One of my favorite cartoons is a two-panel piece featuring (on the left panel) a dog looking up in wonder at the little old lady who is scraping table scraps into his bowl. The dog contemplates the face of his mistress in reverential awe thinking, “She feeds me and cares for my every need! She must be a god!”
Then, on the right panel, we see a cat looking at the same old lady with cool regard as she scrapes food into its dish. “She feeds me and cares for my every need,” the cat muses. “I must be a god!”
This captures, in a nutshell, the problem of asserting (as Christianity does) that human beings are the special, chosen recipients of Divine Favor. You can, under the influence of grace or pride, take that in one of two entirely different ways:
You can be filled with gratitude that such a great God has noticed and loved you in all your detailed particularity, despite the fact that you are a wretched sinner.
Or you can decide that you are the center of the universe and turn even the charity of God into an occasion of egoism and pride.
Certainly, we humans are quite capable of taking the second route. Any number of believers in God have used the idea of “election” as an excuse for pride. But the roots of pride lie not in God, but in the choices of the prideful sinner.
Meanwhile, the Christian tradition, with a sort of monotonous savagery, continually bangs into the heads of the disciples of Jesus the first approach. The notion that Jesus became man and suffered the extremes of the Passion because we are just neato is about as foreign to the spirit of the Gospel as things could possibly be. And, yet, not a few atheist critiques of the faith attempt to improbably maintain that the Christian revelation is founded on egoism. The cry goes up that Christians are fantastically egotistical to suppose that we microscopic inhabitants of a grain of sand out on the rim of an undistinguished galaxy among billions of other galaxies should occupy any “special” place in the universe.
This argument, when boiled down, may be (but seldom is) translated thus: “Tall people are more valuable than short ones.” Why? Because when you get rid of the fantastically huge differences in scale between a man and a galaxy, what you see is a naked pagan appeal to mere physical size as somehow indicative of spiritual worth.
This pagan impulse to cringe before mere bigness has other, less laughable, consequences. For it can also be translated as: “Powerful people are more valuable than weak ones,” and that comes much closer to the heart of this essentially pagan ethos. The answer of the Jewish tradition to this lie is the story of David and Goliath. The answer of the Christian tradition is the vision of a God in a stable whose tiny infant arms were too short to reach the great faces of the gigantic cattle looking down at him.
In short, to quote the great Jedi theologian Yoda, “Size matters not.” Nor do such things as earthly power and influence. Appeals to size make no sense when speaking of an omnipresent God for whom the quark and the quasar are equally open books.
Indeed, the whole approach to our significance which is predicated on the notion that God loves us due to some dazzling quality on our part is fundamentally flawed. God did not become man because man earned it. He became man because he is love and he desires to pour that love out on us, despite the fact that we are a species that can (and does) torture him to death in the most savage and vindictive way possible the moment we get our hands on him.
Mark Shea is senior content editor for Catholic Exchange.
He blogs at NCRegister.com.