Aaron Perry ~ Do We Create Ourselves? What It Means to Be Human

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The global West’s current fundamental battle of narratives is whether or not there is a context to being human. The Christian (and Jewish) narrative, of course, affirms a theological context: human beings are made in God’s image. The conflicting contemporary narrative, growing with uncritical acceptance, is the denial of God’s image—or any image. Instead, this competing narrative argues that human beings invent their own image. The only context that exists for being human is that there is no preceding context for being human.[1] Not biology, not theology, not genetics.

This open context is what sets humans apart: in order to be human, one must be able to invent what it means for one to be human. Even more, it seems: the greater the reinvention, the greater the humanity ascribed to the one doing the self-inventing. The lionization of euthanasia as the final courageous act; the mixture of sympathy with sadness for the one who chooses suicide; the trumpeting of Choice! in the abortion debate all affirm that one’s ability to invent his or her own life—what it means for them to be human—is of ultimate importance. Even if the choice being made is not widely understood, we see value in the person being able to decide for themselves. It also means that if one is very young, very old, or very sick—and hence without the power to (re-)make oneself, then their purchase on being human may not be worth as much as it once was (or would be, given time).

This is not a battle of narratives in which one may tell and let-tell. No, these are competing narratives. And they are at war. The activity of the hard left, meant to empower the person to act without restrictions, necessarily curtails all forms of authority—parental, governmental, ecclesial—so that the individual may flourish. This is a fundamentally atheistic theology: in order for there to be an authority in the individual to select their own human-making image, there must be the death of any and all outside authorities. Sartre’s legacy lives on!

With this in mind it is clear to see why, in the postmodern world, there is a rejection of, or at least decreasing interest in, the afterlife. Since death is the end of one’s human life, then it is the end of one’s ability to invent him- or herself. If there is life-after-death, then there is a greater context than simply one’s absolute autonomy. Note the dilemma: If there is an afterlife, then the self is not free to invent their own image (because death has not been the end of the self); if there is no afterlife, however, then the self may be free to invent the self, but without eternal meaning. In the face of this dilemma emerges the Facebook selfie with the caption, “YOLO!” (You Only Live Once).

The reinvention of human beings in light of sexuality provides the clearest example. Bondage. Submission. Power. Flesh. Sacrifice. The words are as powerful today as when John Wesley was using them with frequency, but for something radically different.

Wesley used the words to describe humanity’s fallen state, death in sin, and inability to love God and others. Wesley saw submission to God as the way to freedom from bondage, and the sacrifice of one’s fleshly desires as the way true power. Today, however, submission, bondage, and flesh do less to describe the spiritual life and more to describe one’s sexual desires. The stronger drive is not to rid oneself of inappropriate desires, but to find ways such desires can be fostered in secret and/or with willing participants.

We have modified the Kantian ethic that we should never treat people as means and always as ends, by adding a short rider: People should never be treated as means and always as ends, unless they desire to be a means. Human beings ought not to be means to ends unless they so choose. People can choose to be means if that is their way of being human. There is no moral guideline but the affirmation that one can choose their own context for being human so long as it does not impede another’s context—unless an outside impediment is the context they want. (Take a moment, listen to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” and you will hear what I mean. I’ve also written about it here.)

In the face of these developments, we can turn to Wesley. Specifically, we turn to Wesley’s critique of reason.[2] One of the critiques Wesley leveled against reason was that reason could not produce faith. By this critique Wesley meant that reason cannot produce a firm conviction in or understanding of the invisible world. He suggests his readers put reason to the test, urging them to try reason out for this purpose: see if reason can produce a conviction of the unseen!

Perhaps Mr. Wesley would urge a similar undertaking for those attempting to understand or invent a human being without theological context: see if human reason alone produces faith—a conviction or understanding that claims purchase for the whole of reality. In the face of this challenge to stretch the bounds of reason, though, Wesley offers this caution: “You may repress [your doubts] for a season. But how quickly they will rally again, and attack you with redoubled violence!”[3] No less stunning and incisive a critique today than it was in the 18th century, personal satisfaction took the brunt of Wesley’s challenge. He knew where to challenge the worldview of his contemporaries and we can alter it to our current context: Even if biology no longer presents a context for being human, one’s personal satisfaction, lived out over time, just might. How poignant, then, the observation of comedian Louis CK: “Everything’s amazing right now and nobody’s happy.”[4]

At this point let me offer a “perhaps.” Perhaps the reason for the current anthropological narrative equivalent to Burger King’s “Have it your way” campaign is the fact that it deals with suffering and with guilt. First, this narrative handily dismisses guilt. If one is empowered to choose for him- or herself then people with power may hold others less and less responsible for their own happiness. Every man and woman has become an island, equipped with internet, cable television, Facebook, and, just in case, Ashley Madison. On this island, no one else bears responsibility for another’s self-fulfillment. Where there is power for one’s own self-action, there is also absolution for any sin. I am not responsible to another if they have the power of self-creation. Any failure to thrive is the other’s burden. After all, they have the power to create their own context and I bear no responsibility to them. As such, when there is equal power, there is no such thing as guilt.

Second, perhaps this narrative is appealing because it helps human beings to understand suffering. Always a challenge in the Christian worldview of the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God, suffering remains a challenge in the atheistic worldview. But it is not a rational challenge. There is nothing incoherent about suffering in a world without God. Instead, it is an existential challenge. In this worldview, as we have seen, death is not necessarily our enemy but the confirmation that the self is one’s own standard of authority. But if death is not the enemy, then what is? Suffering. Death is not the final enemy to be overcome, as it was for Saint Paul; no death is the final and necessary validation for inventing one’s own context—and ending it as one pleases. In the unexpected reconciliation between human beings and death, suffering has emerged as the universal enemy. And so we must help people out of any and all forms of suffering because suffering threatens the human image, unless, of course, suffering is chosen to be the context one chooses. Suffering, unless chosen, must be avoided.

Yet here we see an opportunity for Christian witness. In a culture concerned with the pragmatics of its studies—how do I avoid suffering?—the articulation of a Christian anthropology—human beings are made in the image of God and happy is the one who fosters this image—will be ineffective in witness in the short term but effective in the long term as people see a Christian anthropology lived out. Remember that it is by witnessing the death of Jesus that the Roman centurion becomes the first human in Mark’s Gospel to confess that Jesus is the Son of God. Suffering is not to be avoided. No, it is a sign of endurance—and one of the greatest manifestations of the image of the long suffering God. Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan captures it precisely: “Suffering is not a failure or degradation of [a human]…; it is an endurance of affliction, and the good of [humanity] displayed through endurance, too.”[5]

Suffering is not the enemy, but it is a sign of an enemy. So, do Christians ignore and forget those in suffering? No, of course not. Christians recognize that some suffering simply cannot be alleviated without rejecting the theological context of being made in God’s image. As such, the rationale, and parameters, for the alleviation of suffering is different. Christians minister to the suffering one not because suffering threatens the identity which they would take for themselves, but because humans beings are made in God’s image and are never lost from this royal position outside their own permission. Where suffering can be alleviated without denying this context, then it is, in part, a living out the image of God—a symbolic, imperfect, incomplete expression of the God who heals. Where suffering cannot be alleviated without denying this context, then there is reaffirmation that the one suffering remains made in God’s image.

The Western world is currently taking up Wesley’s challenge of using reason to demolish any and all barriers to the context of being human. In due time it will see how well (or poorly) this narrative works. And gradually there will be a decline in this narrative because it will fail. As we await this failure, Christians must maintain and practice a Christian anthropology. We must continue to tell the story that there is a context for being human. We are not made in the image of our choosing, but in God’s glorious image.

We can only tell this story as we live it. Christian anthropology is lived out through lifelong testimony of enduring suffering and patiently, symbolically, and lovingly ministering to those who are suffering. This narrative will only be effective over time because there really is a context to being human. The world is not looking for yet another story to make them happier; it is looking for a story that will hold true when all other stories have fallen apart.

 

[1] Stanley Hauerwas calls this the project of Modernity, with a typical memorable Hauerwasian phrase, that I have adapted: “[People] should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.” http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/07/02/3794561.htm.  Accessed Sept 8., 2015.

[2] John Wesley, “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered.” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-70-the-case-of-reason-impartially-considered/. Accessed September 8, 2015. I am indebted to Chuck Gutenson for turning me to this line of thinking.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEY58fiSK8E

[5] Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 91.

 

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Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry and Pastoral Care at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and his wife, Heather, have three children. Aaron is the author of Putting the Plot Back in Preaching (Seedbed), co-author with Tim Perry of He Ascended into Heaven (Paraclete Press) and editor of Developing Ears to Hear (Emeth Press). Aaron completed his PhD in Organizational Leadership (Regent University). Follow him on Twitter @aaronhmperry

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