Weâ€™re not like the animals.
We know this to be true by the way we speak about the actions of all other living creatures compared to those that we attribute to ourselves. Tune your TV to the nature channel long enough and youâ€™ll soon witness one of Godâ€™s great creatures ripping the life away from another in order to ensure itâ€™s own survival for one more day. We see no moral problem with this, but weâ€™ll lock a man away for simply stealing property from another human beingâ€”regardless of the circumstance. We accept the former as the way nature works, but the latter is somehow something different, something un-natural.
When we compare ourselves to the rest of creation, we recognize special traits that carry with them great responsibility. We have the ability to think broadly about problems, to create and control, to make complex choices, and to imagine possibilities that donâ€™t currently exist.Â These characteristics lead us to feel responsible to care for the planet and everything on itâ€”yet these same qualities that make us exceptional also bring an exceptional burden.
As far as I can tell, our animal friends donâ€™t spend time imagining better lives for themselves or wallowing in self-pity because their hair doesnâ€™t grow as well as the next guy. Iâ€™ve never seen a TLC special for animals who hoard or know of any species that invest in defense technology on the off-chance that they may need to protect their forest from foreign invaders, but we are guilty of all of these things.
You see, the same complex minds that allow us to compose symphonies also allow us to imagine a host of scary possibilities that must be guarded against. We spend our entire lives trapped with these brains that are constantly calculating and comparingâ€”telling us that we need to work harder or do better, feel ashamed or betrayed, mourn our losses, protect our property, and to be suspicious of those who donâ€™t act, think, or live the way we do.
The biblical account of original sin is that the first humans ate from the tree of knowledge and gained the ability to distinguish good from evil. Whether historical fact or merely a metaphor, I think itâ€™s an astute observation of our human conditionâ€”our great gift has also become our greatest curse.
Where I think most of Christianity has gotten the story wrong, however, is that Godâ€™s appropriate punishment was the introduction of death into the human story. A much worse punishment, in my view, would have been to sentence us to living a life of eternity battling our own flesh and blood in a never ending struggle for power and self-satisfaction. But it is the end of life that finally forces the power-hungry to release the position he had been gripping so tightly, the final heartbeat that allows the afflictedâ€”both physically and mentallyâ€”to finally find rest, and it permits our prejudices to disappear into a distant, fading history.
Perhaps the introduction of death into our storyâ€”this great exhale of all humanityâ€”was not, in fact, Godâ€™s first great punishment but, rather, His first great act of grace.