Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thoughts on Human Being and Being Human

A written word is the choicest of relics…it is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech (Thoreau)

Long before the time of Christ, the fathers and sons of Israel began piecing together narratives describing their relationships to each other and to their God. Artfully, strategically, they wove together stories and songs trying to capture the depth of their tradition. Stories of human experience passed from mouth to ear for generations before the written word cemented their place in the annals of recorded history.

And so we read today; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).

This experience--what it means to be human—has not significantly changed since the beginning of time. Our story is remarkably similar to that of Adam and Eve, yet we are no closer to answering the basic questions of human identity than they. We continue to question our identity for ourselves, before others, and before our God.

In short, we continue to seek the meaning of life that has eluded so many for so long. I am interested in demonstrating how we hold together the finitude of life as we know it with the infinite character of God—whom we are modeled after.

From the outset of created humanity, so the story goes, we were meant to live in relation to both God and other people. We are complex individuals intended for community, for “The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.””[1] We were never meant for isolated existence apart from our creator or the rest of creation. “Such a model of unfettered freedom is an unreachable mirage.”[2]

Therefore, one of the most poignant metaphors we can use when talking about God is that of a serious relationship such as marriage. Such a metaphor is useful because we were intended for relationship from the beginning! I have long held to the belief that what is true of one relationship might be considered true for most relationships. While this view may or may not hold water across the broad spectrum of humanity, I have found it helpful to think in this way on numerous occasions when attempting to understand or describe a specific relationship in which I am involved.

“True knowledge of humanity cannot be separated from true knowledge of God.”[1]

The church today could benefit from viewing the decision to follow Christ with as much weight as the decision of young people to marry. If I had been encouraged to consider as much my decision to become a Christian as I was my decision to get married, I would have given it much more serious consideration before taking the plunge.

Until our Christianity is as real and as life-altering as marriage (and I assume childbirth), we are largely missing the point in our congregations. Stagg describes what I am trying to say as dealing with salvation as both gift and demand.[1]

It poses an interesting question—did Jesus as our model human (he was human as intended) always delight in servitude? Or did he sometimes share the same feelings of drudgery that often mark our common experience? The implications of such a humanity could be liberating for us today. It would free us from the bulwark of pretense and take us into a deeper realization of what it means to be fully human in relation to God.

This relationship to God is an incredible, gracious gift that comes with a sense of duty not unlike marriage. Brueggemann hits the nail on the head when he states “the poets who have given us our primal language for God are seeking a way to voice an inscrutability that overrides our logic and is more like the inscrutability of serious relationships than it is like anything else.”[1] This inscrutability is one of the best ways I have heard yet to describe the paradoxes and dichotomies that comprise our human experience, yet we continue to scrutinize, to search for answers to the questions we struggle with.

At this point I would like to make a distinction between authentic experience and true knowledge. True knowledge seems somewhat ambiguous. If I truly know something, the implication is that the mystery surrounding it has burned away like morning fog and I have seen it clearly for whatever it is. I don’t think it’s helpful to think about either God or human being in this way.

There is a mystery, or as Brueggemann puts it, inscrutability, inherent to serious relationship that does not allow for complete, ‘true’ knowing.[1] There will always be an element of the unknown in any relationship that matters.

It is this unknowable element that continues to intrigue me about serious relationships that I have, that makes me want to continue knowing this person and get to know them better than I do. Mystery has the power to suck us in and pay attention to what is happening.

In closing for this post, I would like to end with the observations of Arthur Vogel, who has said

"There is no ratio between the finite and the infinite. Finite creatures such as we cannot get closer to God by degrees, understanding God better and better as we go along, until there is less and less of God that is mysterious to us. God is total Mystery." [1]

[1] Vogel, Arthur A., God, Prayer, and Healing (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 105-106.

[1] See Brueggemann pages 3-4 for further discussion along these lines.

[1] Brueggemann 4.

[1] Frank Stagg, Polarities of Human Existence in Biblical Perspective (Macon: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 1994), 149-161.

[1] Jones 294.

[1] Genesis 2:18 NIV

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Duty as Delight and Desire: Preaching Obedience That is Not Legalism,” Journal for Preachers 18 (1994): 3.

Henry David Thoreau, Reading, ed. Carl Bode (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 355.

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