To Be Human: Thinking with Bonhoeffer

What does it mean to “be human”? Have we given sufficiently careful consideration to this topic? Or have we simply made the assumption that it is whatever we are doing? Is it to be rooted only in description of how “we” are or prescriptive of how “we” ought to be? Or is it yet some other thing?

I taught an adult Sunday school class a few years ago where I was asked to address the subject of “being human.” In the course of the conversations, a discussion of holiness was brought up. Someone mentioned that “we know we will sin, because we are all humans after all”. This struck me in light of Bonhoeffer’s statement that popped into my mind at that moment: “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings” (D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics [Vol. 6; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005], p. 84, emphasis added). While this statement assumes that we strive to be more than human (because we believe our being human is something to be overcome), I wonder if this is not the basis for the excuse echoed in my Sunday school that day.

We blame our humanity for our sinfulness. It struck me that Paul never does this, John never does this, and Peter never does this. The Scriptures blame our sinful or “fleshly” nature (the language of Paul). And, perhaps surprisingly for many, I don’t believe this should be confused with “being human”, truly human. The reason being that Jesus is True Man and all else is but a pale image of the true, being marred by sin. I would actually contend that our sinfulness deprives us of our humanity, because it is only in obedience to the Father that one is truly human in the fullest sense. And this can only come about by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit (the spirit of adoption crying “Abba, Father!”) conforming us into the image of the Son, who Himself is the true image of God.

So what are some potential outcomes of this change of perspective which seems to follow the trajectory proposed by Bonhoeffer?

(1) To be human is to be taken up into Christ. It is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God which is acceptable and pleasing. It is the humanity of God in Christ taking up our sinful humanity and glorifying God through the obedience of redemption. To be truly human is to be counted as those who are in Christ: the righteousness of God and the First Adam.

(2) To be human is to set aside excuses for sinning. We can no longer say that we will continue to sin because “we are just human after all”. NO! We have been delivered from death to life. The Spirit of Christ Jesus now lives in us. We have been baptized with Christ and our sins have been once for all dealt with. We are not the children of the devil, but the children of God who no longer are slaves to sin and death. We are slaves of Christ Jesus our Lord and have been delivered from death to life! Therefore, to be “real human beings” is to live by the power of the Spirit! To live free! Free of the bonds of sin.

(3) To be human is to live free for the other and free for God. There is no constraint, but the one to love. This is the greatest commandment and all it entails: humanity unleashed from the bonds of self-serving, self-loving rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. The true human is the one who lives for the other because of being made in God’s image. Therefore, the other who is made in God’s image becomes the one by which we grow into the image of God in communion as those created and purchased by God.  As those bearing God’s image, by God’s Spirit we reflect the ineffable God in Christ. Unbounded love for God and for the other: this is being truly human…to be in Christ Jesus.

So I would charge you fully to embrace your humanity; God did!

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This was originally published by me in December 2015 thebonhoeffercenter.org

God Our Father/Mother (?): On the Divine Name in Christian Scripture

On a number of occasions I have engaged in conversations, or heard podcasts (I’m thinking here of the October 17, 2017 of The Liturgists Podcast on “God Our Mother”), or read articles (or quotes like the one pictured here of Julian of Norwich) by those who contend for broader language in regard to what we might properly call our deity within the Church. Some have contended that the NT language of “Father” is more a construct of cultural embeddedness related to a bygone era that needs this metaphor to be expanded to any number of other possibilities, such as “Mother” that would be more appropriately inclusive and thus representative of the non-gendered deity we claim to worship.
This is an abstracted illusion as it fails to appreciate the very context from which we (the Church) have inherited our language of addressing the divine: Israel and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christopher Seitz has a helpful chapter engaging this very subject in Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Baylor University Press, 2004), pp. 251-262. I include his closing paragraph as giving voice to my own reading of this issue (p. 262):

To call God “mother” or “she” would be to call attention to God as truly gendered, simply by the fact that such language means to serve as a replacement for or improvement on the biblically grounded language has the capacity to transcend this framework of discussion, because it emerges as a testimony to God’s own name and initiative in revealing it, rather than because it conforms to metaphors whose fitness is determined by human debate or divine defense. To defend God as “father” by appeal to suitability of metaphor would in fact undo the logic with which the language emerged in the first place, which is riveted to Israel’s particular experience of God’s revelation and, through the work of Christ, its extension at Pentecost to all nations and peoples. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” emerges from a particular story. Our use of this language preserves that particular story and the God who brought it and us into being, making us his people and allowing us to be faithful witnesses who call upon his name, for our own sakes and for the sake of his creation.

We have not constructed our language for the divine, but have received it and do well to faithfully pass this story along in our invocation of the Name. To do otherwise, is to abstract “God” from the story of Israel and God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How we confess God is a matter of faithfulness to that self-revelation and not a matter of cultural speculation and debate. While metaphors for the divine abound in Scripture (including those which are feminine or motherly) we do well to take up the language of God’s self-giving in prayer and praise, and we refuse the very specificity of God’s self-revelation to do otherwise.