To Be A Bird

It’s a magical thing to travel through the air. As a child, I loved to fly. I remember the first time I boarded an airplane, sat down with my face glued to the window, and watched as we left the land and launched into the sky.

My parents didn’t share my enthusiasm. I always wondered why I was so excited to fly and they weren’t. Now, having travelled with my own young excited children, I get it. My excitement tired them out.

That, and because it had become ordinary. What was once an unthinkable exploration of the unknown was a mere inconvenience for tired parents.

As humans, we want to explore. We seem to have a natural desire to go where we otherwise cannot reach.

John F. Kennedy once suggested our shared love for exploration could unite battling nations, “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

As soon as we find out about a place outside of our reach, we face an almost overwhelming desire to expand our reach even more. George Mallory is attributed to saying the three most famous words in mountaineering in answer to the question, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?”

“Because it’s there.”

In our exploration of the intersection of technology and theology, we have discovered one of the fundamental questions technology forces us to reckon with is the most basic: “What does it mean to be human?” The creation story within the opening pages of the Bible has given us some clues as to the nature of our humanity and how technology changes that.

Armed with an awareness of the adventurer within all of us, we are better prepared to read the description of God’s creation on the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.    — Genesis 1:20-21

The creation account in Genesis is not just a comprehensive account of how everything came to be, but an intentional backstory of our humanity. These words are not intended to explain the existence of fish and fowl, but to give us perspective on God’s creation.

On the second day of creation, God made those places outside of our control: the heavens and the seas. Now on the fifth day, he fills those places with creatures who inhabit those locations. The birds and the fish live in the places inaccessible to us. They go where we can’t. They occupy the unexplored.

Imagine a pre-modern society. People have never seen the world from a perspective higher than a mountain peak or the oceans deeper than they could swim. They have no photographs. Most of them haven’t even travelled outside of their village.

For them, the fish and the birds were the only ones to have knowledge of those places inaccessible to humankind. These were the creatures who had flown and swam to places humans only imagined.

Wouldn’t they close their eyes and imagine the wind on their wings and the waves on their fins? Their fantasies would carry them to the exotic places they couldn’t visit.

The text offers a reminder of those things which prevent us from getting there. The birds are winged and we are not. The great sea creatures are also referred to as the Leviathan. The swarming seas are full of dangers we don’t even understand.

The sea is dangerous. The air is inaccessible.

But still we dreamt and imagined.  

People had been diving long before 20th century inventions. Trained freedivers could sometimes dive to a depth as deep as 100 feet. In the 16th century, the diving bell allowed trapped air to be lowered down with a diver. But as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, an entire industry of technology allowed deeper and deeper investigation into the realm of the fish.

Exploring the air has a similar history. Ancient legends tell of men wearing wings, fashioning feathers, and designing devices to hold them aloft as they jumped from a height. Kites have been used for two and a half millennia. But it was in the 20th century mankind succeeded in sustained travel through the skies.

Today, air travel is the delight of children and the annoyance of parents. But we can hardly imagine our world without it.

Technology has allowed us to go places which used to be out of our reach. Our machines and innovations have fulfilled our desire to explore and opened up the world.

George Mallory didn’t survive his attempt to summit Mt. Everest in 1924. He left a wife and two children behind. But Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay checked off a full Everest climb in 1953. Mankind landed on the moon in 1969. And 1976 brought us the first picture of the surface of Mars. Technology constantly gives us new tools to explore new areas. From the heavens to the seas to the world of nano-particles, and eventually to other dimensions.

But along with our need to climb higher, come stories which warn us about climbing too far. The ancient Greeks spoke of Icarus who flew too close to the sun. During the Industrial Revolution, Mary Shelley wrote of a biological creation gone wrong at the hands of Dr. Frankenstein. In March 2017, a Stanford student inquired in the daily newspaper, “Has Technology Gone Too Far?”

We want to explore. We’re afraid of going too far. To be human is to balance these competing values.

The story of creation helps us to find balance. Neither our need to explore nor the reality of our constraints are evaluated. They are not bad. They are not noble. They simply are. God gave his human creations both of these attributes.

Remember our tension serving God as his image but given the responsibility to rule over creation? When we explore, we approach God in his knowledge. When we face our constraints, we rest in worship of the Creator.

Should we be worried about flying too close to the sun or swimming too deep for our own good? Is there a depth too far? Is there a height too high? Has technology gone too far? If not, will tomorrow be the day the line is crossed?

One solution is to restrain ourselves. To identify places where the danger is too great and the risks too significant. Are there places we simply ought not to go?

The Psalmist makes an interesting observation in his quest to escape the limits of God’s presence. Psalm 139:8 records his awareness: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

There is no height higher than our Creator. There is no depth where his presence does not reach. Could we conclude then, wherever we go and whatever task we set out to accomplish, we will never exhaust the limits of God’s presence?

And because of that, we will never find the end of our own limitations. To be human is to be constrained. That is a gift from God.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t impose legal or ethical restrictions to our efforts. Biological experiments, the exploration of space, and the unknown realms are dangerous. We have a responsibility to proceed carefully and protect ourselves and others in the process.

But we don’t have to worry about going too far. The naive optimism of the technology who imagines an unconstrained life is unrealistic. The desperate fear of the traditionalist who worries about unlocking dangerous mysteries is unfounded.

Wherever we go, God is there. We were made to explore. We were given limitations.

How, then, do we use and create technology which enables us to explore without the useless goal of removing our constraints?  Our limitations are not shackles holding us back. They are an essential part of what it means to be human. Our boundaries give us goals. Realms beyond our reach push us forward. But we will never escape. We will never become God.

When God created the fish and the birds, those early humans realized the limitations of being a land-dweller. They immediately got to work pushing the bounds of our experience. Without the constraints, there would be have been no exploration. Without the exploration, we will never finds the bounds of our constraints.

We are explorers and we are constrained.

Let’s explore and reach and travel to new places in light of our constraints. Let’s be grateful for our limitations as we launch forward to the next task. Technology gives us wings as it reveals the far away stars.

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