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This post is adapted from a sermon preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem on the weekend of May 2-3, 2015. You can listen to the audio here.
What we say to ourselves and to others shapes the way we experience life. If you develop the habit of noticing and remarking on every negative thing that happens, that practice will guarantee you will develop into the most negative person in the room.
I live in downtown Bethlehem and, as a result, we park our car on the street. We never get to park directly in front of our house because the two couples on either side of us are retired and rarely move a cars without replacing it with another one or a motorcycle. At first it was no big deal. Then it became annoying. Eventually, especially with the winter, it became frustrating bordering on outrageous.
Every time I turned on to the street I’d recite a litany of reasons why I couldn’t park in where I wanted to. Even if I got to park close to in front of our house, I’d become conscious that it was only a matter of hours until one of us would have to go somewhere and consequently lose the spot once more. Every good thing became simply the prelude to the next bad thing.
There came a point where I took a mental shift. I semi-consciously decided not to park on our block. Ever. I started to practice thinking things like these couples are older and it’s good for them to not have to walk far or the weather is pretty and it’s nice to walk an extra half-block to the house. Even when there are spaces on our block, I don’t take them. I find myself thinking I’m glad that I can leave that spot for one of my neighbors.
Writing this I find myself concerned that perhaps the spirit of Joel Osteen has taken control of my mind! On one level this is a fairly superficial thing to be writing about and for you to be reading about. At the same time, I don’t regret it. My life has been enriched because I am choosing to see this situation in a positive light. Now, when I unlock the front door I’m in a better mood than before. Who benefits from that? Certainly me, but the rest of our family too.
The contemporary protestant church has largely proved that it’s not up to the theological task of talking to normal people to about what makes us human and how our humanity is either enriched or debased. Our society tends to approach the topic in an ad hoc fashion centering discussions on a narrow range of things that we perceive diminish our humanity: poverty, both domestic and foreign, access to medicine or medical insurance, equal justice under the law (whether it be the right to marry or the right to protest), due process (especially freedom from racial profiling and overly aggressive policing). Each of these things has the potential to debase our humanity as well as the humanity of those who perpetrate each offense.
There is good academic work being done on the topic, but barely a millionth of that is appropriated and used to form parishioners in self-understanding. Consquently the vacuum has been filled by a variety of other sources, including the dominant secular notion of what makes us human. Much of our common thinking about humanity envisions it in terms of violence or power differential. The lessening of our humanity comes, in other words, by a limitation of our autonomy, our ability to freely choose and freely act upon what we have chosen.
My own church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), produces many statements on justice issues. Often these statements evince a heavy reliance on secular notions of what constitutes human flourishing. The statements themselves aren’t necessarily wrong, but often the methodology is suspect or (at least in my opinion) superficial.
What then constitutes human flourishing? What does it mean to be human?
We can answer that question in a variety of ways that relate either to our constituitive parts (mind, body, soul) or characteristics of our humanity (reason, will, etc.). A better place to start, indeed the only place in which to begin, is in relationship to God.
The fundamental principle that ought to orient us is that we are created in the image of God. There are a variety of views with respect to what the phrase means. I tend to think that it means, at least in substantial part, that we are creative and imaginative. It seems to me that while reasoning appears to set us apart from the other species, it is really the ability both to imagine and to create based on that, vision which sets us apart from other animals and liken us to God.
This correspondence, in terms of our imaginative and creative nature, is what both establishes us as made in the image of God, but it also confers upon each of us a fundamental dignity that is somehow different from that of the other animals. Perhaps its not a different dignity but rather the same dignity, albeit in sharper focus, that is bestowed upon us as the subjects of God’s created order.
Human flourishing happens in relationship to self, others, and ultimately to God. As a society we tend to order our authorities (those things that we believe should tell us what to do or who to be) the way I just did–self, others, God. We typically view God and others as existing, at least in some sense, to verify our self-assessments or validate our self-understanding.
In reality, this order is precisely backward and places the highest relative weight upon the least sure authority, ourselves. Regardless of what your political philosophy, the notion that you don’t always know what’s right or good for you is a radical statement. It limits, or has the potential to limit, some of our fundamental freedoms and moreover, more radically, it reorients our intellectual map which has, at least since Descartes, placed the self squarely at its center.*
In the next post, we’ll discuss what it could look like to reorient ourselves such that we move in the direction of God, others, self in our framing of life.
*Perhaps some of my Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends would point out that Luther elevated his conscience as the arbiter of what he ought or oughtn’t to do.