The Human Condition

Professor Frances Young explores the ways in which modern life has cut us off from a realistic understanding of what it means to be human


This article was first published in the Summer 2000 issue of Chrism, following the Henry Cooper Lecture of that year, of which this is the full text. The author's profile below is from the same date

Professor Frances Young OBE is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and holds the Edward Cadbury Chair of Theology there. However she is not only an academic with a considerable reputation in the study of early Christianity, she is also a Methodist minister and the mother of an adult son with profound mental and physical disabilities, still supported at home. This has meant that in all her work she always tries to link intellectual engagement with life experience, theology with spirituality. She is the author of a number of books including, ‘Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering’. Recently she edited ‘Encounter with Mystery: Reflections on L’Arche and Living with Disability’

© Guild of St Raphael

The Henry Cooper Lecture for 2000

Our African guide walks in front through the bush. Suddenly he stops and urges us back. After a bit we turn and ask about the problem. He points to some waving branches: elephant! We’d been dangerously close. We set out down wind and give it a wide berth. We never saw the beast, until later, back in our camp, we saw an elephant splash across the channel of water. All night the call of the nightjar, the bark of hyena, the sound of roaring lion. Next morning early we walk miles through the bush tracking lion, but the cats are elusive. We find fresh elephant dung, and nervously take a circular route back. And the next 24 hours are the same. We hear hippo grunting and our guide polls the dugout away fast in the other direction. In the distance we see buffalo grazing and avoid the area. We go in search of the leopard we’ve been hearing, but see nothing but wildebeest and leaping buck, lechwe and impala.

On the edge of insecurity

I’m just back from an amazing experience - camping and walking in the Okavango Delta, one of the last places in Africa where you can still have experiences similar to the old explorers. Our guide had an old spear and a knife, but for safety we were really dependent upon traditional skills tracking, observation, caution, keeping the fire alight all night. We didn’t see much game, but slid through long grassy meadows in the mokoro (punt ) on a level with frogs and dragonflies, spiders’ webs and water-lilies. It was a rich paradise. Yet always the frisson of the wild, the edge of insecurity

How artificial our lives are!

I’m not just sharing holiday stories for the sake of it. This was an experience of being human in the natural context of creation, the kind of experience Westerners now rarely have. We were little and vulnerable in a stunningly beautiful but potentially threatening world. The skills of survival were those we have long lost. There was something awesome about just being there. Yet even so we were cushioned compared with our hunter-gatherer ancestors: we had tinned food and tin-openers, we had insect-repellant and anthisan. We escaped the dreaded malaria and sleeping-sickness, but on our return appreciated the benefit of antibiotics to deal with our tick typhus. And we would escape, flying dramatically over the swamp and seeing the giraffe far below. Nevertheless I believe we have had a salutary experience, a reminder of how artificial our lives have become.

The aim of this Lecture

In this lecture1 I want to explore the ways in which modernity has distanced us from a realistic understanding of the human condition, and begin to reclaim the wisdom of the past which enabled people to get their lives and experiences into better perspective. The shape of the lecture is a kind of spiral - a series of loops that provide recapitulation and development by linking various arguments previously developed in what I hope is a creative collage.

CHARACTERISING ‘MODERNITY’

Theologically speaking, Bonhoeffer characterised modernity most sharply in his phrase ‘mankind come of age’. Modern man had reached a kind of maturity which enabled a sense of superiority vis-a-vis the past, especially when it came to what most regarded as superstitious religious fears. At the heart of modernity was the notion of human autonomy: a growing out of dependence on supernatural powers; being in control; mastery of the once hostile environment; medical breakthroughs; scientific progress; industrial development; liberty and equality; independence and democracy; human beings in charge of their own destiny; making their own moral choices rather than kowtowing to authorities whether civic or divine. There was no longer any room for God.

Life meant to be perfect . . .

Thus the post-Enlightenment account of the human condition was optimistic and humanistic. True for a hundred years and more it tended to apply only to educated males of a certain social class - but now all kinds of people have claimed the same rights in our post-industrial, post-colonial, post–feminist world And the idea that if we could only get the right formula the whole world would be put to rights has come to pervade the popular mind, encouraged by a press that deplores anything going wrong and seeks to apportion blame for every accident. Life, we suppose, is meant to be perfect, and, quite apart from anything else, the demand that puts on the NHS is inevitably crippling.

. . . but life is not perfect

And so the biggest problem for religious belief has become the issue of evil and suffering. For life obviously is not perfect, and the nature of modernity is disclosed by our anxiety about this. So let one of our loops be a bit of a digression to explore this issue a bit further.

ATTITUDES TO SUFFERING AND EVIL

One thing that strikes me as I read Christian writings from past centuries is the lack of concern with the paramount question that dominates so much modern philosophical theology, namely, how to explain the presence of suffering in nature and human life if we inhabit the creation of a good God. Earlier generations were concerned with finding the wisdom to face and cope with the hardships of life. Moderns have been offended by them. Put yourself back in the bush: what matters there is survival skills. You don't question the right of the elephant to charge or the lion to pounce on its prey. The world you inhabit is not something over which you have control: we had to sign an indemnity before setting off - for there things could happen for which the organization could not be held in any way responsible. Meanwhile in safety-conscious Britain the dramatic Symond's Yat of my youth has been tamed by building a wall round it!

Theology ‘haunted’ by questions about innocent suffering

Given that much past suffering is now removable, modern anxiety about this problem may seem the more ironic. Indeed, that anxiety seems generated by dramatically improved expectations. Most people in the West are protected from the sense of life's precariousness with which all previous generations have had to reckon. A hundred years ago people had large families because not all would survive into adulthood. Serious poverty was endemic, hygiene barely understood and health insecure: death happened in the midst of life. Westerners now expect children to be born healthy and to surmount childhood illnesses through vaccination or antibiotics. Death even in old age is sterilised in hospitals. The result is that when things are not perfect, people react with horror. They cry out for better safety precautions and demand the development of miracle cures; the notion of a good Creator becomes problematic. Yet in contexts with far greater suffering, such as societies in the non-Western world or belonging to past history, such a response is rarely found. There is, doubtless, another factor - greater realisation of the sheer scale of human suffering. The advent of radio and television has brought disasters - indeed atrocities on a scale barely conceivable into everybody’s sitting room. Yet well before this happened, perception of the issues had shifted for those abreast of ideas through reading and reflection. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is usually cited as the turning point. Suddenly for thinkers across Europe it no longer made sense to speak of a created order ruled by a gracious providence when tens of thousands had died a senseless death. This could hardly be the best of all possible worlds as Leibniz had argued. Now people thought that God must either be not omnipotent or not good; so in the modern period some have argued that God does not exist, others that, supposing there is a God, God must be a demon. The word ‘theodicy’ had been coined by Leibniz (1710) to express the endeavour to justify God’s ways with the world and defend divine goodness in the face of suffering and evil. Now this apparently arbitrary event put ‘theodicy’ at the heart of theological enquiry. So the questions about innocent suffering which it raised have haunted subsequent theology.

World Wars and the Holocaust

The twentieth century has hardly alleviated the pressure of the questions. Indeed, the issue raised by human capacity to inflict suffering has been sharpened. The First World War ended the illusion of heroism as warfare was democratised, whole populations becoming involved. The Holocaust has become the symbol of dehumanisation and industrialised genocide. As a colleague of Jewish descent once said: ‘If I were God, I wouldn't let my children do to each other what we human beings do.’ God's morality is put in question by the creation of a world in which so much horror is perpetrated. Atheism may rightly seem the best option after Auschwitz.

How individuals cope

But such global challenges are reflected in little ways in the lives of everybody: sufferers of all kinds pose the questions, rebelling against their situation. The effect of suffering is paradoxical: some respond by turning to religion for help and comfort, but many more abandon religion on the grounds that they cannot believe in a good God when such bad things happen. The latter argument lies at the root of the atheist critique of religion and stems from popular attitudes engendered by modernity - for, paradoxically, they are grounded in the self-reliant optimism that believes perfection both possible and achievable by human effort and skill, an optimism doomed to disappointment and frustration.

A striking contrast

Ordinary people in earlier centuries also suffered. Indeed, high infant mortality, brief life expectancy, inability to alleviate many medical conditions, epidemics and unrelieved famine meant they suffered far more than most people who are now troubled by the questions. Once there seems to have been more general acceptance of suffering, and indeed death, as a natural part of human life. This contrast between modernity and the past is striking. Why was the atheist response not so powerful in past centuries? At least part of the answer lies in the realities of living precariously, close to creation which was as awe-inspiring as it was sustaining. And not just in Africa: the fear of the wolf haunts European legend and literature. People knew they were small and vulnerable; they depended on God and at the same time feared the unknown mysterious power at the heart of all things. They didn't think to question its existence or goodness if life turned rough - rather they examined their own hearts and lives to see how they had offended. They accepted the creatureliness of the human condition - vulnerable and mortal.

FROM MODERNITY TO POST-MODERNITY

Modernity, then, profoundly changed perspectives on the human condition. Pre-modern ideas were scorned by ‘Modern Man’, which gloried in the freedom and success brought by the scientific knowledge, technological advances and moral autonomy of post-Enlightenment rationality. The truth about humanity and its place in the universe became identified with the account given by science. Superstition was banished. Post-modernity has now challenged this self-confidence. With the deterioration of the planet arising from exploitation science and technology are subject to critique. The reaction has allowed pre-modern wisdom to find a new relevance, alongside that of Eastern or African cultures. Modernity is relativised as a phase of Western culture, and pluralism recognised as our human socio-cultural reality. Ways of being human that once were marginalised have been affirmed. All this is genuinely post-modern in that the concepts of rights, autonomy, dignity, freedom, etc., remain paramount and claimed by previously suppressed or oppressed groups. And it is genuinely post-modern in that the consequence of this is the apparent breakdown of scientific dogma. We now have many contested understandings of the human condition - yet biological reductionism is still promulgated as the scientific explanation of how we are. We will go on another loop to illuminate this further.

HUMANITY AND THE NATURAL ORDER

‘Apes or angels? Creation or evolution?’ That could be regarded as the classic modern question. Maybe after more than a hundred years that debate seems boring; for the irony is that since Darwin reduced the human species to monkeys, we human beings have gone so far over the top we’ve virtually destroyed the planet and come almost to the brink of wiping ourselves out. Since we stopped daring to think we’re angels, we’ve turned ourselves into God – sure we're autonomous, responsible only to our own individual sense of what is right and true. But suppose, like post-modern architects, we look to rediscover classical perspectives, the wisdom of the past. Instead of going over the boring Darwin debate again, let’s take a post-modern turn and direct our gaze back, to ancient philosophies, ancient answers to the haunting question, ‘What are we, the human species?’

Fragile and naked

Let me remind you of a biblical passage: ‘I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?’ (Eccles. 3.18-22; NRSV). Long before Darwin, it was fully recognised that human beings were part of the created order. It’s a pity this was not acknowledged when controversy raged. As I’ve suggested already, such a recognition enables us to rediscover an enlarged perspective on ourselves and our life: nature, as a whole and in particular (take a tree, for example) is so much bigger, older, younger, than ‘me’. In creation, however, there is fragility and vulnerability - indeed, of all species, the naked human is one of the most fragile and vulnerable.

‘Shepherding’ not ‘domination’

Yet we have learned to cut down trees. A placard at the entry to the Wild Fowl Trust at Slimbridge, Glos., used to proclaim: ‘Humanity is the most aggressive and destructive species on earth’. Rationality has enabled a physically frail creature to dominate. It was the ancient philosopher, Aristotle, who said: ‘Man is a rational animal’. In Genesis 1, humanity is made king of creation, the one to have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of air, cattle, the wild animals of earth. This translation no doubt encouraged the explorers and exploiters of early modern period, but in the ancient world a king was a shepherd, the protector of his people, and the Hebrew verb translated ‘have dominion’ actually means ‘shepherding’. Domination is a distortion. But still ancient wisdom recognised that humankind was creation’s crown.

‘Beasts’ or ‘angels’?

The Fifth Century bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, suggested that humanity was a ‘microcosm’ reflecting in its constitution the ‘macrocosm’, that is, the universe. And so human beings had a choice: to live like beasts or to live like angels. Rationality meant not the kind of aggressive dominance modernity has made it, but an opportunity to stretch the mind, discipline the self, for union with God to collaborate with God as God’s image and representative in the created order, bringing God’s kingdom into being, tending God’s garden. It’s a pity that it has taken doom-watchers to remind us that an ecological perspective is what the wisdom of our tradition has always encouraged. We are part of the natural order, and the whole natural order is threatened when we cease to respect our place there, when we forget our fragility, littleness, weakness, in our desire to master rather than shepherd. The skills of the African in the bush exemplifies better our natural human position in creation - vulnerable yet responsible.

PERSONS WITH MENTAL DISABILITIES

At this point I take what may seem a surprising turn but focussing on the important role of persons with mental disabilities. For they challenge the slogan which generated modernism: ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’).

Post-modernism has encouraged us to take the ‘other’ seriously. We need the ‘stranger’ to hold up a mirror to ourselves. So I suggest that persons limited in their capacity to learn and think not only reinforce what I have said about us being part of the natural order and so subject to its vulnerabilities and its mortality, but also enable a shift in values, away from individualism, dominance, competitiveness, to community, mutuality - a human ecology which has the potential to be, as Gregory put it, ‘angelic’.

For the good of society?

The way in which brain-damaged people have been treated by different kinds of human societies is instructive, and provides, I suggest, telling insight into the truth about the human condition which we seek. Some societies have eliminated them. Less well-known than the Jewish holocaust but just as significant is the fact that defectives were destroyed under the extreme modernity of the Nazi regime. We may find that horrifying, but consider another example: African hunter-gatherer tribes, like other animal groups seeking survival in the bush, were (we may think) cruelly realistic about the situation and simply abandoned members unable to keep up; e.g. when a defective child was born to the Nuer, they said a baby hippopotamus had mistakenly been born to a human and returned it to its natural water environment. In its own way this was a compassionate way of ensuring that the weakest did not endanger everyone else. It was, if you like, the natural thing to do. Most modern societies did not eliminate but banish, incarcerating mental defectives in institutions where they were often treated as less than human. By contrast in medieval times, ‘lunatics’ were to be treated with charity - they were there for the good of society, challenging the values pursued by most people, living as fools with no care for the morrow, living by the faith of the sermon on the mount: ‘Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns . . Consider the lilies of the field they neither toil nor spin . . .’ (Matt. 6. 26-28; NRSV). God held those with mental disabilities in particular care and regard, and those who supported them would be rewarded.

Out of sight, out of mind

This beautifully illustrates the inadequacy of a reductionist account of the human condition. We have sometimes been able to rise above what is merely natural. Modernity may seem to have reverted as it medicalised the problem, banished people into hospitals and cleansed society of the need to cope. But even modernity had compassionate ideals: in theory they were trying to improve and even heal the conditions that seemed to afflict such people.

Deep-seated prejudices

And the tensions go on: on the one hand, the majority support legal abortion to eliminate the problem; on the other hand, once born it is not socially acceptable or legally permissible to harm or discriminate against a person with disabilities. Furthermore, post-modernity affirms those who are different even as society struggles with that ideology in practice, for people with mental disabilities meet prejudices as deep-seated as those displayed by racists.

‘Wise sayings’

Yet the possibility of transcendence is there - the potential to live like angels rather than beasts. It is most tellingly embodied in the 1'Arche communities, founded by Jean Vanier. Over the past decade I have been involved in a series of meetings between theologians and members of 1'Arche. Out of our first meeting a series of ‘wise sayings’ were collected. I share some of these:-
The potential to transform society

I suggest that what really makes us human is the capacity to ask for help, and that challenges modern claims to autonomy, and post-modern demands for rights. People with mental disabilities are a salutary reminder that we are limited, vulnerable, indeed mortal, and that human flourishing depends upon mutual interdependence. They have the potential to transform society, not because we pretend there is no difference, but precisely because they are ‘other’, and we have to make changes to our lives to accommodate and respect them.

And this takes us off on another loop: for we need a ‘theology of limit’.

A THEOLOGY OF LIMIT

Heaven has been traditionally envisaged as God's ultimate purpose, and pictures of heaven convey notions of infinite (that is limitless) perfection and final resolution, the end of earthly tribulations and the transformation of earthly limitations. But such a definition of God's creative purpose fails to give value to the present world and leaves no room for the imperfect, whether in mind or body, or in moral and spiritual awareness. Before re-visiting that traditional picture, we need to explore what has been called the ‘theology of limit’.

No fun if it’s too easy

In his study of parables, John Dominic Crossan2 tells a story about a person sitting in a waiting room who, to pass the time, places a plastic cup a certain distance away, and tries to throw coins into it. Three hours later when the train arrives, he's thrown the coin over a hundred times, and landed it in the cup exactly once. If he’d got the coin in every time, there’d have been no point in the game. The game depends on limitation, and ‘you tolerate a higher, even a total, failure rate more readily than you will tolerate a total or even high success rate’.

Heavenly fishing?

I was thinking about these things when someone told me a reinforcing story. A fisherman died. On regaining consciousness he found himself beside an ideal mountain stream in Scotland, thinking what a wonderful place, and if only he had his rod and line. Someone came and said if he wanted to fish, there was tackle available, and he could choose what he liked, the only condition was that once he’d made up his mind about equipment and location, he had to stick with it. So he chose the best tackle and the best place at the stream side. He cast, and immediately landed a fish - wonderful! He cast again, and immediately landed another perfect trout. When this happened a third time, he said. ‘I’ll go a bit further upstream’. But he was reminded of the conditions. He blurted out: ‘Can’t you do what you like in heaven?’ In other words, he wanted a handicap - perfection was too much for him! With that salutary tale, let's revisit the idea of God's kingdom. The projection of God's kingdom onto the heavens has long been contested in New Testament studies: the teaching of Jesus, it is argued, must be seen in terms of its historical and social context. Taken up in liberation theology, the promise of the kingdom has become a political goal, a utopia: the oppressed and marginalised8 8are raised up, the mighty cast down from their thrones, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. Political action is the demand of the Gospel, and we can have a Christian version of modernity and post-modernity!

Facing reality

That picture , however, cannot but exclude people marginalised by disability. You can, at least in theory, remove someone's economic poverty, but you cannot remove the conditions which make persons with Down's Syndrome what they are, or indeed persons with cerebral palsy or other conditions arising from brain damage or physical impairment. As long as social, economic or political issues are all you take into account, utopian dreams are conceivable. But people like my son, Arthur, bring us face to face with the limits of the human condition. They require us8 8to reflect on the realities of limitation, to consider the meaning of the fact that revolutions never do create utopia, and to re-read the Gospels.

Mind-changing parables

The kingdom appears most frequently in the Gospel-parables. In this century, New Testament scholarship has gone round and round the question of how to interpret the parables. One aspect of parables that has been highlighted in this process has been the fact that they were meant to provoke - to get a response, to stimulate crisis, to change minds. Crossan’s study explores the function of parables in terms of bringing us to the ‘edge of language and the limit of story’ - they transform by subverting the comfortable world we think we inhabit and bring us to the boundaries of human existence.

No magic wand

Whether projected onto the heavens or turned into the utopian dream of a political ideology, the kingdom is falsified by becoming comfortable and comforting. Conversion happens through shock, crisis and challenge, not through myths of perfection - perfection will cloy like the fisherman's heaven. The Gospel-message is more surely understood when we cease to dream of a magic wand putting the world to rights. The proper demand of persons with disabilities that they are not treated as ‘miracle-fodder’, but accepted as they are is something that can open our eyes to the challenging demands for a shift of values which are paradoxically integral to the kingdom and the parables.

Valuing one another

So what is being said? Human values are not divine values. ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord’ (Isaiah 55.8; NRSV). Human beings look for success, fulfilment, for valuation in terms of the contribution a person makes. But value is not something achieved, or even inherent. It is something given, something accorded to something or someone valued by someone else - the worth and dignity of each person is given by God3. In community, we make real that dignity and worth by valuing each other, but the grounds on which any and every person has value is God's decision to ‘put his name’ there (to borrow a phrase from Ezekiel). Above all the incarnation bears witness to the presence of God in the midst of the ‘limit’ to which all human life tends. In God-forsakenness, in the absence of God, is supremely and paradoxically the presence of God, and the terminology of kingship is subverted when the story is told of a king who plays the part of a servant, is marginalised, rejected, stigmatised, judicially murdered. The cross stands over against the false optimism of modernity and the assertions of post-modernity. But then what about God's creative purpose? How are we to integrate a theology of limit into our understanding of this world as God's creation? We are off on another loop!

GOD’S CREATIVE PURPOSE

God's creativity has always been envisaged by analogy with human creativity, despite many attempts to suggest that human creativity is secondary to God's. The Second Century bishop, Theophilus of Antioch, pictured God as a craftsman, the essential difference being that whereas human craftsmen need materials - wood, stone, clay, paint or whatever - God was so powerful he could create out of nothing.

‘Father’ not ‘Craftsman’

Little did Theophilus realise the significance of his own point - ‘creation out of nothing’ had the potential to invalidate his craftsman analogy. If God did not create out of the divine self, nor out of pre-existent matter, but out of nothing, as Tertullian would argue a generation later, then divine creativity must be of a character other than that of human creativity, which can only inadequately reflect the creative activity of God. If God creates out of nothing, then what is created is not God, yet contingent upon God for the miracle of its existence. Creation, like the cross, depends upon the paradoxical absence and presence of God, God within God-forsakenness. It was the writings of the Twentieth Century mystic, Simone Well, which enabled me to see this: she suggested that divine creation is an act of abandonment. The point is that if God is infinite, then the only way anything can exist which is not God is by God withdrawing the divine self and allowing something to exist other than God - making space, as it were, for the nothing out of which something ‘other’ can come into existence. With God around, the miracle is that anything other than God exists at all. But if that ‘other’ exists because God has abandoned it, not only must ‘limit’ be part of its existential reality, but it must have been allowed self-determination, a certain autonomy - God cannot impose perfection on it. Impairment is inherent in any existence other than the divine Being itself. The right analogy for God's creative activity, then, is not a craftsman or a builder, a potter or sculptor, producing a perfect edifice or a perfect work of art, which is entirely passive in the creator's hands; rather it is the father letting go, allowing the son to go to a far country, abandoning power over all that has come into existence, while waiting and encircling and enfolding it all in love.

I am reminded of Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic:

‘And he showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, “What is this?” And the answer came, “It is all that is made”. I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, “It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it”. In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God.’

Able to be open to God

The presence of God, in whom we live and move and have our being, is real and yet found in God-forsakenness. God-forsakenness is not tragedy it is the condition of our being, of our freedom, of the possibility of our selves and our world opening themselves up to God. The depth of that insight is embodied in the impaired bodies of people who live with disabilities. Without that witness, we are constantly tempted to dream of an impossibly perfect world from which this world is a disastrous fall. Fallenness has an element of truth in it - by sin we have most certainly compounded our limitations and our impairment. But in this modern world, we desperately need to rediscover the point that the thing that needs explaining is not what is wrong with the world, but the fact that the world exists at all, and that existence is itself a cause for wonderment...

Straining forward to what lies ahead

So we turn back to Gregory of Nyssa - known as one of the first great mystics of the Christian tradition. In the Fourth Century intellectual climate, mutability and passibility, along with mortality and corruptibility, were seen as major ‘problems’ connected with physicality, things from which humanity needed salvation. The great insight Gregory contributed was that mutability was the condition of advance towards God-likeness, rather than the cause of a disastrous fall from perfection. To put it in our terms, impairment and limitation are required if humanity is to have potential, to be stretched towards ever higher goals. Gregory had some insight into the necessarily corporate and communal elements in that epektasis – a word borrowed from Paul (Phi1.3.13) and meaning ‘straining forward to what lies ahead’.

Comfort or courage?

And that brings us to eschatology. God's creative purpose is not the attainment of individual fulfilment or indeed static perfection which soon palls. One of the earliest attempts to construct a system of Christian theology (that of Origen) began with the notion of a perfect heaven in which all created8 8beings were enjoying contemplation of God. But that perfect state had clearly come to an end; how? The solution was that these heavenly beings got literally ‘fed up’, overfull like a child tired of chocolate when it’s had enough, satiated and bored with gazing on the divine. They needed a distraction, a sensation. Hence the fall from perfection and the creation of the material world as a school to train people for a return to heaven. Return to that heaven, however, would clearly be unstable. Gregory saw that static perfection was as uninviting as the fisherman's paradise. As Crossan puts it: ‘Which do we prefer, comfort or courage? It may be necessary to make a choice.’ For Gregory, the spiritual journey was infinite, for no finite being can ever reach the end of the riches of the knowledge of the infinite God. Perfection has to be seen in dynamic as well as corporate terms, and human limitation is essential to the process.

The need to reclaim ancient wisdom

So to bring my spiralling argument to its simple point: the human condition is one of creatureliness. In the context of the modern world with its post-modern confusion, we need to reclaim ancient wisdom which points to the natural vulnerability of the human creature. This is not simply to espouse the reductionism of neo-Darwinians. It is to re-kindle the awe and humility of that intelligent naked ape which found itself in the midst of a terrifyingly beautiful world, while nurturing mutual dependence and valuing the specific contribution of our most vulnerable kinsfolk, people with mental disabilities who cannot compete in the artificial world we have created. It is to challenge some contemporary Christian ideology, which has sold out to modernity and post-modernism, with a deeper grasp of the wisdom of the Christian theological tradition. For: ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field . . . The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.’ (Isaiah 40. 6-8, abbreviated)

But we’re jolly grateful for the antibiotics which cleared up the consequences of being bitten by ticks in the bush!

FOOTNOTES
  1. Some of this lecture reproduces with slight modification material from a forthcoming entry on ‘Suffering’ for The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings; and my essay, ‘The Creative Purpose of God’ in Encounter with Mystery: Reflections on l’Arche and living with disability, edited by myself and published by DLT in 1997. It also uses examples and ideas previously used and acknowledged in Face to Face: A narrative essay in the theology of suffering (T.and T.Claark, 1990).
  2. The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Sonoma, C1alifornia: Polebridge Press 1988)
  3. David Pailin, A Gentle Touch: From a theology of handicap to a theology of human being (London, SPCK 1992)


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