What Does it Mean to be Human?

The philosopher Plato details the painstaking exercise of understanding humanity when he articulates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”[1] Cornel West takes that proclamation and places it in a contemporary revolutionary theme when he contends through the lives of Ella Baker, Notorious B.I.G., Malcolm X and Tupac that the “examined life is hard.”[2] What is produced through this literary conversation is an existential thought –What does it mean to be human? Moreover, as Christians we should wrestle with the troubling process of answering such a question in a state of humbleness –“to be human is not God’s parlor game; it is what God intended for us all along”…it is good theology.[3]

The theological moment rests in the contemplative understanding of “being human.” What does it fundamentally mean to be human? Is it absurd to qualify that being human affords or extends opportunities to sin and sin well? The Apostle Paul address such behavior in Romans chapters 5-6 as he beckons that though one sins, grace has the potential to render the sin helpless. He concludes with the perspective that even though grace has such potential it does not issue a license to sin. Being human consequently, calls us into tension with God to experience being vulnerable. It is with this Howard Thurman pathology that we experience mutual worth and value –looking past our disinherited perspective and diving into a love-ethic that locates all as neighbors.[4] Thurman would contend that a neighbor is not just the person that lives close to you but is also captured in all those whom you may encounter throughout your daily living. [5]The abandonment or embracing of such a claim would call into the question of the image of God.

The image of God then presses all to adopt a love-ethic that will become central to life in community. Once the image of God is etched in the lives of the community then the biased compartmentalization –the unnecessary need to deem others wrong in comparison to what a particular group allocates as right –will be challenged in light of biblical truth. It is quite possible that the sovereignty and image of God has an element of cruelty attached if analyzed from a personal perspective. Yes, all things work for good but the road to that good is sometimes a heavy a price to pay. The image of God stands as a benchmark in how one views others and should also present a mirror of how one views self. This is the point when doctrine has to take the lead and redirect our paths.

Doctrine will get at the crux of the issue with a foundational backing of scripture and tradition. It is within scripture that solace can be found and illumination can be envisioned in the lives of the community; where a doctrinal stance will highlight the influence of the image of God carried out in our everyday affairs. The opportunity to freely engage with God gets to the heart of what it means to be human.[6] Though one may have proclivities to commit crimes or do certain things that may be labeled as “pure evil” does not necessarily forfeit their rendering as being the image of God. The error of interpretation is locked in the thought that being human is an excuse instead of a privilege. The mere fact that we are human should serve as a reminder of the reward that we have with a great God. Instead we choose to provide excuses for our lack of being responsible and disciplined in the guise of humanity. The simple fact is that we have not embraced that we are the image of God, but have reduced ourselves to mere copies –copies lose something during the replication while images stand strong in the very essence.

The end goal is to make sure that what we believe matters. How we understand and interpret things have profound outcomes, so there must be levels of certainty. The great theologian, educator, and pastor, William August Jones, highlights in his seminal text, God in the Ghetto that the theological lens shapes your anthropological lens and impacts your sociological lens.[7] Ultimately, Jones concludes if your theological lens is wrong then how you view people and society will be wronged or distorted. The moment of clarity is embedded in correct theology and it becomes prudent in understanding the image of God. Properly understanding the image of God becomes paramount in the need for constructive and beneficial community. The goal is not to develop a systematic treatise of what community resembles but to actually be the very essence of community.

Examining life in order to define humanity is a daunting task. We have been issued tools and guidelines to assist in efforts to understand ourselves. The image of God permits us to enter into perfection with the notion that God has given his best but we have chosen the lesser. We have chosen to disrupt a natural relationship in order to connect with knock-offs. Yes, we are only human but to be human is to experience the best that God has to offer locked in an earth suit name Jesus. He set an impressive example for us to follow that pointed use in the right direction and gave us the blueprint for success. We must now take the information gained and implement it into our everyday struggles.

[1] Some have state that it say not worth living. This is taken from Plato’s Apology line 38a.

[2] This was a conceptual thought that he has introduced during many of his speeches.

[3] Robert Lischer, The End of Words, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 136.

[4] Thurman denotes, “Once a neighbor is defined, then one’s moral obligation is clear…a man must love his neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between.” Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.), 89-109.

[5] Ibid., Thurman.,89.

[6] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understand: An Introduction to Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991.), 123.

[7] William A. Jones, God in the Ghetto, (Elgin, IL: Progressive Baptist Church Publishing, 1979.)

Pastor- The Theologian in Residence

What is a theologian in residence?- a pastor. This is the question that we must unpack as we seek a the call of God. This earnest need to connect real life with a theological solution that addresses issues presents “tensions.” Michael Eric Dyson refers to this tension when he states:

“So there are tensions and, in fact, these multiple tensions define my intellectual projects and existential identities: tensions between sacred and secular, tensions between the intellectual and religious, tensions between preaching and teaching, and so on. But I think they are useful, edifying tensions, tensions that help reshape ongoing evolution as a thinker, writer, teacher, preacher and activist.” [1]

These tenuous moments serve as truth that emerges out of the context of one’s experience.[2] A theologian in residence is left to wrestle through such tension in order to provide answers to a searching congregation. It is the tensions that present issues that the theologian in residence is left to find solutions or at best opportunities to develop the faith of the people.

It is James Cone who articulates this tension as a clarion call, “It seems that one weakness of most theological [thinking] is their “coolness” in the investigation of an idea. Is it not time for theologians to get upset?”[3] This call to serve and attend represents a selfless act of bravery and a revolutionary spirit. The role of a theologian in residence is necessary in such a broken and misinformed society. This society forming a world of colonized thoughts must be invaded with theological depth that awakens the people to the obvious. No longer can church be the humdrum of the masses that affords churchgoers free networking opportunities and catwalks to display their new fashion sense with reluctance to provide biblical insight. The theologian in residence must become a catalyst for change, an impetus for creative ideas that reconnects the community back to God.

Theologians can no longer argue over mundane doctrines that only serve to augment the ego. Therefore, theology must be used as a gauge, a tool to break through into new intellectual spaces for communal advancement. Theologians must do the hard work of developing ideas that benefit the believer in objective means rather than subjective arguments, resulting in a “deep faith” dipped in love that does not subscribe to destructive doctrines.[4] These destructive doctrines become subversive and counterproductive as the church goes forth to reach the un-christian—those shaped and impacted by culture rather than biblical faith.

The posture of the theologian in residence must be one that is bothered by the insensitive nature of a community that allows its people to suffer.  Mere homiletical ingenuity without practical engagement renders the church useless –great preaching with no action.

The church is on the eve of losing its missional ethos much the same as Hip Hop lost its face to face value. In its inception, Hip Hop was something that had to be experienced as well as heard. The experience of Hip Hop was in the actual hearing of break beats being manipulated by the DJ. Then the emcee pronounced social commentary through your speaker which would become the centerpiece of all parties and entertainment. There was no Twitter or Facebook to announce the function; you had to be in the area to experience the move. Once the record companies started to see the financial gain that was produced by Hip Hop, the experience was minimized because the experience could be manufactured through a record. So the face the face aesthetic was lost due to corporate takeover. So the message became convoluted with sexual trash instead of the very social commentary that brought it to the forefront. Thus Hip Hop lost its way and the church has fallen victim to the very same aesthetic. It has lost its impact in the community because it has rejected its reason for existing—making disciples. This is the societal change that theologians in residence must find solutions for in order to be transformative in the community.

How do we construct societal change through a theological lens? ­­–is the question. The theologian in residence must adopt what Amira Baraka denotes as a “report and reflect” as he describes black artists during the Harlem Renaissance.[5] The goal is to “report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering” that change becomes imminent and obligatory.[6] The “tensions” are escalated daily in order to reshape the narrative through the work of the never ending questioning and assault for truth.

These tensions produce a spiritual salt pack to the spiritual nose of the theologian in residence. Every now and then we must be brought back to reality even as it relates to our faith. As leaders, we get quite complacent with our position and thus rest on our morals. That is around the time that God allows the truth to come and knock at our door. These tensions are constant reminders that we are not too far removed from those whom we serve. This drives home the fact that we must always be mindful of brothers and sisters still trapped in the pitfalls of an unredeemed community, fighting for the opportunity to see what lies outside of that dismal world where “the street corner has become a sanctuary community.”[7]

This is where the hard work begins for the theologian in residence –the constant battle of answering the unknown questions while pointing all people toward Christ. It is the job of the theologian in residence to wrestle with the work of the Lord as an “exegete, prophet, teacher, preacher, and philosopher.”[8] It is becoming all things to all men; it is walking humbly; it is the tedious work of the search, all for the glory of God. The theologian in residence embodies an ethic that is so consumed by God that theology is ever present in everything. There is nothing that is not impacted by theology which includes the theologian. It is this molded mind, this vulnerable space called a theologian that has experienced formation in God that makes the search renewed daily. It is this need that is beyond human understanding that forms the passion of the theologian-“a traumatic event that challenges a person to become a theologian…”[9]

I conclude with the words of a friend, Joseph Boston:

“Being a theologian isn’t the safest way to work out your faith but it’s the best path to having an authentic faith.” (1 Peter3:15)

 

[1] Michael Eric Dyson. Open Mike (United States: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), 12.

[2] James Cone, God of the Oppressed (United States: Harper San Francisco, 1975), 17.

[3] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (NY: Harper and Row, 1989; reprint of the 1969 original),2-3. The italicized/bracketed words are mine not those of the author.

[4] This is a thought conveyed from a conversation at Princeton from words spoken by Otis Moss III as he reflected on William Sloan Coffin.

[5] LeRoi Jones( Amiri Baraka), Home (New York: William Morrow, 1996),251.

[6] Ibid.,251.

[7] Harvie Conn. A Clarified Vision of Urban Mission. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing,1987), 44.

[8] Cone, God of the Oppressed, 8.

[9] iJudith Herman. Trauma and Recovery. (New York: Basic Books,1992), 178-188

The Incarnation- Incarnation, Perichoresis and Racism Part 2

There is an ever-present danger when living an incarnational life. The vulnerability of this space posses the ability to instill humility in leadership through the rigors of life. The closeness that is fashioned in such intimate containers unmasked all pretentiousness and facilitates true authenticity. The pressure of incarnation produces “fresh” ministry that addresses problems but will definitely redirect those locked in the process to reshape their preconceived narratives.

The realness of incarnation centers on the fact that at all times you are actively present in life. It is this perichoretic moment as Jurgen Moltmann would say where “we are ‘habitable’, for one another, giving one another open life-space for mutual indwelling. Each person is indwelling and room-giving at the same time.” This becomes reality for many as they journey through the process of incarnation. Incarnation invites others to either join or destroy. The easy work of incarnation is mythical at best but painfully articulated within the body like the ink of tattoos-simply works of art. It takes a tremendous level of humility to navigate through streams of unfamiliarity sometimes just to encounter a dislike.

One who embodies the methodology of incarnation intuitively or mystically unearths evil aspects of racism (really prejudice) through vulnerability. This unveiling of self as Eboni Marshall Turman denotes in her work Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation, becomes counter-intuitive to “the negative and positive poles of a dichotomous racial hierarchy.” In other words, the more that I am authentically locked in the imago dei (image of God), in my human flesh, following the guidance of God, the greater the potential for others to become uncomfortable around me -especially those who make it their reality to dislike me based upon human flesh only. Their adjustment is to use “identification as the power play.”  So no longer is the imago dei the primary issue but racial hierarchy now guides the perspective.

More to come…

The Incarnation- Just present or Actively Present part 1

I have come to the conclusion that how you view the incarnation impacts your sociological grid . It is the incarnation where we see God coming to “chill with us.” It is in the chill where the difference of perspectives starts to tease out the differences. Is his mere presence substantial enough?

John Murray writes,

“The Son of God did not become personal by incarnation. He became incarnate but there was no suspension of his divine self-identity.”

This is a well crafted thought but tends to lend itself to a disconnected Jesus-truly divine but not relational commitment. Yes, I understand Murray’s premise but I think the emphasis of dehumanizing Jesus for the sake of augmenting his divinity is problematic. Maybe my understanding of Murray is incorrect but his use of the term personal is a bit on the ambiguous side. The very essence of the incarnation celebrates the “personal” encounter with God. The need for a personal God is what makes Christianity such a fierce necessity for many in the black community. The thought that he came to see about me and stayed a while becomes the backdrop for the oppressed African that would be trapped in these yet to be united states. Without this “personal” encounter the presence of God- through incarnation- becomes no more than a hologram with perceived power. It is the personal encounter with a Jesus, who felt pain like me, that makes the incarnation such a thrust of love. Not only does he come but he comes and chills

(Just a start as I work through this in my mind and in conversation.)

Part 2 The Incarnation- Incarnation, Perichoresis and Racism

Just Thinking about Humbleness

A description of humility must be dipped in reality in order to activate its potency. Life has the uncertain task of validating the essence of humility. It will release upon you wrath and stress that will reveal the true level of your humility. The power encased in the words,” do not despise humble beginnings” are words that present an internal struggle.

Humbleness is “pedagogically unavailable” and must be learned through the trials of life. It is through the episodes that life bring that humbleness is developed.  It is a manufactured emotion for most that brings about stability. Humbleness allows a person to understand that whether they win or lose, all will be alright in the end. There is a faith component that permeates through humbleness that allows for such peace.