When Ashley Richmond was nine years old, a relative recognized her affinity for animals and suggested that she become zookeeper. In 2006 Ashley graduated from Michigan State with a degree in zoology. Now she tends the mammals at the Detroit Zoo.
In the past, zoos put animals on display for the entertainment of their human visitors. Today, their purpose is enrichment. The writer Emily Esfahani Smith explains it this way, “Ashley’s role at the zoo … is to do everything in her power to make the lives of animals she oversees … richer, happier, and more exciting.” (The Power of Meaning, pp. 73-76)
Had Ashley served the zoo’s previous purpose, she would have functioned principally as a captor. By devoting herself to the ideal of enrichment, Ashley has become a nurturing caregiver.
It’s tempting to say that what she does makes her who she is. But that is not entirely accurate. Ashley estimates that 80 percent of each day is filled with repetitive, mundane tasks like cleaning out habitats.
And yet, Ashley experiences a profound sense of meaning and personal fulfilment because of the purpose to which all of this activity is devoted. Genuinely caring for animals, loving them with her hands and feet, shapes her sense of self and gives significance to the ordinary, everyday things of her life.
So it’s not what Ashely does that imparts meaning to her life and makes her who she is. It’s why she does it.
And believe it or not, the importance of having a why in our lives brings us to Jesus’ response to his critics. They asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus famously said, “Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Jesus was challenging them, and I think challenging us, to examine the why that really, and I mean really, guides and shapes our lives.
We human beings can retain our dignity in the most mind-numbing job, endure unspeakable misery, and thrive in ghastly circumstances so long as we have a why. But here’s the catch. Not every why is created equal. Some of them don’t deliver on their promise.
Here’s what I mean. We humans are hardwired to want our lives to have counted for something. We want our life as a whole to have infinite and eternal significance. New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens consider such yearnings to be infantile. He dismissed them as coming “from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species.” (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, p.)
Hitchens insisted that we can make meaning for ourselves in “friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others.” (Hitch 22: A Memoir, p)
Derek Thompson pointed out that “the decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children.” And then he rightly points out, “But everybody worships something.” Everybody has a why. The question is whether the why is worthy of betting our life on.
The new atheisms—and the philosopher John Gray identifies seven of them—tend to confine the objects of their worship to what can be achieved or attained or accumulated in the material world that we can see and touch, weigh and measure. As best as I can tell, the objects of their devotion fall into one of three categories. Richard Rohr calls those categories the three P’s: power, possessions, and prestige.
In biblical terms, the three P’s are idols. Lower case “g” gods. Deuteronomy reminds us that they are made of wood and stone. (Deuteronomy 4:28) Finite things that they are, they do not have within them the capacity to satisfy our longings for the infinite and the eternal.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel describes the existential consequences of materialism this way:
“Even if you produce a great work of literature which continues to be read thousands of years from now, eventually the solar system will cool or the universe will wind down and collapse and all trace of your effort will vanish. . . . The problem is that although there are justifications for most things big and small that we do within life, none of these explanations explain the point of your life as a whole. . . . It wouldn’t matter if you had never existed. And after you have gone out of existence, it won’t matter that you did exist.” (What Does It All Mean, p. 96)
Look, I’m not going to try to convince anybody that materialism is false or even that God exists. Sure, there are proofs for God’s existence. Some of them are pretty good. Not a one of them is a slam dunk. Instead, I’m going to remind you what Jesus was getting at with the lesson about the denarius.
The King James version reads, “Render unto God the things that are God’s.” To render is to return what’s already been given to you. Love has already been given to you. Is always already being given to you. Give it away. (Please scroll to my note below about one-month break from blogging and my speaking schedule)
This essay is a reflection on Matthew 22:15-22 from Proper 24, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up October 22, 2023). As usual, I’m posting in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.
I’ll be taking a break from posting new posts until after Thanksgiving. There are two reasons. First, I have a heavy speaking schedule in addition to my regular preaching rounds as bishop. Also, I need extra time to work on my next book (the manuscript should be complete by March). Love you much! Stay well. Below is a partial list of speaking events. Shoot me an email if you’re interested in having me speak at your event.
10/18 Preach to Trustees of Sewanee
10/22 Preach at All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee
11/2-11/5 Lectures and workshops at St. John’s Cathedral, Denver
11/17-18 Book Reading, Keynote Address, Preach at Diocese of Chicago Convention
12/4 Preach to Regents, Sewanee
12/8 “Pastoring in a Secular Age” Webinar with Dr. Andrew Root