A few years ago, our Christmas holidays were spent enjoying the BBC’s wildly popular nature series, Planet Earth. These films are quite simply a magnificent window into life on our planet. They are spectacularly shot, well narrated, and offer some truly rare glimpses into the lives of animals and their environments.
One thing that strikes me, however, whenever I watch Planet Earth is the limited nature of life on earth for non-human species. Despite the overwhelming beauty and marvelous abilities of, say, the snow leopard, the wild bactrian camel, or the hammerhead shark, their entire lives seem to be comprised of a struggle to accomplish two tasks: securing food and mating.
These creatures’ entire existence seems to be dictated to them in advance. There are no “new” options open to, for example, the Walia ibex whose lives consist of struggling for food in the African mountains, avoiding predators, and mating. The beauty of the wildlife portrayed in Planet Earth was sometimes, at least for me, tempered by the harsh and unforgiving nature of the lives of so many of these creatures.
Perhaps bare survival is enough for non-human species. It seems doubtful that too many of these animals spend their wandering days ruminating upon the limited options available to them, or lamenting the biological “determinedness” of their lives.
On one level, of course, our lives are not much different from the animals seen in Planet Earth. Our days are spent securing the resources necessary for survival, and we, too, have an instinct for passing our genes on to the next generation. Just like the animals, our bodies will wear down and, eventually, cease functioning. In many ways we are no different from the wonderful variety of species we share this planet with.
But we are also gloriously different. We have the ability to introduce novelty to the cosmos—to create, to imagine and work toward better futures for ourselves and those who will follow us. Our decisions and actions, individually and collectively, can make a qualitative difference in and for this planet. The New Year’s resolution may be among the most hopeless and poorly grounded of gestures, but the fact remains that we can make changes; we can decide to live better, more human and humane lives. We can do our part to improve the quality of our relationships, we can become more responsible stewards of the time and the gifts that God has given us, we can venture out and take risks, explore previously untried opportunities.
In all of these endeavors failure is, of course, a real possibility but this does not detract from the uniquely human potential for newness. Human beings, like no other creatures on the planet, have a unique God-given ability to freely decide to contribute (or not) to the flourishing of all that God has made.
And this ability, Christians believe, can be even expanded when we come to see Jesus Christ, God Incarnate who, in the ultimate expression of new possibilities, entered the human condition, began its transformation, and promises to continue to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). From a Christian perspective, “Happy New Year” can and ought to be more than a hollow wish for a vaguely benign next 365 days; it can be a profound expression of hope and trust in the God who creates, recreates, and allows those who bear his image to participate in the newness.