We are more than just dust specks.
“I’m significant!” screams Calvin beneath the open sky. Not John Calvin; this is Calvin of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. In the next pane Calvin stares into the dark, starry sky. Then he finishes, “. . . screamed the dust speck.” Here is the challenge of understanding human existence.
I showed this cartoon on my last day of teaching at LCC International University in Lithuania. In summarizing the course for students, I decided to drive home the point that their lives are significant; they have meaning.
Earlier in the course, students had responded to the question “Why do we live?” with “I do not know,” “to be happy,” “to be economically successful,” “to help my family,” “to change the world,” ”to help others” and “to serve God.”
How do you answer that question? We all answer it, either consciously or subconsciously. And the answer directs much of what we think and do. Do you think you’re significant?
Secular answers highlight human significance in the face of God or challenge it in the face of science. Humanism sees our significance as saviours of the world. Humans – through education, science, technology, communications or other cultural developments – will solve our problems. Calvin’s tiger, Hobbes, is the namesake of Thomas Hobbes, who championed these views of significant, self-interested individuals rationally entering into “social contract” with others for the good of all.
Wars, news of human evil and natural disasters, failing educational systems, fears of climate changes, disgust with government, economic crisis and much more point to a less optimistic answer. We can arrogantly challenge the problems or just retreat into our own shelters of nihilism. Add to this an evolutionary worldview, studies in human origins and explorations of the vastness of the universe and we become Calvin just yelling in the night.
Some movements in Islam reject “Western” humanism, secularism and nihilism. They call for a return to the fundamentals of their worldview: obedience to an absolute monotheistic God. Human significance is only in obeying Allah and controlling those who disobey. Many in the West wonder how ISIS or Boko Haram can attract fighters. This fight gives the militants a sense of purpose that poverty, persecution and the “Western” perspective have taken from them. They are screaming their significance.
Variations of “Eastern” worldviews believe we create and experience suffering by our focus on this world, ourselves and the physical. Our enlightenment comes from realizing our spiritual nature and connectedness to the spiritual forces in and of the world. We are dust in the wind or one electron in the world’s current.
Calvin, John Calvin, articulated a Christian view of human significance. Our knowledge of who we are is rooted in knowledge of who God is. When we think we are god, or there is no god, or when our view of God is distorted, we distort ourselves and the world.
We are image bearers of God commissioned to represent him in the world. God makes us rulers in his creation, to rule as he rules, graciously and forgivingly, to the blessing and benefits of others. We are agents of God mediating his presence to the whole creation.
The Reformed tradition has often spoken of this as the “cultural mandate,” regrettably. “Mandate” means “commandment.” In Genesis God does not command us. In Genesis 1:28 he blesses us. It is a gift, an empowerment. In Genesis 2:15, it is a purpose statement, “to till and keep” the creation. This is the answer to why we live. This is our “cultural purpose,” to be God’s image bearers, his agents, to develop his creation.
After showing my students Calvin and Hobbes, I added another picture. I had the Creator of the universe call back to Calvin, “YES!” Yes, we are significant because God makes us so. Yes, God empowers us and chooses to work through us. This is so important in our broken world and lives. God still considers us significant.
On the exam, one student wrote, “It is important to understand what the most important things in this World are, to understand why we were created, our purpose. Our thinking was challenged in the essays. This course was not only important because of the new things I learned but also because of inspiration that you gave to us. We are significant, even though we are the dust specks. . . . We are all here to have a great mission in this world and even sometimes [when] we cannot feel that, we are significant.”
God has crowned us with glory and honour (Psalm 8:5).