(07) Humanness: A Blessing or a Curse? (4.29.07)

Theology Sermon #7—Gen 1:26-31; Ps 8; Mt 6:25-33; Rom 5:6-11

Ted Grimsrud—Shalom Mennonite Congregation – April 29, 2007

Word association: Humanness, human beings, human nature

One of my favorites theologians is Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker who died in the 1970s.  A little over 40 years ago, he wrote a profound little book called “Who is Man?”  He laments the negative view of humanness in our modern world.  The human being “is being excessively denounced and condemned by artists, philosophers, and theologians.”

What does the modern worldview say? he asks.  “Humans are beasts.  The only difference between humans and other beasts is that humans are beasts that know they will die. …You must cling to life as you can and use it for the pursuit of pleasure and of power.”  Heschel concludes that human beings have “very few friends in the world, certainly very few in the contemporary literature about them.  The Lord in heaven may prove to be humanity’s last friend on earth.” (27)

The roots of this hostility toward humanness go back a long ways.  In the Christian tradition, I’d say, they go back to the fourth century, to the theology of Augustine, to the powerful doctrine of original sin.  This doctrine evolved into John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity.  Human life, in the immortal words of a later Augustinian named Thomas Hobbes is inevitably “nasty, brutish, and short.”  We are born sinful, rebellious, basically despicable.

It is highly ironic though, that these views led to strong support for violent governmental control over the general population.  I have never understood the logic.  How does belief in human depravity lead to trust in people with power?  Why do we think rulers will transcend their own depravity and use their monopoly on violence in undeprived ways?

Tying together negative views of humanness with support for domination systems has a long and still vital history.  Read the Daily-New Record editorials – we’re all pretty bad, we’re told, that’s why we need so much military and police violence – to keep our human evilness in check.  But what about the human evilness of those building, buying and wielding the guns?

It’s not just theology that is hostile toward human nature.  A lot of modern science is, too.  Read popular writers such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker.  These avowed atheists talk about total depravity in ways that would make a Calvinist nod in vigorous agreement.  Our behavior stems from our selfish genes.  We males naturally fight and struggle for dominance.  It’s a dog eat dog world (I have to say that after year of living intimately with our dogs Sophie and Trika, I believe this slander against dogs does reflect human depravity).

The air we breathe in our culture, the images with which we are bombarded, the life blood of our economic life, tell us that the natural human condition is based on our innate selfishness.  And our received theology does little to challenge this.  Indeed, we are told humans are born sinful, rebellious, and alienated.  We are born in sin.

Most Christians, in face of their belief in humanity’s profound depravity have focused their energies on escaping this world of sorrows.  Going back to Augustine, we are taught of the “city of man,” the city of brokenness and inevitable sorrow, pain, and conflict.  This is the fate of all human historical existence.  Then we have the city of God, the hope for after we die.  Only after we die will the way of love will be the norm.  Only then will we be transformed, cleansed of our original sin, and finally empowered to be good.  The best we can do now are small, almost symbolic, nods toward peace and love – mostly experienced as peace as order and love as kindly feelings.

However, if we seek to do our theology as if Jesus matters, we will shape our values by Jesus’ own hierarchy of values.  We will take seriously what Jesus himself taught about our humanity and his expectations for how human beings might live in this life.  Then, we will be in tension with these negative notions of humanness.  We will be in tension with these views that see humanness much more as a curse than a blessing.

My conviction, in light of Jesus’ message is that love defines humanness.  And the humanness that love defines is not only pre-fall humanness, Adam and Eve before they ate the forbidden fruit and changed forever human possibilities in this world.  The humanness that love defines is not only an ideal for the heavenly city of God beyond history and death.

The humanness that love defines is the humanness of the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet in her tears and “costly ointment” because of her love.  The humanness that love defines is the humanness of the father who greeted his wayward, prodigal son with unconditional welcome when he returned from the dead.  The humanness that love defines is the costly and risky generosity of the Samaritan merchant who stopped along the Jericho road to save the life of a person he had been socialized to hate as an ethnic and religious “other.”

Human love, according to theology done as if Jesus matters, is a description of our basic nature.  It is a realistic expectation.  It is why we are here.  When we love we are most ourselves.  It is the most natural thing we can do.

However, and of course this is a huge “however,” this is the “however” that explains the entire biblical tradition following the initial creation story, we are damaged as human beings.  We are not fully in touch with, we do not act fully in harmony with, our basic human nature.  Each of us is damaged, our human societies are damaged, our world as a whole is damaged.  So it is not enough to define humanness in terms of our basic nature as loving, compassionate beings.  We are also damaged.

And the terrible irony is that our damage exploits our basic nature as compassionate, loving beings born to affiliate with others.  Our damage exploits our loving nature and turns it against us.  We need others as a fundamental part of who we are. We are made to connect with, to join with others.  Because of this basic need, we are vulnerable, we are fragile.  We are, that is, easily damaged.

A terrible example of our fragility, of how our human loving nature is easily exploited may be seen in the sophistication of our present-day American military.  Journalists interviewing American soldiers have been surprised to learn of the educated anti-war sentiments expressed by many soldiers.  How can these young people, at least some of whom know what’s going on and do not support it, nonetheless keep fighting?  One major reason is the military’s technique of creating cohorts of soldiers.  They go through basic training together, bond closely with each other, and then go to war together.  So many will say, sure this war sucks, it’s a fraud, but I’m still going to go because my buddies depend upon me.

This human need for connection, even for friendship – one of our strongest drives – carries much more weight than the drive to violence, or the drive to support one’s home country.  And this need can be exploited to create fighters.

So, even in the heart of the beast we see evidence of a very different take on human nature than we get in the theological tradition, in the modern worldview, and in popular culture.  We are not isolated billiard balls, inherently selfish and competitive.  We are part of a web of life.  We seek affiliation.  We need love, and we are naturally capable of sharing love.

Jesus’ view of humanness, his affirmation of humanness as a blessing, fits with many other parts of the Bible.  Our four texts for today only scratch the surface.  From start to finish the Bible portrays human beings addressed by God as responsible beings, capable of understanding and responding to God’s call – in this life.

We read in Genesis 1 of our being created in God’s image, the culmination of creative work that is good, very good, so good that when it was done God could take a rest, a time of contentment.  The image of God, male and female, provides human beings with a vocation – be fruitful, multiply, cultivate life and abundance in this good creation God has placed human beings in.  It is natural for human beings to do this work of creativity and bringing forth fruit in community, to all the ends of the earth.

Although Christian theology in the Augustinian tradition has placed a huge break between human beings before the fall of Adam and Eve and after, Psalm 8 actually pretty much repeats Genesis 1.  God has made human beings just a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and given dominion over the works of God’s hand – a call to be stewards, to work fruitfully, to glorify the maker of heaven and earth.

Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 anchor the celebration of humanness in God’s creative work, in God’s love for us, in a celebration of God.  So, also our passages from Matthew and Romans re-emphasize God’s love and care as the basis for our value.  As Abraham Heschel wrote, the Lord of heaven and earth is our best friend.  Jesus states in Matthew 6 that we get clues of just how much God cares for us as human beings when we see God’s care for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  God cares for us even more.

Paul states in Romans 5 that even when our damage leads us to live in rebellion, God values us so much that Jesus brings us salvation.  God loves us even when we make God our enemy.  Paul goes on in Romans to summarize the most fundamental law that we are called to follow as saved people.  “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (13:9-10).

When we look at the early development of human beings we also find evidence that love is of the essence of our humanness.  Human beings are born utterly dependent upon others.  Requiring nurture to live, we enter the world powerless to care for ourselves.  Our first and most primal experience is requiring nurture, requiring love, simply to exist.  And this dependence continues for much, much longer than any other animal.  Without love, human beings would be extinct, pure and simple.

And think about our on-going lives.  Two questions:  What are our most fundamental survival needs as human beings?  And, what elements of our lives give us the most pleasure?  Several of the exact same things are high on both lists.  We need to eat.  We love to eat.  We need to drink.  We love to drink.  Sex is very pleasurable; we don’t continue as a species without it.  We need friendship to survive; we are social creatures.  Friendship brings us great joy.  The overlapping of these two things – our survival needs and our deepest pleasures – tells us that life is meant to be good, that our humanness is meant to be a source of joy.

So, here is the basic picture:  Our humanness is a blessing, not a curse.  We are created by a loving God in order to love and to be loved – and we can do just that, we must do just that.  Maybe survival of the fittest is the law of life – but what makes us fit?  Not a quest for domination.  Not selfishness.  But love and sharing and mutuality.

Of course, the story of humanity does not end here.  When I was a kid, we used to watch a TV show called “Lost in Space.”  At the end of each episode, after having solved the crisis of the day, the explorers find themselves in a new crisis just as the episode ends.  So, you had to tune in next week to find out what would happen.  That’s kind of what I want to do now.  I will end with a problem and hope you show up in four weeks to find out how it will be resolved.

As I said before, we humans are damaged.  We live in a damaged world.  Our lovingness is turned against us.  Look at the basic survival needs I mentioned – food, drink, sex, friendship.  Each is a source of profound pleasure, but each can become an obsession, an occasion for disease, even a source of bondage.

We may be good; we certainly are loved by the Lord of heaven and earth.  But we are also in desperate need of salvation.  So, in my next sermon in four weeks I will talk about salvation.  How might we be delivered from our damage.

And this is the question.  Do we move toward salvation by moving into our humanness or do we move toward salvation by moving away from our humanness? Do we move toward salvation by moving into our humanness or do we move toward salvation by moving away from our humanness?  So you won’t be in too much suspense, I believe that if we do our theology as if Jesus matters, we have no choice but to say that we move toward salvation by moving into our humanness.  In late May, I will tell you why.

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