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The Spirit and the Forms of Love by Daniel Day Williams


Daniel Day Williams was associate professor of Christian theology in the Federated theological Faculty of the University of Chicago and the Chicago Theological Seminary, then Professor of Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Published in 1968 by Harper & Row. This book was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 7: God and Man


In his great essay, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin describes his youth in New York City’s Harlem:

Yes, it does indeed mean something — something unspeakable — to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, anti-sexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. . . The universe which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates no other power will or can.1

The situation Baldwin describes has its specific context in the racial problem, but within it he has discovered the crux of the human situation. Communion is another word for love. Man is created for communion but he loses it and he loses the power to recover it. If we believe that in spite of man’s failure love can be recovered we have the triple theme of the Christian Gospel. Man bears the image of God who is love. Man’s love falls into disorder; but there is a work of God which restores man’s integrity and his power to enter into communion. Every Christian theology is an elaboration of this theme. Man is a battlefield upon which many loves clash. His self-love may become so powerful that it can over-rule every other force. Man is the source of love’s perversion, the speaker of the kindly word which covers the vicious evil, the wearer of the mask of pride. Man falls into unlove, and experiences the boredom and horror of life without meaning. Man is captured by some loves to the exclusion of others. He is the sensualist for whom the flesh becomes God, or the moral idealist for whom ‘love of mankind’ is drained of all emotion and there is neither concern nor pity for real human beings. Yet man must find love in and with others for it is the only fulfilment life offers. He is the being whom no earthly love satisfies, until it becomes a way to the love of God. When man’s love fails or becomes distorted, the final resource in the love of God is a creative act of healing. Love is disclosed as grace. In this and the two succeeding chapters we examine these major assertions of Christian faith in the light of our interpretation of love as spirit at work in history.

(1) LOVE AND THE IMAGE OF GOD IN MAN

In the biblical faith man’s greatness is understood in the light of the image of God which he bears. If God is love the image of God in man defines the forms of love in human existence. Yet the image is defaced, distorted, ‘ruined’, so the Reformers said, by man’s wilful self-separation from God. Can we get light on the nature of the divine love from man’s distorted experience of love? This question of what happens to the image of God through sin underlies some of the most critical issues in the Christian interpretation of love and it will be worthwhile to give some attention to the history of this theme and its development in contemporary theology.

The traditional Roman Catholic doctrine is derived from Irenaeus, who noted that two words, tselem and demuth are used in Genesis I to assert that God has created man in his image. Irenaeus therefore made a distinction between the image of God which is man’s distinctive endowment of reason, his dominion over nature, and his creaturely dignity; and the similitude to God which is faith, hope and love, that is, the full and righteous relation which man is supposed to enjoy as God’s creature. For Irenaeus it is this similitude which is lost in the fall but the image remains relatively intact. This has formed the ground plan of all subsequent Catholic theology with its formula of ‘grace completing nature’ as the pattern of redemption. The similitude must be restored to the imago. There are, of course, many qualifications to be made of this brief characterization, but it is essentially the traditional Catholic position.2

The Protestant Reformers attacked this structure. They said that not only is the similitude lost in the fall, but the whole image of God is left in ‘ruins’. Nothing in human nature is left intact after sin. The reformers wanted to show that the corruption of the fall extends to the whole man. They believed that the Catholic pattern leads to an unjustified confidence in human reason which is subject to pride and demonry. They saw the image of God as constituted by the ‘original righteousness’ with which God endowed Adam. They said this righteousness, which is man’s right relation to God, has been lost almost completely. We say ‘almost’ because Luther and Calvin had to make some qualification concerning the effects of the fall. Neither they nor their followers in Protestant orthodoxy believed that man has lost all sense of God or of moral obligation. Something constructive must be left in human reason and conscience if man is to have a basis for a collective life with a measure of justice and sanity. Thus Calvin asserts that the capacity for ‘civic righteousness’ remains in fallen man.3

Whichever of these traditional positions we take, we see that our view of the place of love in human existence is at stake. The Catholic doctrine makes the love of God one of the three supernatural virtues, and says that in the fall faith, hope and love are lost. But can the love of God be lost without profound effect upon the whole of man’s life? When St. Augustine says that without faith and love the reason cannot be rightly ordered in the world or rightly directed toward God he seems closer to the Reformers than to St. Thomas. On the other hand, the Catholic tradition contends for a truth which must not be surrendered, that there are in fallen man capacities for reason, conscience, and creativity which are not wholly destroyed by sin.

Theology in the twentieth century has been interpreting the imago dei in a way which expresses the personal and historical nature of the relation between God and man. Thus the foundation is laid for a theology which understands love as the centre of human existence. Since it is the Christian faith that God is love, it is curious that theology has been so late in taking love as the key to the Christian doctrine of man. Let us see what this new direction involves for an understanding of human love and the divine love.

In a well-known controversy Karl Barth and Emil Brunner debated Brunner’s thesis that the imago dei remains in fallen man formally, but that it is lost materially. To this Karl Barth replied, ‘Nein’.4 Subsequently both Barth and Brunner explicated their positions in ways which not only brought their views closer together, but which may avoid the compromise of the reformers with the ‘relic’ of the imago, and the dubious simplicity of the Catholic view that sin leaves the humanum relatively intact.

Karl Barth now speaks of the imago dei as the distinctive form of human existence, that is, life in community. Following a suggestion made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barth says that the connection in Genesis between the imago dei and the creation ‘male and female’ is not incidental, but that this primary form of human community indicates the meaning of the image of God in man. Barth analyses man’s life in community in four ‘categories of the distinctively human’. These are:

(1) Being in encounter is a being in which one man looks another in the eye.

(2) There is mutual speaking and hearing.

(3) We render mutual assistance in the act of being.

(4) All the occurrence so far described as the basic form of humanity stands under the sign that it is done on both sides with gladness.5

In this structure of community Barth sees a reflection of the divine community, the Trinity. Barth reminds us that God says, ‘Let us make man in our image’. Barth thus gives his own version of St. Augustine’s bold suggestion that in the being of man there is a reflection of the holy Trinity, God’s being as Creator, the Father; the knowledge of his being, the Logos; and the rejoicing in that knowledge, the Spirit. Barth here continues the tradition of ‘metaphysical’ theology except for one very important difference. Barth says this ‘image of God’ does not give man any knowledge of God whatever. Man does not know God. His human existence does not point him toward God. All man’s religion is false and idolatrous. Thus Barth seems in the end to maintain the position he asserted against Brunner: there is nothing in man as he actually is which in any way discloses his origin in God.

It is hard to see how Barth’s ambivalent position here can be defended. If the form of man’s life in community is derived from the being of God, then there is something in man which does point toward the true God, however obscurely it may be known. Process theologians make this criticism of Barth. They believe man has an awareness of his God-relationship, however confused it becomes.

Apart from the special issue concerning Barth’s doctrine of sexuality as the key to the imago dei, there is something like a consensus in contemporary theology concerning the theme of the imago dei. What we are coming to see is that it is a mistake to define the imago dei as any set of attributes or qualities which man may possess. The imago dei needs to be conceived in dynamic terms as the relatedness which God has established between himself and man and to which man can respond. Karl Barth sees the imago in the forms of human interaction, the life of personal communication in sharing and rejoicing. Emil Brunner stresses the theme of responsibility.6 Man is the being who can respond to the claim of the other, and give himself to the other. James Muilenburg interprets the Genesis in similar terms:

This is characteristic of Old Testament thought, everywhere; divine revelation is revelation which places man before a choice, a decision which must be made. The highest purpose of man — his supreme task and function — is to do the will of God. It is not coincidence that Christian faith sees the Son of God wrestling in the torment of decision before he goes to the cross.. . . It is the image of God in man which makes him a decision-making person. His ability to choose, the freedom implied in his choice, his sense of difference and value, these surely are aspects of what is divine in him.7

All these converge on the view that the imago dei should not be conceived as a special quality, but as the relationship for which man is created with his neighbour before God. The image of God is reflected in every aspect of man’s being, not as a special entity but as the meaning of the life of man in its essential integrity. But surely this can be most clearly grasped if we say that love is the meaning of the imago dei. In this way we can recognize in man that which underlies his special capacities such as reason, moral judgment, artistic creativity, and religious awareness. All these find their meaning in life which is created for communion, that is personal existence in community with others. This is the universal fact of facts, deeper than reason and the integrating reality in life.

This thesis that the imago dei is the form of creation for life fulfilled in love gives us our basis for the interpretation of sin. The root of sin is failure to realize life in love. The cleft in man which results from sin is more than the loss of a supernatural endowment. It is disorder in the roots of his being. It is the disaster resulting from twisted, impotent or perverted love. Sin infects the whole man. It does not at once destroy the reasoning powers, though in extremity it may do even that. It does not completely take away conscience, though the loss of love may finally result in the disappearance of conscience. It does not eliminate creativity from man’s life, though it may turn that creativity into demonic self-destructiveness. It does not leave man without any sense of God or knowledge of the holy, though it may distort this sense, turning man’s worship into idolatry and leaving him without hope and seemingly without God.

If this analysis be correct all human loves have something in them which pulls them on a tangent toward the love of God. They reflect their origin in God. A doctrine of man following this clue will search in the human loves, even in their incredible distortions, for that which reveals man’s relationship to the loving God who is his Creator. The love of God can be present whether it is overtly recognized or not.

In this way contemporary theology has moved to a dynamic interpretation of the image of God, its loss and restoration. The process theology which informs our interpretation of Christian faith agrees wholeheartedly with this view of the image of God in man; but it proposes a distinctive addition to the doctrine, for process theology sees love disclosed in a history in which the spirit of God creates new forms. In this history God is involved with the world both as its eternal ground and as the supreme participant in the suffering which his creativity involves. In process theology therefore the ‘analogy of being’ which holds between God and the creatures must be related to a fully historical conception of what being is. Man bears the image of God in his temporality as well as his participation in eternity, in suffering as well as in peace. His loves are in process. There are three implications of this way of understanding the image of God in man, which have important consequences for our understanding of man’s estrangement from God and the consequent disorder in his existence.

(2) GOD’S CREATIVITY AND MAN’S

God’s love is creative power bringing the worlds into being, and working with them for the fulfilment of an ever new creative order of life. The Kingdom of God is the goal of his creation, but we need not conceive the Kingdom as a fixed ‘state of being’ toward which things tend. The Kingdom of God is the fulfilment of God’s being in relation to every creature, and if being is love, then the Kingdom must be an infinite realm of creative life.

Man’s creation in the image of God is his call to participate in creativity, in its splendour and its suffering. Creativity is at work in all things, and certainly in what we call the secular orders. To love is to become responsible for doing what needs to be done to make the world a more tolerable place which reflects more fully the glory of its origin. When we love God we love the infinite creative source of being. God’s work is everywhere and needs no state of completion for its meaning is endless creative life. To love God is to love the one who sets the ultimate boundaries to life, boundaries which are not defined by a final state of affairs, but by ever new possibilities of growth.

The second implication of this doctrine has to do with the metaphysical truth that to be is to respond. We have seen that passivity to the other, setting the other free, and the will to have one’s own existence shaped by the other as well as to give oneself creatively constitutes one of the categorial conditions of love. If then life in communion is the essential nature of man, this includes transformation by participation with the other, and the acceptance of suffering with and for the other. It is not the essence of man to try to make himself invulnerable. That is sin. It is the essence of man to find the meaning of his life in a community of mutual responsiveness and sharing.

This doctrine exactly reverses Jean-Paul Sartre’s view that what marks human existence is the impossibility of breaking through to the other or being reached by the other. The tragedy is indeed where Sartre sees it, in the way we do become ‘walled off’ from one another. But this is tragic because it contradicts man’s essential being, which is his will to communion.

We also find here a resolution of the problem which D’Arcy has posed in the tension between the two loves of self-affirmation and self-giving. Something has to link these two loves, and in D’Arcy’s structure as we saw it there would have to be still a third love. But in the process view there is no need for that complication. Both self-affirmation and self-giving are aspects of the essential love which is the will to communion. Self-affirmation without response is deadly. That is why egoism so often becomes desperate. Self-giving without self-affirmation is meaningless. That is why much of what appears to be self-giving love is really self-destruction. What we need to see is that self-affirmation and self-giving are united in the essence of love which is communion. Tensions are present indeed, and the failure to reconcile them constitutes the dark side of the human condition, but there is no contradiction in the essential pattern of love.

We are speaking of the imago dei, and this means that the love which God gives to man and which man may return to God bears some analogy to the human will to participation. God makes himself vulnerable to receive into his being what the world does in its freedom, and to respond to the world’s action. We acknowledge always a drastic limitation in speaking of the being of God and his love. What it means for God to love the world, to suffer, to give freedom to the creatures and to will communion with them is the very mystery of existence. We must not equate our being with God’s and say that love, suffering, freedom, and creativity mean for him precisely what they mean for us. What we can do, however, within the perspective of Christian faith, is to give an account of the love of God which does not make nonsense out of the profoundest aspects of love in human experience. If we say that the imago dei in man is his creation for communion with God and the creatures, we mean that God wills communion on terms of man’s real freedom and responsiveness. It is to know that the love God offers is responsive love, in which he takes into himself the consequences of human actions, bears with the world, and urges all things toward a society of real freedom in communion.

This doctrine in no way negates the great assurance of the New Testament of the steadfastness and the inexorableness of the love of God. Paul’s hymn at the close of Romans 8 expresses the ground of Christian faith:

I am persuaded. . . that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

So also does his assertion that love never passes away (I Corinthians 13). What God gives is his absolute faithfulness, his everlastingness in unceasing love. The meaning of existence lies in the possibility of communion in freedom; this is what is assured to faith.

The power of God, however, is not that of absolute omnipotence to do anything. It is the power to do everything that the loving ground of all being can do to express and to communicate and fulfil the society of loving beings. God’s power expresses his love, it does not violate it. Therefore it is the kind of power which holds the world together in one society, setting limits to the freedom of the creatures without destroying that freedom. Whitehead remarks, ‘The power of God is the worship He inspires’.8

If this view of the relation of love and power be accepted the book of Job must be read as a half-way point on the way to clarification of the meaning of God’s power. To be stunned into silence before the sheer might of God’s creativity is indeed one dimension of man’s discovery of his place in things. The power of God stretches beyond all imagination and description. We cannot solve the riddle of why things are as they are. But the biblical doctrine of God does not remain with man abased before omnipotence. It asserts that man is given knowledge of God by the way God gives himself in his encounter with the world’s evil. He persuades the world by an act of suffering love with the kind of power which leaves its object free to respond in humility and love.

Love does not put everything at rest; it puts everything in motion. Love does not end all risk, it accepts every risk which is necessary for its work. Love does not resolve every conflict; it accepts conflict as the arena in which the work of love is to be done. Love does not neatly separate the good people from the bad, bestowing endless bliss on one, and endless torment on the other. Love seeks the reconciliation of every life so that it may share with all the others. If a man or a culture is finally lost, it is not because love wills that lostness, but because we have condemned ourselves to separation and refuse reconciliation. We make our hells and we cling to them in our lovelessness.

Much conventional religiousness, born of a mixture of piety and anxiety, conceives love as a special power which will bring every problem to resolution and every life to completion. There is, however, a subtle error in the view that love’s goal is to bring life to rest. In the name of love it deifies the power of absolute disposal. It makes the goal the peace of completion rather than the peace of openness to new experience in a shared community. It makes love a special kind of power which renders all others impotent, whereas love is just the power of being, using, shaping, eliciting, and reconciling all the special powers in the creative movement of life. Many distortions of religious devotion and ethical life come from a too simple view of what the love of God is, and from the use of love as escape from the risks of life, rather than as the will and power to accept them.

Here, then, is the first consequence of the doctrine of God’s being as love in process. Man, created in God’s image, is created for participation in the infinite life of communion within the everlasting creativity of God.

(3) THE LOVE OF GOD AND THE LOVE OF HIS CREATURES

A second consequence of the process doctrine of God is that while the distinction is preserved between man’s love for God and man’s love for the neighbour, this is not the distinction between love for what is merely temporal and love for what is eternal. We can distinguish between love for the eternal source of creativity which works in the temporal world, and love for the creatures whose being involves their participation both in God’s eternal structure and in his temporal creativity. This point is worth our especial attention. Much confusion about love results from the supposition that what is in time and unfinished cannot be loved as fully as that which is complete.

We have seen how St. Augustine, in spite of his clear teaching of the goodness of the creation, asserted the superiority of loving God to loving the world because God is eternal and the world is temporal.9 This devaluation of the temporal world is a remnant of platonism. Our present doctrine seeks to counteract it.

We say that God has both an eternal and temporal dimension in his being. To love eternal being as a different kind of being is to miss the real point about God’s love, that it is manifest not only in his eternity, but in his temporality. It is the essence of God to move the world toward new possibilities, and his being is ‘complete’ only as an infinite series of creative acts, each of which enriches, modifies, and shapes the whole society of being.

God’s being abides. This is the supreme contrast between his mode of being and ours. Augustine is so far right. God is not at the mercy of time. His love remains constant in its intention. He does not pass away. All times are in his hands. There is indeed a dimension in the love of God which differs from human love, and the platonists and many mystics have seen it. To discover or be discovered by the love of God is in one sense to find the unchanging, perfect and final meaning of all things. This is that aspect of rest in love which finds its completion only in the love of God. But that is only one side of the truth. The other side is that the love of God not only creates the temporal world, but shares in its temporality and its becoming.

The true contrast between God and the world is not that between timeless eternity and the temporality of the creatures. It is the contrast between the supremely creative temporal life of God and the fragmentary, limited creativity of the creatures. To love God, then, is to set the highest value on temporality as well as on eternality, for in this view temporality is a dimension of all value.

It is this explicit evaluation of temporality which is the critical point. The creatures are not to be contrasted with perfection because they are temporal; but only because their creativity is fragmented, distorted and partial. To love God is to do more than love the creatures, but it is not to turn away from the creatures. It is to rejoice as fully in temporality as in eternality. The Kingdom of God is not a static state, but an everlastingly rich process of becoming.

In this view we can still accept St. Augustine’s doctrine that we love others in God. Nothing has its being solely in itself. To love another is to seek that person as he is, in all the dimensions of his life, and in all that makes him a person. It is to love the bond which makes us one with him, that is to love God. The Christian doctrine here presents a sharp contrast to all humanism. If Christianity is true, there is no such thing as loving another only for himself, for every person is a participant in the society of being. He bears the image of God and he is loved as one who belongs in communion with God and with his fellows.

This doctrine that we love others ‘in God’ has been criticized as leading to depersonalizing of love. To love another ‘in God’ seems to suggest that the other is devalued. He is merely an illustration of being so it is not really the person that we love, but God.

We have seen this danger in St. Augustine’s version of the doctrine; but the danger lies in Augustine’s presupposition about the contrast between God’s being and the being of the creatures. To love another in God does depersonalize, if we make God’s eternity the key to his perfection in contrast to the creatures. Then another person can only be a pointer toward the eternal which is superior to all temporality. But in process doctrine the meaning of God’s being is his creative communion with the creatures. God values each person in himself, and as a participant in the creative history of the world. Thus to love another in God is to acknowledge in the divine love that which affirms the unique value of the person. Once we break through the traditional deification of timelessness for its own sake, the meaning of the imago dei takes on a new dimension.

(4) HUMAN CREATIVITY

The third important consequence of this doctrine is the affirmation of human creativity as implicit in the imago dei. Man bears power and responsibility to reconstruct his world, reshape his life, and create new value.

This theme, to be sure, is not altogether absent from the traditional doctrines of the imago dei. Christian theology has always asserted some margin for man’s creative self-expression. The imago del includes reason, and the power of reason to grasp meaning involves creative expression of that meaning. Aesthetic creativity is shown in the uniqueness and greatness of human culture. As C. N. Cochrane says in his Christianity and Classical Culture, the Christian faith discovered a depth in human personality which classical culture had not envisaged.10

In the modern period the potential creativity of man has been disclosed in ways beyond the imagination of every previous culture. Man can reshape the conditions of his life, change the face of nature, eliminate killing diseases, reconstruct the human body, control the growth of population in ways beyond anything remotely conceivable before the twentieth century. Natural disasters are still present in flood and earthquake, yet to an increasing degree man changes the conditions of the earth, his homeland. Now he begins to explore the far universe, lengthen his life span, discover unlimited sources of energies in the atom, and crack the genetic code.

Creativity can be demonic as well as productive. The new powers of man bring possibilities of total self-destruction. Man can end his existence on this planet. He can dehumanize as well as create. All this means that the significance of the imago dei must be reassessed. God sets limits to life, but those limits include much wider possibilities than we have known. Man’s cultural development produces a raging despair as he contemplates the possibilities for self-destruction, and also the megalomania of complete self-confidence compounded by the fanaticisms of groups and national passions. In this new historical situation love has to do its work.

(5) THE IMAGO DEI AND SIN

An account of evil can be given from many points of view — medical, psychological, and political — but an account of the evil called sin implies belief in man’s spiritual freedom and therefore in his guilt. Only a creature who bears the image of God and is capable of loving God and his neighbour can ‘sin’ in the Christian sense of that word.

An account of sin, then, must describe the career of the human spirit in its freedom. How can such an account be given? It is a plausible position that nothing can be said about sin except to confess it, for it cannot be objectified. It is life turning away from life in communion. It is man’s wilful violation of his essential and created goodness. What more can be said? Karl Barth spends little time in his vast dogmatic system on the discussion of the nature of sin. It is, he says, the ‘surd’ in existence. It should not be there. It has no metaphysical status. It cannot be rationally conceived. Every attempt to describe it may easily fall into an ‘explanation’ which does not explain.11

Yet to leave the matter here would be to pass over two important aspects of the meaning of sin. One is that just as the spirit of love can be seen as reflected in its forms, so the forms of sin may be described even though their roots are hidden. The second point is that just as the spirit of love has its history in the creation of new forms, so we can try to clarify the meaning of sin through analysis of the forms in which men have acknowledged sin in different historical situations.

These two observations lead to a third. The history of love and the history of sin are the same history. This is the biblical perspective. The Bible gives four principal images of sin:

The creation story and the fall, in Genesis;

The covenant story and the unfaithfulness of Israel to Yahweh;

The incarnation story and the crucifixion of the man of love;

Paul’s account in Romans 1 of man’s initial knowledge of God, his refusal to honour God, and his fall into the disorder of sin.

All four accounts begin with the original communion between man and God. In each case man disrupts the relationship. He refuses to love, trust, and honour the Creator who gives him life. In all four accounts there is a resulting failure of love of the neighbour, a fall into a disordered life where all the loves are perverted by disunity and discord.

The history of sin’s primordial appearance can be variously recounted in the faith which has the story of Israel and of Jesus at its centre, but the meaning of sin is always a refusal of love. This is why the identification of sin with its particular forms is always mistaken. It is the error of legalism. The centre of sin is not in the various forms of transgression but in the personal history of man who is created for communion and refuses it.

The descriptions of the particular forms of sin which theologies give are largely attempts to recognize sin in its second or objectified stage. It cannot make sense that we put ourselves in the place of God in pride, or plunge into the nothingness of sensuality in despair, unless something has been disrupted in that communion which makes us human. Disobedience or the breaking of the law of God is conceivable only if in some way we have already become lawless. This is the point which moralists and legalists who identify sin with specific acts generally overlook.

Further, if creation for freedom to love is the image of God in man, sin is a perversion of man’s essential being. It draws its power from what man really is. There can be no sin without love, either love perverted, love distorted, or, and here we peer into a deeper depth, love destroyed by a revengeful unlove which turns against life itself. There is a tradition in theology which holds that nothing is done without love. Etienne Gilson states it for the medieval theologians:

Even in the midst of the lowest pleasure, the most abandoned voluptuary is still seeking God; nay more, as far as regards what is positive in his acts, that is to say in all that makes them an analogue of the true Love, it is God Himself Who, in him and for him, seeks Himself.12

The seven deadly sins have traditionally been interpreted in their relation to love: pride, envy, and anger are perverted love, for we take delight in what should grieve us; sloth is deficiency of love, and avarice, gluttony, and lust are excessive love.13

(6) THE EXISTENTIALIST ANALYSIS OF SIN

Modern theology has tried to go beyond the traditional ways of interpreting the forms of sin to achieve some further insight into its roots and its manifestations. The movement begins with Kierkegaard, who tries to do two things: to give a phenomenological description of anxiety as the occasion (not the cause) of sin, and to give a phenomenological account of the forms which result from man’s fall such as loss of selfhood, impersonal objectivism, and despair. Kierkegaard does indeed say that sin cannot be described, it can only be spoken about in faith. What he says about the forms of human despair and the sickness of the spirit is not intended as objective description of sin. But in several major works he gives a phenomenological description of the forms of man’s fall away from the authentic selfhood with which God has endowed him. The existentialist movement inaugurated by Kierkegaard has become philosophically creative as it has described man’s loss of his essential humanity. Theology, as Dr. Tillich says, needs this existentialist analysis.14 It is a means of insight and confession for our age. Each age reveals itself to itself in its account of good and evil. In the twentieth century, ‘the age of the Grotesque’, as Durrenmatt has called it, we must try to give an account of man which in some way can encompass the monstrous evils, the horrors of mass murder, the idolatry of nation and race, the plunge into the meaningless, the fascination of evil, and the abyss of despair in innumerable lives.15

Theologians inspired by Kierkegaard’s analysis have been trying to give an account of the internal history of the fall into sin. The key supplied by Kierkegaard is found in his analysis of anxiety. Man as a creature has a depth within him which stretches his imagination to infinity. He can desire eternity, yet he knows that he dies.16 ‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom!’17 As creatures with a sense of the infinite, we grasp for absolute security and know we do not have it. Now this situation is not sin, but it is temptation to sin, to try to overcome our anxiety and in a fake or dishonest way to get out of the threatened state. We try either to seize security or to escape from the struggle for it.

Reinhold Niebuhr has given one of the most searching descriptions of this inward history of the fall of man. In The Nature and Destiny of Man his chapters on sin are masterly analyses of individual and group pride and of sensuality. For Niebuhr self-love is the primal form of sin. Therefore it is a disorder or failure in man’s love which is the heart of the fall from original righteousness. Niebuhr tends to see pride as the most fundamental and persistent form of sin. Pride appears as pride of power, pride of intellect, pride of moral achievement and spiritual pride which finds in religion its convenient vehicle. Thus religion becomes the final battleground on which the issues of spiritual life and death are met.

Niebuhr’s analysis of sensuality is equally astute. The anxious self can make its own self-gratification the sole object of desire, or sensuality becomes a convenient means of escape from the self’s agony through the obliteration of feeling, the plunge into nothingness.

Niebuhr sees the fall into sin as inevitable, viewed from one side, because in man’s situation as creature in a threatening world he is always tempted to try to make himself more secure than he can be. Yet Niebuhr holds to responsibility despite inevitability. This is a paradox which reason cannot unravel. In all pride and self-love man bears responsibility. His freedom is corrupted from within.18

Paul Tillich’s description of the forms of sin varies somewhat from Niebuhr’s.19 Tillich reviews the three major descriptions of sin in the theological tradition: Sin as unbelief, as hubris, and as concupiscence. Each of these tries to get at the inward and personal root of sin. Sin as concupiscence is the turning of the self in upon itself, the cor incorvatus in se. It is not merely self-gratification or ‘selfishness’. It is a distortion of love, an inversion of the self’s true direction, so that everything to which the self should be given in love is now sought as a possession. It is the power of love transformed into the will to become absolute. Sartre sees this drive for divinity at the centre of man’s existence. ‘To be man means to reach toward being God, Or, if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.20 But it is an inevitably frustrated desire. Therefore the love of being finds it must destroy its own ultimate object. Nietzsche understood and expressed the frustration of one who wills to be God but cannot. So Nietzsche must proclaim the death of God, his murder by the ‘ugliest man’. It is this dialectic of the love which cannot accept communion with another, but tries to become absolute which lies in the depths of sin as hubris. Luther and Kierkegaard give us classic expression of the struggle with the temptation to hate God.

The Reformers stressed the theme of sin as unbelief, and Tillich gives it central importance. Unbelief here does not mean rejection of dogma, though it is subject to that distorted interpretation. Unbelief means refusal to trust God. It is the spirit’s disloyalty to its creator. The Genesis story finds in the serpent’s temptation of Eve the suggestion that God is not to be trusted; he has lied to man about the fruit of the tree (Genesis 3: 4).

Luther says, in his Treatise on Christian Liberty, ‘The beginning of all sin is to depart from God and not to trust him’.

From the standpoint of process theology this view of the core of sin as unbelief or refusal to trust is the profoundest point reached in the tradition. It suggests an interpretation of sin in relation to the doctrine of the image of God as man’s creation for freedom in communion. Anxiety is temptation to refuse life in communion. The forms of sin are ways of seizing substitutes for communion or of smothering anxiety about its loss. The existentialist tradition which Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich have interpreted so profoundly in their theologies, I am now proposing to say, becomes even more illuminating when we take not simply the will to be, but the will to belong as the key to human action and feeling. Acknowledging great indebtedness to the theologies just briefly reviewed I shall try to show what a functional analysis of man as created for communion may do to illuminate our experience of the forms which unlove takes.

(7) SIN AND THE WILL TO BELONG

Begin with the assertion that the fundamental human craving is to belong, to count in the community of being, to have one’s freedom in and with the response of others, to enjoy God as one who makes us members of one society. Out of the Civil Rights movement has come a good English phrase for this, ‘a sense of somebodyness’.21 If we begin here we can say that the root anxiety is that of ‘not-belonging’, of not counting. Men are not afraid of not existing nearly so much as they are afraid of not being wanted. This is proved daily when death is risked, or even sought for the sake of a love, a loyalty or a protest. Here then we make one qualification of Tillich’s doctrine that matters of ultimate concern are those which determine our being or our non-being. When we ask what really constitutes being for man the answer is that it is belonging, or communion which constitutes its heart.

If this perspective on the nature of man has validity it will throw some light on the experience of lostness, revolt against life, and despair in the twentieth century. There are two facts about contemporary culture which rise starkly before us. First, the abandonment of personal freedom and judgment to the passions of group loyalty and idolatry; and second, the cruel and wanton destruction of human life.

Albert Camus, in his brilliant L’Homme Revolte, has pointed out that the crime of crimes in our time is murder. The ruthless taking of human life is one of the perennial facts of history, but the twentieth century has experienced perhaps its worst example, the concentration camps.22 Irving Stone says:

That one set of human beings could do this to another set condemns our whole species. There are savages within us against whom we must be on our guard.23

It is the word ‘savages’ here which needs critical analysis. It usually refers to the uncivilized and unrefined stages of culture. It is tempting to see the wanton violence and cruelty in human history as a ‘throw back’ to what is primitive and undisciplined in human nature. Shirley Jackson Case, who held an optimistic view of history, attributed the cruelty in human nature to an inheritance from ‘Neanderthal man’.24 But the question is whether we can explain this side of human history as regression. Do we not have to see the real problem in the highest reaches of the human spirit rather than the lowest? No animal is as cruel as man or as destructive. No primitive mind could invent the equivalent of the Nazi concentration camps. No savage could articulate the exquisite self-justification of the kindly and paternal White Supremacist. A theological student working for Civil Rights in the South, himself a Southerner, described the opposition of some white people in the community in which he was working. He reported that the depth of passionate hatred directed against those who were trying to affirm racial equality was ‘simply unbelievable’.

The pathology of the spirit is indeed ‘unbelievable’, but its roots can be probed. We have to perceive in the dark side of human history not only the persistence of savage passions, but we have to see the distortion in the very height of human nature. The power of love and the craving for love has turned against itself.

To be human is to desire to belong, to have the security of being recognized in a group which accepts us, speaks our language, holds our values, gives us our freedom to move as we will. There is a natural love for our people in the intimate family group and in the larger community. This is the natural foundation of love of homeland, love of country, love of ‘ours’. But this love is always a troubled love, for no group can give all the security we crave. No human community can be as completely fulfilling as we wish, and moreover there are the threats to its existence both from within and from without. Whatever threatens my group threatens me. The threat may be overt or it may be subtle, such as the threat of sheer difference in colour, religion, language, taste, or morals. Any non-conformity is a warning signal that my group is challenged. In the resulting anxiety we are tempted to reject the other’s claim to our concern, and to absolutize ourselves. The will to belong becomes the will to preserve our way against every other. Since this can never be wholly justified rationally, we seek justification by identifying our way with the absolute good.

Thus the passion of the will to belong becomes the passion of self-deification. The superior must defend itself against the evil and inferior. Human history proves that there is literally no limit to the wanton cruelty and destruction of others of which some men are capable. This is not to say that all group pride is without a sense of perspective. The problem is complicated by the fact that there are real issues of justice and defence of values in any important conflict. Elements of sanity remain. We are describing the pathology of the spirit, not its residual element of health. We see however that the will to belong can be perverted into absolute hatred and destructiveness of anyone or anything which threatens the security of our belonging.

Certainly innumerable factors of economic, social and political history enter into the causes of human conflict.25 The love for the group can be deliberately and cynically exploited by those in a position to control and to persuade. But the demonic passions unleashed in history lead to the theological question, ‘How does the powerful and creative love in the human spirit turn into brutal and destructive cruelty?’ The answer we suggest lies in the anxiety of not-belonging.

The fury of racial and national hatreds is indeed beyond explanation, but we recognize two ways in which the power of love is appropriated in these passions. On one side the threats to present security drive us to desperate defence of what we have. The fear of losing the community we now enjoy draws strength from our present love as we resist every threat to its existence, or to its alteration. On the other hand we do not ever completely kill the longing for the larger community. Therefore our self defence becomes desperate partly because we must resist our need to come into relationship with the other whom we reject. The more deeply we crave a human relationship to those excluded from the present circle of love, the more powerful must be the resistance to it. The fury of hatred is born in part out of the need to resist in the self what we really crave in love and communion. This dialectic of feeling operates powerfully in the experience of racial prejudice. The recognition of the other as a human being who might be loved must be denied else the whole structure of our present prejudice would be swept away. One possible disguise of the real situation is to persuade ourselves that we really do love the other in his place and at the social distance we prescribe.

With this analysis we can also anticipate the nature of the healing which must come to human loves. Something must re-create the capacity to belong in the society of God’s creatures so that man finds his security in giving himself to the service and enjoyment of God and His Kingdom as the ultimate context of every human love.

Another aspect of the sin which results from man’s failure to love, is self-destruction. We are not primarily concerned here with the question about suicide, for suicide occurs in many circumstances which cannot be easily categorized. It is the turning of man against his humanity with which we are concerned, the self-sought dehumanization manifest in so much individual and social pathology in our century. Conformity explains much of the success of the Nazi mass murder programme. Also political imperialism and cynical power-seeking help to explain it; but there is something even more sinister, the turning of man against himself. It is that strand in Nietzsche’s thought which consists in despising man as he is. It is the disfiguring of humanity in the worship of evil which Genet describes in his novels and plays.26

The ultimate mystery of evil is that man in becoming human denies that which makes him human, his freedom in communion. How does this happen? How can it happen? Here the existentialist philosophy has developed Kierkegaard’s analysis in a significant way which throws light upon the nature of love.

In modern existentialism the ‘Fall’ is something which takes place inside each individual soul. It can he described in this way: there are two ways of existing, the authentic and the inauthentic. The authentic way is to be ourselves, to affirm our humanity, make our choices, and take life as it comes, feel it as it is, not lie to ourselves about how we do feel and think. The one truth to which authentic life must hold is that we are free to tell the truth about life, and to choose how we shall take it. Sometimes this is put with a kind of stoic resignation. We can only choose how we will take life, not whether we can alter any of its arrangements. Sometimes it is put with more of the sense of freedom to make life over. The so-called ‘death of God’ theologians have made much of this shift from stoicism to optimism.27 But the essential point of this humanist doctrine of authenticity is that we can ‘be ourselves’ using our individuality for shaping our lives, and that is authentic existence. As Jean-Paul Sartre says it, ‘authenticity consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate’.28

Inauthentic existence is the fall from inner self-determination. We allow ourselves to be moulded by what others expect of us. We feel what the advertisers want us to feel, to respond as the propagandists intend us to respond. We tell ourselves that we really do feel what we are expected to feel. We allow our self-image to be constructed by others. We are sunk in the mass, as Heidegger sees us. Such existence is inauthentic precisely because it is not our existence. Note that this is inauthentic life no matter how high the ideals which society or church may press upon us. We are fallen because we have become less than free men.

Dr. Carl Rogers’ psychological researches provide significant analogies to this view of the fall. He describes it as the separation of our conscious experience from our organic feelings. We are cleft inside. We hold a picture of who we are which will not allow us to admit our real fears and desires. We become literally separated within ourselves, and this inner cleft is the beginning of the fall into self-rejection. Rogers is not an existentialist, but he remarks:

I have been astonished to find how accurately the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, pictured the dilemma of the individual more than a century ago with keen psychological insight. He points out that the most common despair is to be in despair at not choosing or willing to be oneself; but that the deepest form of despair is to ‘choose’ to be another than himself.29

A Christian doctrine of sin will appropriate the insight expressed in existentialism, and which, in the case of Kierkegaard, is derived from Christian sources. What needs to be emphasized is that in this fall within the self some sort of self-betrayal is involved. It is not — notice — that we betray our best self; that is a moralistic way to put it. We betray our real self, with its struggling, its hopes and fears. We refuse to trust ourselves in our real relation to anything. We refuse to believe that life is good and worthy for us as we really are, that our small margin of freedom with all its risks makes the difference between fulfilling life and destroying it. Sin is unbelief and here it is unbelief in ourselves.

It seems only a short step from this discovery that we do betray ourselves to the fact that in all such betrayal we are destroying not only ourselves, but — Man, yet this is a step which many find it difficult to take. Most of the existentialists do not take it. For them the fall is wholly an individual affair within each man. There is no human nature to be betrayed, no Man as such; for this they say is an abstraction, a mere idea and unreal.

But existentialism reveals its own instability here. If there is no ‘human nature’, that is, no universal principle of human existence in which all are involved, then how can we make a distinction between authentic and inauthentic existence? If, as Sartre seems to say, each of us makes himself up as he goes along, creates his world out of nothing, how can anyone say of another that his way of life is inauthentic? By what standard? If you say ‘by the standard that each one should choose his way of life’, then you are stating a universal principle of what it means to be human.

The awesome fact is that in every human attitude and choice we make, we are taking an attitude toward EVERYMAN. In choosing our way we take a position in relation to every way.

This point bears upon racial and class intolerance. People who put other human beings in a lower class or treat others as inferiors degrade their own humanity. What I do to another I accept as a possibility in his treatment of me. This is usually denied by those who discriminate against other groups, but it is the logic of the matter. Whatever I do to another human being, that in principle I do to myself. This logic proves itself in life, for once the spell of the sense of superiority is broken, we discover that those who despise other people create a cleft within their own personalities. They destroy part of themselves in destroying others. The imago dei, our common humanity, cannot be wholly eradicated.

Here is one illustration of how the violation of certain human relationships discloses the wrong in which we are all implicated.

In recent years there have been revelations of scandals in college sports. Young men’s lives have been ruined in sell-outs to gamblers. Mass dismissals from schools of national importance have taken place. Who was responsible? Many people involved in no direct way discovered they had an uneasy conscience. Back of the pressure on the players was not merely the evil design of gamblers. There was the ‘exploitation of the hero’ in modern athletics. There was the greed and desperation of institutions trying to make money and prestige out of athletics. And there was the compensation for our insecurities in hero-worship. The strong man, the winner, is the reliever of our own frustrations and the surrogate for our vindictiveness against opponents. With sure insight Arthur Miller has Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman relieve his sense of failure in daydreams of his son carrying the ball over the goal line before a hundred thousand cheering spectators.

As a result of the scandals in athletics the student editors of a school paper in Canada decided that they bore a direct share of guilt, and announced they would publish no more athletic news with the following declaration as reported in the Press: ‘We have helped make campus heroes out of football players. We have contributed to making university sport into big business and big business the yardstick of education.’ The quoted comment of the coach in this particular school was: ‘I’m amazed. I’m speechless.’ One knows however that there are many coaches, athletic directors, and athletes who saw the cost of exploitation long before the rest of us did.

To this analysis of sin we must make two additional points.

The first is that a theological interpretation of man’s existence is not an alternative to its analysis in economic, political and psychological terms. Human history is infinitely complex. Every life is shaped by the struggle for survival, the accidents of history, and the power of cultural symbols and traditions. We do not know what human life would be without the distortions produced by sin. It is always difficult if not dangerous to try to assign in a simple way the element of real sin and guilt in human actions. When some advertising men set out to reconstruct the American woman’s self-image and make her identify herself as housewife in order to sell more pie-mix, how can responsibility for this violation of communion between persons be justly assessed ?30 Certainly there is sin in the society which makes this possible, but it is sin in the context of the struggle for existence, and the insecurities of men and women in a society where the terms of sexual equality and fulfilment remain obscure. A theological anthropology is no substitute for empirical cultural analysis. But without the theological dimension we miss what finally distinguishes man, his search for dignity as spiritual being.

Our second qualification is that the omnipresence of sin should not obscure the positive good in human life and human loves. Without the essential structure of goodness there would be no knowledge of sin, and indeed no meaning in speaking of it. It is even possible to assert that human life can know a genuine recovery of innocence in spite of evil. Without a glimpse of innocence in moments of spontaneous renewal and creativity life would be intolerable.

But we lose our innocence, and we lose our freedom to love. Deep within the history of this loss there is the paradoxical fact that we lose our freedom in trying to make certain that we belong to a group or a power in which we can be free. We cannot give a final explanation of why this happens. But we can summarize our theological account of what happens in this way:

We are created for communion with God and our neighbour in a life which offers communion on terms which require courage and trust in a future we cannot see, which postpones fulfilment and does not allow every kind of immediate gratification. When we discover the risks involved in being human in the great community we are anxious, and when we do not find the hope of communion we are desperate. We willingly deny the fullness of our humanity in order to gratify some part of it. We choose to be human on terms which are immediately satisfying, self-protective and comfortable. But this choice can be an act of self-destruction, and in the depths of our being we know it. Like Albert Camus’ Jean Baptiste in The Fall, we have refused to respond to the cry of another human being, and we are now less than the persons we must be if we are to accept life.

It is not a long step in the logic of emotion to will to destroy the sensitivity of life itself, to turn against ourselves and everything which symbolizes full humanity. We kill what we love because we refuse to love on the terms which life gives. Hannah Arendt speaks in her study of the Eichmann trial of the ‘banality’ of evil. The secret of that banality is here. Human evil is in some sense a rejection of life, that is, a rejection of what makes us truly human beings.31 To be human is to search for the terms on which the self can be itself in relation to every other self.

In the structure of personal relationships there is a ‘humanity’ between us which is more than what we now are, but in which alone we can be human. We shall call this the Christological structure of human life. There is ‘man’ between us and our neighbour; and there is ‘man’ between us and ourselves, and between us and God. This ‘man’ is not an impersonal principle, but is the formal possibility of our being in communion with the whole creation and the Creator.

The way of redemption must be the restoration with power of this humanity which is between us and yet beyond us. There must be re-created the actuality of our humanity in communion. The restoration of the hope for communion is not something we do, but what God has done and continues to do. It is this assertion that God’s healing grace has become decisively present in Jesus Christ which we have now to explore.


NOTES:

1. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963, p. 44; London: Michael Joseph, 1963).

2. Full critical discussion of the history of the doctrine of the imago dei in Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt (London: Lutterworth Press, 1939; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), Appendix 1. David Cairns, The image of God in Man (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953).

3. Calvin, Institutes, Bk. II, 2, xiii.

4. Eng. Tr. of the debate in Natural Theology, a translation by Peter Fraenkel of the principal texts (London: G. Bles, 1946).

5. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/2, No. 45, 2.

6. Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt, passim.

7. James Muilenburg, unpublished paper, The Doctrine of Man in the Image of God, p. 6.

8. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1927, p. 276; Cambridge University Press, 1936).

9. Supra, chapter 5.

10. Charles N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (Oxford University Press, 1940).

11. Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, p. 185.

12. Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, tr. by A. H. C. Downes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), p. 274.

13. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Carlyle-Wicksteed, Tr. (New York: Modern Library, 1932).

14. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. II, pp. 19-28.

15. Eric Bentley, ed., The Storm Over The Deputy (New York: Grove Press, 1964), pp. 104, 108-9.

16. S. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread, tr. by Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946).

17. The phrase is Reinhold Niebuhr’s.

18. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, chapters 7-10.

19. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 44-59.

20. Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, p. 694.

21. The phrase has been used by Martin Luther King.

22. Albert Camus, The Rebel, Pt. V (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953; New York: Vintage Books, 1959).

23. Irving Stone, ‘What Some People Have Forgotten About God’s Deputy’, in The Storm Over The Deputy (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 236.

24. S. J. Case, The Christian Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943), p. 213.

25. Cf. Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Cambridge, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1954). Anchor Books edition, 1958, pp. 476ff.

26. Jean Genet, The Balcony (London: Faber & Faber, 1958).

27. William Hamilton, ‘The New Optimism from Prufrock to Ringo’, in William Hamilton and Thomas J. Altizer, Radical Theology and the Death of God (New York: Bobbs Merrill 1966).

28. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), p. 90.

29. Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person, a Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1961, p. 110; London: Constable & Co. Ltd.).

30. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, chapter 9 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963; London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963).

31. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil, Rev. Ed. 1964 (New York: Viking Press; London: Faber & Faber). Miss Arendt has been criticized for use of the term ‘banality’ here on the ground that it minimizes the monstrous character of the crimes, but the critics seem to me to miss the point. It is the dreary and pointless inhumanity of evil which she perceives and exposes.

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