Readings: Sirach 3:17-20, 28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Initially, brain science and the so-called “mind-body” problem seem far removed from humility and taking the last place at table. However, much of our struggle with humility is unconsciously associated with this mind-body problem. As you may know, the mind-body problem concerns the difficulty in explaining the brain’s connection to mind, self and consciousness. And whereas some argue in favor of mind, self and consciousness being nothing more than the firing of neurons in the brain, our traditional Christian understanding sees the brain, instead, as an instrument at the service of the mind, the self and the soul.
And yet, notwithstanding this Christian perspective we may still have a tendency to equate–albeit unconsciously–our deepest, truest self primarily with the brain and its capabilities. Brain-related traits such as intelligence, talents and other skills and abilities are all too often primary criteria whereby we assess our own and others’ value and worth. And so someone who tragically suffers severe brain injury is spoken of being little more than a vegetable; while those of very limited mental abilities are often disregarded and considered of little worth or use to society. Similarly, severe instances of dementia and Alzheimer disease are thought to totally rob us of the loved one so afflicted. Of course all of this makes perfect sense if we are nothing more than physical beings–the death of the brain signals our total extinction.
But for us who believe that we are body and spirit, it might be helpful to consider what our resurrection bodies will be like. Given our belief that their very physicality will be radically transformed, it would seem logical that the bodily organs, now necessary for physical existence, will be superfluous. This would seem to be equally true of the human brain and all its capabilities and limitations. Instead, we will finally come into possession of the deepest part of ourselves, our soul, that is just the persons we were created to be–one that is no longer defined by the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the brain and worldly criteria associated with it. And thus, in that heavenly realm, the mentally gifted of this world will have no advantage over the mentally challenged of this world. Saint Paul seems to capture this new reality with his insistence that all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And it is this deepest self, at one with Christ, that transcends and is so much more than our present abilities, talents and gifts that is ultimately, healthily indifferent to either the place of honor or the lowest place at table. For, when we come into full possession of this true self, honor and dignity are no longer sought outside ourselves or bestowed by the esteem, admiration or approval of others. Rather, they are bestowed by the Christ who dwells within our hearts and loves us whether we seated at the head of the table or relegated to the lowest place. Any honor or esteem that is afforded us by others is thus only a recognition of our God-given dignity and not its bestowal.
In the madly competitive world of the Olympic Games there was a refreshing emblematic illustration of this inner freedom that can be ours in Christ. I am thinking of Anna and Lisa Hahner, two identical twins representing Germany at the recent Olympic Games in Rio. They took part in the women’s marathon and although they came in eighty-first and eighty-second, they were pictured crossing the finish line smiling and holding hands.
However, whether its the finish line in a marathon or a place of honor at table, until we get in touch with, and come into possession of, our deepest and truest Christ-given identity, we will never be at peace. For, when we consciously or unconsciously equate greatness and nobility with the brain and not the soul, then even the brilliant mind or the fabulously talented personality always risks being surpassed by a still more brilliant mind and an even more talented competitor. However, when we become one with who we truly are and forever will be in Christ, then we are free to rejoice and glory in the gifts and talents of others, knowing that these are little more than dim reflections of, and emanations from, that incredible beauty and glory that is each human soul, lying like a precious gen in the eternally creative hand of God’s mercy and undying love.