Saturday, July 17, 2010

theologising / philosophising: the nature of man

there's a quote that always nags around in the back of my head. i can't shake it. it's creatively compelling. when i first read it, intermittently staring up at a clear blue sky and what i was reading as i lay on a recliner in the backyard, i wrote it down in my notebook. i've had other notebooks since but i get anxious if i don't know where that notebook is - mainly because i worry about misplacing the exact wording of the quote.

the quote comes from pascal's pensées (VII:434). pascal was one of the world's greatest thinkers - a genius of science, but also an astute observer of the condition of man, and a christian. when he died in 1662 he left behind an unfinished work, in notebook form. pensées (french for 'thoughts') is a collection of notes that he jotted down about life, the universe and everything.

the quote ('my' quote) is his definition of humankind:

"Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe."

this captures the massive paradox, the tension, in what it is to be human. another quote that captures the same paradox is found in psalm 8:4:

"what is man that you [God] are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?"

to my thinking, we are all aware of this tension.

when i was at university, my research topic was 'christian poetry'. i was interested in poetry written by christians that was an established part of the 'canon' of english literature. two of the more prominent names, for example, are milton (in the 17th century) and eliot (in the 20th). another name that requires consideration is christina rosetti (19th). while researching her work, i came across a book in which the author (mary finn) had critiqued rosetti's poetry from the standpoint of a concept devised by soren kierkegaard (the 19th century philosopher and theologian).

that concept was the idea of 'incommensurablity'. i might be a little patchy on this - i'm working from memory, and i doubt i ever fully grasped exactly what kierkegaard was on about even at the time. but for our purposes, and i'm probably hijacking kierkegaard's concept here a bit, it describes in another way the tension described by pascal in the quote above.

mary finn's point was that out of this tension - this struggle to unite the paradoxes of the human condition - comes some of the greatest works of creativity.

kierkegaard overcomes this 'incommensurability' by something he calls 'the leap of faith' - ie, while holding the paradox (in the form of 'doubt') to be evident and undeniable, the chasm can be crossed by making a leap of faith into belief in God.

in the essay that resulted from my research (which also touched on the writing of eliot as well as rosetti) i argued that incommensurability was ultimately overcome by 'consummation', ie the union of God and humankind (the Bible describes it in terms of Christ and his bride) that is ultimately furnished by God in the form of heaven, and (now that i think of it) the new heaven and new earth, and the kingdom of heaven, and the Word becoming flesh in Jesus.

this morning i was reading an essay by karl barth (the 20th century theologian) called 'God's Word and the Decision of Faith'. he poses psalm 8:4 as a direct question that demands an answer. what
is man, that [God] is mindful of him? he says,

"Here there is only one answer: This man is man in the
decision of faith."

'the decision of faith', as barth terms it, is our response to the Word of God (including the fact that the Word became flesh, ie Jesus is the Word).

it is this decision, and the fact that we are in the position to
need to, and be able to, make this decision, which ultimately defines us. as barth puts it,

"Man is what he is and he is everything that he is in the decision of faith."

i think a good illustration might be to look at it in terms of a 'male' and 'female' plug. the 'male' plug is the Word of God, the 'female' plug is our decision of faith. to allow 'power' or 'signal' to flow the two have to be connected, joined.

in those two parts is the process of redemption - redemption being the process by which the paradox is overcome and the 'contradictions' in humankind settled. the ultimate act of creativity and consummation.

to pick up, and finish with, barth again:

"For in the decision of faith [man] moves toward being ascribed and given the human nature which Jesus Christ has united to Himself, that He might establish in it peace between God and man. In the decision of faith, he stands before God as the man God intends and in the way in which God wills to have him. In the decision of faith, he exists and stands before us in his true nature. No matter how it may be with other determinants of man, in the decision of faith and only there is he his true self as a true man!"