What Are We That You Should Care for Us?
The title of this blog is a paraphrase of Psalm 8. Here it is in context, Ps. 8, 3 – 5:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
Nine of us are just back from a family backpacking trip in the Wallowas. My two sons, their wives, and four children between the ages of 7 and 12. It was a good trip, with an occasional moment when I felt like Moses trying to keep the Israelites on track.
One of the things that always blows me away when up in the high mountains are the starry nights (which I might miss if not for being a man of a certain age and thus getting up in the night!). This week was especially good for the stars as it was a new moon, following last week’s full (“super”) moon. The stars were simply amazing. The Milky Way spanning the heavens as if brushed by a cosmic artist.
The 19th century German theologian, Frederick Schliermacher, argued that the essence of the human religious experience is the sense of absolute dependence, the sense of our finitude before the infinite. One gets that feeling gazing at the starry heavens. Our ancestors had that experience regularly. We hardly ever do. I wonder what difference it would make if we did see the vastness of the heavens nightly?
There was another aspect of our trip that was little less pleasant but also a reminder of our finitude and fragility. It was damn cold at night, pretty close to freezing. It’s true that we can get snow in these mountains in August, but this was early August, high summer. The cold was amplified by being camped in the vortex of high mountains on both sides. This meant the sun left us early in the evening and didn’t find us again until nearly 9:00 in the morning. (At right “the Matterhorn” beneath which we camped, with just the smallest chip of the rising sun catching its rocky face).
Years past we would have been gathered around a campfire to warm ourselves, both morning and evening. But no campfires these days. Too much wildfire danger. Thoughts and hearts go out to the poor people in Hawaii.
So as the evening approached, we sought out slivers of remaining sunlight in the mountain meadow. When morning came, we watched as the sunlight inched down the mountain walls to our west, waiting for it transform the meadow where we shivered and stamped our feet.
That said, this too was a reminder of what we forget, and seldom experience, in our technological world. Our dependence on the sun for light and warmth. This is part of the backpacking experience. If a little trying for a short time, it is still good to reminded of our fragility and finitude.
Though I’m not a big fan of Schliermacher’s theology, I do think that the feeling/ experience of dependence is an important part of our humanity, albeit one that has been nearly banished in our day, by affluence and technology. We labor under the illusion of control and fear nothing more, it sometimes seems, than being “dependent.” But is it really so awful to be dependent, at least at times, and perhaps in certain seasons of life? Moreover, we remain despite our many powers, fragile and finite. But we don’t accept this as part of being human, seeming to consider it as an intrusion or disruption of the way things are supposed to be.
An awareness of our fragile and finite nature can draw us closer to one another, as most disasters seem to prove. Conversely, the reality and illusions of power and independence can isolate us.
Anyhow, getting into the high mountains and lakes with a backpack on offers a lot, not least a chance to re-acquaint ourselves with the stars, the sun and moon, and the feeling, as the Psalmist put it, of “what are we human beings, that, O God, care for us? Humility before the vast mountains or roaring sea is a good thing to experience.