“The greatness of humanity is that we are programmed to grow, and we are programmed to become weaker.”
One of the first major theological papers I had to write in seminary was on creation. In that paper I took the position that all of creation – including the lives of people – was to the greater glory of God. Free will was a necessary component of that – for in being able to not worship God, the act of worship becomes that much more significant when we do make that choice. Similarly, the relationship we choose to have with God is more important when that relationship is voluntary and not a programmed requirement. I was all down with the lack of programming in humanity by God.
The first time I heard Jean Vanier say this, I was a bit disturbed. It seemed to me that the process of being programmed countered this understanding of Doxologizing voluntarily. But as I thought about it more, I saw it as God providing opportunity to engage in this thing that we are made for in a new way – by entering in relationship with each other, by acknowledging our limits, by being challenged to look at our own lack of agency and power – to look beyond it – and perhaps see God in a new way, or see the God in fellow person in a new way. It is not a program that robs us of free will, it is one that allows us to engage the Glory of Creation because of our very finitude.
Michael Hrynuik, in examining the L’Arche communities for ways to help us understand God and each other better, points out that our understanding of what makes a person whole in modern Western Culture (or at least modern culture influenced by standard Western European thought processes) is primarily defined by autonomy: self-sufficiency, self-determination and self-possession. Indeed the isolation of the self is a process that has been developing in the Western world for quite sometime. The importance of “I” over “We” has been stressed and over expressed for the last two hundred years or more.
Without building too heavily on – and getting distracted by – the idea that the growth of the nation state began us on this road to individualism by separating us in entirely new ways than we had been before – certainly our country could be identified by not just our growing isolationistic tendencies (much more pronounced in the last two years than before), but also the nationalist fervor which has been built into every aspect of our life together – including theological – for the last two hundred or so years. I’m not saying that the US doesn’t have the right to have a unique identity or that we shouldn’t be proud of it. I am saying that for Christians in America, when we use our national identity to justify standing further apart from those suffering injustice and marginalization, we betray part of the opportunity that our nation affords us, and that our Christian faith demands of us.
“Become Weaker,” which Jean Vanier suggests, is difficult for us to contemplate. Protestant Work Ethic has us believe that those who do not work should not benefit. Capitalistic thought, as taught to the masses, certainly reinforces this idea. The unique attitude of the L’Arche community – which emphasizes relationship as primary and important in life and understanding of God – that we become closer to God as we become more dependent on one another is challenging to me. Even with two sons on the Autism spectrum I look for how I can help them contribute to society even when I realize that they may always require some level of help to function in that society.
L’Arche’s model suggests that rather than being defined by our autonomy we are in fact defined by our relationships with others. Not just other people, but by our relationship with God: Theonomy. Just as the image of the Trinitarian God is one “of the Three Persons who are always seeking to go beyond Themselves, toward the Other, receiving each Other from each Other” (Hryniuk, Theology, Disability, and Spiritual Transformation: Learning from the Communities of L’Arche, Cambria, New York, p. 249), so we are engaged in a dynamic relationship with God. The theonomous person is in “personal communion with self, others, and God.” Our very identity is found in these perichoretic and fully mutual relationships.
And perhaps this is where “Become Weaker” is useful advice. It certainly opens us up to relying on these relationships in a way we did not before by insisting that we do rely on others for the things we require. It is difficult for me to contemplate, because it is so antithetical to the way that I have been thinking all my life. Following Jesus requires revolution not just without but within as well. May I continue to revolutionize my thinking as I pursue theonomy and dynamic relationship with my fellow human beings.
One of the first sermons I ever had to do was a sermon on John 1 to a church that didn’t necessarily ascribe to Trinitarian theology. Being someone who was implicitly Trinitarian in my perception of God, this forced me to review the concepts a bit more thoroughly than I had previously. I made myself consider if I really was Trinitarian, or if that was an ideology I had just ascribed to because of my Church of Origin. Ultimately for myself, what I found was that the Trinity as a model of the divine was a necessary thing for me, because it is in Jesus (and his being a full and equal part of God) that I come to know God best. The incarnation of God as a human being had implications to the ways that I thought about God. This was a God willing to up-end the order of creation thus far to enter into a more complete relationship with us. An act of radical inclusivity from the divine being who did not demand assimilation from us, but instead became like us to include us in relationship.
Let me be clear – I’m not saying God didn’t have relationship with humanity before the incarnation – I’m saying that the incarnation is how I find a grounding of my relationship – and the directive for how to live out my faith in a way that reflects the magnificent love that God has for all God’s children. I believe that we reflect God, and that the Trinity and the internal relationship or economy of God is one example of how we do so.
Catherine LaCugna points out that “Each Theology is one reading of the economy, one interpretation of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ.” (La Cugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, Harper San Francisco, p381). Certainly the conversations I have had with my fellow students on the Trinity have shown this to be the case. Each of us has a slightly different understanding of God – a unique perspective based on not just the relationship each of us has with God, but also our relationships with the communities around us. Where we did agree was that in the relationship of God within Godself, and the relationship of us to each other, there was at least some minimal echo.
I find that in Inclusion the reality of God’s love is revealed. In standing in solidarity with the marginalized – not an assimilative erasure of identity to make us the same, but an act of courageous inclusion which celebrates our differences as well as our core identity as the collective children of God – God’s plan for the Heavenly Realm becomes ever clearer. We strive imperfectly for a relationship of dynamic tension where as individuals we contribute based on our uniquenesses and our fundamental similarities, and where as community we bless each other in our samenesses and our individual gifts. Yes, I admit – its a bit paradoxical – but I also believe that is another way in which we reflect God – we are each a small paradox, in relationship with each other and with the ultimate paradox – the eternal God who loves us, three and one all at once.
To manifest the will of God, we must be in relationship not just with God, but with each other because that IS the will of God. LaCugna puts it this way: “…the exclusion of even a single person is contrary to God’s providential plan.” May we continue to learn and grow so that we may accept each other and each of our uniquenesses better, based on the similarities we share.