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What Is Man? or Does Theology Matter?

 

Psalm 8; 144:3-4      Job 25:4-6

 

Many people are impatient with theology. They regard theology as utterly abstract and uselessly otherworldly. Theology, they assume, has to do with dotting i’s and crossing t’s. But help people? give hope to people? even save people? Since when did i’s and t’s save anyone?

But in fact theology isn’t utterly abstract and uselessly otherworldly. Theology is the discipline of reflecting upon the truth of the living God. And God is neither abstract nor otherworldly. God is concrete. God is the reality with which all of us collide and wrestle and which we sometimes deny; and God remains that reality which none of us can ever escape.

Make no mistake. When a theology of nature, for instance, is dismissed nature becomes a giant garbage pail slowly gathering up lethal chemicals.

When a theology of history is ignored we give up the struggle to lend visibility to the kingdom of God and instead make our peace with the kingdom of evil even as it savages us.

What about a theology of humankind? What are man and woman? Who are we, anyway? Are we merely two-legged featherless creatures whose toys and tools are a bit more sophisticated than those of a monkey? Are we simply the cold-blooded killers the man from eastern Europe told me we are after he himself had been victimized by both nazis and communists? Or are we simply angelic creatures of superior rationality? C.S. Lewis has pointed out that when people believe they are only animals they behave like animals. And yet paradoxically when they believe they are near-angelic their behaviour becomes near demonic. Theology — our reflection upon the truth of God — matters. Whether explicit or implicit it governs how we view ourselves, what we do to other people, and whether there is hope for any of us.

The important theological question, “What is man?”, is asked several times in the Hebrew bible. Today we are going to probe several of the answers given this question.

 

I: — “What is man that you, God, are mindful of him and care for him?” Answer: “I have made him little less than God, and have crowned him with glory and honour.” All men and women are the pinnacle of God’s creation, higher than anything else God has made, only slightly lower than God himself and crowned (the fact that we are crowned means that everyone is meant for the royal family; before God there are no commoners) crowned with a glory and an honour which no one else can snatch from us and which we cannot even forfeit ourselves. This is what we are.

It’s important that we understand we are created with a dignity we can neither lose accidentally nor fritter away foolishly nor give up disgustingly nor be robbed of helplessly. To be sure, we can always behave in such a way as to contradict this dignity, and other people can treat us so as to deny it, but by God’s ordination it is ours, and is ours forever.

Think of the situations where our society implicitly recognizes humankind’s ineradicable glory/honour/dignity and explicitly pays dearly to uphold it: the convict, for instance. One person in a penitentiary costs us (i.e., taxpayers) $55,000 per year. When a new jail is built the cost is $285,000 per cell.

From time-to-time my wife has a child in her class who is severely challenged, whether physically or emotionally. A teacher’s aide is provided (taxpayer’s expense) who assists the child with getting around, getting to the toilet, getting winter clothes on and off; or else the teacher’s aide attempts to defuse explosions hidden away in the child’s psyche, and then attempts to console the child and others whenever defusing doesn’t work and there is emotional shrapnel spewing in all directions.

What does our society spend on the aged, the infirm (who may be young), the deranged, the new-born with the birth-defect? What do we spend on people who are socially unproductive and will never come close to paying their own way? And why do we spend it? Because despite the explicit secularism of our society there is an implicit theology at work: any human being is created only less than God, and is crowned with glory and honour.

We must not think that everyone knows innately what the psalmist tells us. Conviction of the glory and honour of humankind is not innate; conviction of this truth is fostered by the gospel. Where a society isn’t illumined by the indirect lighting of the gospel, or is no longer illumined by the indirect lighting of the gospel, people are regarded as tools to be used while useful and discarded when not. Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and historian, asks, “Do you have difficulty imagining what becomes of people in a society which is no longer controlled, even unconsciously, by the indirect illumination of the gospel? Ask me”, says Solzhenitsyn, “ask me. I have lived in such a society myself!”

In the war between China and Japan just prior to World War II it was learned that the Japanese estimated how long it would take a wounded soldier to recover and return to combat, and then decided whether or not the wounded soldier would be given medical treatment. If his injuries were such that he would be unavailable for several months — as was the case with a broken femur — he was shot in the head by his own people.

How different it was in a society illumined by the gospel for centuries. When I was a young teenager I was fascinated with accounts of the Battle of Britain. One aspect of it, however, didn’t fascinate me as much as it amazed me. Injured enemy fliers who had been shot down in the course of bombing defenceless civilians were themselves given the very best medical treatment available in Britain. If the flier had glass fragments in his eye and he needed the world’s best ophthalmologist, he got the world’s best ophthalmologist, even if there was a lineup of British citizens who needed medical treatment but whose condition was less urgent. This, I thought as a 14-year old, was the height of irrationality. It is the height of irrationality — unless even our worst enemy is someone who cannot forfeit the glory and honour and dignity in which he or she was created.

Theology matters. Imagine a society where such truth and reflection upon such truth disappear completely.

 

II: — What is man? woman? “Man is like a breath”, says the psalmist in his second answer, “man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” In other words, we are short-lived creatures for whom life passes speedily; in addition, we are vulnerable creatures for whom life unfolds perilously.

Our days are like a passing shadow. Once we see this we can react in two quite different ways. One way is the way of fatalism and indifference. “Since life passes so very quickly, what is the point of doing anything? of exerting ourselves anywhere? Why not sit back and let the passing shadow pass?”

The other way is the way of biblical faith. Just because life is but a breath and our days a passing shadow, every moment has eternal significance. Every moment is an opportunity for mirroring the truth of God. Every moment is unique, pregnant, unrepeatable. Every moment can be a window opening on the God who sends rain on just and unjust alike. What occurs in any moment can have consequences beyond anything we might imagine.

Several times I have said from this pulpit that the day came for me when I realized that I could control almost nothing; could influence a great deal, to be sure, but control almost nothing. I used to think this was so because of my social situation. But someone like the Chief Executive Officer of a major corporation, the grand boss, someone whose social situation wasn’t mine; he could control eversomuch! Then one day I learned that a CEO in Canada lasts 3.5 years (on average), whereupon he is fired. What does he control then? What did he control earlier? Not even enough to keep himself from being fired! And the hightest political authorities? How much can the prime minister control? If the American government raises interest rates tomorrow there will be huge consequences for every dimension of Canadian life. And the prime minister will have no control whatever over the move made by our American friends or over the consequences of it for Canadians.

Because my life is a breath and my days a passing shadow I have to realize that I have only a few breaths in which to be. I don’t have to do something dramatic or eye-catching. I have to be. It’s my “be-ing” that will prove to be my greatest influence.

In the midst of “passing shadows” I often feel I am endlessly jostled by semi-anonymous people. The woman from the Ontario Housing Development who needs a few dollars because her child is sick and what the sick child needs is just enough to put the family finances below the line this month.

The schizophrenic fellow who wants to talk to me not because he has urgent information to convey but because he’s lonely and can’t understand why people weary of and walk away from his pillar-to-post ramblings.

I start to feel that all of this is crowding out the really important work I am supposed to be about.

Then I recall the master himself on his way to the house of Jairus who was the president of the synagogue. Jesus is going to the man’s house because the man’s daughter is sick unto death. As Jesus walks resolutely through the crowds an unnamed woman reaches out and touches him. Doesn’t she know he’s hurrying to make a housecall before a young girl dies? She doesn’t know this. How could she? But surely she can see how busy he is. “Hold it!”, says Jesus to impatient disciples accompanying him, “someone has touched me. Some one person has reached out to me. Let’s stop here and deal with this.”

Then I remember the people who have delayed in order to be kind to me. I’m not talking now about the people who have assisted me dramatically on the two occasions I was injured on the street and needed an ambulance to get to the hospital. I’m talking about the unnamed people who have gladly inconvenienced themselves in order to help me, therein mirroring our Lord himself.

The clerk at the Lufthansa counter in Frankfurt, Germany when my pick-up didn’t show up and the Frankfurt telephone directory had defeated me and I couldn’t find the village of Arnoldshain in the Frankfurt directory inasmuch as I had been given the wrong spelling of “Arnoldshain”.

The “bag lady” who welcomed me to her table in the doughnut shop when I was an undercover journalist in Parkdale. Sure she was deranged. But who ever said you had to be sane in order to be helpful? This 25-year old woman was unafraid, and assumed that I, grubby as I was, was another needy person as needy as she.

Wherever I have been in life I have found no shortage of people who were kind to me. (I didn’t say “everyone”: I have met my share of curdled spirits. I said “no shortage”, a sufficient number of kind people.) They have intuited, even if they never thought about it consciously, that because life is but a breath and our days a passing shadow, the only time we have to exemplify God’s truth and mercy and faithfulness is now. This moment is unique and is fraught with eternal significance.

 

III: — “What is man?” The book of Job gives a third answer: “A maggot, a worm.” Wait a minute! I thought we were little less than God, crowned with glory and honour! And now a maggot, a worm? Actually, it is no putdown, no belittlement of us. To understand what is said we must first hear the question it answers. “How can anyone be innocent? (NEB) or clean? (RSV). Can anyone be righteous or pure in God’s sight? (NIV) Maggot! Worm!” It’s the writer’s way of reminding us that we sinners are defiled before God.

I am the last person to belittle what the psychologists tell us about the importance of positive self-image and and self-confidence and ego-strength. The person whose self-confidence has eroded utterly or who has never had any is a truly pathetic creature. Then what are we to make of “Maggot, Worm!”, especially when we all know that maggots frequent rottenness and worms frequent excrement? Is scripture simply fostering a negative self-image, destroying what little self-confidence we have, and ruining the ego-strength we’ve struggled for years to build up?

Not at all. When scripture pronounces us “Maggot, worm!”, it is reminding us that sin defiles; we are defiled before a holy God. Defilement is always loathsome. We are loathsome to God. Our sin revulses him. Specifically sin’s defilement deprives us of our access to God; sin’s defilement disqualifies our acceptance with God.

Yet the marvel of God’s grace is that as loathsome as our sin renders us to him, he has made provision for us in the cross of that Son who identifies himself with the loathsome. The paradox of grace is that the more loathsome we are to God the more he longs for us. The glory of the gospel is that while we can (and do) sin our way into God’s mercy, we can’t sin our way out of his mercy.

“Maggot, worm!” So far from being a putdown, an ego-crusher, it’s the most positive thing that can be said of humankind. It’s positive in the first place because it’s the truth about us, and no falsehood, however sweet-sounding, is ultimately helpful or positive. It’s positive in the second place in that such a pronouncement is riddled with hope: sinners can be salvaged and restored.

Years ago I came to see that the most positive thing to be said about human beings is that we are sinners. The alternatives are unrelievably negative. If instead we say that humankind’s root problem is that we are uninformed, we make ourselves the ready victims of the propagandists. If instead we say that we are socially maladjusted, we welcome the cruelty of social engineering. If instead we think our root problem to be our material deprivation, we embrace a statist economy, and statist economies, we have seen repeatedly in our century, are humanly horrific. It’s supremely positive to say we are sinners: there’s hope for us.

To be sure, it’s the creature crowned with glory and honour that is also the sinner whom the Hebrew writer pronounces “Maggot, worm!” Yet it’s we maggots who are destined to have our inalienable glory and honour displayed in full splendour.

 

IV: — Then what are we finally? Are we a combination of the three descriptions we have heard today? If so, are we all three equally? Does one predominate? Which one?

Our questions are answered as we leave off guessing about ourselves and look to Jesus Christ. In him we are created for fellowship with the One who has crowned us with glory and honour. In him we are created for fellowship with the One in whom our dignity and worth are guaranteed forever. In him we are created for fellowship with the One before whom any Christ-like deed is rendered eternally significant. In him we are created for fellowship with the One in whom our sin is pardoned even as a new heart begins to throb within us. We are created for a fellowship in which our glorious humanity is restored, even made resplendent.

Some people have affirmed this and are stepping forward in it. Others have not yet affirmed it, but rather scorn it and thrust it away. Yet the invitation and summons remain. And therefore you and I are to look upon every human creature as invited to this fellowship and appointed to be a beneficiary of it. What the future of humankind is, at least in the western world, according to Solzhenitsyn, depends on whether the Christian Church can reassert convincingly the truth of God concerning his creation.

Theology matters.

 

                                                                    Victor Shepherd
March 1998