This hymn knocks me out.
Frequent readers know I am a theist, with a sense of the Divine that is creator and creating. And what a creation we are! How wondrous is the human mind and its infinite capacity! That we are able to learn and explore and think new things, that we are adaptive and adaptable, that we can imagine not only all manner of things beyond ourselves – that is wondrous indeed.
I have these moments every now and then when I am taken completely aback by something a human has created or thought. Sometimes it’s amazement at the spectacle of skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue. Sometimes it’s awe as I video-chat on my phone – my phone! – with a friend in Australia. Sometimes it’s realizing that an operation that once caused 8-inch scars and weeks in the hospital is now an outpatient procedure with a one-inch incision.
I recently listened to a podcast about Charles Darwin, and it got me thinking: Darwin was definitely a man of his age – like many upper class Victorians of the time, he was interested in art, nature, and science. But in 1859, Darwin made a rather simple observation that has absolutely changed how we perceive the world. That observation, of course, is evolution by natural selection. What struck me, however, is not the awesomeness of the theory that has since been proved as fact by biology, anthropology, paleontology, and other sciences. No, it is the fact that the human brain is so amazing that it can incorporate positively new ideas and actually adapt to new technologies.
Our minds are so adaptive that how we learn, how we use new tools, how we process even more and more information is evidence of a mind that is constantly seeking to extend itself, to grab on to new tools it has never experienced before and merge with them. It is stunning when you think that we constantly incorporate life-shaping ideas such as evolution and heliocentrism… we take space travel as fact, not fantasy… we have spent centuries developing cars and combines and phones and lasers … we construct buildings that scrape the sky … we come up with ingenious ways to adapt to our changing climate… we know thousands more words and absorb more information in a year than we did in a lifetime just 100 years ago… and yet we are still human, in human communities, in human relationships, propagating the species and adapting to the world.
We really are something – and the activist and radical political lyricist Malvina Reynolds captures it perfectly:
O what a piece of work are we,
how marvelously wrought;
the quick contrivance of the hand,
the wonder of our thought,
the wonder of our thought.
Why need to look for miracles
outside of nature’s law?
Humanity we wonder at
with every breath we draw,
with every breath we draw!
But give us room to move and grow,
but give our spirit play,
and we can make a world of light
out of the common clay,
out of the common clay.
I’ve been waiting for this one to come around. I mean, it’s the pinnacle of humanist hymn, and it’s my favorite of these hymns. And the dance that is our tune, Dove of Peace (one of the Southern Harmony tunes) is a perfect match. This is a celebration of the best that humanity is and can be.
And yes, of course, human minds have created a lot of terrible things. That hell is on earth is of absolutely no question. Human minds have created hate, and oppression, and violence, and all the things that make life untenable.
Which is all the more reason to celebrate the goodness of humanity as well. If we didn’t believe in our inherent goodness, our inherent potential to do better, be better, help one another, learn and do and teach and discover more and more, then what is life for?
And so today, and every time we sing this hymn, it’s worth pausing to remember that we are amazing creatures, marvelously wrought.
This made me laugh because I associate the remark “what a piece of work!” as a commentary on the outrageous (and not necessarily in a good way). You opened up my mind with your enthusiasm for this phrase and the sense of awe it engenders (definitely in a good way).
[…] about the joy in discovery, the awe and wonder of science, calling in Malvina Reynolds’ O What a Piece of Work Are We, waxing poetic about religious humanism, thinking about when I could preach this and use this as my […]