Chapter 11: The Person in Society

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 11: The Person in Society

There is much talk nowadays about what we might call the nature of human nature. Some speak of human beings as essentially economic animals, others define them in terms of their sexual impulses, still others say that they are religious creatures. They have even been described, as I think Thomas Aquinas once suggests, as the animals who laugh. And of course there are the traditional ways of speaking about human nature; in the classical definition, to be human is to be "an animal substance with a rational nature."

Probably most of these ways of describing human nature are true so far as they go, or at least they contain elements of truth. But it seems to me that they are very partial and inadequate to the reality of what it feels like, to each of us, to be human. Certainly we are victims in one way or another of what are styled economic laws, say of supply and demand; surely we are in one aspect animals who seek for and require animal fulfillment; without a doubt we are sexual creatures. On the other hand, we can deal firmly with those so-called economic laws, while our animality is qualified by some degree of rational capacity and our sexual drive is far more than mere gratification of lust. So it goes, with most of the proposed definitions.

My own suggestion is simply that we recognize the truth in much of what is said in these definitions and what is known about ourselves through the various sciences of our day, but that we refuse to confine our self-understanding to any one of them. Incidentally, for those of us who are concerned with matters of religion and faith, it is important that we avoid what may be for us a desirable, but is instead a dangerously partial, notion: that men and women are essentially "spiritual" beings. They are that, of course, but they are much else too, and I suspect that one of the reasons for the revolt against religion is that too often religiously minded people, lay or ordained, have talked of humankind in altogether too "spiritual" a fashion, forgetting so much else that is true of every person who has ever lived.

What then can a Christian say about human nature? And what can be said if that Christian also subscribes to the general process conceptuality presented and defended in this book?

I shall here set down my suggestions on this subject, putting them under separate headings, each with a Christian statement concerning it. After that, something will be said about these. The eight points to which I call attention are: (1) Human existence is a dependent one; in Christian language, "It is [God] who hath made us, and not we ourselves." (2) Human existence is an unfulfilled existence, with potentialities that may be realized or made actual; in Christian language, "God has made us toward himself." (3) Human existence is social in nature; in Christian language, "We are members one of another." (4) Humans are neither soul alone, nor mind alone, nor body alone, but organisms compounded of soul-mind-body; in Christian language, "We are made of the dust of the earth and that dust has had breathed into it the life which is given by God." (5) We are sexual creatures, in a much deeper sense than other creatures; in Christian language, "Male and female created [God] them" and "Human existence is a seeking of intimate relationships with others." (6) Humanity is sadly in defection from its deepest intentionality and unable to achieve proper fulfillment; in Christian language, "We are sinners." (7) We can be given wholeness of life, rightly integrated and thus fulfilled; in Christian language, we may be enabled "both to perceive and know what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same." (8) Nobody can be totally fulfilled without reference to God, in whose reception and employment of humanity our destiny is achieved; in Christian language, "We are restless until we find our rest in God."

Something like this, I believe, sums up the Christian view of human nature. But one further affirmation is required if we take seriously both our own inner self-awareness and the process way of interpreting it. Each of us also possesses some measure of genuine freedom, with its corollary of some measure of responsibility or accountability for our decisions made in that freedom. Our human existence can therefore be described in Berdyaev’s phrase "creaturely freedom"; without that and apart from that, disregarding its central importance in our lives, we are given less than a complete picture. It is a merit of modern existentialist thinkers, including nontheists like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, that they understand and insist upon this truth about human nature.

We may now turn to the first of our affirmations: We are dependent. We do not explain ourselves, we cannot keep ourselves in existence, we require that which is not ourselves in order to become ourselves. Nobody is entirely independent. Everybody is a creature, a created entity. It is most unfortunate that many people who would accept this fact in a general way find themselves unable to accept it in its specifically Christian phrasing, because it is still associated in their minds with the literal acceptance of the story of human creation told in Genesis in the Bible. One of our important duties, as I see it, is to be much clearer and much louder in our insistence that the Genesis story is myth and that no conclusions are to be drawn from it that presuppose its historical factuality. Once we are delivered from that error we can understand that the Christian assertion is that we depend not so much on some presumed first cause in the remote past but always and everywhere upon the creative and sustaining power of the basic reality working in and through the whole creation. Further, it should be said plainly that we are also constantly dependent upon more proximate realities, all of which are surrogates for our ultimate dependence. Family friends, food, shelter, and the like; history, the accumulates knowledge and wisdom of the human race, nature and its products -- these stand for and serve as instrumental agencies of the supreme reality which is the final dependability, the enduring strength of all creation, the chief creative cause and the chief receptive end in the cosmos. To pretend that we are independent is stupid; it is also vainglorious nonsense. As Ezra Pound wrote in Pisan Cantos, "Put down thy vanity . . . it was not man made grace or nature." A claim to human independence is in a way the root of our troubles; in the language of traditional moral theology it is the pride (superbia) which is the root sin of humankind. Baron Friedrich von Hügel, the great lay leader of Roman Catholic modernism in the early years of this century, spoke often of the need for "a humble sense of creatureliness." He was right; this awareness of our created dependence is for the Christian the motif that qualifies all one’s thinking and doing. But it does not for a moment negate our creaturely freedom, to which we have made reference, nor does it minimize human dignity and responsibility for what is done in the world.

But we must go on to the second affirmation. We are unfulfilled existence. Each of us is an "unfulfilled capacity," made with and for a purpose -- or, as our process conceptuality requires us to put it, "being made. . . ." The Christian would say that we are thus being made toward the image of God, to reflect, and personally (and socially) act for, the divine Love; and the deepest intentionality in us is in the direction of finding genuine fulfillment in fellowship with God. Tu fecisti nos ad te, domine, et inquietum cor nostrum donec requiescat in te -- so Augustine said, in words I quoted in English earlier, I have given the Latin here because I wish to correct the usual and mistaken translation so often found, which makes Augustine say we are made "for God." Surely what he meant, and what the Latin with its ad te indicates, is that we are being made toward God, the force of the ad te in Latin being direction or end aimed at or desired. So we can say that human existence is being created, to push on toward the fulfillment of capacity possible only (in any ultimate sense) in communion and fellowship with God who alone can bring to flower the potentiality given in creation. But this brings with it the recognition that there are created surrogates as agents or means through which this may be done. It is when such surrogates are set up as substitutes or ends in themselves that they become demonic in their effect and distort the life of the one who rests in them. Any good reality, less than God, can serve as a means toward God. It is, alas, equally true that any such reality, put in the place of God, can pervert human life and bring it to tragic loss. Even religion can do this; and of that there have been plenty of instances in human history. It was Frederick Denison Maurice, the great English theologian of the nineteenth century, who warned that when people "cry out for the living God" it is all too easy to offer them "religion" instead. To substitute religion, granted all that is good and important in it, for God is always a temptation within the life of the ongoing Christian community.

Augustine spoke of the human heart as inquietum, "disquieted," until that heart "finds its rest in God." Inquietum is a very good word here. It expresses in Latin what is true in the claim of modern existentialists that angst, or "anxiety," as Kierkegaard put it, is part of the very existence of men and women in their alienation from the basic reality of their deepest selves. Why is this? I take it to be explained by the fact that our nature is dynamic, toward goals and toward fulfillment; we are creatures like that, yet we are unable in and of ourselves to achieve those goals. But unless we are moving in that direction, feebly and defectively as this will be, we are not genuinely human but only sophisticated simians. On the other hand, unless that movement is ultimately toward God, our restlessness reflects our serious and sometimes terrifying falling-short of that for which we exist. Ersatz fulfillment turns into dust and ashes.

Francis Thompson’s poem "The Hound of Heaven" is often dismissed nowadays as a piece of flamboyant and exotic writing, but there have been few more eloquent expressions of the truth that "naught satisfieth" men and women which does not lead them to their true fulfillment in God. But once again we need to be careful lest we seem to insist that such fulfillment necessarily involves the acceptance of conventional patterns of theology or religious notions. One does not need to call the reality which thus fulfills human life by the name "God," although that is the hallowed way of pointing it out. An authentic Christianity will be glad to recognize God’s incognitos, whatever they may be, wherever they may be; it will claim only that whatever tends to bring true fulfillment, integrating humans through some overmastering concern that grasps them, is the work of God; such "whatevers" are places and points where the divine action is known and something of the divine nature is made transparent to us, however we may name it. God, we must say, is not "jealous" in refusing to use surrogates that will have meaning for humanity.

I wish now to link the first two points with the Christian conviction that we are being made toward the image of God. The phrase "the image of God" means more than mere reflection as in a mirror; it means the active and energizing capacity given to humans, as created entities, to live with integrity as the "created second" of the God who is making them. At the heart of Christian faith is the figure of Jesus Christ as "the Express Image" of God. In him humanity is truly fulfilled. And it is not so much imitation of the picture of Jesus given in the New Testament as it is imitation of the response which is God’s action and to which the New Testament witnesses, whereby God’s intention in creating us "toward the divine self" is manifested in a concrete human life. Jesus is "what God is up to" with respect to human existence. It has been said that Jesus, in the totality of his life and deed, is "God’s idea of humanity" visibly enacted before our eyes.

In our interpretation we have said that the most satisfactory way of understanding Jesus’ significance is to see that in him there is made actual, real, vivid, and clear what is potential although unrealized or very partially realized in the rest of us. His response to the divine intention was adequate and complete, even if this cannot be demonstrated from the material in the Gospel narratives. But even in Jesus this achievement is not of and by a human being alone. God comes first; God always comes first. Thus Christian faith dares to say that here is not only a human deed -- although of course it is that -- but also, and here first, God’s deed humanly speaking. God so energized through this particular human life, which had been divinely purposed and intended, that those upon whom it made and continues to make its impact have been obliged to say that in this man Jesus, God lived and wrought. And we should wish to claim that in Christ this is done as nowhere else, and never before so fully. So, once again God’s focal presence and action in the man Jesus is incorrectly interpreted when it is taken to be primarily a rescue operation or an expedition into the world to bring humans back from their appalling situation of alienation and estrangement. It does indeed accomplish this, and therefore Jesus is rightly said to be our Savior. But in the first instance, and central to God’s plan for humanity, it is the coronation (and the correction too) of God’s continuing and consistent activity to bring about the fulfillment in us of the divine intention with which we are created.

In the third place, human existence is social. We are persons in society, living in commonality with our brothers and sisters. I need not dwell upon this fact since today it is so widely recognized and emphasized. We are all bound together in "a bundle of the living," as an Old Testament text says. More and more we are coming to grasp the validity of W.H. Auden’s line "We must love one another or die."

This Christian stress on sociality, which (as we shall see in the next chapter) is the natural reason for the existence of the Christian community as well as of other human groupings, has a close relationship with the fourth assertion: that each of us is an organic unity, body-mind-spirit. Here recent developments in medical science, such as those in psychology, are offering invaluable confirmatory evidence of the biblical and Christian picture. We are not animals only, although we have animality in us. We are not angels, either, although we can think, aspire, value, love, and worship. Gabriel Marcel has protested against the saying "I have a body" and has insisted that in a profound sense it is much more true to say, "I am a body" -- although that is not all I am.

To talk about ourselves as souls who happen to possess bodies is to make a grave mistake. Our identity is not found in some supposed substantial soul, as many theologians of the past have claimed; that identity is given in and through the series of concrete experiences which are ours from the past, in the present, and toward the future. What each of us is and does in bodily existence largely determines what we are. At the same time, we must recognize the significance of our spirituality, even when we reject spiritualism. (I am referring here not to the cult that goes by that name but to excessive emphasis on the nonmaterial in human life.) Once again a task is required from Christian teachers and preachers, both in what they have to say about human life in general and in what they have to say about Jesus in particular. Furthermore, this plain truth that we are organic psychosomatic "becomings" provides a natural reason for the use of sacramental means of worship and Christian nurture, as well as a vindication of the traditional emphasis on the eucharist or Holy Communion as central in our relationship, as Christian people, with the divine reality in whom alone we can find genuine fulfillment of our creaturely potentiality.

Related to this stress on the embodiment that is ours is human sexuality. Here is our fifth point. I remember well that on one occasion, speaking at a student conference, I said, "We are sexual beings." An undergraduate retorted in an audible voice, "Well, so are apes and apples." Of course apes and apples are sexual, but human existence is sexual in a different way from apes and apples. Of course there is a continuity between human sexuality and simian sexuality (about apples I cannot speak!), but at the human level sexuality is much more than a biological drive for the propagation of the species, accompanied as it is by pleasant feeling-tones that make it attractive to engage in sexual contacts. Human sexuality is intimately related to, indeed may be called the ground for, the drive toward self-fulfillment in a societal fashion. The biological instinct, which is real enough, is in men and women taken up into the yearning for relationship with other human beings; it is given a new significance and a new direction. It is much more a reflection of an urge toward unity with others than it is a reproductive urge, although the latter is often present.

Our sexuality is linked with our psychosomatic existence. In the human dynamic movement the body as well as the mind and spirit is present and active. We are so made that our chemistry, biology, and psychology, quite as much as our spirituality, are part of us. At the animal level there is an urge toward bodily union; at the emotional level there is an urge toward association with others of our kind, as intimately as possible. We are being made for fulfillment in God, but we are also creatures who seek fulfillment in community with other human beings; we are social, not individual, in makeup. The embodiedness that is ours is included in the drive to find fulfillment in God through various surrogates, and this tells us that sexuality is a means for the deepening of all relationships, with others and with the Other to whom in faith we give ourselves, to the end that in the sharing of life together which we know as human love we may also share life together in the divine Love.

This is the insight (perhaps often unconsciously known) that is behind the common Christian understanding of marriage as in some real sense sacramental. It is sacramental not only because physical contact is employed to express and increase human love but also because the human relationship in love is symbolic of, an expressive medium for, and a representation and effectual sign that enables a deep relationship with God, for God is Love and acts ever lovingly in and toward humanity. We can also see from what has been said above that a Christian must recoil from the abuse or the misuse of sexuality. Such is not only or merely a distortion of human relationships but also, much more seriously, a blasphemous substitution of entirely uncontrolled desire (or "sinful lust," as the prayer book phrases it, although we must remember that lust, as such, can be entirely right, since it means strong or passionate desire, which surely is a valuable element in human experience) for the love which is from God and which is God. Human sexuality is a very good thing; its vulgarization can be a horrible thing, since it entails a denial of the mutuality that is toward fulfillment in God.

The sixth Christian assertion tells us that human existence is in defection from its proper potentiality, from the true self, from God, and from other human beings. Despite the popular notion that the church identifies sex with sin, the genuinely Christian view of human nature makes no such statement. Of course the sexual aspect of human life can become (as Augustine saw, and as Freud and others have reiterated in our own time) an area in which proud assertion of self for self alone brings disastrous consequences. But human defection, usually called "sin," is much more than this. There are theological problems here, about which there is no need to speak; certainly the meaning of "sin" must be reinterpreted in accordance with our new knowledge. Talk about inherited sinfulness or original sin can be very misleading, especially when it is interpreted almost exclusively in a biological fashion. The story of the fall, told in Genesis, is to be taken as something true of each of us, not as a historical account of how sin came into the world at a specific time and place in human history. We are indeed inheritors of a past that for millennia has been marked by wrong decisions, followed by wrong acts and words and thoughts; this is our inescapable situation. But we are also in the position of doing our own sinning; that is, each of us chooses wrongly and the consequences of such wrong choosing are tragic for us and for others.

To speak of "sin" is to speak primarily of a violation of relationship with God and other human beings, the breaking of what ought to have been and could be a free mutual give-and-take in love and justice. We are far from the excellence that is intended for us, and we are thus distant because we have elected to be so. In Luther’s words, we are "twisted in upon ourselves" (incurvatus in se, he says, is the condition of each person); we deprive ourselves of the good which in principle is ours because we prefer cheaper and easier superficial "goods." All along the line we are in defection. To say this does not require us to accept the ultra-Augustinianism of some contemporary Christian thinkers who seem to delight in calling humankind (in a dreadful phrase recently used on British radio by one of these people) "a lot of rubbish." Nonetheless, we must recognize the situation for what it is, especially in these days when non-Christians like Arthur Koestler in England and the late Lionel Trilling in the United States have been so insistent about the facts.

Sin is whatever prevents the human movement toward true fulfillment in God. It is ultimately a religious concept, because ultimately it has to do with God and God’s intention for us, which is precisely this fulfillment. As Paul Lehmann, the American moral theologian, has told us, "God’s purpose for [humankind) is to make them and keep them human," and that signifies a right movement toward God that is also, and by necessity, a right fulfillment of human potentiality. But it needs to be emphasized that the sins, in the plural, which we commit are usually not "religious" sins at all, if by this we mean they are conscious violations of God’s intention and are committed as being just that. The best way to bring the sinfulness of such sins home to us is to point toward the places where humans in fact act wrongly: in home, school, business, contacts with others, and the like, where by pride, self-seeking, neglect of our neighbors, ugliness of behavior in our homes, and so much else, we often behave in a reprehensible manner or we subtly and insidiously treat other persons as mere "things." And yet, with the most realistic acceptance of the sad truth both about us as persons and us in our social situations, we cannot forget that we remain always God’s children, grounded in God, being made (if only we are willing) toward God’s image, still possessed of an unfulfilled capacity for God.

It is in this context that we may best approach the seventh and eighth points. First, humankind can be given a right direction, enabled to move properly toward God, and not only have the capacity to "perceive and know what things" we ought to do but also be given "grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same." I have already discussed atonement, so I need not repeat what was said. In the event of Jesus Christ, where God’s Self-Expression or Word was focal and decisive in its human manifestation and action, something has been accomplished. What Prof. Tillich used to call "the new being in Christ" has been realized and made actual and concrete in this human world. Now it is for us to enter into, appropriate, accept, and make real for ourselves that which has been done. I have protested against confining the significance of Jesus Christ to a divine rescue expedition, but the plain testimony of two thousand years of Christianity is that Jesus Christ does rescue us in the supreme sense that through his deed, culminating on Calvary, he opens up the right road to fulfillment and provides grace -- which, as Kenneth Kirk once said, is God’s love in action -- to enable us to walk that road, even in times of stress and even though we are quite likely to stumble and fall again and again.

Most of the atonement theologies, as they stand, are incredible and sometimes horribly sub-Christian in their conception of God. But the experienced reality to which they testify -- that through Jesus Christ humankind has found deliverance from whatever in their own time and culture they believed to be their worst defect and their most disgraceful condition, however unfortunately they may have phrased the way in which such deliverance is accomplished -- is unquestionably a fact with which we must reckon. In my earlier discussion I indicated my own preference regarding a "theory" of atonement (Abelard’s stress on God’s demonstration of the divine Love-in-act, combined with an onto-logical grounding of this in the structure and dynamic of the cosmos). But what matters is not this or any other theory but that through a relationship with God, known in act in Christ and in others who have shared the Spirit, God’s children may grow in grace, attempting to follow the steps of Jesus’ life and coming to be what God purposes for us as "enChristed" men and women.

But -- and here we come to the eighth point -- our perfection in this respect is hardly likely to be achieved in this finite world. I believe there is a sense in which John Wesley was correct in speaking of perfection as possible for us. But he was talking about our being caught up into God’s love and then put on the path which that love indicates as our true good, rather than indicating some entirely complete state achieved with no further growth required. God has "set eternity in our hearts," says Scripture; there is more for humankind than this world can provide, a richer fulfillment than time and space can offer. Hence there is a certain sort of truth in the otherworldly stress in Christian witness. But there is no place for "next-worldliness," which would imply (as Prof. Bethune-Baker once said) putting off to some supposed "next world" what we ought to be doing in this one.

In Chapter 13 I shall discuss such matters -- our present existence, shot through as it is even now with "bright beams of everlastingness," in the poet’s phrase, and our possible human destiny. Whatever else may be said about that destiny, it is to be seen as in God, as humankind is received into the divine life which is sheer Love-in-act. At the end of The City of God Augustine used some lovely words: "There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of God of which there is no end?" How those words may be understood, what is their residual truth, the way in which a process conceptuality can give them a valid significance -- all this is to be considered in that later chapter.