By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The who question is surprisingly important.
When René Descartes (1596 –1650) wrote—I think therefore I am—he neglected to talk about the preconditions for his statement, which must have annoyed his parents. Why did he have time to consider the question? Where did he get the words to express the thought? Why did anyone else pay attention? Who is this guy anyway?
While we might neglect to consider who Descartes was, his role in modern philosophy is undeniably critical in the development of the modern era and, by inference, the postmodern era. The who question is all about identity, something we obsess about.
For the Christian, the who question is doubly important. Probably the most inconvenient verse in the Bible is this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) We only participate in God’s eternal nature and reflect God’s image when we are joined with our spouses. Alone, we sin and perish. In ourselves, we are broken and quickly obsolete. What could be more inconvenient in this narcissistic age that we live in?
This inconvenient verse implies that we cannot answer the who question without considering the family. Because Descartes’ social position—who he was—is a precondition for all that followed, likewise Christian exploration of epistemology and ethics hangs on who God is and who we are together in his image. If Descartes had been an orphaned, penniless drunk in the sixteenth century and thought the same deep thoughts, the modern and postmodern eras may have been nipped in the bud.
For the Christian, the implication of being created in God’ image, setting aside our joint creation for a minute, imparts immense value to the lowest human being.
Back in the Obama years, I used to ask my kids: How would your life change if the President of the United States set aside the affairs of state every Saturday morning just to play basketball with you? Would you tell your friends? How would they respond? How much more would your life change knowing that the creator of the universe, God makes himself available to you in prayer, anytime, anywhere because he created and loves you?
This immense value of the human being arises precisely from God’s immense power. The observation that God created the heavens and the earth means that they belong to him by creative right. God’s social position is second to none. Because God values human beings, their life has intrinsic value—value that does not change with circumstances—and that value is enormous. The concept of human rights arises from the intrinsic value of being created in the image of God—a tiny fraction of infinity is still infinite.
Our joint creation with our spouses in the image of God is the root of gender equality. We cannot participate in God’s eternal nature without our spouses. The blessing that follows—“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28)—is not a random act of kindness. It allows human beings to participate jointly in God’s eternal nature. This blessing is lost if we remain alone or pair up with anyone other than our spouse or try to compete with our spouses as if equality were equated with sameness.
Being created in the image of God implies that we want to be like God. What is God first act of creation after creating the heavens and the earth? The Bible reads: “And God said, a Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Then, God declares the light to be good. Goodness and light are equated as God begins by creating a moral universe. Imitating God implies that we should want to be moral, just like God.
Being created in the image of God accordingly implies a moral mandate even before human beings are created. The who question and the primacy of relationships dominates the discussion even before the advent of sin, the introduction of community, and the giving of the law, but morality itself requires thinking and volition—you have to want to be good. God does not discount feelings and relationships, but feelings and thinking are inseparable.
Heart and Mind
Hebrew anthropology (the theory of human beings) refuses to separate feelings and thinking. Heart and mind are inseparable. Greek anthropology separates the two, vacillating between giving priority to one or the other. Because Greek anthropology dominates the modern era (think about the division of labor among professionals), it is hard for modern people to understand Biblical writing—when Jesus talks about the heart, he means the whole person, not just the organ pumping blood or mere feelings.
Sin and the Sacred History
Sin is hardwired into the human psyche. Original sin arises whenever you have two babies sharing one toy. No one is innocent, which is why Christ was unique.
Moses anticipated the course of human development in Deuteronomy 30:1-3. You (plural) will sin; be enslaved; and cry out to the Lord. God will send you a deliverer and restore your fortunes (Brueggemann 2016, 59). This framework outlines biblical history and with it the rise and fall of nations. The implication for postmoderns is that cultural progress—however defined—is temporary.
The question posed by scripture when we witness sin and societal decay, are we in the community of faith going to pray for sinners like Abraham witnessing Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) or run away from our prophet duty like the Prophet Jonah (Jon 1)? Like Abraham and Jonah, we have been told in the Book of Revelation (Rev 20) that destruction of sinners is coming. How will we respond?
Return to Christian Spirituality
Anthropology is an important component of Christian spirituality. A complete spirituality addresses each of the four questions typically posed in philosophy:
1.Metaphysics—who is God?
2.Anthropology—who are we?
3.Epistemology—how do we know?
4.Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)
My first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question. My third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. My fifth book, Living in Christ, explored the ethics question. Here in Image and Illumination I return to Christian anthropology from a community perspective.
I thought that I was done with Christian spirituality as a writer, but anthropology is at the heart of many of today’s deepest divisions and I have been repeatedly nudged for the past two years to write about it. It affects the other three components of our spirituality—metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—so profoundly that skipping over a formal treatment leaves the other components wounded. So here we sit wounded as individuals and as a church.
Again, I take up a subject, not out of expertise, but out of obligation. Each of us must answer the who question, whether thoughtfully or not so thoughtfully. Please accept my reflections on Christian anthropology with ample grace.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.
The Who Question
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