Saturday, March 26, 2011

On political disagreement

Big protest in London today against spending cuts.  Fair enough, I guess, although I have to say I don't believe this is really a legitimate form of political expression when you live in a democracy.  We had an election: if the left had managed to persuade enough people that they were right (so to speak), they'd still be in power.  After all, I didn't march on the capital in 1997 when the Labour government which would spend the next decade ruining the public finances got into power.  Maybe I should have done.

But this is not what I wanted to write about.

I wanted to write about disagreement.  In politics, as in almost no other sphere that I know of (theology, actually, would be one), disagreement almost always turns bitter.  The number of times in the last few months that I have heard friends of mine describe the current UK government's position as 'evil' has taken me a little by surprise, particularly as it is difficult not to imply that I am also regarded as a morally bankrupt person.  And, in the interest of even-handedness, I must admit that the first para of this post reflects more than a little bitterness on my part too.

It is not all that surprising.  I think I can see two reasons for the bitterness.  One is that these disagreements are about things that are real; they have an actual effect on our lives.  Moreover, some of the things that politicians do are quite difficult to undo.  We see the world changing around is in response to political decisions, and that sparks fear, amongst other things.  This is no abstract debate.  The other reason is that these disagreements, when analysed, turn out to represent two very different visions of what society ought to be like.  More than that, debates about what society ought to be like tend to be based on different understandings of human beings.  These disagreements, which seem to be over fiscal policy (for example), often turn out to be disagreements over what it means to be human - what it means to be me or you.  There is nothing more likely to provoke bitterness than a question which touches on my own sense of identity.

I don't know that I have an answer to this, except to ask that we all try to think a bit more.  In particular:

1.  If you think that your opponent's position is nonsensical, consider that you probably haven't understood it. Very few people hold ultimately nonsensical positions.  Certainly it would be better to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe you should take some more time to think about it.

2.  If you think that your opponent's position is evil, consider that you may well be wrong.  In particular, try to work out what is integral to their position and what is a side-effect.  Ascertain what the goals are - is there nothing noble whatsoever?  Finally, bear in mind that you are probably good friends with people who disagree with you - do their lives generally give you the impression that they are likely to be wholly evil in the political arena?

3.  If you find particular representatives of a given position intolerable, consider that they are only human.  They probably don't represent what is best about your opponents.  Also, consider that they are human at the end of the day - with all the inherent nobility and tragedy that this name implies.

4.  Don't expect to win all the time.

5.  Try to see the roots of your opponent's position.  Where are they coming from?  Try to get inside the view of the world and humanity which would lead them to think as they do; consider whether there are incidental factors of your own upbringing and/or position in society which unduly influence your own perception.

6.  Consider whether there is any common ground at all - it may provide a base from which to establish wider agreement.  At the very least, it may serve as a reminder that we are all, at the end of the day, limited in our perceptions and understandings, and on the whole are only trying to do our best to work it out.

Now I must try to practice what I preach, and if I fail (as I already have a couple of times today), call me on it!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Who are you?

If you start your investigation of human nature with Jesus - if Christology is at the centre of your anthropology - the possibility is raised that you do not know yourself.  You may have to be told who you are.  It may be that none of us knows inherently, or is able to deduce from our own behaviour or that of others, what it means to be human.  That raises all kinds of issues.

One issue that has been floating around recently, mainly because of the case of Mr and Mrs Johns, is the attitude of Christians to homosexuality.  Now, up front, I want to acknowledge that this is a hugely complex and, for many, painful issue.  I also want to acknowledge that Christians don't all agree on this topic.  But I have to say that as I read Scripture, and as I try to think theologically about what the gospel implies for humanity, I arrive at the conclusion that an active homosexual lifestyle is not compatible with the Christian message.  I don't want to overplay that, and I also don't want to make out that this is a big part of my belief - it is not.  (In fact, although from the news you would get the impression that evangelical Christians basically talk about this all the time, and also that they are raging homophobes, my experience has been that the topic comes up rarely, and when it does is tackled with pastoral sensitivity.  I know that hasn't been everyone's experience.)  Still, however peripheral this belief is - however much I may consider it to be basically an implication of an implication of the gospel, something which stands at considerable remove from the heart of the faith - nevertheless I am obliged to hold it.

And here's the point.  This position comes in for criticism so often in the news, and raises such outrage amongst our contemporaries, because it challenges our notion of what it means to be human.  Christians are saying something which is, despite all my disclaimers above, huge in what it means for human nature.  Everybody knows that Christians want to tell people how humanity ought to be - it is part of the Christian message to say that we are not what we should be, and that we must be changed.  This is, naturally, offensive to people.  But I think we are actually saying something more offensive than that - we are saying that you are not who you think you are.  Imagine if a Christian said this: 'if this lifestyle is incompatible with the gospel, it is not human'.  Offensive!  But that is implicitly what we are saying.

Of course, we are saying it to everyone, not just those who practice a certain lifestyle, and not just those outside the church.  Still, sexuality is a point at which it is particularly painful, because it is so close to the heart of an individual's identity.  The Christian message threatens to take their identity away, by telling them they are not really who they think they are at all.  What insecurity this threatens!  And what offence!

The flip-side is that if the gospel is true, then I am told who I really am, and can relax.  I have no need to forge my own identity, assert my own individuality, or even wrestle with my own inner contradictions to quite the same extent.  Who I am is decided elsewhere, and I am in a sense graciously given to myself to enjoy.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Being Human (3)

One of the key points about Barth's Christological anthropology, as I understand it, is that the Christ who stands at the centre of it is the real Jesus of Nazareth, as witnessed in the Scriptures.  Anthropology is not shaped around a centre defined by a logical or aesthetically appealing idea, whether that of the ideal human or that of incarnation.  It is based around a person, and when we say a person we mean an event - a history, a happening. General anthropology is the periphery to which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ form the centre.

One of the huge implications of this is that it is impossible that human beings should fail to be human.

Everything we know about the world and the people who inhabit it militates against this conclusion.  In fact, we have already seen that the phenomena of human life exhibited all around us speak just as strongly of inhumanity as humanity.  If we constructed our anthropology on the basis of experience, we would probably say that people could choose: they could affirm or deny their own humanity.  In one sense we would be right. We can affirm or deny our humanity.  I can choose to live as someone who stands before God and my fellow man, or I can try not to.  I can seek to escape God, either by atheism or religion, and my fellow man, either by solitude or shallow relationships.  It is the great tragedy of sin, from the human point of view, that it tends towards the dehumanising of human beings.  It attempts to mask what and who we are.

But the event of Jesus Christ is and means 'God with us'.  And it means 'he will save his people from their sins'.  The presence of Jesus Christ - and especially the resurrection - means that humanity is not abandoned, just as Jesus is not abandoned to corruption.  God affirms his creation, and upholds it against its own wilful fall and senseless drive to be nothing.

There is no single human being who can erase what Jesus Christ has done.  There is therefore no single human being who can be really without God, or really without the fellow man, because Jesus Christ is both.  All my attempted inhumanity cannot unmake me.  The mask of evil which I choose to wear - and in so far as it lies with me, I will this mask to be my reality - is in fact not chosen for me, because Jesus Christ is with me as a human being and as my God, and I am upheld.

But how much worse this makes it!  Every sin is against my own humanity, against the grace of God, against Jesus Christ.  And every sin is an impossible attempt to be nothing when God has made me something.  My sin may take me to the fire of hell, but it will not make me less than a person who stands before and with God and my fellow man.  And that is a terrifying thought.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Being Human (2)

So, what does Christocentric anthropology look like?

First of all, it begins with Jesus, and asks the question: what does it mean to be Jesus?  Because if Jesus is 'the Man', the only real human being, humanity cannot be discovered apart from him.  Of course, there are many ways we could look at Jesus, and many perspectives from which we could view him.  When it comes to anthropology, we must consider Jesus the Man (albeit the Man who is God).  There are two essential things to consider about this Man - two relationships.  On the vertical axis, Jesus is man for God.  This captures a number of different things.  Jesus, considered as a human being, is God's creature; his human nature has no existence except that which is granted to it in the incarnation through its union with the Logos.  The sense in which Jesus is man for God goes beyond this, however, to embrace his responsibility.  Everything that is not God exists for God in some way, but Jesus exists for God as an active, responsible being.  He exists to willingly fulfil the will of God.  Meanwhile, on the horizontal axis, Jesus is man for man.  At the surface level, this expresses the fact that Jesus comes to do humanity good.  At a deeper level, the man Jesus would not exist except as he comes to do man good.  Being 'for man' is not something that is incidental to Jesus; it defines his being as the incarnate Son of God.  And then again, Jesus is 'for man' because in his life, death, and resurrection he takes the place and takes up the cause of the human race and each member of it.

To be Jesus is to be man for God, and man for man.

But secondly Christocentric anthropology recognises that Christology and anthropology are different things.  We cannot read a general doctrine of humanity from the being of Jesus.  He is the God-man, unique and above us in every way.  Barth doesn't put it like this, but I suppose you could say we should not be Christomonist when thinking about humanity, but genuinely Christocentric.  Jesus is the centre point of humanity, and general humanity stands around him; Christology is the centre and anthropology is the periphery.  Nevertheless, we can move from the centre to the periphery.  Humanity cannot be Jesus, but it must correspond to Jesus.

Jesus is man for God - uniquely so, through the incarnation.  But corresponding to this is the determination of man generally as one who belongs to God and responds to God.  This vertical relationship exists, whether the individual human being acknowledges it or seeks to efface it.  The relationship holds because, in the faith of human unfaithfulness, and indeed the impossible yet frequently made decision for inhumanity on the part of individual human beings, God is faithful.  Human beings cannot unmake themselves, or make themselves something other than what they are.

Jesus is man for man - uniquely so, through his representative and substitutionary role.  But corresponding to this is the determination of man generally as one who stands with other men.  No definition of humanity which makes the individual prior can possibly be correct.  To be man, says Barth, is to be fellow-man, to stand in an I-Thou relationship with other human beings.  Again, this must be so.  We do stand in relationship to others, whether we like it or not.  We cannot, and should not, stand in their place as Jesus does, but we should stand alongside.  We exist to help one another.  This being as fellow-man is shown most clearly in the existence of humanity as male and female, man and woman.  "It is not good for the man to be alone".

These conclusions - that man is for God, and with other men - could be reached in other ways.  But only from Jesus can they be shown to be certain and absolutely determinative for human existence.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Being Human (1)

Shiny Ginger Thinking has been interrupted recently by the arrival of a brand new ginger boy into our family, which is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me, but does cut into my computer time.  Still, some background low-level thoughts have been bubbling up to the surface, and this is one of them.

Since I picked up my cheap-as-quite-expensive-chips reprint of the Church Dogmatics just before Christmas, I've been ploughing through some of what has, for me, been life changing and brain stretching theology.  Volume IV.2 has changed the way I think about Barth, as he unfolds what might be called the more subjective side of salvation, something he is often accused of neglecting.  Volume III.2, which I am now half way through, has been challenging my view of what it means to be human, and how we ought to talk about humanity.  Let me share a few, possibly disjointed, reflections.

Barth begins his anthropology, as he begins pretty much everything, with Jesus Christ.  He argues that we ought not to put together our definition of what a human being is on the basis of what we see in human beings around us.  Partly, this is because we see as much inhumanity as humanity in human beings in the world.  More profoundly, Jesus Christ is "man for man" - the human being, the one who lives out our created and predestined life of obedience for us.  If we want to understand humanity, we should look first at Jesus.  This does not mean that non-theological anthropology can't teach us anything about human beings; it simply means that anthropology that does not start with Christ cannot penetrate to the essence of what a human is.  Barth's presentation recalls Kant at this stage, with his doctrine of the transcendental subject - for Kant, we cannot talk about what a human being really is in essence, because this is unknowable to us; we can only discuss what we see, the phenomena of humanity.  Barth says, in effect, that this is true, in so far as we attempt to proceed without revelation, and seek our knowledge of humanity "in other ways than by the confrontation of man with the man Jesus Christ" (p. 198).  All the phenomena of human existence - the things that can be studied by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and others - may well be symptoms of real humanity, but that cannot be known unless we have already been shown and told what real humanity is.  Otherwise, they are like accidents without a substance (Barth uses the analogy of the mass!) - floating adjectives attached to no known subject.

By chance, I was flicking through Henry Bettenson's selections of extracts from the early church fathers (good toilet reading), and came across this from Athanasius:  "[God] did not merely create man in the same way as he created all the irrational creatures on earth; he made man 'after his own image', giving them a share in the power of his own Word, so that they might have as it were shadows of the Word..." (De Incarnatione, 3).  And also this:  "We are called the image and glory of God not on our own account; it is on account of the image and true glory of God that dwells in us, namely his Word who later became flesh for us, that we have the grace of this designation" (Contra Arianos, iii. 10).

See what he's saying there?  Humanity is found in Christ, the image of God.  So anthropology starts with him. And this is not some abstract logos asarkos, but the real man Jesus Christ.

More to come, as and when I find the mental energy!