The alarm clock beeps incessantly. Morning again. Reaching over, he fumbles with it a little before finding the snooze button. A few more minutes won’t hurt. A few more minutes to rest.
But, he can’t sleep. His mind already swirls with thoughts of the day ahead. So much to do. Little details, big projects, meetings. It’s going to be a busy day.
And, when it’s done, what does he have to look forward to? Doing it all over again. Tomorrow morning, it will be the same: hit the snooze button a few times, get out of bed, and face the same job, the same tasks, the same routine. He feels like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, endlessly living the same day over and over again,trying desperately to hide from the pointlessness of it all.
But hey, at least it’s a paycheck. He’s got bills to pay and groceries to buy. After all, if he didn’t have this job, his family wouldn’t be able to enjoy the good things in life either. Living for the weekends, as they say.
So, he rolls out of bed, stumbles into the bathroom, and starts his own personal Groundhog Day all over again.
And along the way, he messes up the Gospel.
It’s pretty easy to understand what the Gospel has to do with Sunday. But what about the rest of the week? If the Gospel doesn’t have anything to say about this part of your life, then it leaves most of your life untouched.
And, that’s often the impression that we give when we talk about the Gospel. If the good news is primarily that I can have my sins forgiven so I can spend eternity with God, then my job has relatively little to do with the Gospel. For most of us, work is just a necessary evil. It lets us earn money and maybe provide the occasional opportunity to share the Gospel. And even those of us who actually enjoy our jobs have a hard time seeing how it relates to the Gospel. So, work becomes a Gospel-free zone. The Gospel is for Sundays. The rest of the week is about something else entirely.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be.
Remember how the story beings. Imagine Adam standing in the garden listening to God explain what he’s supposed to do. He’s standing in stunned silence trying to process what he’s just heard. Finally, after several slow seconds, he stammers, “You want me to take responsibility for the whole thing? Animals, plants, mountains, streams, oceans, everything? I’m supposed to watch over it all so that you can manifest your glory everywhere? Seriously? Do you see what the monkeys are doing over there? What made them think it would be a good idea to pick that stuff up and throw it at each other? Oh great, now the dogs are eating it. And you want me to be in charge of all this? Do I at least get vacations?”
God created us for work. He set us in creation and gave us work to do as one of the ways in which he would manifest his glory through us. And, if we fast-forward to the end of the story, we’ll see the same thing. The eternity that God has in store for us is not one of unending boredom, sitting on fluffy clouds playing our harps all day. Instead, it will be an eternity of work. Not the endless drudgery that work often is now. But, the joyful realization of our purpose: to serve in creation as God’s image bearers in the world.
So, what does all this have to do with today? How does this help us understand how our work relates to the Gospel? Because God has summoned us back into his kingdom so that we can again be what God always intended us to be, living in the world as citizens of the kingdom, image bearers.
The alarm beeps incessantly. It can’t possibly be morning again, can it? She rolls over and hits snooze. She knows he should get up. Busy day ahead. Of course, every day is busy. Pretty much the same. She looks forward to the weekend and getting some time with her family. It’s not that she hates her job, though she definitely doesn’t love it either. But she does enjoy her weekends.
She lays there for a while struggling with the apparently meaninglessness of it all. She doesn’t like working for just a paycheck. She wishes it could be more.
And then she remembers. Every day is an opportunity to live out her purpose in the world, to image God everywhere, helping people see his glory and through her. That doesn’t make all of the frustration go away. She’s still going to keep her eye out for a different job, one that fits her gifts and interests a little better. But, in the meantime, she’d better get up. She has work to do today.
[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]
- Andy Crouch discusses the Ten Most Significant Cultural Trends of the Last Decade. (HT)
Ten years is a very short time. As I reflect on the world in 2011 compared to the world in 2001, I’m less struck by how much has changed than by how much is the same. Terror, war, new technology, economic boom and bust, surprising political triumphs followed by sudden changes of fortune—yup, sounds like the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, and 1960s to me. It’s almost axiomatic that any change big enough to shape an entire nation or society happens in long waves spanning generations, not a mere ten years.
- Denis Alexander discusses the theological implications of human genomics, specifically recent studies dealing with the relationship between modern humans and neanderthals.
Do these findings have any particular theological significance? It is difficult to know why this should be the case. In the Judeo-Christian tradition humankind uniquely is made “in the image of God”. The suite of capabilities that emerged during human evolution is necessary but not sufficient to do justice to this much discussed theological insight.
That’s why, despite all the technology that makes communicating easier than ever, 2010 was the Year We Stopped Talking to One Another. From texting at dinner to posting on Facebook from work or checking e-mail while on a date, the connectivity revolution is creating a lot of divided attention, not to mention social angst. Many analysts say it’s time to step back and reassess.
- Brian LePort caused a bit of a stir last week by arguing that the Apostle’s Creed can serve as a minimum basis for Christian fellowship. He has followed that up with two other posts on the same topic (see here and here). The discussions have been interesting and are definitely worth following.
- Mashable has an interesting list of 8 Sci-Fi Technologies That Are No Longer Just Fiction.
- And, here is this year’s List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.
Whatever the knowable dimensions of human nature, its apophatic ones are what count here for imaging of God. An apophatically-focused anthropology forms the natural consequences of an apophatic theology. If humans are the image of God they must be, as Gregory of Nyssa affirms, an incomprehensible image of the incomprehensible: ‘If, while the archetype transcends comprehension, the nature of the image were comprehended, the contrary character of the attributes…would prove the defect of th eimage….Since the nature of our mind…evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its unkowableness the incomprehensible nature.”
Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 53-54
Okay, I think I’ve said just about everything I’m going to say about the recently concluded ETS conference. I attended a couple of other papers that weren’t worth commenting on, but overall this was the best ETS I’ve attended in terms of the papers I attended. I either got lucky or I’m getting better at selecting papers, but there were only a couple that were real busts.
So, to wrap things up, here’s a roundup of my comments on ETS. If you’re looking for some more, Trevin Wax offers a nice roundup of his own.
- Tom Schreiner on NT Wright
- Frank Thielman on the “righteousness of God”
- NT Wright at ETS (part 1)
- NT Wright at ETS (part 2)
- NT Wright at ETS (final reflections)
- Key characteristics of evangelical trinitarian theology
- What is theological interpretation of Scripture
- The sexual human: sexualizing the imago Dei
- Aquinas on the victory view of the atonement
- Calvin on the Church as the “Mother” of believers
Other Random Thoughts
Megan DeFranza, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented an excellent paper yesterday titled, “Sex and the Image of God: Dangers in Evangelical and Roman Catholic Theologies.” Her paper discussed the recent trend toward understanding the human person and the imago Dei primarily through the lens of human sexuality. Although she thinks that there’s a lot to be appreciated about this approach, she also identified a number of concerns that she has with this development.
DeFranza began by explaining the historical process that led to the current situation. She points out that Christian thinkers have historically neglected gender and sexuality in understanding what it means to be fundamentally human. And, like many, she points to Barth as the key turning point. Barth identified the imago Dei with being created “male and female” and introduced the notion of gender-based relationality as fundamental for being human. To be fully human is to be in community.
This relationally-oriented anthropology, which DeFranza calls the relational imago, though, has developed even further in recent years. Unlike Barth, many contemporary theologians argue that it is not simply relationship that makes us human, but sexuality itself. And, this develop corresponds to developments in secular fields of study that also view human sexuality as fundamental to being fully human. And, it’s this most recent set of developments that DeFranza is concerned about.
To explain this development further, DeFranza focuses on two representative figures: Stanley Grenz and John Paul II. According to DeFranza, Grenz sees the sexed nature of humanity as leaving human persons with a sense of their own incompleteness and a corresponding drive toward bonding with other(s), which finds its ultimate fulfillment in God himself. Thus, human sexuality isn’t fundamentally about procreation or even marriage, but about the innate yearning for completeness and bonding that grounds all human relationships and pushes toward God.
For John Paul II, sexuality is fundamentally about the human capacity to express love, an act in which the human person becomes gift, and thus realizes the ultimate purpose of being human. And, for John Paul II, this is best expressed and realized in marriage. In this approach, marriage itself becomes paradigmatic for true humanity, and even celibacy, which John Paul II still wants to affirm as a vital (and even higher) mode of human existence, is viewed through the lens of marital union.
So, for both Grenz and John Paul II, sex is now viewed as the lens through which we view all forms of human interaction. We discover our humanity through our sexuality.
DeFranza has no problem with the social imago and the emphasis on love, relationship, and community for understanding humanity. But, she’s quite concerned about the more recent move toward what she calls the “sexual imago” (Grenz) and the “spousal image” (John Paul II). And, she offers a number of reasons for this concern.
Uncovering hidden dangers:
- The conflation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She seemed particularly concerned with Grenz here. Although she recognizes that Grenz did not use terms like sexual and sexuality to refer to sexual intercourse, she still thought that his interchangeable use of these terms led to an ambiguous presentation that necessarily confused and conflated terms that are importantly different. DeFranza seemed perfectly willing to say that gender is fundamental for being human, but was concerned about extending that conclusion to sexuality in general.
- The sexualization of divine love. Although evangelicals and Catholics would certainly not refer to the divine love as sexual in the sense that there is actual intercourse among the divine persons, they are, nonetheless, willing to speak of the divine love as sexual in the sense that it involves different persons with a drive toward one another in bonding and love. But, since DeFranza thinks that using the language of sexuality to describe this love, their approach almost inevitably leads to the conclusion that sexual expression has now been given divine significance.
- The weakening of traditional sexual ethics. If human sexuality is grounded in divine “sexuality,” what parameters can we give for how this sexuality is properly expressed? While most evangelicals and Catholics want to continue affirming monogamous, heterosexual intercourse as the norm, others have not been so restrained. Why not homosexual love (since the Father and Son are both male) or sex with multiple partners (since there are three persons)? And, she’s also concerned that this approach is used to support adultery and divorce. What if you are in a sexually unfulfilling relationship? Would it not be better for one or both parties to find other partners with whom they can more fully express their humanity and experience the divine love?
- The undermining of celibacy. DeFranza routinely expressed concerns that the sexual imago and the social imago ultimately undermines the legitimacy of celibate lifestyles, particularly those who are involuntarily celibate. Such persons seem to be missing out on something fundamental for being human and an important experience of the divine love itself. She recognizes that both of the thinkers she reviews would reject this conclusion (John Paul II goes out of his way to affirm the importance of celibacy), but she still thinks that the concern is legitimate.
- Concern for the sexually dysfunctional. DeFranza is also concerned about what the sexualized imago will mean for those who experience significant sexual dysfunction. Once again, their essential humanity and their experience of God himself seems at risk.
So, DeFranza concludes that we should hold onto the positive aspects of the social imago, while avoiding the dangers that she thinks are inherent to the sexual/spousal imagos. She thinks we can do this by doing the following.
- Develop better readings of Genesis 1-2 that affirm the social nature of humanity without resorting to a sexualized notion of humanity.
- Clearly differentiate between the social and the sexual/spousal. The former does not entail the latter and should be an important part of any anthropology.
- Clearly differentiate between the sexual and the spousal. She thinks some of the dangers could be avoided if we recognized that spousal love involves far more than sexual love, so distinguishing them can help us appreciate the rich depths of spousal love. But, even with this distinction, she argues that we should not view spousal love as paradigmatic for all human relationships. It is one of many expressions of the social imago, not its essence.
I really enjoyed DeFranza’s paper. One particularly interesting element was when she addressed the ways in which the works of people like Grenz and John Paul II have filtered down to more popular level writings, and in ways that both thinkers would find highly inappropriate. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that many of the concerns she raised came from her interaction with these works. While some might argue that it is not entirely fair to criticize Grenz and John Paul II for the ways that other people use their ideas, especially when those people use the ideas in ways that these thinkers would have disapproved, it does raise the interesting question of how much responsibility thinkers have for the trajectory that their ideas take after them. At the very least, if a concept or idea consistently leads others to inappropriate conclusions, the concept or idea should be seriously re-evaluated.
And, that gets me to my one real criticism of the paper. I think the paper would have been considerably stronger if DeFranza had distinguished between what Grenz and John Paul II were clearly trying to do and the ramifications that she thinks their ideas have had or might have. For example, she routinely critiqued Grenz’s approach for making sexual intercourse essential to humanity. But, Grenz himself did no such thing. I think he is very clear in his writings that he was not talking about intercourse at all, but the sense of incompleteness that results in a drive toward bonding. Whenever Grenz used terms like “sexual” and “sexuality”, it was this broader notion that he had in mind and not actual intercourse. Even if DeFranza thinks that this is an unfortunate use of language that conflates gender with sexuality and necessarily misleads others into concluding that sexual expression is fundamental to humanity (which, again, is a legitimate critique), I would have liked to see a clearer explanation that this was not Grenz’s actual position.
Nonetheless, it was a fascinating paper. And, it has caused me to re-evaluate my own use of terminology. Like Grenz, I have had a tendency to use gender, sex, sexual, and sexuality rather interchangeably when talking about the human person (e.g.,“Sexuality: Theological Perspectives on Being Gendered”). While I know what I’m trying to say, I probably need to be more aware of how this language might be (mis)heard and (mis)used by others.
The other context important for understanding human persons is that of our creaturely context – i.e. the world in which we find ourselves. And, since Kelsey prioritizes the wisdom literature, this means that he is going to analyze our creaturely context primarily by considering the everyday world of the wisdom writers.
He’s aware, though, that creaturely contexts vary wildly from one place to another and that it is, therefore, impossible to privilege one finite context as paradigmatic for all the others. So, rather than “absolutizing the quotidian” (193) of the wisdom literature, Kelsey instead seeks lessons from the wisdom literature applicable to all everyday realities. This means that our hermeneutic cannot move directly from the exhortations of the wisdom literature to specific practices in our own context. Instead, we have to understand why and how these constituted wise living in that creaturely context, so that we can be challenged to live similarly wisdom-shaped lives in our own context.
Our creaturely context also serves as the context for our most fundamental vocation. God created humans to live for the well being of one another and all creation. The “wisdom” of the wisdom literature, then, portrays primarily a way of living that seeks the well being of one’s whole environment. That is our vocation.
“This means that the very context into which we are born has the force of a vocation regarding our practices: human creatures are born into a vocation, called to be wise in their practices.” (194)
Once again, the literature provides more of a general shape for understanding that vocation than specific details regarding how vocation should be lived out.
Kelsey argues that emphasizing our creaturely context as viewed through the wisdom literature has three consequences.
1. Intrinsic limitations on anthropology
The fact that we can only understand humans as they exist in actual creaturely contexts means that there can be no absolute model for true humanity.
“the real and authentic human being is the ordinary, everyday human person….It is important because it warrants on theological grounds the abandonment of the notion of a perfect or the perfectly actualized human being.” (204)
Kelsey rejects the idea that even Adam/Eve and Jesus should be seen in this way. As we’ve seen, Kelsey does not believe that we should build our understanding of humanity from the Genesis narratives. And, while Jesus certainly modeled faithful humanity in his context, this is far different from being an almost platonic exemplar of perfect humanity. The other option for creating a more theoretical understanding of true humanity would be through the motif of the imago Dei. As we’ll see when we discuss the appendices to the work, though, Kelsey rejects this approach as well.
So, for Kelsey, we have no absolute model for true humanity. And, he thinks this frees us from an unhealthy attempt to strive toward some unrealizable, perfect standard.
“The idea that one might be a perfect human person who lacks nothing in regard to one’s human personhood presupposes that there is (a) a single scale of possible degrees of completeness which is (b) comprehensive of all the relevant respects in which a human person might be complete….and presupposes (c) that there is a ‘true’ self awaiting actualization, perhaps deep within, which serves as the norm by which to assess how fully self-actualization has occurred.” (205)
The intrinsic limits of a quotidian anthropology, then, constrict us to pursuing faithful humanity in our own everyday world, rather than pursuing an abstract and unachievable ideal.
2. Extrinsic limits on anthropology
I’ll say less about this, but Kelsey also points out that an emphasis on the everyday world means that we need to pay attention to the limitations that are placed upon us by our context. We are finite beings, bounded by the people and circumstances into which we are born. So, wise and faithful living will be shaped by our quotidian realities.
3. The ambiguous nature of our everyday existence
Finally, Kelsey contends that the wisdom literature portrays the quotidian as inherently ambiguous in several ways. At the very least it’s ambiguous because we’re finite beings living in diverse contexts. That means that discerning what “wise living” looks like in any given quotidian will be a challenging task. Further, humanity is ambiguous because we lack that abstract ideal that can show us what true humanity should look like. And, most significantly, the quotidian is ambiguous because of sin and evil.
This last point gets considerable attention from Kelsey. In a manner very similar to his discussion of creation, Kelsey argues that the wisdom literature makes no attempt at offering a theodicy. (He reads Job as dealing with the reality of sin, not explaining its existence.) Instead, it takes the reality of sin and evil for granted, and offers a way of living wisely in broken contexts. This means that the anthropology we have in the wisdom literature shows humans as acting in community, but in ways that often have correspondingly negative consequences for other people. For Kelsey, acting in the quotidian is always ambiguous because all such actions are embedded in broken realities and result in or contribute to sinful world structures.
The upshot of all this is that we are left without any clear picture of what it means to be truly human in any given quotidian. We can look at the life of Christ as model of what it looks like for one particular human to live a wise and faithful life in his everyday world, but that can only provide the shape and not the details of what it means for me to live a fully human life in my quotidian.
David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence undoubtedly ranks as one of the most significant works in theological anthropology of the last several decades. Indeed, I recently heard it described as the most significant theological work of the last decade. I’m still assessing whether I think it warrants that kind of praise, but such a comment does highlight one important feature of the book. Although its primary focal point is theological anthropology, Kelsey ranges broadly enough in his discussions that very few areas of theology are left untouched. Thus, it bears close consideration from anyone interested in contemporary theology.
The basic shape of Eccentric Existence runs as follows:
- Part One – Created: Living on Borrowed Breath
- Part Two – Consummated: Living on Borrowed Time
- Part Three – Reconciled: Living by Another’s Dream
The first volume comprises the introduction and the first two parts, with the last part and the coda reserved for the second volume.
The created/consummated/reconciled framework is fundamental for how Kelsey understands the nature of a truly Christian theological anthropology, and we’ll look more closely at this in subsequent posts.
Another interesting structural feature of the book is the use of multiple “small print” chapters. Kelsey routinely introduces key ideas in the main part of his argument (e.g. the anthropological centrality of wisdom literature), developing them just enough for the reader to understand what he means and why these ideas are important for his argument. But, he’ll often refrain from offering an extended discussion and defense of these ideas within the course of the argument itself. Instead, he’ll reserve that work for his small print chapters, which then function like really long footnotes. Of the 25 main chapters in the book, nearly half are accompanied by such small print discussions.
James K. A. Smith recently commented on Eccentric Existence and offered the following as a suggested reading plan for engaging the book.
If I were crafting a multiyear reading program for Eccentric Existence, I would recommend the following strategies to help non-theologians wade into its deep waters: On the first reading, I would suggest skipping (or merely skimming) those chapters set in smaller font. They are generally pursuing more technical questions and, at least on a first reading, can be treated as asides—though returning to them on a second reading will yield fruit for nontheologians, too. For an orientation, Introductions 1A, 2A, and 3A are necessary reading. The crucial chapter for understanding the architectonic of the book is chapter 3A. But I would also recommend that, relatively early (perhaps after reading 3A), readers skip to the final Coda (of three) at the end of the book: “Eccentric Existence as Imaging the Image of God” (pp. 1008-1051). This reads almost as an independent treatise (if one is familiar with chapter 3A) and does two important things: first, it explains how the three narratives of God relation’s to humanity are intertwined in Christ (as the image of God), and second, it explains why Kelsey does not use the imago Dei as the orienting image for his project. The latter is especially important given the prominence of appeals to “the image of God” in Christian scholarship.
This two-volume project runs to over a thousand pages by the time he’s done, so it will be impossible for me to survey everything that he addresses with any kind of adequacy. Instead, I will follow Kelsey reading plan to some extent. First, I’ll trace Kelsey’s argument through the main chapters of the book. Then, I’ll go back and comment on some of the more important/interesting small print chapters. And, finally, I’ll comment on the codas at the end of the book.
The Acton University confernce opened this evening with approximately 400 people from more than 50 different countries. At dinner I sat next to a young woman from Myanmar who is studying contextual theology in the Netherlands. I have to admit that I had no idea that Acton had such a global draw. It was impressive. And the attendees appeared to be similarly diverse in race, gender, and denomination (approximately 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant, and 5% Orthodox; I realize those numbers don’t add up, but he added the Orthodox at the end and I’m not sure how it affects the first two numbers).
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, the president of the Acton Institute, gave the openening address entitled “Thoughts on Human Dignity.” Apparently this is his standard first-night presentation, introducing all of us to some of the basic principles of the Acton Institute. It was an engaging presentation, but it did leave me with a number of questions that I hope to pursue further over the next few days.
- Several key terms went without clear definition. Most importantly: liberty, virtue, dignity, image of God, right, and nature. All of these were used repeatedly in the presentation, and I’m sure they’ll be key to many of the seminars as well. So, I’m hoping for much more clarity in how these terms are being used.
- Although Sirico repeatedly referenced the “complexity” of the human person, he tended to emphasize the rational/intellectual aspect of humanity. He often referred to the importance of “ideas” for shaping human life and indicated that it is primarily our rationality that separates us from the animals. That left me wondering if there wasn’t an implicit rationalistic anthropology driving some of this despite the occasional mention of other dimensions of human existence – relationalty, physicality, etc.
- There seemed to be some ambiguity in the presentation on the relationship between the individual and the corporate aspects of humanity. Sirico said at one point that “we are not individuals,” emphasizing the relational dynamic. But later he also said that a human person was an irreplaceable particular (or words to that effect). I’m sure the tension between these two was mostly rhetoric, but it did cause me to wonder if sufficient thought has been given to both of these dynamics and how they are related to one another.
- One of the more interesting moments came during the question/answer time at the end. Someone asked Sirico if he could talk about the resources that the Trinity or Christology might have for addressing some of the issues that he’d raised in his understanding of anthropology and how it relates to dignity, liberty, and society. Now granted, these areas may not be Sirico’s strong suit. But I was still surprised to see that he had little to offer by way of response. He did indicate that he was sure the answer was yes. But he clearly had not spent much time reflecting on what those resources might be or even significant thinkers who might be helpful for understanding this. Given Acton’s premise that a theologically robust understanding of the human person is fundamental for an adequate approach to issues of economics and governance, this apparent lack of trinitarian and christological reflection is more than a little concerning.
- And, finally, toward the end of the presentation he brought up the “right to personal property,” and he argued that this right is grounded in the imago Dei and that protecting this right is essential to establishing and maintaining a flourishing society. I knew coming into the confernce that this was going to be a significant point of emphasis. But, apparently I’ll need to wait for one of the seminars to unpack this assertion more because Sirico did very little to support the contention.
Those are five of the questions that I left this evening’s presentation with. Since this was merely an introduction to the main ideas of the Acton Institute, I expect that many of them will be unpacked further as the week progresses. At least, I hope they will.