“Becoming human” is a baffling phrase. Surely we are simply born as human beings. Of course this is true, but the nature of the modern world allows us to configure our lives in ways that can be described as “less than human.” When we visit a zoo and see a tiger pacing in its cage, we are not seeing a “true” tiger, but a distortion of the animal. Tigers cannot truly be tigers in small, confined spaces. Neither can human beings be truly human in just any configuration. Some ways of existing a simply destructive of what it means to be human.
Modern consciousness recognizes this under the general heading of human rights. Certain forms of living – slavery, extreme poverty, etc. – rob us of something essential. Infants, for example, sometimes die from the lack of human contact in an illness known as “failure to thrive.” Modern economies have created the widest range of choices in all of human history – but some choices leave us as caged tigers or neglected infants.
Human beings are social. We have a need to interact with our environment in certain ways. We are physical and sexual. We are spiritual and hunger for transcendence. We are speakers and makers of words. We impose order on chaos. The fullness of being human is beyond my ability to describe here. But it is essential to understand that the Christian faith, when rightly understood, has among its goals the fullness of human existence. Classical Christianity is inherently humanist.
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (Joh 10:10 NKJ)
The “thief” of our humanity comes in many guises. We steal humanity from one another. Sometimes we give our humanity away. Often we simply refuse the gift, choosing alternative ways that avoid the path of fullness. Not every abundance is truly human:
And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luk 12:15 NKJ)
Modern cultures have defined themselves by the abundance of their economies. The average level of wealth enjoyed is staggering when compared to any time in the past. We eat foods without regard to seasons. We build homes without regard to climate. We choose mates without regard to children or tribe.
But we do not generally make choices without regard for economic or employment consequences. We uproot our families, dismantle the extended family, abandon friends and routine, place and every form of belonging with little hesitation if we can say, “I took a job in ……” It is an explanation that is universally acceptable – the equivalent of a moral Get Out of Jail Free card. Today I could easily imagine someone justifying a disruptive move for the sake of better cellphone coverage.
Much of contemporary Christianity has been formed and shaped in this very culture, and its most successful theologies are those that conform best to the consumer model. The simplicity of the Evangelical version of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement – that is – the account of why Christ died and how we are saved by His death – is a primary example.
That model is essentially put forward as a Divine contract. God does something for us, and we choose to accept it (or not). That choice establishes a relationship, understood as a contract (frequently termed a Covenant). This reduction of human life to contractual agency destroys the wholeness of our lives. We are not contract-based. True humanity is communion-based.
Our daily experience confirms this. Modern marriage is frequently discussed in terms of contract (thus any two people can enter into such a “marriage”). But no relationship would be experienced as satisfactory were it lived like a contract: demands, duties, negotiations, performance reviews, etc. We long for relationship as communion: mutuality, sharing, giving, trust, sacrifice, love, etc. There cannot be a contract to love. Human society as a contractual world is a world devoid of love.
A symptom (and they are legion) of our contractual life is the explosion in litigation. Every element of our modern life is increasingly surrounded with rules driven by the fear of litigation. Political-correctness in speech (and so much else) is rooted in this same fear. The boundaries of contractual life are also barriers to our humanity.
Of course, such mundane symptoms seem to be a far cry from doctrines of the atonement. But explanations that are essentially contractual arrangements become popular precisely because those who hear them think in contractual terms. It is of little use to engage in historical argument about where such thinking began. But it is essential for Christianity in the modern world to recognize this aspect of our culture and refuse to support it. The theology of the contract simply underwrites the culture’s destruction of our humanity.
I will suggest a strange measurement for true humanity: How do we suffer as human beings and how do we rightly bear the tragedy of our existence? These are unusual questions in the context of a culture that is designed to maximize pleasure and satisfaction and to minimize suffering. But suffering is an unavoidable part of human existence. And regardless of all attempts to the contrary, we will die, and everything we have done will pass away (this is our tragedy).
Suffering and tragedy are not only inevitable and universal, they also challenge our lives at the very point of their meaning. It is here that the modern project most often reveals its emptiness and the hollow nature of its promises. For even pleasure begs the question: to what end?
It is not surprising that end-of-life issues have become prominent in our times. It is at the end of our lives that suffering tends to cluster. Death is often painful and ironic. It mocks our ability to choose. We fight back demanding that we be allowed to choose the manner of our death. And so being human is finally defined by the ability not to be.
Such an elevation of choice becomes the engine of our inhumanity. In the name of ending suffering, we end our existence itself. And this is always true. When the primary goal of life becomes the absence of suffering, then we agree to do murder. For suffering cannot be abolished, only killed.
This sheds an interesting light on the question: “Why does God allow people to suffer?” Apparently, the Christian God does not think the elimination of suffering to be the ultimate good. And there is indeed something greater.
What is greater is the transcendence of suffering, the taking up of suffering into a life and a world in which it has meaning and purpose, in which suffering is ultimately and profoundly human and productive of being human.
Christ reveals the nature of true humanity:
“For on the night in which he was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world…” (St. John Chrysostom)
The voluntary self-offering of Christ is not a transaction, a sacrifice or payment required for the forgiveness of sin. It is the voluntary self-offering of God by which we are united to Him. It is also the primary revelation of God to man.
For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:10 NKJ)
But the salvation we have “by His life,” is not a salvation without suffering. If anything, the Christian life contains specific promises of suffering. Christians are those who have followed Christ and voluntarily lay down their lives.
It is true that we are promised a final victory, but that victory is not a birth beyond self-offering, but a new birth into the eternal self-offering that is the life of God.
The Christian Church is the living Tradition of the self-giving life of God. Everything within that Tradition is in conformity with that life and moves everything within it towards that conformity.
There is no such content in the modern project. Instead, the false promise of life without suffering is offered for a price (whatever the market will bear). And, of course, it is itself a mockery of the larger part of humanity. For the suffering that can be alleviated for some cannot be alleviated for all. And those who are condemned to contemporary suffering (those who cannot afford the alleviation) must watch in tortured entertainment while the suffering-free world is constantly displayed before them as the media sells it to others.
The modern distance is more than a space between the have’s and the have nots: it is the gulf between those who can afford to postpone their suffering and those who cannot. The American culture not only fails to lift its poorest from their poverty. It also imprisons the largest proportion of a population in the free world. Of course, unlike Stalin’s slave-filled prisons, these must suffer, knowing “they deserve it.”
I am not offering an indictment of an economic system. We should be free and work and live and play. But we do so to the wrong ends. Our culture suffers from a deep spiritual sickness rooted in the false promises and doctrines of the modern project. It is simply not working by the measurements of our humanity.
There is no substitute for the gospel, nor can the gospel be altered to make it conform to a false promise. Christianity that is rooted in the modern project is not able to save. Like the modern project itself, it mocks human beings by underwriting the false assumptions of their culture. Christianity as the “modern economy at prayer” is among the saddest forms ever forced upon the Scriptures.
We hunger for communion with God and each other even while we make contracts to avoid it. But Christ is the truly human who takes upon Himself the sin of the whole world. That reality is inexorable and cannot be erased. The Divine Communion presses itself upon us and calls us to itself, a sweetness so wondrous that even its suffering is known as “joyful sorrow.”
All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, unless otherwise noted.