“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us, and the change is painful.” Flannery O’Connor
“Grace is always available to us, only we are not always ready to receive it.” Kabir Helminski, The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path of Transformation
“Grace” found in the wilderness
How did early humans sense the world they inhabited?
I have spent hundreds of nights sleeping in the wilderness. I have bedded down in caves, on mountaintops, on beaches, in the woods, on platforms in swamps, on riverbanks, and on prairie grasslands where the buffalo roam. I have had to narrow down my equipment to essentials I can carry on my back or in my kayak. I have had a few near misses with disaster that left me grateful just to be alive. But more often, I am incredibly moved by the beauty surrounding me — or rather, the beauty that I am immersed in.
In 1999, at 9 AM on a September morning, after hours of climbing, I had reached the summit of the 14,148-foot Mt. Democrat in Colorado. I was alone. I wrote the following about this moment:
“I stood alone, drinking in the vastness of the alpine scene before me. I stood alone and thought there is nothing in my life that challenges me so physically — pushes my endurance and determination. I stood alone, knowing I receive more nourishment for my soul in the out-of-doors than any other place I could stand. I stood alone and felt a joy come up from inside of me. And the words that came out were, ‘Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for my life. Thank you for this wonderful world. This wonderful world.’”
To sum up these thoughts, I was overwhelmed by GRACE.
Did early humans have a similar sense of wonder and gratitude?
I may spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating the early hominids’ transition from lower animals into modern humans or homo sapiens. I even made a two-minute video while kayaking on a lake, pondering whether ancient humans thought the universe was to be feared or grace-filled.
I say “inordinate” because it is what it is. Or rather, we are what we are — thinking beings who walk upright, possess an opposable thumb, know we will die, etc. Why waste intellectual energy on something that happened hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago?
Yet I can’t help imagining our early ancestors had a sense of gratitude. I can imagine they were taken by the beauty of the natural world, not unlike how a beautiful sunset moves us today. I can imagine them being grateful for the bounty of the earth that sustained them, whether it was for the fruits and nuts hanging on trees or the small game near their dwellings.
Did they experience the world as I did on Mt. Democrat? Did they marvel at the gift of a newborn baby? What did they feel when a tree fell to the ground, just missing where they stood? Were they grateful to be alive, thankful they were granted grace?
But, perhaps, early human creative minds didn’t stop at just feeling grateful. Maybe we asked questions. Why was I not killed? How did I receive bounty from the earth? One possibility we came up with was there must be Someone responsible for our good fortune — Someone GREATER than us but sort of like us.
Why are we alive in the first place? How are we surviving so much that could kill us? “God” was our answer.
God or no God, grace abounds
Try this thought experiment: Suspend your traditional religious beliefs for a few moments and contemplate what drove our species to start thinking about God. Without the religious explanation, we might conclude that our ancestors did not believe in God. Heck, at one point, they did not even know they existed in the sense that humans are now self-aware.
Believers will say, “Those early humans were just becoming aware of the God who started it all ‘In the beginning.’” That may well be. But God or no God, grace abounds — then and now.
“Amazing Grace” sung by all
A curious phenomenon in our time is the popularity of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Secular nonbelievers and devout Christians can sing the words and be moved. Written in 1779 by John Newton, a former captain of slave ships who would become an abolitionist, the song speaks of “grace that saved.”
Interestingly, “God” or the “Lord” is not mentioned until the fourth verse. It is grace that saves, as we see in the second verse of the hymn:
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
No wonder the song has such widespread appeal. Grace is universal. Some say that grace comes from God. For others, grace comes from simply being part of this wonderful world. Grace is present either way. My theory, in summary, is that humans started considering the existence of GOD to explain the GRACE of life itself.
Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together, they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.