Some very unlikely partners have been dancing around in my head this last week, a kind of “odd couple” duet. I’ve been reflecting on these verses from the Sermon on the Mount—which are some of the most radical and resonant words ever spoken. And then, alongside those reflections, intertwined with those reflections, twirling around with these reflections on the dance floor of my mind has been a meditation on stem cells.
I know very little about stem cells; I managed to get through the educational system with no training in biology beyond 7th grade science class. But a recent article in the Boston Globe got me to poking around a bit. As best I can tell, a stem cell is a kind of generic cell that has the potential to become a specific kind of cell in the human body. A stem cell carries encoded genetic information that gives it the capacity to become a specific type of cell: a bone cell or muscle cell or blood cell or soft tissue cell, etc. Stem cells are present in human embryos, as well as in the mature body—in bone marrow, for example. What fascinates me, what fascinates me as a Christian, is the state of sheer potentiality present in the world at the cellular level and the mechanics of how all this works. The state of sheer potentiality present in the world, incarnate in the world. For this potentiality to be realized in things like the Sermon on the Mount is astonishing. The distance from embryonic stem cells to saying things like “turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies” —the distance is astonishing. For these words to be not only said, but remembered and cherished for two thousand years by billions of human beings—each of whom began life in an undifferentiated embryonic state—this is also astonishing.
What is it about these basic biological components of life that reach up and out and into the realm not only of concrete, physical existence, but into the most elevated realms of ethical behavior? Love your enemies—that’s as elevated as it gets. “Be perfect,” Jesus says. Loving enemies sounds like something approaching perfection. But stem cells have actually made their way into this moral stratosphere. Somehow.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of those videos on YouTube of time-lapse photography: the stars and constellations and the Milky Way sweeping across the night sky; a garden going through all the seasons of the year; a thunderstorm driving across the prairie. Time-lapse videos allow us to see processes that unfold slowly at a speed which invites a new appreciation of those processes. Mother Nature’s movements are often too slow and incremental for us to notice.
So, what if we had a time-lapse video of a human being beginning with conception, going through all the increments of growth and development and continuing on through death and to forever, or at least the beginning of forever? Very early on we would see those undifferentiated stem cells—in all their apparent simplicity, in all their glorious potentiality. Then the first year of growth, the second year, third year and so on through the stages of life. At some point this human being develops consciousness, and at some point a conscience. At some point this human being develops a sense of differentiated self, of moral agency and accountability. When and exactly how and why we acquire these higher functions is not clear.
And, as we know, the human being can go in so many different directions. So much can go right; so much can go wrong. We are capable of dazzling achievements. We are capable of the most shocking atrocities. The human being, as a living, growing entity, is subject to influences of all kinds that both form and deform. We are subject to illness and injury and insults and malfunctions of every kind—it goes with the territory of being such complex beings, actually, the most complex beings in the known universe.
However we turn out eventually, we all start out pretty much the same way. Whether rich or poor, intelligent or not; beautiful or plain, successful or unsuccessful, moral or immoral: we all started out in embryonic form consisting of undifferentiated stem cells with DNA we didn’t choose, facing a future not of our choosing. From our beginnings we have been encoded with enormous amounts of genetic information that will guide, shape, and inform who we are. The psalmist says, “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made…” [Psalm 139:12-13] We are still discovering how marvelously. And the fact that we can marvel at all is in itself a marvel!
There’s a kind of radical egalitarianism in the embryonic stage of our existence. And, of course, at that point no one has chosen the genetic determinants already encoded in their growing bodies. No one has chosen the future events that will form and deform them. So much of who we become is the result of influences beyond our control. Yes, at some point most of us become responsible human beings and capable of making decisions. Yet, why do some people seem to have more capacity to make good decisions and some seem more prone to make poor decisions? What, ultimately, determines a person’s apparent “success” in life? I’ll leave that question hanging. But, to paraphrase the Pope, who are we to judge?
“…He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous”. There is a radical egalitarianism in God’s generosity. Perhaps God sees us all at once, something like in the time-lapse video: from conception and embryonic form, through all the stages of formation and de-formation and re-formation, through our death and resurrection. If we could only see each other in this complete way! If we could only see ourselves in this God’s eye view way.
If we saw as God sees, we would love as God loves. God’s love strikes me as profoundly profligate and promiscuous, flung about with reckless generosity, lavished on the worthy and the unworthy, on the good, on the bad and on the seemingly unlovable. A completely lawless, profligate and promiscuous love, yet perfect and complete; completely perfect and perfectly complete.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I prefer Jesus’ words more closely translated: “you will be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” You will be perfect, complete. Future tense, not imperative. We shall be perfect, complete; this is God’s project, God’s plan, God’s work in us. It is not within our power to perfect ourselves. “You will be perfect…”—words of promise, words of prediction.
We’re created with this potentiality of perfection, of completion—it’s in our spiritual DNA, if you like. And God seems to be taking more than an earthly life time to bring us to this completion, this perfection. We have come a long way from the embryonic stem cells we once were; who knows how much further we have to go before God’s work of completion is fully accomplished in us?
Perhaps even now, though, we can begin to see the wonder, the marvel each human being is; perhaps we can begin to imagine the even greater wonder, the even greater marvel each human being will become. For now, we see like that man in the gospel story that was restored to only partial sight: people looked like trees walking [Mark 8:24]. Perhaps that’s where we are; Jesus needs to do a bit more work before we can see as God sees.
Partially sighted as we may be, we may, nevertheless awaken to a sense of wonder in who we are and what we are; what we’ve come from and where we’re going. This sense of wonder may very well be what it takes for the font of love to open in us, the divine love that loves those we think so unlovable. If we awaken to wonder, we may even come to love our enemies. I could sure dance to that.
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