The Structure of Christian Existence
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
Chapter 10: Christian Existence
In all axial men, the seat of existence is located in the rational consciousness. But in India from this organizing center the thinker had sought a "self" beyond it. In so doing, he had attempted to overcome that structure of existence given to him as an axial man. Gautama had rejected this quest for a transcendent self, and he purified the reflective consciousness from the last traces of mythical influence. This, he believed, also broke the power of the bond that held the successive moments of experience together in the unity we have called the soul. In the process, therefore, reason was vigorously active, but the goal of this activity was a final passivity of the reflective consciousness toward what is given in the unreflective consciousness. Homeric man distanced the world aesthetically and projected into that distance both the numinous powers and his own motives and emotions. Insofar as he was conscious of himself, it was of himself as he appeared in the public world. Socrates identified himself with his reason, now understood as active conscious thought based on what is given by the unreflective consciousness and tested against it. The resultant bifurcation of the soul passed through the reflective consciousness itself, recognizing the emotions as part of that consciousness but regarding them as alien to the self. Prophetic man accepted responsibility for the outcome of the conflict of forces within his soul, thereby identifying himself with a center transcending reason and passion alike.
It is now time to turn directly to that subject which is the controlling interest of the entire book. What is Christianity, and specifically, what is the structure of Christian existence in relation to all these other structures of existence?
Christian existence arose out of prophetic existence in much the same way that Socratic existence arose out of Homeric existence. (See the Appendix for a discussion of the alternate view that Gnosticism is the parent of Christianity.) Socratic existence could not have arisen apart from the prior distancing of the world and the discovery of the forms it embodies. Similarly, Christian existence could not have arisen apart from that responsibility for one’s acts before God that constituted personal existence. But despite this parallelism, there were great differences in the course of development in Greece and Palestine.
In postexilic Judaism, prophetic existence was widely and firmly established. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people as a whole were formed by this type of axial existence. This does not mean, however, that they continued, unaltered, the experience or the beliefs of the prophets. In this book, "Homeric existence has meant that structure of existence which was nurtured in Greece under the influence of the Homeric writings. Similarly, "prophetic existence means that structure of existence which arose in Israel as a result of the prophetic movement. Israel appropriated the prophetic message and entered into prophetic existence without abandoning its cultic traditions or overcoming the archaic elements in its law.
The institution through which prophetic existence was effectively transmitted from generation to generation was the synagogue. The rabbis who taught in the synagogues held varied opinions on many matters, but when we view them as a whole in their relation to non-Jewish developments and to heretical movements (such as Gnosticism) , we are impressed by their unity. The clearest embodiment of that general orientation which dominated the synagogues is to be found in the Pharisees. The Gospels themselves selected Pharisaism as the representative form of Judaism in relation to which what was new in Jesus could be most clearly seen. Unfortunately, this use of Pharisaism in the Gospels has led to a pejorative connotation that is wholly unjustified. The role of Pharisaism in relation to Christianity is properly seen only when it is recognized that despite its marked divergence from the prophets, especially in its understanding of the law, it was, in Jesus’ day, the finest flowering of prophetic existence and the worthiest alternative to Christianity.
In this chapter, Pharisaism is chosen to represent the determinative form taken by prophetic existence in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ message is presented over against Pharisaic Judaism rather than directly in relation to the prophets themselves. In part, it should be understood as a renewal of the distinctively prophetic element within the Pharisaic synthesis. But this is true only in part, for the result transcended not only the particular form of prophetic existence embodied in Pharisaism, but also the prophets themselves.
This selection of Pharisaism expresses the belief not only that Pharisaism represented the normative expression of the mainstream of prophetic Judaism, but also that Jesus’ message formed itself primarily in relation to Pharisaism out of a different configuration of elements in this mainstream. Much the same could be said of the Essene communities, who in some respects resembled and differed from the Pharisees in the same way as Jesus. In other respects, the Hellenization of Judaism in the diaspora led to developments parallel to Christianity. Indeed, the possibility of crossing a threshold like that crossed by Christianity has been a permanent characteristic of Judaism, even apart from Christian influence. If my interest were to demonstrate the uniqueness of the several elements in Jesus’ message and Christian experience, it would be essential to make comparison with all forms of Judaism. However, my interest lies in the actual and effective emergence of a new structure of existence, and as a matter of historical fact, this occurred only by the total impact of Jesus’ transformation of Jewish teaching combined with his resurrection appearances. The initial and decisive impact was made chiefly on those whose beliefs had previously been most fully articulated by the Pharisees.
In previous chapters, the structures of existence have been discussed with little attention to the relation between those through whom the new structures received their shape and those who later participated in them. This does not mean that there were no differences. Certainly, there were great differences between the creators of the Homeric epics and the Greek tragedians. Similarly, whereas Socrates cannot be understood apart from his daemon, this was not mentioned, because nothing comparable played a role in Socratic existence generally. The several expressions of prophetic existence differed from the prophetic message itself, and the structure of the existence of the prophets themselves included a relation to God in which prophetic existence generally did not participate. This difference was neglected in the previous chapter, but we must return to it below in attempting to understand Jesus’ relation to his heritage.
When we come to the rise of Christian existence, we cannot continue to neglect the question of the difference in the structure of existence of those responsible for its emergence and of those who followed. Jesus and the Easter experiences of the community were the occasion for crossing the new threshold. But there were special features in Jesus’ relation to God and in the experience of the Holy Spirit in the early church that, while essential to the original transition into Christian existence, are not typically present in that existence. The distinction here is fundamentally of the same order as the other distinctions mentioned, but it has played a much larger role in Christian self-understanding than have the parallel distinctions elsewhere.
In recognition of this situation, this chapter is divided into two main sections treating, respectively, the message of Jesus and the primitive Christian experience of the postresurrection church. This would allow also for discussion of the structures of existence of Jesus and of the primitive Christian, conscious of the indwelling presence of the divine Spirit, in their distinctiveness from that of later believers.
However, such discussions would carry us too far in the direction of Christology and pneumatology, subjects which require extensive treatment in their own right and would distract us here from our central concern. Hence, they are dealt with only to that degree which is necessary for the understanding of the rise of normal Christian existence; and in the explicit treatment of structures of existence at the end of the chapter, only that structure of existence in which Christians generally have shared is considered.
Pharisaism combined an intense ethical consciousness with a future hope. In this combination, it was essentially faithful to its prophetic heritage. Yet, both in its ethical consciousness and in its hope, it lacked one feature characteristic of the prophets themselves. The prophets had known God as present, living, acting reality, but for the Jews of the postexilic period, God was silent and remote. The acts of God were in the past or, hopefully, in the future. As long as God was experienced in his remoteness, nothing else was possible.
The central and decisive fact in the appearance of Jesus was the renewal of the sense of the present immediacy of God. Such a statement hardly does full justice to the remarkable character of this occurrence, since by the use of the term "renewal" it suggests something of a return to an earlier condition. If this were all that were involved, such a renewal might well have been a common occurrence in postexilic Judaism. I suggest that it was not a common occurrence precisely because of the success of the prophetic faith. Some explanation of this point is needed.
Mythical man lived in a universe of sacred meanings and powers. This sacred power was bound up with the unconscious and with its products in consciousness. The shift of the seat of existence from the unconscious to the conscious estranged the self from the sacred power, and the triumph of the rational consciousness over the mythical broke also the power of the sacred. Therefore, the freedom of axial man was also the possibility of freedom from deity. This freedom is to be found among both the Indians and the Greeks. In both cases, in freeing man from the power of myth, the axial development freed him also from the experience of living in relation to presently active divine powers, which took initiative in their dealings with men.
Among the Hebrews, however, the axial development retained the context of the divine-human relation. Here the mythical was ethicized and personalized. At the point of the transition toward this ethicizing and personalizing, the power of the sacred remained overwhelmingly present. But when by this act the sacred power was rationalized, it was also distanced. That is, when men had learned to understand God as a person and his will as a body of moral teaching, they continued to recognize his supreme importance for human life, but his actual present effectiveness became a matter of belief rather than of immediate apprehension.
Thus the centering of existence in consciousness, even in the Hebrew development, pushed the sacred power to the fringes of awareness. The belief that God acted became a part of the conscious, conceptual structure, but the action itself stood outside the sphere of conscious experience and was looked on as past and future rather than present. There seemed to be no way of recovering the vital immediacy of the relation to God, except by a return to the mythical existence of the preaxial state, a return to which Judaism was strictly opposed.
In terms of the nature of the axial transformation, the widespread estrangement from the divine is readily intelligible. Among the Indians and Greeks alike, there were attempts to transcend consciousness or to destroy it so as to recover a primeval condition of unity with the divine. Alternately, Aristotle pointed to the possibility of contemplation of a deity known through inference. But within the context of fully conscious existence, the divine as immediately experienced seemed to be almost necessarily pushed aside.
Yet in Jesus, the full responsible personhood of Hebrew axial man was combined, without loss, with an existence that found its content in the fully personal God. Jesus knew this God as he was taught to know him by the traditions of Israel. But Jesus’ knowledge had an immediacy that transcended the authority of these traditions and enabled him to stand in judgment on them. He knew God as the presently active reality that had incomparably greater reality than the world of creaturely things. He lived and spoke out of the immediacy of this reality. Of course, the experiential immediacy of God to Jesus in no way meant that he was not also formed by the history and traditions of Israel.
Jesus’ proclamation of the immediacy of God took the form of the proclamation of the imminence of his Kingdom, which meant the apocalyptic end. This was no accident. For him, no less than for the apocalyptic emphasis within Judaism, there was a total hiatus between what God was and the actual condition of his world. Hence, the nearness of God could only mean that this world could not stand before him.
Yet it is not enough to think of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher, however true this may be, for his apocalypticism was quite distinct from that of mainstream Judaism. For the latter, the conviction of the apocalyptic end belonged with the experience of God’s absence and remoteness. It was because one believed that God must vindicate the righteous that one knew that the transformation must come. But for Jesus, the apocalyptic message stemmed from the awareness of God’s nearness. Hence, the Kingdom was at hand, and, indeed, at hand in such a way as to be already effectively operative in the moment. The difficulty of unraveling the elements of futuristic and realized eschatology in the message of Jesus stems from the fact that, far more basic for him than any conceptual scheme of the sequence of events, was the fact of God’s present reality to him and for him. That present reality meant that God was effectively active in that now. It meant also that the world as it was constituted in that now was already on the point of dissolution.
Just as Jesus accepted the apocalyptic elements in Judaism, so also he accepted other aspects of contemporary Jewish doctrine and ethical concern. But to these, too, he gave a formulation quite distinct from that of Pharisaism.
In principle, some of the prophetic utterances point to a total ethicizing of the understanding of God’s will. But in fact this did not occur among the Jews. Rather, the taboo system was taken up into the understanding of the will of God. There it was, to some degree, ethicized in its particulars, but it remained incompletely rationalized. Obedience to any item of the law was in itself an ethical act, and in this sense, the relation of the individual to God was ethicized. Interpretation and application could do much to rationalize the arbitrary features of the legal code, but as long as this code was fixed as the past word of God, and as long as God was understood to have spoken in the past rather than in the present, complete rationalization could not occur. Thus the Pharisees, despite their highly developed ethical self-consciousness, and despite the fact that their rabbis were able to point to love of God and man as the sum of the law, remained bound to prerational requirements in the name of ethics. This bred among them also an elaborate casuistry as they attempted to derive intelligible and practical guidance from rules that reflected an archaic, mythical mentality.
Jesus’ renewal of the prophetic consciousness of God in the context of fully responsible personhood broke through the limits of the old law. The distinction between ethical principles, on the one hand, and ancient taboos and cultic rules, on the other, may have been tentatively and provisionally made by some Pharisees, but in Jesus it took on unequivocal and uncompromising character. Jesus resembled the Pharisees through and through in his understanding that man owed to God perfect obedience. But he renewed and completed radically and decisively the prophetic revolution by freeing the understanding of God’s will from the archaic elements with which it had been entangled.
Jesus’ transformation of his Jewish heritage went far beyond this. That love of God and neighbor were the chief among the requirements of God had long been known. Yet the understanding of the meaning of these requirements had always been bound up with the practice of the whole law. The law of love was the most important among the laws, and in announcing it as such Jesus added nothing new. But Pharisaic Judaism, while recognizing the supreme importance of love, had not reinterpreted the whole relation of God and man in terms of love. Rather, it had interpreted the commandment of love in the context of the law, and this had led to hedging the application of the law about with numerous qualifications. Here, too, Jesus crossed a threshold and thus transformed the meaning of the materials that he took with him across the threshold. For him, love demanded an unselfseeking openness to the need of the neighbor, and this neighbor was any man who was in need. No traditional law that interfered with the immediate and responsible expression of that love could be allowed to stand.
The understanding of love was transformed also in another respect. For both Jesus and the Pharisees, love was a matter both of action and of inner intention. Yet the relation between these altered in Jesus. For the Pharisees, the commands of God included the demand for purity of motive and purpose as well as righteousness of action. But these commands, like those which we could distinguish as ethical and ritual, lay side by side. Jesus attached a radical priority to the inner state. Since love was no longer to be expressed by obedience to many principles, it had to be a matter of the heart. Even righteous acts were worthless in God’s sight if they were not motivated by love.
This leads to another striking point of contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees lived in a more or less stable world ruled by God but from which God was somewhat remote. In this context, they had to discover the will of God for each new problem as it arose. This they did by application of the old law. In each case, the law must be so interpreted as to designate some possible course of action as right. Hence, what was demanded must be a practical act within the power of man to effect.
Jesus lived in a world that had no permanence and to which God was very near. In such a world, the question of what was to be done was not settled by the capacities of man or the probable consequences for society. What was demanded was determined by what God was and the meaning of what God was for human life.
As long as the ethical demand was assumed to lie fully within the power of man to obey, it could deal only with behavior rather than with motives. To command that motives be pure was to command the impossible. But this did not matter to Jesus. In the white heat generated by the nearness of God, intentions also must and could be pure.
The possibility of such purity belonged with the understanding of God’s grace. Alongside the absolute radicalization and interiorization of the ethical demand stood the radicalization of trust in God. What a person asked of God confidently, he received. God was far more eager to give than man was open to accept. Indeed, God in his love was already and especially seeking the sinner.
At this point, too, the Pharisaic ethical consciousness was radically transcended. The Pharisee knew that God’s justice was tempered with mercy. God would forgive the penitent if he turned to righteousness. But mercy should operate within the context of justice. The conditions for salvation were established by God, and man had to adapt himself to them.
For Jesus, on the other hand, the whole radical demand of God on men was placed in the context of God’s love. Men were not to think of objective conditions that they must try to meet, but of the active initiative of God coming to them and offering them the Kingdom. God sought out the sinner while he was sinner. Jesus asked, in the first place, only openness or receptivity. Such openness and receptivity, he found more frequently among those who knew themselves as sinners than among the outwardly righteous members of society. Hence, the whole hierarchy of evaluations based upon law and obedience was overturned as the initiative was seen to be in the hands of the loving Father rather than with the ethical striving of man.
The difference can also be stated in terms of freedom. For the Pharisee, the individual man was free to do or not to do what God required of him. For Jesus, the individual man was free to be or not to be what God wanted him to be. Of course, for the Pharisee and Jesus alike, what one was and what one did were inseparable. But whereas for the Pharisee one was what one did, for Jesus one acted in terms of what one was. The freedom to be what one willed to be was a far greater freedom, and hence also a far greater burden, than the freedom to do what one wanted to do.
The resurrection appearances of Jesus created a community of intense excitement and expectancy. In part, they directed this community back to the sayings and deeds of Jesus in which he had given expression to his own existence. But more directly, they constituted for the community the powerful evidence that the old aeon was truly broken and that God had drawn near. The community came into existence in a rejoicing over the resurrection as given reality and in expectation of its imminent universalization. In the excitement of this faith, the effective presence of God was vividly known.
Despite the similarity of the belief and experience of the early Christians with that of Jesus himself, there was also an important difference. For Jesus, the belief in the imminence of the Kingdom was a function of the experiential knowledge of the immediacy of God. He encouraged his hearers to enter into an interpersonal relation with God in perfect trust. For the early Christians, on the other hand, it was what God had done in Jesus’ resurrection that opened them to God in confident expectation of what God would do. Almost as a by-product of this belief, they found themselves open to the present work of God in their lives. This present work was experienced more as an empowering presence than as a Thou who was heard and addressed.
This new relation to God found expression in a new terminology. Jesus had spoken very little of the divine Spirit. Like the great prophets of the eighth century, he may have avoided this language quite consciously. In that earlier period, the Spirit of God had been associated with ecstatic possession. When the Spirit came upon a person, he lost his individual conscious center; he became a passive and non-responsible instrument for God to speak or act through. Where the prophet thought of himself as an individual addressed by God, who then communicated the divine message to his people, he eschewed the idea of Spirit possession. He was involved in a relationship as person with the personal God.
But in the life of the primitive Christian community, the Spirit played a central role. Men experienced themselves as under the influence of divine power that acted in and through their total psyche. God was known as empowering presence at least as clearly as he was known as Heavenly Father. So important was this experience in the self-understanding of the Christian community, that we can use it as a basis for understanding the peculiarity of that existence generally.
Our first question must be to what extent the recurrence of the phenomenon of the Spirit implies a return to archaic patterns of religion. To some degree and in some instances, it must have meant just that and has meant that again and again in Christian history in revivals of the pneumatic emphasis. Speaking in tongues, ecstatic prophesying, and other phenomena seem to have occurred that involve surrender of the conscious center of personality to forces which operate from or through the unconscious.
Furthermore, this is not simply to be deplored. The magnificent attainments of the axial period and the resulting transformations of the structures of human existence command our admiration and deserve our gratitude. Yet we must not hide from ourselves the extremely precarious character of that achievement. Since consciousness is, in fact, so small a part of the total psychic life, its struggle to wrest control and determine the meanings by which life is to be lived is always a struggle against immense odds. The attainment of rational and ethical existence in Greece and Israel required also a great suppression or repression of psychic forces. The unconscious was controlled but not itself transformed or even understood. Axial existence requires a continual psychic effort and discipline that is extremely demanding and often inhibits the spontaneities of mutual affection and acceptance.
In the eschatological Christian community, the sense that the structures of communal and individual existence which had governed the past were now already at an end may well have relaxed the guard of consciousness against the powers of the unconscious. When this happened, there was a sense of release and refreshment, the possibility of feeling whole and at peace. There was also a release of paranormal powers leading to extraordinary results that were highly prized.
The revival of the archaic experience of the divine Spirit involved the danger that the personal reality -- of man and the understanding of God as personal would be destroyed. The I -- Thou relation to God characteristic of Israel might be replaced by an I-it relation in which, as Buber has taught us, the "I" also loses its personal character. In such an I-it relation, the "I" could be either God or man. When the Holy Spirit was seen as initiating agent, man might appear as a passive instrument. When man assumed the role of actor, he might try to manipulate the Spirit as an impersonal force.
Despite the dangers of reversion to archaic existence given with the new prominence of the experience of the Spirit, such reversion was rejected by the mainstream of Christianity. The church attained an understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in which the Hebrew axial achievement was affirmed and carried farther. Paul interpreted the indwelling, empowering, and transforming Spirit as personal Spirit interacting with human personal spirit. Furthermore, he saw the essential and characteristic fruit of the presence of the Holy Spirit not in ecstatic phenomena but in a transformation of the quality of the reflective consciousness itself. He saw in the Spirit a pervasive power working continually within the Christian to produce peace, joy, patience, humility, and love.
Although the personal character of the I -- Thou relation between man and God was thus preserved, what resulted in the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit was not what is usually meant by the I -- Thou relation, for that relation suggests overagainstness, confrontation, speech, and response. The relation of the primitive Christian believer to the Spirit was far more intimate than that. There was no imagery of spatial separation or of demand and obedience. There was, rather, the imagery of two spiritual realities, each fully responsible for itself and self-identical, nevertheless mutually indwelling each other.
Whether this personal presence indwelling the believer was thought of as the Spirit or as Christ or as God in some other form does not really matter. To us the conceptual problem is acutely posed. But as we attempt to understand the character of Christian existence in the primitive community, the decisive point is that the personal God was known as inwardly present without loss of the sense of responsible personhood. Indeed, God was known as inwardly present in such a way as to enhance and accentuate the sense of personhood.
In the preceding paragraphs, the term "spirit" has been used repeatedly to refer to the human spirit. It has been used without precise definition and in a way that hardly distinguishes it from my use of person. This nontechnical use of spirit is also characteristic of the New Testament. The Christian community did not have the philosopher’s concern for terminological precision, and even Paul uses his major anthropological terms in ways that are often interchangeable. "Spirit" can mean the self, the soul, attitude, or will. Probably all its meanings reflect uses that are independent of the prophetic understanding of man.
Nevertheless, this term is here selected to designate the new element in Christian existence. This use of the term receives general support from the New Testament, and is also in accord with one of the meanings widely given to it in contemporary usage. In what follows, spirit refers to the radically self-transcending character of human existence that emerged in the Christian community. In this sense, spiritual existence is a further development of personal existence.
In the last chapter, personhood was defined in terms of the individual’s acceptance of responsibility for himself and his awareness of his inwardness. As personhood emerged in Israel, it formed itself in a way that we find natural to designate by human will.(This term is needed here and below to distinguish the seat of personal existence from that of spiritual existence. As indicated in note in an earlier note, it is an appropriate designation of this seat only when it has been transcended, for "will" suggests at least the possibility of its distinction from the self or "I".) Hebrew man knew himself as one who confronted a choice and was responsible for his voluntary decision. In deciding on the course of action, he was deciding on what he was to be. To us it is surprising that a term more clearly equivalent to our idea of the will is not far more prominent in the Hebrew scriptures. Perhaps the more encompassing concept of "heart" tended to be understood centrally as what we would call "will." In any case, we can largely understand prophetic man in terms of two factors: the total physical, social, and historical context in which he lived and his personal will as that by which he transcended that context and determined the form his life would take within it.
For the primitive Christian community, a new dimension appeared. Attention was focused to a much greater degree on the psychic state as such rather than only on outward action. This psychic state took on great importance both because, as prophetic Judaism already knew, God looked on the heart, and also because the inner man was the seat of the presence and activity of God’s Spirit. Outward behavior was understood to flow forth from the heart and to reflect its total state. Also, Christian belief or faith, unlike Pharisaic obedience, was initially a matter of an inner state rather than of observable conduct.
This attention to the inwardness of man greatly complicated the understanding of personal responsibility as focused in the will. As long as responsibility was primarily for voluntary actions, man must be seen as able, in a quite simple and direct sense, to do what he ought. But when actions were seen in terms of motives and attention was directed toward the motive rather than to the act, such an uncomplicated understanding of responsibility led to immense difficulties. Perhaps Jesus’ own understanding retained this straightforward sense of the possibility of obedience, but certainly in the experience of the Christian community it could not endure. On the one hand, man ought to have a pure heart, to act only from love of God and neighbor. On the other hand, he found all sorts of resistances in himself to such action. He wanted to overcome these resistances, yet they remained. Were they then elements alien to himself for which he had no responsibility? One could not quite say that, for they were too intimately a part of the self, even affecting the willing itself. There seemed to be a power of sin in man s life that was not simply subject to his will and yet was bound up with that will. If man was to become genuinely righteous and not merely to conform his outward action to approved patterns, he must be aided from outside his own resources. Indeed, he was wholly dependent on the divine initiative.
One might suppose that the sense of dependence on the divine initiative would lead to a reduced sense of personal responsibility. But this did not occur. The Christian experienced himself as radically responsible for himself beyond the point of his actual apparent ability to choose. Here is the seat of the rationally perplexing but existentially powerful understanding of original sin, a notion almost wholly lacking in Judaism but pervasively effective in Christianity, even where its verbalization is repudiated. Somehow, the Christian knew himself as responsible for choosing to be the kind of self he was, even when he found that his desire to change himself into another kind of self was ineffectual. Hence, he must shift his efforts from a direct struggle to alter himself to the attempt to become open to the work of the divine Spirit that could do within him something which he could not do in and for himself. Even here he knew that his very opening of himself toward God depended on God’s initiative and that this opening, in its turn, was very fragmentary indeed.
The Christian had to accept a responsibility for his existence as a whole in a way that separated him from Judaism. This meant that he must understand himself as transcending his will in the sense of his power of choice among practicable alternatives in a given situation. He was responsible not only for his choice but also for the motive of his choosing. He was responsible for being the kind of self who could not will to choose to have the motive he should.
In principle, we can press this responsibility ad infinitum. At whatever level we ask the question about what we are, we also must acknowledge our responsibility for being that. We cannot simply accept what we are as the given context within which our responsibility operates. If I find that I am not a loving person, I must acknowledge my responsibility for not being a loving person; and if I find that I cannot even will to become a loving person, I must acknowledge responsibility for that failure of my will. I cannot identify myself with some one aspect of my total psyche, some one force within it. If with the Jew I identify myself with the will, then I know myself as responsible for that self-identification and hence as transcending it. Even more, if with many of the Greeks I identify myself with reason, I know that I am responsible for that choice and hence transcend the reason with which I have identified myself.
Of course, this sort of analysis is not present in the New Testament texts. They expressed only a relatively early stage of the development of this self-conscious self-transcendence. Attention was focused away from the self, its acts and self-consciousness, toward the work of God in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit and toward the consummation so soon to come. The practical problems of organizing life in the present were dealt with only as the needs were insistent.
Although the emphasis thus far has been placed on responsibility, in the New Testament the work of the Spirit is known much more as freedom. Man was free from the law, because he could live immediately from the grace that was the Spirit. He did not need to struggle to obey imposed principles of conduct, because his heart was changed. Those principles were now either set aside as irrelevant or accepted as the spontaneous expression of the new heart that he found within himself as the work of the Spirit. Man was free from his own past, because the Spirit placed him on a new level of existence in which that past had no power over him. Man was free from the oppressive powers of this world, the structures within the context of which he had understood his existence, because he now lived in terms of a reality that radically transcended and relativized them. He knew Christian existence, therefore, as joy rather than as burden.
In the New Testament, we see a stage of development in which the primacy of the Holy Spirit was so great in the understanding of Christian existence that there was simply no place for using the gifts of the Spirit wrongly. That one should use the freedom granted by the Spirit for immorality was unintelligible, although, of course, even then it occurred. The New Testament had not yet reached the understanding of spiritual sins.
The church, however, came rapidly enough to recognize that the existence of man as spirit was by no means an insurance of virtue. It introduced man to a new level of sin as well as to new possibilities of self-sacrificial love. Spiritual existence has brought into human history depths of both good and evil that are impossible in any other context. The finest achievements of man and his most hideous crimes are alike spiritual acts.
That the emergence of spiritual existence is the emergence of enhanced possibilities for both good and evil is nothing new. The same could be said for personal existence and, indeed, for axial existence in general, or of civilized existence, or, before that, of human existence as such. This means, however, that we cannot simply identify prophetic existence with personal existence or Christian existence with spiritual existence. Prophetic existence is personal existence that exercises its personal responsibility in trust and obedience. Christian existence is spiritual existence that exercises its new freedom in love. The nature of this love and the way it fulfills spiritual existence are the chief topics of the next chapter.
Personal existence is that structure of existence realized in prophetic Judaism, and spiritual existence is the new structure that emerged in the primitive Christian community. In concluding this chapter, a direct description of this structure is needed.
In personal existence, a center emerged in the conscious psyche that transcended such impersonal forces as passion and reason, which were operative therein, and experienced responsibility for their mutual relations. From the perspective of spiritual existence, this center can be identified with the will.
In spiritual existence, a new level of transcendence appeared. The self became responsible for the choice of the center from which it organized itself and not only for what it chose from a given center. If it chose to identify itself as will and to accept the bondage to moral obligation that was therein entailed, it could do so. But it need not do so, and it should not do so. If it did do so, it was responsible for this choice as well as for the further choices that it made as will.
If it is difficult to conceptualize the structure of personal existence, the difficulty is compounded when we come to spiritual existence. Here we must think of a reflective consciousness in which the seat of existence is capable of changing. Furthermore, we must think of this changing center as itself responsible for this changing, and thus transcendent of the locus from which it organizes the whole. Finally, we must conceive this transcendent center as capable of retaining its transcendent identity and of refusing to identify itself with any other aspect of the psyche. Obviously, as long as we derive our images from visual sources, such a concept is impossible. Yet, it fits the facts of experience as expressed in much Christian literature and can be confirmed by many in their own self-understanding.
The spiritual structure of existence resulted from an intensification and radicalization of that responsibility for oneself which is the mark also of personal existence. If a person accepts responsibility for his action and recognizes that this requires his control over his emotions and thought, then by that act he becomes an "I" that transcends his emotions and thought. The emergence of that "I" marks the advent of personal existence. But the personal "I" cannot be responsible for what it cannot control. It cannot be responsible for the occurrence of particular emotions, only for channeling them into righteous action. It cannot be responsible for the limits of its own capacity. It cannot be responsible for itself as it is given to itself. Thus, the "I" of personal existence transcends every other element in the reflective consciousness, but it does not transcend itself.
The message of Jesus, on the one hand, and the experience of the Holy Spirit, on the other, broke through this last barrier to total responsibility. The essential demand of God has to do precisely with those dimensions of selfhood which the personal "I" cannot control. To accept those demands and to accept responsibility to live in terms of them is to accept radical responsibility for oneself, and that is, at the same time, to transcend one’s self. That means that the new spiritual "I" is responsible both for what it is and for what it is not, both for what lies in its power and for what lies beyond its power. For the spiritual " I" need not remain itself but can, instead, always transcend itself. Thus, spiritual existence is radically self-transcending existence.