“From his neck down a man is worth a couple of dollars a day, from his neck up he is worth anything that his brain can produce.” — Thomas Edison
Our bodies, chemists can tell us, are made of roughly $1 worth of elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. Biologists might tell us about the make-up of our watery cells. Some physicists might focus on the unpredictable nature of our atoms — the vibrational force that holds us all together. So, basically, what we know of the components of life on this planet is that it’s a lot of interconnected … nothing much.
Yet if we use our brains, as Edison suggested, we are capable of creating anything out of the compilation of bits vibrating together in those little packages we all consist of. Simply the merger of tiny sperm and tiny egg creates billions of brains that come up with endless opinions, varied truths, theories, solutions, products and services.
And from those mergers extends a long chain, from a different implantation of seed, to farmer and migrant worker, distributor, trucker, grocery franchise owner, and consumer. Another vast network, largely starting in China, digs up rare elements like europium, neodymium, palladium so that billions can watch TV and make phone calls on the go.
Some of our collective minds also are telling us that the universe consists of much more than what our minds can produce, create, measure, observe, analyze, invent, discover and put on a store shelf. Dark energy/dark matter, for example, is a friendly slap of reminder that centuries of science has thus far only given us a glimpse of what the universe actually consists of.
So where does that leave us? As the United States ushers in the uneasy politics of 2017 — with man-made power struggles over the value of intellect, saviors, inclusion, safety nets, privilege, government — I wonder: Are our actions, our products, our ideas, our disagreements, consequential in the Big Picture?
How Important Are We?
As a writer, I’ve been fortunate to have access to hundreds of talks delivered by a defrocked Pittsburgh minister who arrived in my neighborhood in October 1916 from a Unitarian community in Spokane. Rev. John Dietrich’s intent was to create a Humanist message among the progressive minds of Minneapolis. His archives include correspondence with Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, Sinclair Lewis, Booker T. Washington and Albert Einstein. His controversial message, for 22 years until his retirement, was that there is no salvation to be found in God or in the Bible — that man’s salvation was to be found in man.
The country struggled with two world wars and the Depression during Dietrich’s tenure. He had many opportunities to describe the world in his hour-long addresses. He was both realistic and optimistic that science and reason and technology — and community — would help flawed man find his way toward creating a stronger world.
In the 1920s, Dietrich gave a talk about “Evolution and Progress.” He said that only a decade earlier it was quite right to believe that intellectually and morally we were on the verge of progressing at a global scale. “People were looking forward at least in a theoretical way to the unity of mankind and believed that the world was almost ready to join hands in the realization of human brotherhood, and that the future of mankind would be happy and peaceful and bright. Then came the war with all its tragic events and men seemed to be thrust back into barbarism. The whole world spent nearly five years in a stupendous attempt to destroy almost everything that had been gained.”
He did not believe that “evolution means eternal progress toward some perfect end … As I look back over the past and survey the progress that has been made, I do not see either an omnipotent power or a cosmic principle at work; I see only the determined effort of human beings…”
Interestingly, before his death in 1957, Dietrich started writing a manuscript titled “Thoughts on God.” In it he wrote that his earlier faith in the reason of man was “short-sighted and ineffectual.”
He still did not believe we needed theism — God in all its forms — to be ethical human beings capable and willing to lift each other up. But he did believe there is an all-encompassing spiritual force, “the dynamic of the whole universe, and the very foundation of our existence.” He believed that we had become fragmented as individuals, and needed “meditation and reflection” to have a more intimate connection with “this fundamental spiritual force … into the ethical and human values, which are the very essence of the spirit, and in which the world today is so sadly lacking.”
Dietrich did believe in cosmic significance earlier in his life. Before Carl Sagan, in the 1920s, he said: “We are an inseparable part of the universe. We are not alien children in a strange and foreign land. We are a product, the natural development of its forces and conditions. We were with it when our universe was stardust swinging out in the open spaces. … Out of the damp places of the sea, life began to crawl, up through the single-celled amoeba, it passed from form to form — and we were there. Monsters lived in the slime of swamp, fighting, breeding, dying, and then ceased — and we were there. … We are a part of the great cosmic process from the very beginning.”
But a few decades later, he also had this to say about man: “The placement of man or the state at the heart of the universe results in a paralyzing self-glorification and mass selfishness, and the first signs of it are already frighteningly evident. It is high time to realize that the man-society relationship is not enough, but in order to save our civilization we need to restore the man-universe relationship … whereby man may regain his spiritual inheritance, which he has lost during this materially prosperous scientific and technological age, in which he has developed a dangerous self-sufficiency. … Our country, and in fact the world, has sunk to a new low ethically and spiritually. Opportunism has displaced ethics, violent selfishness has overcome altruism, and a crass materialism has supplanted all spiritual values until our civilization stands on the brink of disaster for want of moral integrity and spiritual fibre.”
My interpretation of Dietrich’s personal evolution in thought about ‘the spirit that moves us’ is that we might, as thinking beings, believe that we are central to the higher purpose of life on this Earth, but we are also smart if we remember that man is only a tiny package of elements in a vast, mysterious universe that doesn’t consider our significance at all.
What do you think?