The Statement the World Needs Most

The Statement the World Needs Most

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers.  For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade  in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.

The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.

This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.

But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.

From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge.  Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask AlexaShe’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.

But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.

The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them.  Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.

There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.

It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.

This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.

According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.

The Bible says differently.

The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26).  Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral.  Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).

Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23)  The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways.  But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.

That work can only be done by Jesus.

Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender,  – as tools to divide and oppress.

Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.

For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.

And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.

“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”

We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?

 

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On Forgiveness and the Corporate “Family”

I’ve never watched “The Apprentice.” The fact that the star of the show is now the President of the United States hasn’t made me any more inclined to watch it. But I’m familiar with the show’s famous tagline, and I occasionally use it with my daughters, because it reinforces one of our family’s most sacred values, one that is the very heartbeat of the gospel.

Whenever one of my girls has legitimately dropped a logistical or behavioral ball – carelessly broken something, not followed through on a task they owned, said something disrespectful to me – and they’re genuinely remorseful and asking for forgiveness, after granting it, I look them in the eye lovingly and say “You’re fired.” They respond as they should, and do, with a rueful giggle, and maybe roll of the eyes. They know I’m joking. They know, to the depth of their souls, that there is nothing they can ever do that can separate them from my love. At least, that’s what I’m teaching them.

We’re a family. Family doesn’t fire each other. Family forgives.

It also repents, and makes restitution, and builds boundaries, and lays down paths, so that each family member in it grows into the human being God created them to be. But all along the way, it forgives.

Companies in my city are increasingly fond of not just self-identifying as a family, but of setting up structures and perks to persuade current and potential employees that they are one. From three meals a day, exercise facilities and after-hours activities, to onsite medical clinics and daycare, Silicon Valley companies go to extreme lengths to telegraph care for their employees’ needs to enable their optimal contribution and commitment.

Few companies take this concept as far as Google. Ironically, their standout benefits all have to do with employees’ nuclear families.  Parental leave is generous – 18 weeks for moms, 6 weeks for dads. (Do I dare note the inequity in that? Hold that thought.) They even throw in “baby bonding bucks” – a bonus to cover diapers, formula and the plethora of other needs new parenting creates. Should tragedy strike and a Google employee dies, the surviving spouse gets 50% of the Google employee’s salary for 10 years, their children younger than 19 receive $1000 a month each, and all of their stock options vest immediately. Then again, if you’re a woman concerned that your biological clock is ticking too fast while you’re trying to establish your career, Google will help you pay to freeze your eggs to delay family building altogether, indefinitely.

As nice as this all might sound, this week, one Google employee learned a hard lesson about the limits of the Silicon Valley corporate definition of family.

Google has been one of a number of Silicon Valley companies struggling recently under a weight of allegations of varying types of discrimination against women – from unequal pay, to disproportionate representation in leadership, to various hostile work environment behaviors. For the past three years, Google has been working to actively address the imbalances, spending in excess of $250M in recruitment efforts to build a more diverse workforce.

But it’s not working.

Last Friday, one of Google’s own (a “Googler”, to borrow the Google term) wrote a ten-page internal memo to try to do his Googley part to help solve the problem.

In the memo, the engineer (now identified at as James Damore) asserted that part of Google’s challenges with diversity stem from observable disparities in aptitudes and interests between men and women that scientific studies indicate are traceable, in part, to biology. Consequently, he asserts, Google should not be striving for absolute equal representation. They should, though, work to narrow the gender gap by creating policies that both acknowledge and account for generalized gender differences -e.g.  make engineering more people-oriented and collaborative – while continuing to resist tribalism in viewing both men and women as individuals, rather than uniform members of a group. (His most thought-provoking and regrettably overlooked suggestion? Addressing the current inflexibility in the male gender role.)


Damore works hard to make his intentions clear – he observes a problem inside his company, he wants to help solve it, he wants Google to succeed. That feels like a worthy goal for anyone who identifies as a Googler. Notably, he acknowledges that biases and blind spots are universal, which means he himself is likely to possess some, and thus is looking to promote dialog and discussion as a means of collective growth. Nevertheless, he framed his assertions, conclusions, and recommendations in ways that guaranteed the merits of his arguments would be ignored, subsumed as they were in a sea of generalizations and inflammatory phrasing.

In the name of doing something Damore thought was in line with Google’s family values, Damore dropped not just one ball, but a whole bunch of them. The question became how Google was going to respond.

Later that same day, Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance sent out an internal memo stating that Damore’s manifesto “…advanced incorrect assumptions about gender….it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes, or encourages.” By the end of the day, Damore confirmed that he’d been fired.

Yesterday, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai,  sent out yet another memo, in which he asserted that “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” Damore’s manifesto actually concurs with this assertion, and some of its arguments are centered on ways to counteract that issue. Nevertheless, Pichai notes that as a result of the memo, some groups within Google are hurting and feeling judged. Consequently, Pichai states, he’s cutting his own family vacation in Europe short to come back to Google to help continue to steer the conversations.

When the story first broke, it triggered some vivid memories about time I myself sent off an email at work that got me in some temporary hot water (although not fired). The experience left a sufficient impression on me that, years later, when someone who worked for me did the same thing, I intervened on his behalf to mitigate the consequences.

I’ve read that those kind of empathetic impulses are more attributable to women. Perhaps that explains Damore’s recommendaton in his manifesto that Google de-emphasize empathy as a corporate value. And given Google’s still problematically male leadership, it perhaps also explains why they de-emphasized empathy in their treatment of Damore, and just stuck with the facts as they interpreted them.

The cycle of commentary on Google’s response, and the underlying issues that triggered it, don’t show any signs of slowing down. In the meantime,  James Damore is free to spend as much time with his own family as he would like.

One other than Google, that is.

Book Review – “Humble Roots – How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul”

For the last sixteen years, San Jose, California – otherwise known as Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the world – has been my home. I moved here after an introduction via mutual coworker friends at the computer hardware company where I worked turned into marriage. My husband is a third generation Bay Area native who likes to regale me with memories of what San Jose used to look like when he was young. In those distant days, the sun shone through of rows of fruit trees growing in the orchards and farms that were so plentiful the area was known as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight”. Today, the orchards have been largely replaced by high tech office buildings, lined up alongside gridlocked thoroughfares and freeways, the morning sun glinting on recognizable logos like Ebay, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and a thousand startups that aspire to be them. These companies are where my neighbors, my kids’ school friends’ parents, and both my husband and I, all work, designing the hardware, software and Internet infrastructure on which much of the world now runs.

The dominant value that drives Silicon Valley culture is living life without limits. From laptops, mobile phones and apps, to the infrastructure that keeps everything “always on”, Silicon Valley technology companies create and sell the ability to be anywhere, do anything, buy anything, and know everything, all the time. Got a problem? There’s an app for that. Got a question? Just Google it. Need something right away? Amazon can get it to your doorstep by tomorrow (and after their drone service launches, they’ll have delivery time down to 30 minutes).

The more the world buys in to the “anything anytime” way of life technology offers, the more pressure the companies who profit from selling it place on their people to deliver it. Can’t be in meetings at two places at once? Log in to a robot and be there virtually . Are meal breaks cutting into your productivity? Try Soylent. Need to optimize your efficiency? Hack your brain with fasting and “nootropic supplements.” Workforce demands for costly benefits like time off and overtime dragging down profits and production rates? Just replace your people with robots. For all Silicon Valley talks about work/life balance, the reality is that many people in my city teeter continually on the edge of burnout from the relentless pressure.

Christians like me who work in the high tech industry are only just beginning to wrestle with what it looks like to live as faithful followers of Christ in the digital world we are helping to build; all Christians are wrestling with how to live in it. Several years ago, Hannah Anderson offered one answer in a book called “Made For More”. In it, she argued that we will struggle with the various roles and vocations to which God calls us unless they are grounded in our most fundamental identity as human beings made in the image of God. While primarily written for Christian women struggling to separate cultural expectations about womanhood from genuinely biblical ones, “Made For More’s” argument about the centrality of the doctrine of the imago dei to our identity and purpose, directly counters contemporary Silicon Valley dogma that human beings are simply sophisticated iPhone apps to be deployed, consumed, enhanced, then deleted when no longer of use.

In her latest book, “Humble Roots – How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Our Souls”, Anderson extends the conversation about the centrality of “imago dei” by examining one of its most important and transformative implications for everyday life. In her introduction she states, “…looking like God does not mean that we are God. We are made in God’s image, but we are made nonetheless.” (p. 11) Anderson’s assertion is that the key to productive and peaceful Christian living is found, not in fighting our limitations, as the modern titans of technology would insist, but in embracing them, and entrusting ourselves to the One who truly is limitless, not just in power, but in love. Ostensibly a book of lessons in humility gleaned from life in rural Appalachia, the central theme of “Humble Roots” offers a compelling, and profoundly countercultural, vision for what it truly looks like to live as imago dei, in an increasingly imago apparatus world.

The unifying Scripture passage for the book is Matthew 6:25-34, in which Jesus encourages His followers to “consider the lilies” – to look at the natural world and see how it testifies to God’s provision for His children who are made in His image. In “Humble Roots”, Anderson writes a series of meditations on lessons learned living amongst the fields and flowers of rural Appalachia, as the wife of a fulltime pastor who is also a gifted gardener and hobby farmer. Through stories of plowing in winter and sun-ripened tomato harvesting in summer, herbs and local honey, Anderson takes Jesus’ words to heart to look at the natural world and see what God is saying to her, and to us, about the sources of our everyday worries and anxieties, and how to put them to rest.

In the first section of the book, Anderson works to uncovers the root, as it were, of the stress and overwork that plagues so many of us. She locates it in our efforts to pursue productivity and peace on our own terms, and in our own strength. While a “bright red anemone can dance beside a gun’s turret” without a care, we run around in endless circles of business and stress, behaving as though each day’s outcomes is entirely dependent on us, but stymied by the evidence of how little is actually in our control. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 challenge us to acknowledge this reality, instead of fighting it, and to look to Him for the rest all of our work is failing to accomplish. “In chapter 2, “Breaking Ground”, Anderson shows how the weight of the burdens of expectations and effort that we place on ourselves can be compared to the heavy yokes oxen would wear in the agrarian culture of Jesus’ day. When Jesus exhorts his listeners to “take My yoke upon you…for My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, He is not calling us to take on yet one more burden, but to exchange the heavy ones of our own work for the lightness of submission to him. When we set aside the heavy yoke of our confidence in our to live life under our own strength and on our own terms, and submit to the yoke of Jesus, He gives us rest.

As Anderson notes, many Christians approach the pursuit of this needed humble submission the way they approach other aspects of sanctification – as a matter of sheer will. In chapter 3, “Returning to Our Roots”, Anderson shows that the best our self-derived efforts at humility will produce is the nefarious “humblebrag” (pg. 49). In big ways and small, our self-derived efforts to achieve humility through more control, continual self-denial, or a “let it go” mentality, just becomes yet one more burdensome yoke to bear. Just as the vintners tending Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello vineyard only succeeded in growing wine when they grafted vine cuttings from a foreign country onto their rootstock, we need a source of humility that isn’t derived from us, or our efforts. We need Jesus’ humility, the humility that caused Him to set aside His limitless glory and live as a dependent, limited human man on our behalf. “Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us our true identity as people dependent on God for life. And through His life, death, and resurrection, He imparts this humble life to us once again.” (pg. 57) True humility begins when we acknowledge that even our ability to be humble is limited, and we look to Jesus to lay down our efforts, and rest in His.

With this foundation laid, the rest of the book considers how this kind of humility, grounded in equal measures of honest acknowledgement of our limits, and confident faith in God’s provision for them through Christ, “grounds and nourishes our souls”, as the subtitle states. In the second section of the book, Anderson considers the effects this kind of humility can have on ourselves as individuals – on our perception of our bodies, our handling of our emotions, and the relative trust (or distrust) we should have in our own intellect and abilities. In the final section of the book, she looks at how humility can transform the way we move through the world – how we use our gifts and pursue our desires, how we think about suffering (our own as well as what we observe in the world), and how to look at the ultimate symbols of our finitude – sleep and death.

Anderson doesn’t try to cover every possible aspect of life humility can transform, but the areas on which she does focus are ones to which every reader will relate. Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of books dedicated to helping women overcome their body image issues, or find contentment or so forth. I’ve certainly read my share of them. “Humble Roots” exposes why so many of them failed to have the intended effect. Too often, they encourage us to simply pull at the stems and leaves of an issue, while leaving its roots behind, permitting the toxic growth to begin all again. “Humble Roots” shows how to wield humility like a trowel, to dig under the pride that is at the root of so many of the issues that rob us of joy and cause anxiety, and cast those sins aside for good.

For example, on body image she says this:

“Simply learning to ‘love your body’ will not free you from shame because, at times, your body will feel very unlovable. What will free you from shame is…accepting that you are not and were never meant to be divine.”(pg.89)

On pursuing goals and plans she writes,

“It is precisely through the process of learning to plan that we learn to depend on the God who makes our plans happen. Pride, on the other hand, demands to know God’s will before it will act.” (pg.159)

and

“Part of humility means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibility that they will not be fulfilled. But part of humility also means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibiility that they will be fulfilled in ways we cannot imagine…the humble also understand that the possibility of failure is no reason not to work.” (pg. 167)

And on pursuing a godly perspective on our differing gifts and privilege, she notes (with a gentle dig at the premise of a famous best selling book for women on gratitude)

“When we consider our resources, it is not simply enough to count our one thousand gifts. Our one thousand gifts are actually one thousand opportunities: the very means by which God intends to seed His world.”(pg. 149)

With the beautiful prose and thoughtful turns of phrases that are her trademark, “Humble Roots” establishes Anderson as a writer and thinker who communicates theologically deep and culturally subversive ideas in a deceptively simple and beautiful way. As with “Made For More”, supporting quotes and anecdotes from popular works of literature like “Pride and Prejudice” and ”The Fellowship of the Ring”, as well as more scholarly works by Anne Marie Slaughter, Isaac Watts, and others, are sprinkled throughout the book. The stories she tells about her failed efforts to grow pole beans, or her struggles to understand her husband’s expensive enthusiasm for heirloom apples, are refreshingly self-deprecating (as perhaps is appropriate for a book on humility!). And you shouldn’t read the final chapter until you have some Kleenex and a quiet spot to compose yourself after you ugly-cry.

Many examples in the book reference church ministry as a context where the battle of pride vs. humility is constantly waged and frequently lost, which is understandable, given Anderson’s role as pastor’s wife. Consequently, I couldn’t help contemplating the benefits to the church if this book were to makes its way onto the required reading list for people preparing to enter full time ministry. I say “people”, because although Anderson writes to and for women, the insights in this book, as well as her previous one, have universal application. There is a long unchallenged adage that women will gladly read books written by men, but men are reluctant to do the same. Because of the way “Humble Roots” frames humility as a posture of acknowledgement of our boundaries and limits as human beings, I’ve never a read a book with more potential to help men, as well as women, contemplate the ways gender itself is a form of human limitation. A humble willingness to look to, and learn from, the uniqueness of the imago dei through our differences as male and female, would be a beautiful expression of God’s original design in the very first garden He gave His creatures to tend.

A few readers may find some of Anderson’s stories from nature overly lengthy, relative to the spiritual applications she draws from them. And her frequent use of couplets and triplets to emphasize her points may read as somewhat repetitive, at least to pragmatic readers like me, who are most often helped best when an author makes a point once, then moves on. But chapter 7 challenged me to question my impatience. In “Vine Ripened” Anderson compares our preference for fast answers, and neat and tidy solutions to the problems of the Christian life, to a tomato that has been artificially ripened in a greenhouse – red, plump and shiny on the outside, but inside, a “mealy, flavorless mouthful of regret.” The best tomatoes are the ones who have been tended and nourished by months of cycles of sunlight and darkness, and continual pruning and tending. “Humility predisposes us to believe that we always have something to learn.”(pg. 121) In the weeks since I first read “Humble Roots” hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t been brought up short by a new awareness of the pride behind a casual thought or an impatient word, and I’ve been compelled to rehearse what I thought didn’t need repeating.

Therein is the profundity of “Humble Roots”. It calls us to acknowledge our weaknesses, and in heeding its words offers a path to true strength and real rest. A book by a country pastor’s wife from Appalachian hill country offers a better and truer vision for life than a thousand Steve Jobs or Bill Gates ever can. A book that hearkens to Silicon Valley’s own rural past, serves as an invitation to a more beautiful, lasting future, and offers the tools that could build it, if we would but have the humility to accept them, and lay our own useless ones down.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.