The second chapter of Genesis offers an enduring image for the creation of humanity: “the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
What does it mean for humanity to be created “from the dust of the ground?”
In many ancient Mesopotamian creation stories, human beings were depicted as deriving from some physical part of the gods. Often this was the result of conflict: humans arose from the blood, flesh or tears of gods slain by other gods. Humans created in this fashion were supposed to serve the gods by performing menial work that the gods had tired of doing themselves. The lot of humanity, then, was one of violence and servitude.
In the Israelite creation stories reflected in Genesis 1 and 2, however, humans are made from the ordinary material of creation: “dust.” Humans are made of earth-stuff, not god-stuff.
At first glance, it may seem that this lowers the status of the human creature. We might ask the question raised by Eliphaz in the book of Job:
Can a mortal be more righteous than God?
Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker?
If God places no trust in his servants,
if he charges his angels with error,
how much more those who live in houses of clay,
whose foundations are in the dust, who are crushed more readily than a moth! (Job 4:17-19)
Indeed, our humble origins ought to remind us of the fragility of our lives. As the Psalmist says,
You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.
The elements of which our bodies are made are ordinary and abundant. Science tells us that approximately ninety-three per cent of the mass in a living human body is comprised of elements first formed through nuclear fusion in the hearts of stars. Through almost unimaginably vast and ancient cycles of stellar formation and supernova explosions, this “stardust” of elements has been spread throughout the universe. It is as though God scattered the stars across space and time to seed the universe for life, including your life and mine. And we are thereby inseparably connected to each other, to the air we breathe, to the ground we tread, to all the creatures that fill the skies and crawl upon the earth and teem in the seas, to the depths of all the heavens. We are not transcendent of creation. We are creatures.
Yet we are creatures into which God breathed the “breath of life.” We are stardust and more than stardust. We are not reducible to our constituent chemicals. A “man” or a “woman” is not just a gooey sack of water, carbon and trace elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are not aware of their own existence. These elements cannot reason or pray or love or write poems. Conjunctions of these elements cannot carry any persistent identity across time. They do not exercise will or intentionality or agency. They are not “selves.”
Most of the cells in a human body are in constant flux: aging, dividing, dying, being replaced. The surface layer of human skin is renewed completely about every two weeks. An adult’s skeleton is entirely remade over approximately ten year periods. It may be that only the neurons of the cerebral cortex and a few other types of cells persist throughout the lifetime of a human body. And eventually, it all does return to “dust.”
Yet we think of ourselves as persisting over time, as comprising an “identity,” a “self.” Perhaps the cerebral cortex provides the stable biological platform for identity and selfhood, but something new emerges from the chemical-electrical soup, new patterns of organization, a different level of causation. We can even make choices that reshape ourselves, both physically and psychologically. The very wiring of our brains changes when we make conscious choices. Mind is both shaped by matter and supervenes on matter.
Materialists who wish to collapse all of human identity into brain chemistry overstep the bounds of “science.” A fundamental principle of scientific practice is testability: is it possible to demonstrate empirically whether a proposition is false ? As Saint Augustine observed many centuries ago, the fact that I acknowledge I could be “wrong” about something means that I am a “self” who is capable of making real choices about things that are in fact true or false. “Si fallor, sum” Augustine said – if I can doubt, if I can be wrong, then I must exist. One who is a true materialist “all the way down” cannot test his or her materialism. There is no possibility of “being” right or wrong, indeed no possibility of “being” – there is nothing but chemistry.
Spiritualists who wish to degrade matter in favor of the soul or spirit likewise are not expressing a Christian anthropology. Indeed, one of the first heresies that encountered the early Christian church was Gnosticism. A core belief of Gnosticism was that matter, including the human body, was essentially evil. Salvation for the Gnostics involved the soul’s escape from the prison of embodiment and materiality. The Gnostics treated the body either with disdain – engaging in extreme ascetic practices – or with antinomian abandon – engaging in extreme sexual license. Either way, their practices were rooted in the belief that matter and the body were unimportant. It’s easy to see how this view continually creeps into both our popular culture and our Church cultures.
Christian theology asserts that humans are spiritual creatures, a unity of body and spirit or “soul,” integrated, not reducible downwards to mere matter or upwards to mere spirit. Perhaps there is no better way to bring these themes together than with a Psalm — here is Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 139 in The Message:
God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
I can’t take it all in!
Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute—
you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.
Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.