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Theology of Life

 

Published in Theological Digest & Outlook,
(Burlington, September, 1998)

THEOLOGY OF LIFE

“Sunstroke” and “moonstroke” are alike dreadful, albeit each in its own way. Yet the psalmist (Ps.121) insists that the Lord, helper and keeper of his people, has guaranteed that the “sun shall not smite you by day nor the moon by night.” When our foreparents in faith spoke metaphorically of sunstroke they had in mind the frontal assaults that crumble people: war, rape, torture, intra-family savagery. “Moonstroke”, however, was something else. To be “moonstroked” was to be submarined insidiously by what we do not see, cannot anticipate, and against which therefore we aren’t forearmed. To be moonstroked was to be victimized unknowingly, victimized helplessly, victimized utterly. It was also the conviction of our foreparents that the same Lord who safeguarded his people against “sunstroke” and “moonstroke” alike would also “keep them from all evil”, “keep their life.”

Our foreparents’ conviction notwithstanding, we can’t help asking, “Are people “kept” in the face of evil? What does it mean to say they are kept when they manifestly aren’t kept alive? How are the 1.2 million unborn children aborted each year in the U.S.A. kept? And the brain-damaged daughter of Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer, on the day her father killed her?

We can move toward answering such questions only as we patiently probe the witness of scripture to the truth. God can “keep our life” only because God is the author of life; and he is the author of life inasmuch as he is the “living God” himself. God’s very nature is life. For this reason alone he is able to impart life to his creatures, and it is his sole prerogative to do so. God “breathes” the breath of life into his creatures, who thereby are rendered living themselves.

We are not to think that the God who lives “makes alive” by sharing his deity with his creatures. (This would be but an anticipation of New Age pantheism); neither is it the case that creatures possess life as an immanent creative principle. God alone has life in himself; all others have life on a loan. The God who lives himself and makes creatures distinct from himself alive too ever remains sovereign sustainer. While God’s sustaining of life is not episodic or spasmodic and can therefore be trusted, any presumptuousness on the part of beneficiaries is inappropriate. The king of Israel knew as much when he replied to Naaman’s messengers when they sought help, “Am I God, to kill and make alive?” (2 Kings 5:7)

Since life belongs to God, individuals do not have the right to destroy their own life or wantonly take the life of others. In short, since God is uniquely “living” and sovereignly imparts life to the work of his hands, the older testament everywhere esteems life as the supreme earthly good, particularly since life is meant to be fulfilled in intimate communion with God. This latter point needs to be underlined, for it is precisely what distinguishes humankind from the animals. The animals, after all, possess life too. Created on the same “day” as humankind, and possessed of “soul” as well (according to Genesis), they are yet not the crown of creation and are not made in the image and likeness of God. While God loves the animals and protects them (as environmentalists rightly remind us), God speaks to men and women alone. God’s addressing us, however, is never idle chit-chat. His Word is freighted with his gift of salvation and his claim upon our obedience. The Hebrew word for “word” (dabar) means both “word” and “event.” By his Word God summons the creation into being; by his Word he renders us alive; by his Word our obedience is voice-activated. The event that all this is is meant to issue in the event of communion with God. Since such communion with God is the goal or purpose of human life, only the life of grateful, loving obedience is ultimately satisfying. While life is “life” by definition (i.e., by God’s decree, lest we etherealize life and undervalue bodily existence), biblical thought consistently insists without fear of contradiction that only the life that is shaped by obedience to the Word is properly called “life.”

What does it mean to say we are created “in the image and likeness of God”? God’s free resolve, “Let us make man in our image”, indicates once again that no power inheres the creaturely in such a way that the creation itself can give rise to human existence. (Any power inhering the creation that could originate humankind independently of God could also annihilate us similarly; and this the sovereign One does not permit — for our blessing.) Instead, nothing can ever deprive a human being of humanness just because we have our existence by God from God. Succinctly put, man is “of” the creation (because forever creaturely, never divine) but not “from” it (because God-fashioned for a particular relationship with him and therefore especial.) At the same time bible-readers have long noticed that scripture nowhere specifies in what the “image of God” consists. Is the image a stamp or impression engraved upon us, or is it that pulsating relationship with God, unique in the creaturely realm, to which all are called? If the latter only, then we can only conclude that all who repudiate this relationship, frustrate it, even forfeit it are accordingly devoid of the image. If the former only, then with equal rigour we must conclude that the image, without reference to a relationship and to this extent “thingified”, doesn’t have to do with the profoundly personal. In both cases the uniquely human has been lost. The witness of scripture is plain: having being created response-able (to God), we are thereby rendered response-ible. We may honour God’s intention for us or disdain it, fulfil God’s purposes or frustrate them, love God or remain indifferent. What we can’t do, however, is escape it all! While we may attempt to flee our vocation as covenant-partners of God (and the Fall means, among other things, that everyone without exception attempts such a flight), the attempt is forever futile. And precisely here is our blessing, our hope, and the only ground of our dignity and ultimate inviolability! The “substantial” aspect of the image is that God unfailingly knows us and loves us, thereby giving us our identity and our worth, together with our capacity and desire for knowing and loving him. The “relational” aspect of the image is that fully human now on account of the Creator, we can (paradoxically) become “fulfilledly” human only as we abandon ourselves to our Redeemer. While we can and do stumble with respect to our vocation, we cannot rid ourselves of its glory.

It all means that we fallen creatures are “bent in on ourselves” (as the Protestant Reformers speak of us), and because “bent” in this manner find ourselves going ’round in circles instead of stepping ahead on that way which is also truth and life. Still, God has set a limit to the disaster we bring upon ourselves: we can’t fall so as to plunge ourselves beneath our human status and render ourselves animal or even demonic. However depraved we might be, we can’t cease to be the crown of God’s creation, singularly identified for an especial bond with him and destined for a glorious future in him. It all means too that no human being, however temperamentally vicious, psychologically twisted, physically malformed or intellectually disadvantaged; none of these is to be viewed as sub-human. It also means that no one can deprive others of their God-ordained identity, preservation and protection. Regardless of how terribly people are abused, they remain what they are (human) and who they are (their identity) before God. In view of the unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century, it must be emphasized that the worst violation of a human being cannot overturn that person’s ultimate inviolability. Because of the image of God, our reality as human beings and our identity are guaranteed.

This is not to say that sinful men and women cannot and do not deny this truth in themselves and others. We need only call to mind the commandants and their S.S. assistants in the death camps of the Nazi era. Lest the victims slated for execution appear to have been murdered, they were first degraded and made to appear as less-than-human. (Only human beings are properly described as having been “murdered.”) Camp-bosses cleverly sought to preface the destruction of detainees with the latter’s self-destruction. Such self-destruction need not have entailed suicide; self-destruction as humans was fostered by the “Catch-22” of insisting that prisoners maintain personal and communal cleanliness by defecating only in specified areas and at the same time forbidding prisoners to absent themselves from work or roll-call. This “excremental assault” (the title of Chapter three of Terence des Pres’s, The Survivor) aimed at a humiliation and degradation so thoroughgoing as to relieve guards of the last twinge of conscience. For who would ever be conscience-stricken at disposing of sub-human vermin? Even the victims’ death was to be deprived of any significance for the victims themselves and their peers: the extermination of vermin bespeaks only sanity and sanitation! And of course the treatment meted out precluded even the consolation of martyrdom. Martyrs, we know, choose to die for their faith, and these people had no choice. Moreover Jewish camp-victims were slain not because of their faith but merely because of their ancestry: they happened to have had at least one Jewish great-grandparent Now at least one-eighth Jewish, they “qualified” for inhuman treatment as sub-humans.

Just as others may deny any person’s humanness (but never deprive him of it), so any one person may contradict her own humanness. We admit as much in everyday speech when we say to someone whose conduct is deplorable, “Be a man!” We never say to an alligator, “Be an alligator!” Because an alligator can be only an alligator, anything it does perfectly reflects its nature. “Be a man!”, on the other hand, means that someone is falling short of what he is created to be. He is contradicting himself; his conduct fails abysmally to reflect his nature. The glorious, humanity-saving paradox is that the imperative,”Be a man!”, lefthandedly suggests that someone can fail to be human even as the fact of the address means that he can’t! The subtle ambiguity here is grounded in the twofold significance of the image of God.

 

G.K. Chesterton was surely correct when he said that the Christian doctrine of the Fall is the only doctrine that is verifiable! In view of the world’s ongoing violation of defenceless humans, Christians aren’t inclined to lose sight of the truth of the doctrine. Christians often are inclined, however, to lose sight of the complementary truth that God wills to preserve a fallen world, and wills to preserve it with a view to its redemption and its eschatological renewal in Christ. In other words, God’s judgement on a fallen world includes his determination not to let it sink so far into evil that it becomes uninhabitable, his determination not to turn his back on it in disgust or abandon it as hopeless. In the wake of the Fall the creaturely, unqualifiedly good as it came from God’s hand, is now known as the “natural”; i.e., the “natural” is the creaturely warped by the Fall. On the day of “the new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13) the natural will be rid of its Fall-imported frustration and futility, distortion and disfigurement. In the meantime the natural remains the means whereby God providentially protects the creaturely good whose goodness he hasn’t allowed to disappear completely. To say the same thing differently, God’s providential care for a fallen world is exemplified as we see how the natural safeguards life against the unnatural. To be sure, the unnatural can prevail for a time; in the long run, however, the natural reasserts itself and prevails by its providentially-lent strength. Adolf Hitler spoke of his “Thousand-Year Reich” that was to usher in a wholly new humanity, the race of “supermen.” The result? The Reich lasted only a decade, and fifty years later the unnatural horrors of the Nazi era continue to fill even the most convinced atheist with loathing. The depredations of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the cruelties of Mao Tse Tung and the Cultural Revolution, the throat-cutting of children and the raping of women in Bosnia, the genocide in Rawunda; the unnatural is as unmistakable as it is undeniable. At the same time the Nuernburg war-crimes trials, public outrage and economic sanctions and military interventions and international correctives: these are the reassertion of the natural in the face of the unnatural, the ever-watchful providence of God preserving the life of a fallen world for its ultimate liberation in Christ.

All that has been said concerning the natural as the means whereby God preserves life in a fallen world has specific application to the right to bodily life. It is incontrovertible that God wills human life to be bodily life. While the human person cannot be reduced to the body, the body must none the less be preserved for the sake of the person. Human beings (persons) are neither disembodied spirits nor bodies only. Yet since the body is essential to the person (no one has ever seen, met or known a person apart from encountering that person’s body), the preservation of the right to bodily life grounds all other rights. The importance of this is incalculable, particularly when the Hemlock Society speaks of the “right” to kill oneself and totalitarian societies speak characteristically of the “right” to sacrifice individuals for the sake of the collectivist good.

Then is the life of the body an end-in-itself or only a means to an end? To say only that the body is an end-in-itself is to reduce persons to bodies and to invoke the pagan cult of the body. Yet to say, on the other hand, that the body is only a means to an end (e.g., only a means to one’s personhood), is to suggest that the means can be ignored as soon as the end is obtained. If, again, the body is only a means to an end, then we have no right to bodily joys (a misapprehension that scripture corrects on page after page.) And of course if the body is only a means to an end, then any injury done to my body isn’t an injury done to me. This needs only to be stated in order to be set aside.

As the gospel-story of the rich man and the socially-useless Lazarus makes clear, life is good regardless of its utility. (Luke 16:19-31) To arrogate to ourselves the capacity to distinguish between life that is worth living and life that is not is to “Nazify” our society and welcome the unnatural. As often as I hear it suggested that we should do this I think of the severely physically disabled people, known to me, who relish life; and of the severely mentally ill people whose faith I have found radiant. And in view of the sanctuary afforded the defenceless through the many “L’Arche” communities, no more than a moment’s reflection is required to imagine Jean Vanier’s comment on the arrogance of those who take it upon themselves to “select” those whose life is deemed worth living and those whose is not.

Running throughout scripture’s nuanced discussion of life is the eschatological goal of life. Jesus Christ claims all of life as he reclaims it from the disfigurements of sin, evil and death. God protects and preserves natural life in that he has always intended its redemption and fulfilment. Scripture accordingly uses “life” of both bodily existence and this existence fulfilled in that relationship with God which Jesus Christ effects. The writer of Proverbs records the unembroidered assertion, “He who finds me finds life.” (Prov. 18:35) While God is said to have animated humans by breathing into them the breath of life, the business of humans thus rendered able to breathe themselves is to praise God. (Ps. 150:6) Over and over scripture speaks of life as an unqualified good just because there hovers above all such discussion the conviction that life is really life only as God’s purpose for it is realized: a bond with him that nothing will break. Typical is the older testament’s insistence both that life-as-such is of inestimable value and that God summons us, “Seek me and live.” (Amos 5:4) In the same vein, while God puts life and death before people who are bodily alive now and bids them choose, he doesn’t proffer life and death as if each were weighted equally. Instead God urges us, pleads with us, warns us, woos us, “Turn [i.e., repent] and live.” (Ez. 18:32) God’s pronouncement over the valley of dead bones is that people who are alive at present will yet live only as God puts his Spirit within them. (Ez. 37:14) In numerous places throughout scripture “life” means “relationship with God.” In the newer testament “life” has this meaning virtually exclusively. In the same vein “image” in the older testament speaks of our inalienable humanness; in the newer testament “image” speaks of our transformation in Christ, who is himself “the image of the invisible God.” (2. Cor. 3:18;4:4)

Jesus insists that he is life. (John 11:25) The essence of life is not to be expressed simply as biological or intellectual activity, but expressed rather as indissolubly linked to his person. Jesus never says that he has life, only that he is life. The question, “What is life?” therefore gives way to the question, “Who is life?” We must be careful, in our psychology-conscious age, lest we subtly psychologize our Lord’s insistence, as happens when people remark, “Were it not for Jesus Christ, my life would lack meaning” or “Were in not for my Lord, life wouldn’t be worth living.” While these psychological assessments are unobjectionable in themselves (because no doubt true), they are not what the apostles have in mind when they bear witness that Jesus Christ is life (John 14:6) and that he is our life. (Phil.1:21 and Col. 3:4) Despite the fact that the spiritually unquickened do not know this, affirm it or celebrate it but rather direct themselves against it, it remains the hidden truth of their existence. In the proclamation of the gospel they are summoned and equipped to “see” it, own it, confess it and praise God for it. As the definitive reversal of life’s enemy, death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ grounds the God-ordained goal of all human existence. Believers, united to their Lord who is life, know and enjoy “eternal life” now. For them, future life can only be greater intimacy with God’s “steadfast love.” Here the psalmist’s profound acquaintance with “life” — intense intimacy with his Lord — is so very rich that in contemplating its becoming richer still he finds language inadequate; he can only say, blissfully oblivious to verbal inconsistency, that God’s steadfast love (i.e., life) is even “better than life.” (Ps. 63:3)

If the nature of God’s safeguarding is to preserve us against “sunstroke” and “moonstroke”, what is the scope of God’s keeping? The psalmist says that God can be trusted to keep our “going out and coming in.” This is a rich Hebrew expression with three distinct meanings.

“Going out and coming in” is a Hebrew way of expressing entirety or totality; it comprehends every eventuality. Nothing that befalls us will ever undo God’s keeping; nothing will ever handcuff God so as to leave him unable to keep us. He who wasn’t handcuffed by the death of his Son won’t be handcuffed by anything now.

“Going out and coming in” refers to the important ventures, efforts and undertakings of life. To have these kept is to have our diligent efforts rendered fruitful. Psalm 126 promises, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come in with shouts of joy, bearing his sheaves with him.” We may have seen little fruit to date for the energy we have poured out, the sacrifice we have made and the prayers we have pleaded. Still, it all isn’t finally going to dribble away!. It’s going to be crowned.

“Going out and coming in” refers also to the early and sunset years of life, infancy and old age, when we are helpless, frequently voiceless, and always vulnerable. At he beginning of life and at the end we are kept. The child who dies in infancy, the still-born child, the aborted child, the brain-damaged child — all are kept inviolate before God, by God. The most senile person in the nursing home whose befuddlement has left her virtually unrecognizable, the most “scattered” schizophrenic whose inner torment wasn’t relieved for decades; the humanity and identity of these are kept inviolate before God as well.

It is “our great God and Saviour” (Titus 2:13) who will ever keep our life.