CYM Ecclesiology Lecture – Human Being
The External Constitution of the Human Self
When God created Adam, the crowning glory of his creation, he looked at him, shook his head and declared shamelessly to the whole universe, "that's not good!" That is, it was not good for a man to be alone. This is not merely because we enjoy a bit of company, but because our identity is rooted in our relationships with others, relationships that largely define who we are and how we relate. To be human is to be in relationship, that is to share with others a mutual vulnerability that enables us to see ourselves through the eyes of another. So God created Eve. We are created to live in community, with other people and with God himself. This is why the fall was such a tragedy. Adam's sin resulted in a desire to hide from God, and - in a sense - to hide from Eve. They had separated themselves from God and from one another, so the banishment from God's unmediated presence in the garden of Eden, was simply the outworking of the choice they had made to run away from God! We witness in this little story, a basic picture of what it means to be human, and what it means to be de-humanised. This is perhaps most simply communicated with two simple pictures, which will be called to mind throughout all that follows:
On the one hand, there is the human self, confined within its own limits, its own boundaries, its own securites. Theologically this is best described as self-centredness. One early theologian described human sin as 'man turned in on himself'. That is precisely what we see in figure 1. A picture of self-sufficiency, of no need for others and therefore no need for God. That is, this self-centredness manifests itself in unholy pride towards God. The deafening roar that resounds unmistakably through all the quiet, restrained, sophisticated delicacies of Western politeness, can be heard quite clearly: "We will not have this man to rule over us". (refs) As a driver confined within the air-conditioned cocoon of his respectable car lobs obscene gestures at anything beyond that cocoon which may hamper his progress, so modern man sits behind the steering wheel of his own life, throwing two fingers up at anyone that hampers his enterprise, in the knowledge that he will never have to confront those he has insulted. But throughout scripture, God identifies himself with the stranger, with the outcast, with the marginalised and rejected. In ignoring such people we ignore God himself, in abusing such, we abuse God, just as in reaching out to them, we may find God.
The External Constitution of the Self
This brings us to figure 2, a picture of the open self. Here there is a self whose driving forces are determined by that which comes from beyond the boundaries of the familiar and comfortable, with the result that she cannot help but reach out beyond those boundaries. Theologically, it is God himself who first reaches into this self from beyond. The first move comes at the hands of a holy God, holiness, in biblical terms, referring to that whose origins lie beyond the boundaries of our familiarity. Grace, on the other hand, is what happens when that from beyond our world enters into our lives so as to transform them. The penetration of our world from beyond is the primary move. Our human response to that divine initiative is that of welcome, as we open ourselves to the God from beyond. Paul's instruction is thus to 'make room for God' (ref).
The two figures here outline two ways of living, but cannot readily be used as labels to tag onto individuals or even communities. Although figure two is the truly human way, there remains always an inescapable gravitational pull back into figure one. These two conditions co-exist uniquely in each human life. There is no room for smugness, no pious assumptions that I belong to figure 2, whereas those with whom I disagree are the narrow minded sinners of figure 1. Although one might commit to the lifestyle of figure two, and this book aims to encourage precisely that, it is no once-for-all move that forever frees us from figure 1. ‘He who says he has no sin deceives himself’!
Self deception however, is a prime characteristic of the postmodernism outlined above. As Vance Packard had seen, inhabitants of a consumer culture are programmed to think that they break boundaries (or that there are ‘no boundaries’), that they are open to others, that they are free of self-centredness. By thinking that we can, of our own resources, escape the monstrous gravity of selfism is the invisible cultural delusion of postmodernism. When exposed by an undercover TV reporter, a crooked estate agent recently justified her greed-driven behaviour by declaring, ‘I’m not selfish, I just have to have that BMW’. Very few people believe they are selfish, or closed, or unenlightened. We are indoctrinated with the unquestionable belief that we have freedom of choice, freedom to make what we can of ourselves. That is, that to be human is to break the boundaries that would shape us. In terms of the figures offered above, this makes the primary move for humanity, from the self outwards:
Fig 3: Salvation by Action
This is the belief in self-determination, that we can make ourselves what we are. That we are confined by no limits, that the world is our oyster, that we as individuals or as a society or race, can transcend the limits of the present. In theological terms, this way of life is described as ‘salvation by works’, that is, that by our own great effort we can free ourselves of self-centredness. One need not use the biblical phrase to embody this principle. In worship today, this attitude is symbolised by the projector screen, which eclipses the pulpit or altar, older symbols which emphasised that the congregation is primarily a recipient of grace rather than a shaper of reality. Worship today can have a tendency to project our own images of what counts in worship onto some blank screen, quietly portraying God in our own image.
Whether in its secular or Christianised form, this model of humanity is far from liberated, free, or self-determined. There will always be a larger circle that confines our little efforts. The experience of countless people in our culture is that of waking up to realise that all we have achieved has actually got us nowhere. Be it through grief or disillusionment, shock or powerlessness, the futility of this self-made blue print for human life is frequently recognised by inhabitants of the modern world, fuelling the un-named desire for the dethronement of the sovereignty of the self. So this self-made model is no third alternative. It is simply the self-deluded model that countless adherents to figure 1 imagine themselves to embody, its theological mirror image is equally delusional.
Fig 4: Faith Without Deeds
Moving in the opposite direction, the practice of ‘faith without deeds’ as critiqued by James, also leaves us less than human. Here there is belief in the effusion of otherness into our lives, an outpouring of grace, emphasising our utter dependence upon God. So far so good. But grace is made real for us as our lives are transformed, changing the way we understand ourselves and relate to others and act in the world. If grace is something that simply offers us a free ticket to heaven with no life-changing effect upon who we really are, it is not grace. Or as some would say, it is ‘cheap grace’. Grace hurts, because it forces radical changes in our habits of thinking and relating. Faith without deeds is not faith in a genuine otherness.
So we are left with only the first two figures could be described theologically in a variety of ways: Christian theology claims that true human living begins with a move of grace from beyond ourselves, that enters our lives to transform us. There is no genuine alternative. According to scripture, the human heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. The only dimension of our humanity that is truly without limits, is our unbridled capacity for self-delusion. That is why we have been created to live with others, in community, with other people and other cultures who can both affirm and challenge, criticise and encourage us. In Scripture, God makes himself heard most frequently through those engage us in such ways. But even our readiness to receive God’s word, whether it comes to us via a person, a book, Holy Scripture or the direct action of the Holy Spirit, is given by God in the first place. This basic point enables us to understand and appropriate figures 1 and 2 above, in ways correspond to the entire story of what God is doing in the world as that story is told in the bible.
Sin and Salvation
Figure 1 is the basic picture of human sin. This is not to say that sin is merely being a bit selfish. It is rather the recognition that we are thrown into a world where our ‘natural’ ways of relating assume that the best way for us to be human is to live for ourselves (and by ‘ourselves’ I include close friends and family who are just like us). Such a life has little room for the stranger, the other, the one who threatens our quest for happiness. Unfortunately, it is with such ‘strange’ people that God has made himself at home, so in living in a self-centred way we unwittingly lob two fingers at a holy God.
Salvation, on the other hand, speaks of a God who reaches into our world and into our lives, in order to make us fully human. This is Fig 2. The initiative is divine, our response is what makes us human. But salvation requires a move from beyond ourselves, and beyond our world. The cost of salvation will be explored more fully in later chapters, but at this stage it must be recognised that salvation comes at a cost both to believers and to God. This highlights a second pair of alternatives:
Pride and Humility
Figure 1 helps to clarify one why pride is the prominent sin that is condemned most fully in scripture: pride s the circle of self-sufficiency that has no need of others, and no therefore no need of God. Pride must not be confused with the emotion that human beings rightly feel when they (or someone close to them) have achieved something worthwhile. Pride is rather a defence mechanism against anything that would threaten or unsettle the world we have created around ourselves. It is the very opposite of humility, which is illustrated by Figure 2. humility is not to be mistaken with mere modesty. Especially in polite circles, pride and modesty sit comfortably together. Modesty simply refers to the politeness, sensitivity and care we apply when talking about ourselves, our certainties, our achievements, our convictions. Humility on the other hand, is our capacity to be genuinely transformed by our encounter with that which is genuinely from beyond our familiar. It is our readiness to allow the world we have created around ourselves to be broken down and remade. Humble pie does not taste very nice, but it is a taste acquired by those who are growing in holiness.
Holiness and Fleshiness: To be holy is often described as being ‘separate’! Often associated with moral purity, spotlessness, sinlessness. But in Scripture, holiness refers rather to that which comes to us from beyond the boundaries of our selves and our world. It is that which originates beyond the humdrum of our familiarity, our habits or our ways of living. That is why the word for ‘separateness’ is used. As far as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways (Isaiah). Holiness here can thus be described as the arrow transcending the boundaries of figure 2. Its opposite is 'carnality', that is - human life without reference to God, as shown in Figure 1 This is precisely what Paul spoke of when he referred to 'life according to the flesh'. It is human being whose relationship with a holy God has been severed. Carnality, or ‘fleshliness’ is the comfortable familiarity of life as we know it. Holiness is true life, but not as we know it! It is strange, unfamiliar, and does not have its origins in the world we have made for ourselves.
Death and Resurrection: For modern westerners, death is rather embarrassing! It marks a boundary that can be neither denied nor defied! If humans can achieve anything, death is the ultimate reminder that they cannot. That is why death happens in hospices and hospitals, away from the public eye. It is why the majority of Brits make it to their middle ages without ever witnessing a dead body. Modernity does not want to be confronted by death. Television adverts are full of ‘anti-ageing’ cosmetics, people describe themselves as ‘37 years young’, and carbon freezing - maintaining dead bodies in stasis until technology improves to resurrect them - is a rapidly growing business. Being so protected from the reality of death, the possibility of living a good life is greatly diminished. Death is assumed to be something that happens when life is finished. This is how the modern world has failed to notice the monstrous reach of death, and how it can impose itself upon a life for its entire duration.
This is to say, that death is the absence of living fully as a human being. But in a culture that breads dissatisfaction with our present life, we are predetermined, pre-programmed, pre-ordained to be subject to a lifetime, however long and successful, of hopeless un-fulfilment. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die and then someone else gets all your stuff!’ As the Kaiser Chiefs would tell us, This is the modern way. It is the way of death. Whilst death is the final boundary, and will always be unwelcome. It represents a barrier to humanity, that cannot be crossed from the inside (fig 1), but resurrection is the claim that it can be crossed from beyond (fig. 2). Resurrection is not the reversal of death, but it dis-empowers death, refusing it the final word. The death of Jesus suggested that God’s purposes for the world through his Son had been defeated. The resurrection vindicated God and his Messiah, and declared that there is no barrier that cannot be transgressed by God’s saving purposes. Not only is it the hope of Christian life beyond the grave, but it is also refers to the life-giving, life-saving, world-saving activity of God in the present, through the same Holy Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead (ref). This brings us finally to worship, the place where resurrection becomes a reality in the life of the church.
Worship and Idolatry
It may sound idealistic to claim that resurrection is what happens on a Sunday morning. The hymns may have been played laboriously slowly, the preacher more concerned with the sound of his own voice than that of God’s, and the congregation’s interaction been disabled by politeness. How can it possibly be claimed that such an experience of worship has anything whatsoever to do with resurrection?
Humility is the readiness to encounter holiness. This precisely what happens in Christian worship: we engage with a holy God in such a way that every dimension of our self-hood is exposed to his disturbing, transforming, liberating power. Idolatry on the other hand is the name for worship of that which is familiar, which we have made in our own image.
These brief theological reflections are by no means comprehensive, but they do show that at the heart of Christianity, lies a fundamental necessity to overcome the sovereignty of the human self. Ultimately, that is what figure 1 demonstrates. It is human nature without reference to God, celebrated, affirmed, mass indoctrination of apparently free thinking modern, and what is more, Christians are certainly by no means immune to this. It has been argued above, that postmodernity has failed to overturn the sovereignty of the human self, because it has under-estimated the monstrous, inescapable magnetism of human sin. And yet, Christianity - as outlined briefly here - requires us to overcome the modern problem, and has a unique means of accomplishing this. Figure 2 signifies humble openness to a holy God, who reaches into our lives and our world from beyond it, in order to transform us from within. This transformation happens as we worship a God who is beyond ourselves, who in turn compels us to reach out to the world beyond our own. This is why Christian disciples must seek to escape the sovereignty of the self, i.e., become post-modernist. The only way of doing so is to worship the God who was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (ref). Hence, only Christians can be post-modern, and every Christian should be post-modern.