something to celebrate

by isaac black

Tonight, Christmas Eve, I drove to my parents’. I took the belt route which rides along the bench and overlooks the Salt Lake valley. The route follows roughly along the shore of where Lake Bonneville used to be, over 17,000 years ago. The valley floor, dry now except for the uber-salty lake farther north, was lit up with glittering amber lights. I imagined a traveler from a distant part of the universe, speeding through light years’ worth of inert matter, clouds of unformed plasma punctuating epochs of absolute void, approaching a little planet with liquid water glowing turquoise. The traveler finds that the shadowed side has little capillaries of light—these cosmic fireflies in a dark corner of the universe have huddled together, generating their own energy. From that perspective it was beautiful.

I drove farther along to where the foothills blocked some of the light pollution from the valley, and I could see the stars behind the craggy silhouette of the Wasatch Range. A few days ago, a meteorological oddity called an inversion would have had the basin filled with smog, making the view impossible. Call it a Christmas miracle.

It’s a beautiful planet, and I don’t think I’m biased just because I’m from here. I grew up in South Carolina, where every surface is covered with greenery—telephone poles older than a couple years are draped in kudzu, and the omnipresent forests are chokingly dense with foliage. Utah, by comparison, struck me as brown and ugly when I first arrived. Now I appreciate the stark beauty of the desert, especially the arid red rock of southern Utah, just as much as I appreciate the misty verdant limestone karsts of southern China. The planet is as packed full of life as it is diverse. There’s even a separate planet’s worth of flora and fauna in the oceans, from the reefs down to the pitch black floor.

I wonder if my hypothetical alien would agree that the planet is characterized by abundance and variety. I wonder if he would covet the resources that we have and be upset at the dominant species for being decadent. Beyond that, if he studied us humans for any significant amount of time, he couldn’t possibly expect to live alongside us and share peacefully. If he had the power, would you expect him to leave us on the self-destructive course we are on, or would you expect it to cross his mind that maybe he and his race would be better stewards of Earth, without us?

The God of Noah in the Old Testament decided once to destroy humanity (almost). The offense in that case was idolatry—humans praying to gods they invented themselves. Gods of shelter, of weather, of the harvest, of good luck. Humans, being animals, desire security, and superstitions ameliorate the eons’ worth of trauma that proved our species’ fitness. But Jehovah had no patience for the sins of the insecure.

Millennia after the flood he took on a body from the dust of the earth. He lived for thirty years as a carpenter, apparently just observing, before he began preaching. When he did preach, and heal the sick, and protect adulterers from the draconian laws of their religion, his was not a message of happiness but sadness. Not a message of security but of sacrifice. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Take no thought for your life. Consider the lillies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Institutional Christianity, like the celebration of Jesus’ birth, has become adulterated with capitalism because institutions, like our fish brains, desire security: take no thought for your life, but take thought for your retirement. Jesus did not teach with caveats.

The God of Noah, overlooking Sheol, saw these patterns, these apostasies. Overlooking the Salt Lake valley, I saw waste and pollution mixed in with the vista. It may be very clear to my alien friend that our short-sighted scramble for our own comfort, our collective failure to plan for the consequence of our actions, will be the undoing of our species. Our tenuous societal fabric will be torn to shreds when the oceans rise another few inches, when gas prices rise another few dollars, when exported corn becomes a little more scarce overseas. Patterns mean security, until the day when they don’t. 

What then?

Our lives are already as short as insects’. The pace of time for us is as fast as our fragile emotions will allow—we see wrinkles appear in familiar faces as if in real time. Why prolong the suffering?

My grandma forgot my name tonight. I had to remind her whose child I am. She will be gone soon, and when that happens I will finish the rest of my life with only memories of her. My uncle, in his sixties, is crippled by anxiety. He moved out on his own only when his father died a decade ago. He has never so much as gone on a date and likely never will. He will also be gone soon. Both thoughts fill me with deep sadness, though of different kinds. What pattern would the God of Noah see in all this suffering? How would he answer it?

Suffering, for all the times it has almost destroyed me, has made me who I am. Take away the sadness, God of Noah, and I have lived a simulation of a life. Suffering is holy. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, not those who retreat from suffering with their bellies full.

Lazarus died, and Jesus wept. The Pharisees accused him of partying too hard. He profaned their religion. He was not a monk. He was present for the florid, tempestuous Russian novel that is human existence. He suffered, and he witnessed suffering, but he must have seen the glimpses of exuberant grace that escaped the God of Noah’s perspective. He must have had an aging grandma too.

Christmas Day, I would explain to the alien visitor, is when we celebrate the birth of a prophet, who some say was the Son of God, who some say was God Himself. He was one of the greatest moral teachers that humanity has ever known, and he fathomed all of our species’ incestuous, fratricidal, lusty depravity. He came not to condemn the world but to save it. If you think we are worthy of destruction, does that say something about us or about you?