Monday, May 12, 2008

Individualism, human nature, & sin

The Psalmist’s question persists today, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8.4). This glory and honor is the indelible image of God created within them (Gen. 1.26). What does the “image” actually refer to? At times in our Christian history it has represented our physicality, our reason, dominion over the earth, human freedom, and our creative abilities.[1] All of these seem to be rooted in a distorted anthropology. The definition of the “imago Dei” cannot be rooted in self perception or similarities seen in both humankind and God because we inevitably see ourselves first and fashion God in a likewise manner. Rather the question about what humanity is like as created in the “imago Dei” is really a question about the nature of God. Without Calvin’s well known dialectic of two part knowledge of self and God, resting finally in the knowledge of God shaping our anthropological perceptions we will surely stray into anthropomorphism.[2]

We must return, as many are right now, to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be the source of all theology including our anthropology. Our nature then is constituted within the otherness of the relational Trinity rather than humanity’s inherent ability as individuals or collectively. If God is conceived of as a monistic being, it only follows that as God’s creatures we would assume the same of ourselves as individuals. Without this rootedness in the Trinitarian economy, we are free to imagine ourselves as autonomous, creative, and rational, beings. From this vantage point, faith becomes solely a vertical matter between the individual and God. The essence of the social Trinity emanates from the indwelling service to the other Person’s of the Trinity. This Trinity, perfect community in itself, reaches out and invites humanity to join in the dance. Yet this is not just an individualistic venture. This loving and selfless serving within the Economy is to be taken up as the model for the relational life of the Church. But where human identity is not rooted in the interdependence of the Trinity, and subsequently in the body of the church, the individual inevitably takes priority.

We should be careful at this point as well not to continue individualistic approach to God. The individual approaching the Trinity is not much better than the individual approaching a deistic or monistic conception of God unless it drives the individual out of him or herself to others. It is here that we see the Trinitarian shape of ecclesiology mirroring the heavenly Trinity and the individual entering into participation in both.

With such vulnerability, it is likely the individual will balk at giving ones self over to another person or larger entity for fear of exploitation or loss of individuality or uniqueness. These fears are not unfounded in common human experience. Yet the Trinity can set the example to overcome misperceptions and abuses of uniformity. Though being an indissoluble unity, the immanent Trinity functions in eternal distinctions as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and is expressed in differentiated agency. Individuality of each member seems to come from the expressed agency of the larger Trinitarian community. Each person of the Trinity has specified roles. If we take this as the model for human identity and social interaction, our identity is tied to the larger constituting body in the source and use of, and not negation of, individuality.
I wonder too about the ones perception of sin. Where the individual is the primary reality, can we rightly understand the original sin or the corporate nature of sin? Some weeks ago, I noticed in our Sunday morning liturgy that most, in singing the Gloria, changed the phrase, “You take away the sin of the world” to “You take away the sins of the world.” I began to ponder the significance of such a small change. Without a proper understanding of our fallen state through Adam, where sin entered through one and spread to all (Rom. 5.12) and through which all will die (1 Cor. 15.21), we cannot rightly understand our state before God. Where the pervasiveness and radicality of our sinful nature is reduced to sins, individuals are easily led to believe that they become a morally neutral or blank slate before God once sins are forgiven. Sinful nature is reduced to sinful actions. Where the Gloria continues “have mercy on us” the mercy the atoning sacrifice is made into asking a favor of forgiveness. If the blank slate is granted by the individual, Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not even needed because we can choose to live a sinless or moral life.
For the radical individualist, sin likely pertains only to individual actions and not corporate. Certainly personal sins are important to confess to our Creator and Redeemer, but we must look beyond ourselves and our own actions to those wrongs that we may be implicitly and explicitly involved in at all levels of participation. While it becomes increasingly hard to explore our responsibilities within the wider societal circles in the global interactions of today’s world we must be attempt to be aware of the consequences of corporations and nations, economic policies and beyond.

[1] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 121-122.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), I.II