Exceptionalism

July 3, 2011 Philippians 2:1-8

Early in his presidency, Barack Obama was asked by a British journalist whether he believes in American exceptionalism. His answer pleased and infuriated people across the political spectrum. Our president said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Each year around Independence Day I preach on a topic of national significance, and today's the day. But today I will also share a little about a topic that I confess has me completely baffled. If I had to put it in the form of a question, it would come out something like "What's so special about being special?"
Five years ago I went to a breakfast meeting for local clergy. The program was a DVD called "the Privileged Planet." After watching the video, I read the book and found it fascinating. There is a small number of astronomers, biologists and other scientists who argue that the conditions that exist on our planet, the conditions that make life possible here-things like proximity to a star the size of the Sun-not too far or too close, the presence of the right amount of certain chemical elements, an atmosphere that blocks harmful radiation and pesky meteorites from reaching the earth...some scientists have argued that there are thousands of factors that are present on earth and nowhere else, that argue for the presence of a creator God who put all these factors into the appropriate balance, making life here possible. The odds of all of these factors being present in any one place by chance is simply too small, they believe. Obviously our planet has been created by an intelligent designer. Our planet is privileged, special, unique because God made only our planet this way.
The scientists behind The Privileged Planet disparaged those who advocate The Mediocrity Principle, which says that the earth is an ordinary planet which orbits a fairly small star in a corner of an ordinary galaxy. There are billions of other stars and astronomers are building better and better instruments for observing the universe. In recent years we have found stars that have planets orbiting them.
I've got nothing against being special, but I really, really do not see what is at stake in saying our planet is privileged. Nor do I see what we lose by saying our planet is ordinary.
Three years ago I visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. I kind of expected the place to look like the Branch Davidian compound. What I found was a state-of-the-art museum. I was there on a rainy day in March, so I did not tour the gardens, which are huge. There were a lot of minivans, full-sized vans and buses from churches in the parking lot. Mine was the only Prius I spotted that day. I paid my admission and then paid a little extra to see a presentation by a herpetologist. [Herpetologists are scientists who study snakes and lizards.] This man was in love with Creation, in love with nature. He had a truly Calvinistic sense that God's goodness is revealed to humanity through the beauty of nature. He said that God could have made only one kind of tree, or flower, or bird, but God filled the earth with a huge variety of color and size and shape and sound and smell. Every living thing is a demonstration of God's love of--and delight in--creation. I was stunned to find that I agreed with nearly everything this man said. He closed by asking those in the audience to look at the next sunset they see and to let the colors remind them of God's great love for each of us. It was a simple "take away" that everyone can use, one could even think of this as a spiritual discipline.
The only bit I did not agree with was his statement that new species cannot evolve-they can only be created by a Creator. Species themselves can change and adapt to different environments and circumstances, he believed, Natural Selection was real, but no new species can be the product of evolution. He rejected as impossible that humans descended from other primates. He believed firmly that each species on earth-and they all reflect God's care and goodness-is unique, special, created, exceptional. And that our species, homo sapiens, is the pinnacle of the created order-the one that God loves best.
I have struggled with-and struggled against-the concept of exceptionalism ever since I first watched The Privileged Planet. And I struggle to describe the gulf between Christians like the herpetologist at the Creation Museum and me. I simply do not see what is at stake in saying that we live on an ordinary planet. And I do not see what I lose if I say that my species descends from a different species. In fact I do not see two competing viewpoints here. There is no conflict between science and religion, though the authors of The Privileged Planet and those who run the Creation Museum seem to be taking a side in what they see as a battle between competing worldviews.
My faith is not affected in any way by believing that my planet, my species, or my native country is exceptional. As I understand our Creator, God made all these worlds and plants and animals and species and me. Praise God. We're getting closer to finding other planets that are similar to earth. One day we may find life, or something like life, on a distant planet. To me that will be an occasion to be filled with wonder and awe at the immensity of the universe, how little of it we understand, and how great our Creator is. I cannot imagine being diminished in any way by what science is revealing to us. Is God somehow less worthy of praise if God chose to make life on another planet, or a million other planets?
I see a similar need for exceptionalism among some American citizens. Many of us believe our nation must be the strongest, mightiest, richest, best. I simply do not feel that way. It's fine with me if we win the bronze medal in basketball at the next Olympics. Five years ago I was in Denmark during the World Cup. I was in the hotel lobby watching the United States loss to the Czech Republic. A man from Nigeria saw me watching the game, noted the score and pointed out that my team was losing. I said, "That's all right, we'd be insufferable if we won the World Cup."
"Yes, yes, you're quite right," he said in a proper British accent.
My faith in God tells me that God can love more than one nation, more than one species, more than one planet. I do not believe that God's love is restricted or constrained by categories that humans use to regard the universe.
I talked to my friend David Westerberg about this. David went to seminary with me and now he edits high school biology text books. [Not to drop names or anything, but when the state of Kansas decides not to mention evolution in their high school biology books, it's David who oversees the editing process.] I said, "I don't get what I lose by not being at the top of the evolutionary totem pole!"
David replied, "If we put you in a tank with a shark, you'll find you're not at the top, chum."
I believe there is a danger in believing that one is exceptional. Of course we all need and thrive believing that God loves each of us, just as children need and thrive under the secure love of parents. And children need to move through a developmental stage when they believe they are the center of the universe, that they are excpetional. And even after moving through that stage we all have needs that must be met to live. But these needs can easily become disordered and confused. And the corrective when we are disordered in this case is humility. A simple displacement of oneself at the top of the pyramid with the community one lives in. Now I know that humility itself can be disordered and destructive and unhealthy. Some of us need more humility and many of us need less. What we find in Philippians is the example of Christ, self-emptying, self-sacrificing, not ashamed of humanity or humility, nor exalting humanity and humility.
A healthy dose of humility is what we all need, all people, all nations, to be healthy and to live in harmony together. The ability to accept God's love, without the idea that our acceptance of Divine Acceptance somehow excludes others from that same position. The idea that God's love is wide enough to include me and you.
It is this Divine Acceptance that claims as we gather around the table this morning. Not because we are worthy, but because Christ's invitation is extended to everyone.