Monkey and the gang [the characters in the weekly St. Andrew's puppet show, which is nominally for the children but a favorite of all].

All of those are part of why I am here, but perhaps the central reason I keep coming back to St. Andrew's at this particular moment in history is the anguish I feel for the world.

I am not speaking about my anguish over things that have happened to me or to those I love in this world. Everyone deals with pain and suffering in one's individual life, and the distress that comes with the inescapable disappointment, disease, and death in life is hard enough. I've had my share, as we all have, and those struggles alone are reason to seek out the comfort of church.

But in this context I am speaking of anguish about and for the world, in both concrete and abstract terms. It's the concrete anguish we feel every day when we open the newspaper for the update on the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf. It's that anguish that comes with hearing the news of the latest drone attack on a village in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or a reading a report on the most recent study of species extinction and reduction in biodiversity. And it is the abstract anguish we feel when we think about the world that coming generations will inherit from us, because of us -- because of what we have done and what we have not done.

You may have other words to describe these feelings. A friend of mine speaks of waking every morning into a state of profound grief. Others have told me they experience it as despair. For me, anguish captures the emotion associated with recognizing that we humans have fallen out of right relation with Creation, and therefore inevitably out of right relation with each other. We humans, because we did not attend carefully enough to the way meaning has been made in the modern era, have come to a point where we can see the contours of the end of our place in that Creation. That recognition is, for me, a source an intense anguish that has become not a source of occasional sadness or depression but simply a part of who I am.

The need to come to terms with this anguish was reinforced for me recently when I started reading Bill McKibben's new book, in which he suggests that the changes humans have brought are so extreme that we no longer live on Earth but on Eaarth. The planet is melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways so dramatic that the world, while still recognizable to us, is fundamentally different and deserves a different name, hence the title, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (

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This kind of discussion is often dismissed as "apocalyptic," as if reasonable concerns about the multiple crises we face -- political and economic, cultural and ecological -- can be waved away by a suggestion that anyone who raises them is hysterical. Rather than cope with the evidence, many people want to deal with it through denial. And to rationalize their denial, they dismiss anyone else as a Revelation-quoting, rapture-anticipating nut. Some of you may think I'm a bit crazy, perhaps not without justification. But Bill McKibben, the person who 20 years ago warned us about global warming in the first major book on the subject, is clearly not a nut. He's a smart guy, and he's worried.

Perhaps we should remember that our word "apocalypse" is from the Greek "apokalypsis," which means an uncovering or lifting of the veil. We might think of this as an apocalyptic moment, one in which scientific knowledge and our personal experiences allow us to lift the veil on the unsustainability of the systems in which we live. Whatever our view of "The Apocalypse of John" -- also known as Revelation, the last and perhaps most cinematic of the books of the New Testament -- we can no longer afford to let reality be veiled.

Now, just for the record, let me be clear: I think that people who await the rapture are misguided. But I have no doubt that part of what motivates that belief is the same recognition I am speaking of -- a growing awareness that we have unleashed forces in this world that are not easily tamed, and that perhaps we are past a point of no return. To believe that the anointed are going to be lifted up to heaven in the rapture is a bit crazy, but to recognize the unfolding collapse of all the fundamental systems that structure our lives is not crazy at all. It is rational, sensible, and sane.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)

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