The great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had just finished his opening lecture in a course on cosmology, the study of the universe, when an agitated student came up to him.
“I’m sorry, professor, but everything you said about the structure of the universe is wrong, dead wrong,” the student said.
The great philosopher patiently asked the young man to explain his own views on the subject.
“Well, the fact is that the entire universe sits on the back of a gigantic turtle,” the student said.
Whitehead was taken aback, but asked, “And what does that turtle stand on?”
Without blinking, the young man said, “Another turtle.”
“And what…” Whitehead began.
But before he could complete his question, his young challenger exploded with frustration.
“I know exactly what you’re going to ask, professor, and the answer is – it’s turtles, all the way down!”
Turtles all the way down. I thought of this story this week as I reflected on today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi.
Paul has been imprisoned for preaching the gospel, and he is writing to the church in Philippi from his jail cell.
He urges those in the church “to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
The church in Philippi is successful, cosmopolitan, ambitious and thriving. The congregation has a special place in Paul’s heart. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he writes to them.
But because these Christians are so successful and ambitious, Paul offers them a warning.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” he says.
And then, in an effort to show the Philippians how to live that way, the great teacher offers his own lesson on cosmology, the nature of the universe.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
“And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
In Paul’s view, the universe is supported on the back of a God who reaches all the way down to the depths of the earth, who empties the divine self and takes on human likeness.
The student in Whitehead’s philosophy class looks at the universe and see turtles all the way down. Paul looks at the universe and sees God all the way down.
The fact that God is not content to stay far away in the heavens, removed from the struggles of daily life on earth has profound implications for how we are to live.
We are to pattern our lives after the life of the God who was willing to come all the way down, who was willing to empty the divine self and take on human likeness.
Paul reminds us that the world’s standards of success are not God’s standards. By worldly standards, success is judged by one’s place in the hierarchy – climbing the ladder of success higher and higher. The more people below us on the ladder, the more successful we are.
But in God’s view of the universe there is no hierarchy. Instead there is a “lowerarchy,” a reaching down, a humbling of one’s self.
The word “humble” has at its root the Latin word humus, which means earth. For God, coming to earth in human form was an act of humbleness.
To be humble, or of the earth, does not mean to be weak or meek or self deprecating. To be humble means having the mind of Christ.
And having the mind of Christ means emptying ourselves of pride, ambition, and the need to always be climbing up the hierarchy. It means to empty ourselves of all that separates us from God, including all we associate with status and prestige.
Having the mind of Christ means to be willing to participate instead in the lowerarchy, in reaching out to be of service to others without regard for our own social status. It means putting others first, encouraging them, giving them a leg up, rejoicing when they succeed.
An episode in what was once one of my favorite TV shows, ER, features a hospital orderly, whose job it is to clean up the emergency room after the doctors’ work is finished. The orderly spends his day mopping up blood and vomit.
“I bet you hate your job,” one of the doctors says to him.
“No, I consider my job a privilege,” he replies.
When the doctor looks skeptical, the orderly continues, “You see, I’m a Christian. And I believe that all people are created in God’s image. And so when I come in here I don’t see blood and vomit. I see the image of God.”
The orderly may not be very high in the hospital’s hierarchy, but he has achieved the mind of Christ in his work.
When we learn, like the orderly, to live with compassion and sympathy, when we learn to reach out to others rather than climbing over them on the ladder to success, we find a paradox.
When Jesus, in the ultimate act of humility, died for us on the cross, he was exalted by God above all others, so that, as Paul says, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bed, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The moment of Jesus’ greatest humility becomes the reason for his greatest exaltation. The last becomes first, the most despised receives the greatest honor. In the depths of the earth is the Lord of the heavens.
Jewish folklore tells the story of the rabbi who disappeared every Sabbath evening “to commune with God in the forest,” his congregation thought. So one Sabbath night they sent one of their members to follow the rabbi and observe the holy encounter.
Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile woman who was extremely ill and crippled into a painful position.
Once there, the rabbi cooked for her, carried her firewood, and swept her floor. When the chores were finished, he returned to his little house next to the synagogue.
Back in the village, the people demanded of the one they sent to follow their leader, “Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought?”
“Oh no,” the man answered after a thoughtful pause. “Our rabbi went much higher than that.”
The one who humbles herself will be exalted. The one who serves will himself be served. That is the strange paradox of the gospel that proclaims that we will find God not only in the heavens, but all the way down.