We Were Made For Each Other
This is part four in a series looking at the question, what does it mean to be human. First, I explored the question itself and how complicated it is to ask today in our 21st Century, Western context; particularly for the church. Next, I considered an entry point back into the conversation. This week I have been looking at the criteria necessary for engaging in a theological anthropology for the 21st century.
Human persons are born into complex networks of other beings that interact with one another and with specifically human beings in dynamic systems of energy and energy exchange that constitute their proximate contexts. The energy systems into which human persons are born can be conceptualized, analyzed, and causally explained in astonishing detail, at both micro and macro levels, physically, biologically, emotionally, socially, politically, economically, and culturally. - David Kelsey
The Hebrew scriptures paint a beautiful picture of what it means to be human. From their early confessions of a Creator God who weaves the entire cosmos into existence, we can see that this God's desire is for us to be in relationship. Further, to separate one's-self from the rest of creation is fundamentally opposite to God's ordering of things.* We are a part of a whole and to imagine ourselves to be above or removed from that whole is to disrupt the harmony embedded into the universe.
So, our second criteria for a theological anthropology of the 21st century is an awareness that as humans we are dependant on our context.
This of course resists the modern myth that our human progress can somehow free us from our dependance on the world and even from our reliance on one another. This myth has proven false. We are not independent organisms unaffected by our contexts. Instead, we are inextricably bound to the world around us. To engage in anthropology in a postmodern time means taking seriously this context of interrelated connection. We exist in a network of mutually dependant relationships with the rest of the created order and any attempt to define humanity separate from that falls overwhelmingly short.
Being means life, and life means communion. - John Zizioulas
Stanley Grenz, who has written what might be considered essential reading on this topic**, suggests that the image of God is not reflected in us as individuals but rather in the "relationality of persons in community." We are not - and can never be - whole on our own. But we must not assume that any random grouping of people is a full reflection of the imago Dei. Certainly groups of humans, driven by survival instincts, can participate in activities that do not represent God's presence in our world. This is where the first criteria helps us out. God's self-revelation as a divine community of self-giving love tells us something important about the sort of community we are meant to become.
In this mutual giving and receiving… each person gives of himself of herself to others, and each person in a unique way takes up others into himself or herself. This is the process of the mutual internalization of personal characteristics occurring in the Church through the Holy Spirit indwelling Christians. - Miroslav Volf
While I do think that all types of community or relationships have the potential to teach us altruistic behaviour; only one that reflects the 'perichoretic' dynamic of the triune God can truly embody the ongoing self-giving love that can move us towards our intended purpose: becoming a reconciled and reconciling community. Reconciliation is the process of bringing all things back into harmony with one another. Thus, communities that exist for their own benefit at the expense of others or communities that are held together by homogenous self-interest are not truly reflective of the divine image. True community that invites us into becoming whole can only be made when the walls that divide us are torn down.
This is why the New Testament speaks of a new humanity in Jesus Christ in which there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, man nor woman. It's not that these differences disappear in the fullness of our humanity, that's not reconciliation; rather, it's that we no longer let those differences divide us. This is how, for Grenz, the church becomes "a community of salvation." When we practice this sort of reconciliation, we become a witness to the kingdom vision of all things being made new.
Again, my point here is that in order for the church to engage in this question around what it means to be human, we cannot separate humanity into a individualized ideal. There is no archetypal human that gets at the answer.*** Rather, we must understand humanity in its context of relationships with one another and the rest of creation.
* This is something I wrote on elsewhere. Also here more extensively.
** Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self.
*** I know that some well meaning person might object and say that Jesus is the archetypal human being; however, I think that would fail to keep in mind that Jesus is born into, lives, and dies in a particular context. He models for us, not the perfect Christian, but the sort of community we are meant to become.