Last week’s [Common Thought] post about the history, context, and theological implications of the Bible’s use of the concept ‘Image of God’ prompted a further interaction. This interaction begins to explore the idea that the resurrected body of King Jesus is a better basis for creating a Christian theological anthropology. One that is able to provide every human person the absolute value and dignity we confess as Christians better than the commonly used claim of everyone being mad as an ‘Image of God.’ The question asked was, “Can Christian teachings be translated into something that non-Christians are able to learn from or live by?”
I don’t believe that Christian beliefs and practices can translate, if what we mean is to find some partial belief that is a palatable middle-ground for non-believers, or create some generalized ethics separate from Christian faith. Such a midpoint would seem to be impossible because the Christian faith is based on full confessions about wondrous mysteries revealed to the people of God in history. Scripture particularly, but also the tradition and liturgy, lays out a way of life expected of Christians on account of their confessing allegiance to King Jesus. This way of life is communal and therefore always public, which mean there are always larger social consequences and implications. Theology, then, is the people of God’s conversation in which we create coherent conceptual systems and structures between our communally confessed beliefs and our expected faithful practices. We see this negotiation occurring throughout the Scriptures, particularly in the NT, the ecumenical councils, and the great tradition of the Church.
A good example that reveals how there can be no middle ground is conceptual unity of condemning abortion and supporting human rights. For Christians, these two things are not in conflict nor are even separable. If condemning abortion is separated from supporting human rights or if abortion is made to be a human right, the Christian theological anthropology that creates the idea of individual human value and dignity collapses. This because God the Son took on a human body to live, die, resurrect, ascend, and now rules over creation as the incarnation, which has revealed the reality of the body. The reality is that the body itself is understood as the person. Not some mystical soul within it, or ideal beyond it. If a human body lives, then that human body is a person. If a human body lives, no matter how small, it is endowed with personhood because the body is the human.
From this truth all other concepts of ‘rights’ come into existence. Each human body must be related to with the dignity of being an embodied person by virtue of being related to the resurrected body of King Jesus through the common reality of human existence, the body. Since the resurrected King Jesus rules all kings and governments, in fact their authority and power flows directly from his resurrected body in order to help all embodied persons learn ordered justice and faithful goodness in society, they are accountable to him as King of kings for how they treat each embodied person created by God within their scope of authority.
Today, modern nation-states seek use the language of human rights because it is appealing to their citizens and procures acts of patriotism or allegiance by grateful citizens. But instead of rights being a form of political relation based on human dignity and divine accountability, modern governments offer rights as privileges dispensed at their own discretion or willingness. There is no divine obligation to treat people well that promotes such benefaction, only the threat of losing their power via election or rebellion. Since modern rights are not based on the resurrection there is no fundamental theological anthropology that roots the person in the body, creating the space to separate them once more. Once personhood is again separated from the body in political thought–revealed in contemporary conversations about abortion when the human body stages of zygote, embryo, or fetus are not considered to be an embodied person–there is no basis for a general concept of human dignity or rights for every particular body simply by being a human body.
Rights in secular societies have currently become unmoored shadows of a former Christian theological anthropology constructed in times long past. Modern nation-states attempt to imitate the immense value given by Christian theological anthropology to the embodied person while rejecting the determinative reality of the body that gives such value. Once personhood is conceptually endowed by power structures via citizenship privileges, particular types of bodies can be evaluated as more or less valuable, or not persons at all!, based on whatever the current and competing cultural norms are. The nation-state’s power is takes the place of God’s creative power and his accountability of judgment. The leaders who hold power in these modern governments become gods in their own land. Hence, the dangerous oscillating nature of identity politics, tribalism, and nationalism.
Again, I’m do not think Christian beliefs or ethics can translate into secular beliefs or practices that non-Christians would be able to accept or practice in any intelligible way. Again, these are confessions of belief for us, that then place ethical expectations onto us, that we then articulate further in theologically coherent conceptual structures and systems, which then give further guidance for how Christians should enact those beliefs and practices in our communal, public life in society, such as politics, business, family life, etc. Of course, Christians do believe our beliefs and practices are the best way of life for all humanity. We would love non-believers to live life with us, even if simply to be more ‘Christianly,’ but I think that would be tough as a non-Christian.
If Christian beliefs and practices cannot translate into ideas or ethics that non-Christians can believe or live by, then are Christians and non-Christians able to live together in any way?
This can be linked back to the Image/Idol of God conversation last week. First, Christian life is a communal life that worships and continually reasserts our allegiance to this Idol, which is the resurrected and ascended King Jesus, and participation with the Idol means our bodies are filled with the presence of God’s very life, his Spirit. This is communal, participatory life of Christians isn’t possible for non-believers and is the most fundamental way to live with Christians.
Then, there is the daily and mundane way this Idol-life manifests. The practices of communal life are demanding on the Christian. Such as, but not limited to, learning the memories and history of our people (usually communal Bible study), financial and otherwise care for the poor, neglected, or old in the community of faith, and the various community celebrations or projects. There is also the personal and family manifestations: learning to pray, when married how to be healthy and active spouse, the sexual restrictions, the teaching/indoctrination of children into the Faith’s beliefs and practices at home, aligning home and business practices according to faith systems before legal systems, and if not married learning how to serve one’s family and church all the more! A non-believer could try to live this life with Christians, but to be honest many Christians find the Christian Idol-life too hard to obey a lot of the time. Our hope and empowerment for this life is the very resurrection life of the Idol of God we participate in as we embody our beliefs in these practices. This practiced way of life means nothing separated from the Idol of God. Again, non-Christians could try it, but this would be tough.
Third, if by Christians and non-Christians living ‘with’ one another simply being means being near in proximity or parallel in society, then sure. Absolutely. But how does this actually play out in our current society? Are non-Christians willing to live with Christians as we demand the bodies of the unborn are persons unequivocally and, therefore, seek to outlaw all forms of abortion, except for surgeries where the life of the mother and child must be untangled for the sake of both of their lives, such as fallopian tube pregnancies? Are Christians and non-Christians able to live together if Christians publicly reject the contemporary cultural claims about ‘sexual freedom’ and openly discriminate against ways of behavior we believe is against a good human life? What if every time democracy asks Christians our opinion about legislation Christians attempt to legislate according to Christian morality because we believe laws according to Christian beliefs and practices are better for human societies? I think this one is much more possible. Non-Christians and Christians can live beside one another, and in some societal sense this could be considered ‘with,’ but really it is just a shallow connection consisting of only legal and political actions or effects, lacking any vital communal life.
Lastly, a friendship between a Christian and non-Christian is more interesting. Friends, hopefully, try to live with one another intimately and consistently. Friendship is based on commonality. Common enjoyments, causes, beliefs, practices, interests, and virtues. Friendships draw others into one’s own life. For Christians, the hope is that our participation in the Idol of God’s life will pour through our bodies so that non-believing embodied persons who are our friends might begin to interact with God through us before they even realize it. Non-Christians might be drawn towards the Idol of God through our relationships, and eventually will join us in our communal Idol-life. The opposite is also true. Many who claim to be Christians do not participate in the communal life of the Idol of God, and instead choose to live a communal life dedicated to other idols. There are plenty of those who claim the title ‘Christian’ who are friends with non-Christians and choose to live the same non-believing life as their non-believing friends. But a Christian who doesn’t live within a community of faith and practice the life of the Idol of God isn’t a Christian at all. In the end, if Christians and non-Christians are able to live with one another, it all depends on what kind of ‘with’ is meant.