An Extended Journey
On a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles, I chatted with a Catholic priest who seemed well informed on philosophical and theological matters. He knew the works of the great philosophers and thinkers in history. He also was familiar with modern scientific and technological advances and was at home with cosmology and quantum physics. To my surprise, he mentioned that John Paul II and he had regular discussions together at least twice a year. On hearing of the long odyssey of our publication, he suggested that we rename it Journey.
A Journey toward Human Personhood
Many readers of this publication know that those involved have indeed been on a journey. For some this began in the setting of a fundamentalist sect determined to hasten the apocalyptic return of Christ. We believed that God had created the world in six literal days and then rested on the seventh day from all his work. We believed that “Adam” and “Eve” had succumbed to temptation in the Garden and committed the “original sin,” which condemned the entire human race to death and damnation. However, we also believed that the Son of God had intervened in the fullness of time. Furthermore, we believed that, through his incarnation, life, sufferings and death, he had made it possible for us to perfectly obey the law that our first parents had broken. Traditionally, our religious leaders led us to believe that God required sinless sanctification of his “remnant” in the final hour of judgment.
Because I worked in a sectarian community, I had the opportunity to discuss these matters with a number of retired ministers. Sensing my interest in religious matters, these gentlemen occasionally visited me and shared hitherto unpublished and largely unknown messages of instruction from the founding prophetess of the so-called “remnant” movement. This instruction usually centered on the obedience required of those who would usher in the return of Christ. For example, one of my counselors emphasized that the “remnant” would necessarily return to the strict vegetarian diet of Eden — eschewing milk and eggs as well as meat and all other animal products. Of course, I immediately conveyed this “inspired” information to my wife and insisted that we begin a program of rigid dietary obedience. She readily assented to my request. As the months went by, I noticed that the children were happily growing, looking rosy-cheeked and robust. I knew that the Lord was blessing us. Only years later did I learn that my wife had long maintained a secret cache of eggs, milk and cheese to feed the children in my absence. She did not want to hurt me and, at the same time, she did not dare injure the children’s health.
About the same time, another ministerial friend solemnly advised me that those who aspired to “translation” — to be raptured — would no longer wear a belt to hold up their trousers but would wear suspenders instead. As we walked together and reflected on this “inspired” injunction, I proudly raised my sweater to reveal my “sanctified galluses.” Later, another retired minister showed me “inspired” statements that those who aspired to spiritual leadership would not burden themselves with children or marital intimacy. I was subdued by his counsel and impressed by his example as he and his wife walked together for hours each day to control their marital emotions. Finally, however, the mounting requirements for full sanctification seemed impossible of fulfillment, and I grew deeply depressed and distraught. It no longer seemed possible to maintain a life and secure salvation at the same time.
At this juncture I had the pleasure of serving with a student group who were presenting Bible studies to an “outsider” who was a retired high school principal and had terminal cancer. He and his wife were responsive to our weekly visits. When we reached the final session in our six-month study program, we informed our host and hostess that at that very moment Jesus was standing in judgment, reviewing the heavenly records and blotting out the sins of the righteous and the names of the wicked. In our final appeal we told them that “soon, none know how soon,” Christ would come to the records of the living. In that moment only those who had achieved full sanctification would find acceptance and salvation. With deep emotion we awaited the response of the principal and his wife. They told us how much they had enjoyed our weekly visits. But then, finally drawing me aside, our host whispered in my ear that what we had just told him was “utter garbage.” I was shocked, smitten and utterly despondent.
Nevertheless, at this crisis in my life, I found God to be gracious. I had the good fortune to meet a new acquaintance who shortly became my dearest friend. He told me that Jesus stood before the Father, not to review our records, but to present his own merits — his own righteousness — on our behalf. We were accepted by God, not through our own works, but through Christ’s. I grasped those words like a drowning man and quickly moved from a depressed, distraught but obedient son of the church to a bitterly reviled heretic who nevertheless rejoiced in the good news of Christ’s deliverance.
As time went on, my new-found friend and I, along with others who identified with my friend’s views, continued our journey together. We learned anew the Reformation teaching of justification by faith alone. For years we reflected on the significance of Christ’s atoning death. Ultimately, we began to ponder the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. We concluded that, although the Christian church had numerous theories on the atoning death of Christ, there was little or no dogma relating to his resurrection. This led to another step in our journey together.
We surmised that if Christ is God and, now known as the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17, 18), is risen and present with us always (Matthew 28:20), then the fullness of God’s blessing must already be “immediately” present. We therefore concluded that if religion was a mediator between God and man, intended to restore mankind to God’s presence, then the resurrection of Christ to an “immediate” presence had fulfilled that purpose and had thus liberated us from religion. Furthermore, if the mediation of Christ before the Father on our behalf was essential in God’s absence, now any spiritual mediation seemed no longer necessary, since the risen Christ — God the Spirit — was “immediately” present.
Unfortunately, at this point in our journey, we had not explored the true mediatorial nature of God’s presence with us.1 We therefore did not understand the threat to personhood posed by “spiritual immediacy” and attendant “sovereign freedom” when we proposed freedom from religion through Christ’s immediate presence. We did not perceive that “immediate presence” and “human personhood” were mutually exclusive.2
Radical Implications of Human Personhood
Fortunately, we encountered Victor Frankl’s book, The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology, written soon after his release from Auschwitz.3 Here Frankl reflects on the meaning of human personhood. We learned that human personhood is not a simple, self-contained, self-governing entity. We learned that faith, trust, hope, love, value and meaning, which characterize personhood, could not have originated by divine fiat or command. Love that is commanded is not love. Meaning that is imposed is not meaning. Love and meaning, hope and trust, faith and compassion are open, free and responsible. They exist only through the purposeful free will of each individual. They also exist only in relation to other beings who likewise enjoy individuality, purpose and free will. The implications of these conclusions proved to be awesome.
If man (male and female) indeed exists in the image of God, and if our emerging humanity is therefore a reflection of his own emerging humanity, then God could not have created noncommandable human personhood by a momentary divine fiat. Furthermore, if God could not command a perfect humanity into existence, neither could noncommandable personhood sin and fall by disobeying a command of God. The Genesis story must therefore be a mythical rather than historical account of mankind’s origin. Noncommandable human personhood could only emerge through process, through a mutual journey in history in company with each other and with God.
It has become increasingly clear that, in this journey, man first began to emerge from the dim shadows of a prehistoric, predatory animality governed by innate or “immediate” instinct and thus absent of self-awareness. He later exhibited an internal “god-consciousness”4 in which there was still no self-consciousness — no conscious distinction or relationship between oneself and God as an “Other.” Still later, however, the instrument of law, involving words and language and functioning as an “outside-of-me” mediator between God and man as two parties, initiated for mankind the critical element of conscious distinction and relationship between oneself and the “other.” In retrospect, such mediated relationships were an important step toward the subsequent inauguration of relational human personhood. “Mediated presence,” rather than “immediate presence,” is that which is essential to the relationships of true human personhood.5
Along with superintending man’s emergence and ascendance from the isolation of animality, God himself has been emerging from his own cosmic isolation. In his mutual journey with man toward relational humanity, he realized that he could not be our Companion and Friend either by possessing us or by us possessing him. He also recognized that he could not be a truly human Companion and Friend if we were suppressed or even subordinate to him. God therefore moved away from employing innate instinct and “god-consciousness,” and even law (command), for managing mankind. The Creator did so by acting as Christ to adopt creaturely man as his own reality, thus entering into a new relationship of egalitarian human personhood and compassion. God’s condescension to thus change and humble himself to adopt the creature has long been recognized by Christians as his “kenosis” (self-emptying condescension).6 As Wonbae Son has shown in his significant dissertation on “The Self-Limited Christ: A Kenotic Theology of Incarnation,” “Kenosis theology refers to a type of Christology which has made the kenosis or emptying in Phil[ippians] 2:5-8 central to its understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.”7
Egalitarian Love and Human Personhood
Our contention at this juncture in our journey is that egalitarian love or compassion is the ultimate expression of God’s “kenosis.” Such love is also the defining feature of human personhood — his and ours. In his treatise, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II declared that the
person is a being for whom the only suitable dimension is love. We are just to a person if we love him. This is as true for God as it is for man. Love for a person excludes the possibility of treating him as an object of pleasure. . . . [L]ove is not limited to excluding all behavior that reduces the person to a mere object of pleasure. It requires more; it requires the affirmation of the person as a person.
. . . “When the Lord Jesus prays to the Father so that ‘they may be one’ (Jn 17:22), He places before us new horizons impervious to human reason and implies a similarity between the union of divine persons and the union of the children of God in truth and charity. This similarity shows how man, who is the only creature on earth that God wanted for his own sake, can fully discover himself only by the sincere giving of himself.” . . . Above all, the principle that a person has value by the simple fact that he is a person finds very clear expression: man, it is said, “is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for his own sake.” At the same time . . . the most important thing about love is the sincere gift of self. In this sense the person is realized through love.
Therefore, these two aspects — the affirmation of the person as a person and the sincere gift of self — not only do not exclude each other; they mutually confirm and complete each other. Man affirms himself most completely by giving of himself. . . . This is . . . the full truth about man, a truth that Christ taught us by His life, and that the tradition of Christian morality, no less than the tradition of saints and of the many heroes of love of neighbor, took up and lived out in the course of history.
If we deprive human freedom of this possibility, if man does not commit himself to becoming a gift for others, then this freedom can become dangerous. It will become freedom to do what I myself consider as good, what brings me a profit or pleasure, even a sublimated pleasure. If we cannot accept the prospect of giving ourselves as a gift, then the danger of a selfish freedom will always be present.8
At this point in our journey, therefore, we realize that human personhood is defined by compassionate love. This love is radically egalitarian — that is, wholly inseparable from human equality. As Joseph Vining states, “Radical egalitarianism is a form of love of all.”9 The radical egalitarianism of Jesus Christ is the ultimate testimony to both his divinity and his humanity.10 He became a Person so that we, too, soon might enjoy full human personhood with him. Such is our vision and destiny as we now continue this mutual “journey of transformation” with Jesus.11
- Rather than a nonrelational, immediate presence, in which we absorb the Transcendent (“God in us”) or are absorbed by the Transcendent (“us in God”), the evidence indicates that the Risen Christ mediates his presence with us in history. That is, he reaches us through our neighbors. We reach him through each other. We reach each other and our own objective selves through him. This relational “reaching” may therefore be referred to as Christ’s “intermediatorial” presence, which is defined by the gifts of faith, hope and compassionate love. See “The End of Human Alienation,” subhead “The True Resolution of Human Alienation,” Outlook (Prequel 1994.7). (go back)
- See “The Immediate Question,” Outlook (Prequel 1995.6). (go back)
- See Victor Frankl, The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975). (go back)
- See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990). (go back)
- See note 1. (go back)
- The Greek word for self-emptying is kenosis. The understanding of God’s kenosis as “self-emptying condescension” is found in Philippians 2:5-8: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who . . . made himself of no reputation [kenoo] . . . humbled himself, and became obedient unto death . . . ” (KJV). “ . . . God is considered as absolute letting-be, as self-giving, as self-spending. Kenosis [Greek, kenosis = self-emptying] is understood as the way God relates to the world; creation is a work of love, of self-giving.” — Lucien Richard, Christ: The Self-Emptying of God (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 94. (go back)
- Wonbae Son, “The Self-Limited Christ: A Kenotic Theology of Incarnation” (Thesis submitted to the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the degree of Master of Theology, May 1990), p. ii. (go back)
- John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 200-202. (go back)
- Joseph Vining, From Newton’s Sleep (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 325. (go back)
- Regarding the radical egalitarianism of the historical Jesus, see John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 71-74. (go back)
- See Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 3, 17, 85-88, 133-137. (go back)
This article was originally published August 1995 under the Destiny imprint.