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!

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