A Hook to Hang Your World On
From early childhood on we strive to understand the world around us. Birth brought us out of security into a situation that needs to be discovered, to be made secure. We try to make sense of all experiences, impressions and insights. Being on our own, we try to make the place inhabitable. We want to gain power over it, understand it and control it to some extent. We want to see whether the multiple experiences, sounds ands sights are part of a coherent grid. Their repetition, from the familiar faces and objects to specific sounds and words attached to things and even facial expressions, seem to indicate an order.
Our mind thinks that way. Reality seems to confirm it. While many impressions crowd in upon us, their orderliness and fundamental rationality allows us to expect them, work with them and use them ourselves. We link alike things to each other. We relate sounds to smiles, eating to satisfaction of certain needs, routines to security. We discover cause and effect, choice and consequence. We soon learn how words mean and what can be done with them. We ask questions, try to understand answers and figure out when someone tells us the truth or a fib.
We all seek an attachment. Alone after birth, we delight to discover our mother and father from their regular appearance, their smile in association with satisfaction of a need painfully experienced. When we cry, we are fed, laid dry, cuddled, talked to and nursed. Sometimes the pictures and toys in the crib change in recurring patterns. Familiarity gives comfort and overcomes isolation, separation and ignorance. We begin to recognize our world as a certain shape and order of things, feelings and satisfactions.
We like to fit in also as we learn a language. We repeat after our parents, play with words and discover the delight in the role of words over the world around us. We insist that stories are told the same way repeatedly. We anticipate a bath, a walk, a car and other patterns in the family.
Finally we begin to walk and to walk away, when we have become more sure of the stability of our home. Disappearance from sight no longer means disappearance for good. We master the world we have grown to know and to anticipate.
Beyond these passages in child development, we also need to understand other aspects of the real world to increase our word power as well as our ability to cope in the world. The factual knowledge increases continuously—for a lifetime, I hope. We also become more sure of ourselves as individuals. We observe our reactions, refine our likes and dislikes. We find out, even if we have a hard time admitting it, that we are good at something and reluctant to do something else. We like to be in charge or follow. We notice what we can get away with and also when and where we can't very well.
This requires discernment on a more factual level. External circumstances provoke or demand our action and reaction. Exposed to the real world and real people, we react in certain ways. But what do we do when we are not part of a group? Alone, we wonder about a further dimension to which we require answers. We also need to have tools for moral discernment and intellectual convictions.
The world around us is not only good, but also bad and painful. Why is that so? The cat dies, a promise is not kept, a hope disappointed. A favorite pair of trousers tears or gets to be too small and can no longer be worn. We crave ways to understand what is sad and joyful, right and wrong, what is normal and what is abnormal. By what standard is something abnormal? We begin to include in our world view the need for a stronger stand or hook on which to hang our understanding.
Together with the moral questions we begin to ask more intellectual ones. What is the meaning of life itself? Why should I plan ahead, save money, build and invest in friendships? What are the components of human life that are more than factual ability and moral discernment? Against what larger scenario or pageantry do I measure my own efforts and accomplishments? What distant perspective do I embrace in order to make sense of all the events, thoughts and often ridiculous practices of human life?
Most worldviews hang the coat that covers the parts of a person's life on something bigger than themselves. Their life is a part of something larger, a rolling stream of events and costumes, on which they float like a piece of bark or a nut shell. They throw themselves into the flow of things and submit. They do not swim against the stream, they do not stand and watch first. They certainly do not try to keep their feet dry.
Such a larger and encompassing stream can be religious in nature or secular. It makes little difference, whether it is one or the other. For, common is the view that you are a part and portion of something bigger, which inevitably and without your effort or contribution gets you where you were supposed to go. Security is found no so much in figuring out what you are, but on how you fit in. In fact, I will try to show that both religious and secular views of ultimate unity are impersonal and don't give you as a person a place.
Both religious and secular systems of thought in which you have no place are impersonal. That means that you are not really important, because you are not different from anyone else who has gone before or who seems to stand next to you.
An impersonal unit does not recognize the diversity of different people. Ultimately, such a view says, everything is like a permanent flow. Nothing really changes in the end. Whether it is you or someone else, matters little. You are replaceable, merely a number or a current particle. But you have no separate identity. You only seem to matter. In reality, you submit to a force, to a god or to fate, the river of time or the process of time, a field of traditions and the cycle of birth and death. Sometimes you are somewhere in the sequence of reincarnations, without a fixed identity. You do not really know your father or mother, because you do not know who made you in the first place. You may have a hope of becoming someone sooner or later, but you don't ever know, who you are today.
Most of the world's religions hold a variety of such a view. You will discover it when you look at the Asian religions with their emphasis on an ultimate unity as the real thing and reality as an illusion. You also find it in Islam, where everything is God, his will and creation. God himself is a unity and there is nothing really and finally outside of him. In African religions you inherit the story of your ancestors and repeat it in detail in your life. They look over your shoulders and punish you, if you deviate. Traditional religions of native people often have the same emphasis on repetition, obedience to tradition and submission to the group habits.
You will find the same focus on unity in secular systems of explaining the world and man in it. Some teach that your life is controlled by the stars. The zodiac sign under which you were born, determines your personality, your life and your destiny. They do not see that in this way you become a lesser star, influenced by the forces that control the pull and shove of stellar bodies. You loose your personality completely, as you become unfree and determined by outside forces.
Materialism as a philosophy also has no room for the person. While the Marxist materialist will say that he is in control of his destiny and at the forefront of history, in reality Marxism has never produced any place for the thought and life or individual persons. Marxism always talked about peace, love of children, a happy family, internationalism and the survival of the human race. But it has never been able to encourage or practice personal space and significance for the individual. He or she were always called to contribute to the collective, obey the collective, not step outside the collective, have collective property, sanitariums, education and culture classes. The dissenter, the intellectual and thinking person, the creative being and the person who cleverly got ahead, were always considered to be traitors, profiteers, crooks and possibly in league with the devil. No other explanation for human uniqueness was ever suggested or imaginable, because of the impersonal starting point of the materialist philosophy.
Both religious and secular determinists weld the person to the whole. He or she has no life of their own. They are not creative, since nothing original and without an immediate cause is imaginable. Their life is caught in what Daniel Boorstin calls the pattern of "again and again". It does not matter whether that is a pagan religion, linking man to nature, or materialism, linking man to impersonal matter, energy or nature. In both cases, there is no room for Man, since the questions of morality and intellect can not be answered. In most societies, there were not even allowed to be asked.
For, if all human experiences have to happen, because it is written in the stars or because God wanted it that way, or again, because the material conditions force society to function this way, nothing can ever be wrong or right. There is no moral freedom left. Morality requires an abstraction, a thought to reflect on whether what is taking place ought to take place. It stops, as it were, what is happening, walks away from under it to look at it from outside. Should something else be decided, undertaken or suggested? Such freedom is only possible for human minds. No animal, rock or river is known to ask such questions.
Morality and its concomitant actions of praise and blame are only possible in a world of personality, of thought and freedom. Moral judgments are only conceivable, when a person has had a choice. Our novels, system of law, morality plays and the habit of signing a work of art or of protecting the property of people against theft is only thinkable, if people do have a choice to create or to destroy. But such freedom exists only, if we are not united with a bigger cause, god or nature. Even traditions deserve to be reviewed for their moral qualities, when you think of female infanticide in the old Chinese culture or female circumcision in present day African cultures.
In addition, once you recognize both the reality and the need for such freedom, you will quickly ask the more intellectual questions. They are not reserved for the student of philosophy, but have occupied the minds of people for millennia. What is the meaning of it all? Who invented this thing called life? Is there a purpose? Even when we distinguish between moral actions, why is it important to do good rather than evil? Why should survival be a higher value than death? If the whole experience of life is a mistake, would not death be kinder and more noble, a refusal to dance to a hideous and immoral tune someone else whistles?
Repeating the traditions of the elders is not a sufficient reason. Lack of courage to resist life is a sign of lack of courage, not of intellectual honesty. Do we have an obligation to follow along, merely because it is this way, is a very dissatisfying response.
In a sense we are pressed against the wall. We can numb our spirit at this point and become a vegetable. The French existentialists called people like that 'un choux', a cabbage . Or we could shake our fist and shout out with a loud voice for answers.
That is exactly what many have done. They found that answers are given in the Jewish-Christian Bible. Note well, they did not become religious, relinquishing their intelligence and the honesty of their doubt and even despair. Rather they shouted the questions about Man, origin and purpose, and found an answer in words, sentences and in history. They found a world view, pout together in context of events, explanations and realistic assessments that gave them satisfaction and affirmation.
Only in the Bible do you have an affirmation of the person. Each human being is made in the image of an eternal person. We are not emanation of a divine illusion nor of impersonal matter. The stars are not brothers or sisters. We are instead at home in a world where there is an eternal person.
The God of the Bible is a person, because he thinks, feels and acts. He makes choices, is passionately involved with us and longs to be recognized, acknowledged and loved. He proves himself to be good. He created a world and saw that it was good. He created life and warns Man against sin and death. He sorrows and gets angry, when Adam and Eve disobey his command, disregard God and want to act as the Creator. By their choice they spoil creation. God does not approve of it, did not do it and since then spends every effort to conquer sin and the results of sin.
For that reason he ran after Adam and Eve at the time of the Fall. For the same reason he ran after His people Israel with his prophets, when they turned away. Again, for that reason he sent Jesus from heaven to take on human form. Jesus, virgin-born and eternal second person of the Trinity, first showed that God really exists as a substantive person in heaven and on earth. Then Jesus died as sufficient propitiation for our guilt. God can be just with regard to our sin and make us just by paying for that sin himself in the death of His Son. When God raised Jesus from the dead and condemned death to a tragic real, but only temporary, absurdity. The resurrected Jesus gives us hope of eternal life, for which it is worthwhile to live and work and prepare with our minds and hearts, with our hands and skills.
This very brief overview of the propositions about reality, which is the Bible, opens the window to a world we can understand and in which we have a significant place. No longer are we invited to loose ourselves in a larger unity. Instead we bow twice before the eternal person of the Bible. We bow before the personal creator, who had something specific in mind, when he made the world and its form as well as Man in his particular difference from everything else as Man. Man made in the image of God is not a hollow theological concept, but an affirmation that in what God is as a person, who thinks , feels and acts, who speaks and understands, Man is like him in kind.
Of course we are created and have a beginning. We are finite and dependent. God alone is eternal and not created. But in so far as God has ideas, makes distinctions, has passions about our love or disobedience, we are like him. In our body and other mechanical functions in our life we are very much like the rest of the clockwork nature. But in our mind, heart, ideas and choices, we are very much unlike nature. We are free, responsible and significant. Here we are made in God's image.
It is therefore clear that the image is not in our appearance, ion our physical form or functioning. But we are in the image of God in our ability to make choices. We are ontologically more like God than like the animals or other parts of nature.
In addition, we should become more like God in our image as human beings, since sin and the Fall of Man has made us warped, spoiled and corrupted. There is much to be done in our mind and heart. We need to be changed in our moral character, but not in our humanness. We are separated from God in our brokenness. We are less than what we were meant to be and what we would have been, had Adam not sinned. But we are not more like nature as a result of it. Our dilemma is our guilt. It is a moral problem, not a problem that now we are human being, when we should have been angels or gods.
In contrast to both Eastern religions and modern Platonism, found for instance in Eastern Orthodoxy, we are not to become something other than what we are in our physical reality. We just need to become righteous, good and perfect. The moral change is a question of law, not of essential differences. Christ did for our sins, a failure of obedience, not for our humanness, a question of what kind of a person we are.
Jesus teaches that in a number of places. In John 10 he quotes the Psalm in which judges over the people in the Old Testament were called gods, because they were able to receive the world of God and use it to find justice. Just as they could understand God's word, so also can we receive the living word of God, Jesus, and understand him in our humanity, history and face to face. What we wait for is a change from our imperfect, broken and fallen condition. We do not work to become something less or more than human. God made us as human. Spirituality concerns the way to be fully human. Christ became human in the incarnation. He took our place for punishment, not for abolition of humanness.
Part of this spirituality is the ability to begin to understand God's word. Our goal in life is not to loose ourselves in a larger whole, but to understand God's mind, purposes and plans for us as human beings. In that relationship between the creator and the creature, the individual will never disappear or loose himself. Christians are written in the book of life by name. Only an individual can have a name. The Bible is a record of people with names, who have made wise and foolish choices throughout their life. Nothing remains unnoticed. Each person has a record, a place for glory or for shame.
Spirituality does not mean any of the following three things often suggested with the word spiritual. It does firstly not mean anti-material. The spirit of God does not stand in contrast to matter. He created it. He brooded over it at the beginning, until it had further definition. Spirit stands in distinction to matter only. Spirit is a person, spiritual relates to personality, thought and purpose. That is why a tree does not have a spirit. There is no spiritual lesson to be drawn from watching a lily in the valley, except that the shape of the flower speaks of a purposeful creator rather than chance at the beginning of each flower.
Secondly, spiritual does not mean having no material interests. Poverty of spirit, admission of need, are not the same as not working, disregarding human achievement and having nothing to share with those in need. The Spirit sustains creation. From the Spirit of God we receive information on how to live and work in the material world. He gives ideas, suggests goals and encourages the development of our spirit to grapple with what is true, valuable and human. It does not come to us naturally. We need to work on it with our spirit, imagination and careful deliberation.
Thirdly, spiritual does not mean stupidity. Knowledge must be discerned. What is real is different from what is ideal or imaginary. What is told can be lies. what is printed might sell, even if it is trash! There are good and bad kings and governments. We need to weigh to whom we give our loyalty. There is no excuse for foolishness in a fallen world or temptations, distortion and the wickedness of man. There are fair and unfair judges. Justice is more than a law applied. Is the law just? Was false evidence admitted? And there may be true and false prophets. Not everything declared under oath or in office is true to God. People can use the name of God for their own personal vanity. Therefore, spirituality means discernment, not obedience. Wisdom demands a broader consideration than merely bowing to authority for the sake of peace.
When we concern ourselves little with the material world in expectation of heaven, we are not spiritual, but misguided. When we do not work for life, but aspire after piety for another world, we disregard the created normality of life, have nothing to be generous with and forget that Christ will demand an accounting for the talents he has given. When we do not think, debate and doubt, we deny the command to seek wisdom, to beware of the leaven of evil, to serve good government and to set forth the reasons for the hope in us. We make it impossible for God to bless our going out and our coming in during our life of work, growth and in the human community.
The relationship Christianity focuses on is with a God, who himself work, thinks and by his word and Spirit clarifies reality for us. His spirit reveals what is on the mind of God (2. Corinthians 2:6ff). He will lead us into all truth. He will comfort us in the midst of hard and difficult times. He will remind us of what he has already said and done, so that we can stand on what is true, moral and righteous in this life already.
The relationship with the God of the Bible confirms my personhood, it does not swallow it. God addresses my mind, he does not destroy it. He feeds me with discernment and wisdom for the asking. He does not demand submission as a test of faith. He depends on my faithfulness in life in many ways, for my prayer matters in real history, both seen and unseen.
The God of the Bible and father of Jesus Christ gives me a home to live in . I am not told to change being, character and personality first. There is warmth, affirmation and responsibility within a larger purpose. Yet I am never merely a number, a leaf on the tree or an idea in the wind. Once made as a child of my parents, the Bible gives us eternal life, a resurrected body and a continuing meaningful existence without end. The God made us. He does not let us go to waste.
All other religions demand that I do not take myself too seriously. In fact, I am only an appearance to them, at best a plaything for gods, a part of the cycle of eternal, impersonal and therefore meaningless existence. The Bible affirms God's true personhood. Here your calling is to be human.
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