Becoming less human?

trigger

Trigger the philosopher

In an episode of the classic BBC comedy “Only Fools and Horses” Trigger, a roadsweeper, claims to have used the same broom for 20 years, though he adds that in that time it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  His friends clearly doubt that it therefore qualifies to be considered the same broom.  This is a modern variant of the ancient paradox called the Ship of Theseus, a philosophical debate over whether the identity of the original object can be said to be continuous over time when all its original parts have been replaced.  A bit like the Sugababes after the three original members had all left.

A similar question can be raised about being human.  It has been estimated by several authoritative microbiologists[1] that bacteria and fungi living in and on the human body outnumber the human cells by an incredible 10 to 1, with over 500 different species living in the gut and 500 more living on the skin.  Less than 10% of the cells in your body are human!  While these fellow-travelling cells are blatantly parasitic and can cause disease, they can also significantly help our existence, helping us digest food and absorb energy, stimulating our immune systems, breaking down waste and acting as a protective barrier on the skin.  Some of them even defend us, attacking invading bacteria of the wrong sort.  One microbiologist has said of this prolific microbial infestation: “they truly represent another arm of the immune system.”[2]

All of this has a huge impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Babies are born free of microbes, and we acquire more throughout our lives with every drink, touch, or kiss.  So as we move from 0% to over 90% microbe throughout our lives, life itself is a journey into becoming less human!

Or is it?  To be human is to be in community.  Way back in the days of the Garden of Eden, God concluded that ‘It is not good for the human to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18).  The human needed community of its own kind, and ducks, fish and elephants weren’t quite up to the job – fortunately!  This need for community reflects the community inherent in a Trinitarian understanding of God: three persons in perfect harmony, love and unity within the One being.  Historically, human life has thrived in community.  The aggressively assertive individualism of 20th century Europe is a historical anomaly, which is already showing signs of being redressed as postmodern youth are more aware of their connection to the global village and of their need for community, even if it’s expressed mostly through their technology!

In the same way as we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other life forms at a microscopic level, we also enjoy one at a macroscopic level – with God!  Jesus teaches a lot about this in John’s gospel but we are not accustomed to thinking about our interaction with God in this way, largely because our thinking has become so individualistic.  But consider the impact of the following verses, all from John when viewed from the standpoint of a committed, interacting, mutual relationship with God:

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).  Is Jesus really in us in the same way that he is in the Father?  Linking these statements in this way makes it appear he believes so.  Does it really mean that being ‘in Christ’ effectively invites us through him to participate in the nature and essence of the Trinity?

Abide in me, and I will abide in you… apart from me, you can do nothing (15:4-5).  Jesus’ teaching on the vine makes it clear that unless the branch stays connected to the vine, it can’t hope to survive, let alone bear good fruit.  Branches don’t dip in and out as they choose.  They are intimately and permanently interconnected, allowing the sap to flow continuously, not just when they feel the need for it.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (6:56).  Eating and drinking is a reference using physical sustenance as a metaphor for spiritual life.  It parallels the sap from the vine.  It’s not about the need to take communion regularly so much as the constant communion of looking to Jesus as the source of our being (Acts 17:28).  Compare the English idiom ‘that’s meat and drink to me.’[3]

Whoever believes in me, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water (7:38).  This verse has echoes of the river seen in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:7-12) and foreshadows the one in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).  It is not a pathetic trickle or an intermittently dripping tap, it is a powerful, life-giving and permanent watercourse which symbolises the interconnectedness of our life with the Holy Spirit.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (20:21).  In this, John’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus links his sending to the Father’s.  As the Father sent, Jesus sends; as Jesus went, so do we.  We are united in ministry with the Trinity.

This gives us a new view of the intimacy and togetherness of our relationship with God.  What does it mean for each of us as we go into meetings, hold conversations, shop and eat?  It means that God is with us in everything that we think, say and do, not just in the times of prayer and ministry.  We face those difficult situations together with God.  When we walk into a room, God walks in with us.  Into every situation we take with us the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Let us reflect on how that knowledge may change our sense of isolation and disempowerment in difficult situations.

To become more human means to become less human!

 


[1] references are available on request as they are too numerous to quote!

[2] Gary Huffnagle, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

[3] Oxford Dictionary: be a source of great pleasure to; be a customary matter for – “but the high balls to the front two were meat and drink to the big Partick defenders, and Thistle soon hit back to deadly effect.” (The Sun, 2002)

Jesus rescues us from God?

rob-bellOne of the attention-grabbing statements in Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, published a couple of years ago, was the statement that ‘Jesus rescues us from God’.  Bell loves these potentially controversial yet thought-provoking sayings, and while this may on the surface sound ridiculous, put into the context of the surrounding paragraph, it might superficially seem to make sense:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

But in doing so, Bell has revealed his lack of Trinitarian thinking.  Steve Chalke did the same a few years ago, when an evangelical storm in a teacup blew up around his suggestion that God might have been guilty of cosmic child abuse by beating up his own son on the cross.  Neither of them intended to communicate that they really believed what they said, but they both inadvertently ignited some controversy.

What these two, and countless other Christians in recent years have started to do, is think of the Father (aka God), Jesus and the Holy Spirit as separate people.  This is understandable given that we classically formulate the Trinity as ‘God in three persons’.  But a person today is an individual, whereas 1700 years ago when the word ‘person’ was first used in this context, identity was far more rooted in community, family and relationship than individuality.

That means that the Christian Fathers who thrashed out the orthodox definition of Trinity were thinking more of three ‘persons’ in relationship, in community, together, rather than three individuals.  But in our individualistic culture the imagery of the Trinity is stretched almost to breaking point, as we find it hard to conceive of three ‘persons’ in one being, unless it is evidence of a personality disorder.  The postmodern church has become functionally tritheistic, simply because it is, on the surface, easier to reconcile.

But Bell is wrong: Jesus does not rescue us from God because Jesus is God.  Chalke is wrong: God did not beat up Jesus; God took the beating personally on the cross.

Trinitarian believers need to learn to see God in Jesus as much as we see Jesus in us.  Jesus had a very high Christology: He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).  I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:11).  I am the Father are one (John 10:30).  In this latter verse the Greek implies one thing or one substance, rather than the more metaphorical being of one heart and mind.

Not only did Jesus self-identify with the Father, he co-acted with the Father  – The Son can do nothing by himself… Whatever the Father does, the Son also does the same (John 5:20) and he co-spoke with the Father – I do not speak on my own initiative… I speak what the Father told me (John 12:49-50).

Even more radically, he then goes on to include to include us in this relationship of being and acting – I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20).  Remain in me, and I will remain in you (John 15:4).

And his missional mandate includes us too: God seeking the lost in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9) becomes Jesus seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) becomes our mandate in the Father and the Son: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21), empowered by the Holy Spirit, who abides with you, and will be in you (John 15:17).

When we see ourselves as part of this Trinitarian missio dei – God’s outreach to the world – we will find ourselves truly commissioned, sent, indwelt and inspired by the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.