200 years ago, scientists were beginning to understand how to manipulate electricity. In the UK, Michael Faraday – the famous inaugurator of the Christmas Lectures – performed laboratory experiments; in America, the future president Benjamin Franklin developed the habit of flying kites in thunderstorms to see what the lightning would do. It is said that both of them were asked, on occasion, “What use is it?’ Faraday is rumoured to have replied “It’s as much use as a newborn baby!” More pragmatically, in the United States, when a politician asked after the use of this new-fangled electricity, Franklin said: “One day, Sir, you may tax it!”
Like so many good stories, this one is not exactly true, but it has grains of truth in it. The famous quote is actually from Faraday speaking about a newly discovered gas, which these days we call chlorine:
As an answer to those who are in the habit of saying to every new fact, “ What is its use ?” Dr. Franklin says to such, “What is the use of an infant?” The answer of the experimentalist would be, “It appeared to have no use, it was in its infantine and useless state; but having grown up to maturity, witness its powers, and see what endeavours to make it useful have done.”
This story helps us to understand the mind of a scientist. For the last 200 years, the Western world has definitely taken a scientific point of view concerning the world around us. Scientists don’t usually ask about the “purpose” of the things that they study. They may very well ask “How can we use it?” – but take humans out of the picture, and purpose is absent. Even those natural artefacts that seem to have a purpose can be explained in other ways. For example, a dry riverbed might seem to have the “purpose” of bringing water to the sea but equally we can say it is the natural consequence of water flow. When it rains, gravity causes water to find the lowest channel and carves out that channel as it goes along.
Even a crocodile bird, which cleans the teeth of crocodiles without getting eaten, might seem to serve a useful purpose but is just an example of how evolution by natural selection works. Natural systems rub against each other until they find ways of meshing together. It’s in the crocodile’s interest not to harm the bird because it benefits the creature’s dental health. Over generations, crocodiles eventually develop the instinct to leave the birds alone because there’s a mutual benefit there. The DNA blueprints for the two creatures have shaped each other.
We human beings, of course, are wired to look for purpose in the world. If you’re walking through the jungle and you see a vine lying on the ground, it’s a good idea for you to suspect that somebody fashioned it into a trap. Archaeologists, of course, looking at artefacts made by human beings, quite rightly ask for what purpose they were made. But that branch of science is the exception; in physics and chemistry and biology, it’s just not part of the way scientist thinks to ask about the purpose of an atom or an element or a living creature. Rather, the scientist ask: What properties does this have? What rules does it obey? And once we have an understanding, then: What can we do with it?
In today’s reading from Genesis, notice something that it’s easy to skip over. God says the world will be flooded because he is angry with human beings, who have not behaved in the upstanding way God demanded; but it seems God is also angry with plants and the animals and the whole of creation. Now these things cannot act morally! What have they done to incur God’s wrath? The underlying idea here is that the whole of the natural world exists for a very definite purpose, and that purpose as human beings. Without human beings loving and serving God, the whole of nature loses its raison d’être.
If Genesis is not a scientific account of how the world came to be, but is part of God’s word telling us something important, what is the message for us to take away? I think were meant to read that God has a purpose for the world – that God has a purpose for human beings. The old catechism put it very simply. Why did God make me? To love him and serve him and be happy with him in this world and the next. When Benedict XVI became Pope he made a clear statement:
We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. that every human being is loved by God and therefore ‘necessary’.
In yesterday’s Office of Readings, we had the famous passage from St Paul who says your body is not your own; your body belongs to the Lord. This was set to rap, to great effect, by the Franciscan friar Stan Fortuna! Check it out! This song is called The Zipper Zone and the message is clear. We are to use our bodies to serve the Lord!
This is a totally different perspective from our scientific world. Our scientific mindset says there is no intrinsic purpose to the human body, and we can treat our bodies in any way we like. The clear message of God’s Word is that our body is a gift given to us by God, and we are expected to use that gift to achieve God’s holy purposes.
The resources of this world, too, are given to us so that we can help one another. The two great commands are to love God and love our neighbour. Jesus above all taught us how to give of ourselves. If we take a utilitarian view of the world around us, we start asking which human beings are worth helping, especially where resources are limited. If we understand our true purpose then we look at things in a very different way!
I’d like to give the last word to St Thérèse of Lisieux. She was thwarted in her ambition to travel to a far country and become a missionary sister, but she realised that you could still support the missions by prayer. “I’ve discovered my purpose,” she exclaimed. “My purpose is to be in love in the heart of my mother, the church!”