A celebration that reminds us how fragile we are

Why will 2011 be one of our big years? Because for six weeks we will get to watch big men in one of the world’s big contests right here. But how does that make it a big year?

A sport is some mix of skill and strength, hand/foot/eye coordination and athleticism, individuality and cooperation. Sport is a visible expression of human capacity. Peak sport is a peak human activity.

Many of the most watched sports are between teams, evoking our tribal past. Their rule-bound conflict is safer rivalry than war.

In that and in other ways sport exemplifies the human species’ capacity to adapt and evolve. The top sports players innovate, generation by generation (too often with help from innovations by drug companies). It is innovation and evolution that distinguish humans from other animals. Humans are thereby made resilient.

But beneath that resilience is fragility. Fragility is the first message of Christmas: even in the clutter of our post-christian culture Christmas (still, just) celebrates a baby.

A baby is the next generation, the promise of continuity. Christianity is not unique among religions in deifying a baby. A baby manifests and embodies the hope that is a human privilege and need.

But a baby is defenceless and dependent. Around its new life are threats and dangers. The baby at Christmas is an image of the fragility that is as much a part of humans as resilience.

We are reminded of our fragility in the ritual roll-call of split-second endings of lives on roads in our “festive” season.

We were reminded of our fragility in September when a peaceable plain heaved and some of it turned to liquid. Buildings were twisted and broken. We live where two giant tectonic plates meet and grind. Our skinny habitat is the product of volcanoes and earthquakes — is volcanoes and earthquakes. We live on fire. There is no permanence here. We here know the planet is accommodating but also capriciously cruel.

Twenty-nine miners and their families knew that fragility in November. Coal is a precious resource in our carbon-fuelled daily life but in the wrong conditions or if treated unwarily coal kills.

Commanding this capricious planet has been humans’ great defining enterprise. Other animals live with ecosystems as they find them and many die when ecosystems change. Humans constantly adjust the ecosystems and/or adapt to changes. It is how we dominate.

Christian (and post-christian) doctrine says dominance is humans’ special gift: humans, the Bible said, shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth”.

There are two ways to read this.

One is that we rightly exploit nature for our convenience and comfort. That has underpinned the materialist christianity characteristic of the United States. A Baptist “megachurch” minister there, David Platt, wrote in a recent book that church building budgets dwarf charitable budgets and those churches’ worshippers “may be worshipping ourselves” instead of Jesus Christ.

Platt, as quoted by the New York Times’s David Brooks, said that the gospel tells that “God actually delights in exalting our inability.” The fragility message again.

So the second way to read “dominion” is that it has a curatorial injunction: to live with and not just in command of nature. We are part of and depend on well-functioning ecosystems, which we endanger at our peril.

So far humans have got away with imposing the first sort of dominion. But if ecologists are right, over the next 30 or 50 years, perhaps earlier, we may have to learn how to exercise the second sort of dominion. If so, we have a lot of learning to do.

There are human ecosystem-equivalents, too: our complex social arrangements which include large subsystems, our economies.

The past three years global economic turmoil is another reminder of our fragility. Confident certainties crumbled. More shocks may come in 2011. The tectonic plates of international economics are moving and tectonic movements are not smooth.

Our economy has very high debt, in company with the likes of Iceland and Ireland, which went bust. Another Euro area country bailout or shudder in the United States or spike in food or resource prices or water shortages or mistaken reaction to political instabilities in north Asia could put the financial system here under earthquake-like stress.

Fragility again.

But … we know the Christmas baby lived to become a challenger of corrupt authority and author of some excellent precepts for good, exhibited in small lives lived well.

And if we look through time to his death and to the christian message in that death, we find resilience: that no single death dents humans’ energy and inventiveness. Sport at its best exhibits that, as 2011 will remind us.

Last Saturday was a remembrance of fragility. Next Saturday opens another year of opportunity. Christmas is a time to know ourselves — if we wish.