parts in a whole: differentiation and integration in god and humanity

Humans are created in the image of a relational, trinitarian God characterized by plurality within unity. Relationships with other people inform an understanding of God; relationship with God informs understanding of others; and so the spiral continues to inform and build upon itself. The internal selves of both God and people, God’s stance with humanity, and interactions among humans are all defined by relationship comprised of both differentiation and unity. To live in the tension between the two is to fully step into one’s human condition, as the balance of differentiation and unity are essential to God, to individuals, and to relationships.

The essential nature of God is to be relational in his own self. He exists in a plurality that is also an integrated unity. In Genesis 1, God participates in a self-directed dialogue in which he resolves within himself to create mankind “in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Jurgen Moltmann writes that the conversation “presupposes that the author of the self-exhortation has a relation to himself. And a relationship to one’s own self in turn presupposes a self-differentiation and the possibility of self-identification. The subject is then singular in the plural, or a plural in a singular.” God’s use of the pronoun ‘our’ tells us that he is differentiated within himself and can address himself.

At the same time, God maintains singularity. It is a foundational tenet of Judaism that there is only one God, and Christian faith adheres to the same truth. When Jesus was asked the most important commandment, he asserts the Shema, which begins: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29). Jesus, who is a part of the relational Trinity, views the most important, essential, vital commandment to be that God is a unified being. God himself reminds us that, above all, God is one.

It is a sign of health to recognize the plurality within one’s being, to be able to internally address oneself, to recognize that the voices in my head are a part of who I am. A vital trait for proactive work is self-differentiation: it’s how we weigh pros and cons, form a plan of action, and resolve within ourselves to do, act, and create. Erwin Singer writes that “personal attentiveness” is necessary for engagement with others and the world. One’s attention must be capable of being “attuned to the subtleties of one’s own personal reactions, capable of aiding the listener in his quest to grasp the full nature of what is communicated”; indeed, attention is only possible with a sensitivity within the listener to one’s own self. Here again, we might discuss the Shema: the people are first called to “hear,” as many Hebrew prayers begin. It is a call, as Singer writes, to profound listening “with one’s viscera, with one’s full being: an attending to one’s inner voices.” It is a reminder that we must be attuned to the plurality within our unified being.

Of course, without being balanced by an understanding of unity within ourselves, such thinking can de-center an individual. It’s common to speak of life as a segmented pie: there are pieces labeled ‘work life,’ ‘sex life,’ ‘spiritual life,’ and so on. One example of segmentation is western notions of femininity and masculinity, which are greatly ingrained within USAmerican culture. There exists a strict barrier between the two, and any transgression can emasculate a man or defeminize a woman. However, scripture shows us that masculinity and femininity don’t need to be strictly defined; there is a healthier way to relate within ourselves. Janet Soskice writes that each member of the Trinity can be portrayed in procreative imagery of human feminine and human masculine. Similarly, both feminine and masculine traits co-exist within an individual: a man who loves to nurture children can still be predominantly masculine; a man who is split-gendered is still a singular man. The understanding of one’s self as whole is essential.

The divide between soul and body has been solidly argued. Soskice writes  that “Augustine calls us up into the mind,” and he greatly influenced Christian theology by emphasizing the interior life, or the soul, over the physical. As a result, a popular belief is that bearing the image of God is something humans carry only in their souls. Soskice notes that such an intellectual understanding of imago Dei contributes to “loss of the body.” The incarnation in Jesus is evidence against this intellectual understanding: God became bodily, and so it is important to recognize that we are bodily as well. Creation itself is also evidence in favor of bodyliness: God in his infinite wisdom created humans to be embodied creatures; we must recognize some level of importance in his design.

Just as God is relational within herself, the nature of a human is to be relational in his or her own self. One oft-repeated quotation from a work of Walter Miller states “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body, temporarily” (my italics), which denies the importance of physicality by labeling the body as something we own rather than something we are. Although we humans do tend to differentiate between physical and emotional or intellectual selves, it is vital to one’s well-being to maintain a sense of unity and integrity. Such self-unity can lead to God, and it is here that the bodily spiritual disciplines make sense. Soskice discusses Julian of Norwich’s atonement theology, or the idea of “at-one-ing.” At-one-ment occurs through Christ, who makes all his kin. Even more physically, atonement can be read as a-tone-ment. Thich Nhat Hanh states “in Buddhist meditation, body and mind become one.” Yoga tones the body in order to prepare the body for sitting meditation as well as to attune the mind/body connection. Yoga emphasizes mindfulness, in which “we make peace with our body,” and with God, who becomes present within the encounter with our unified self.

The trinitarian nature of God is sometimes explained as correlating to the way we construct our personal identities: Christ is analogous to the body, God to the mind, and the Spirit to our soul or, metaphorically, heart. What is often forgotten in this explanation is the aspect of unity: God still recognizes himself as one unified and integrated being, and each human, being a bearer of his image, is to remember his or her own integrity as well. It is essential that individuals recognize their own selves as one: body connected to soul, mind developed because of bodily experiences; the interplay between the three is infinite. Karl Barth plays with the interconnections between the mental and physical when he writes that God establishes man “as soul and body, constituting the unity and order of his being.” One’s soul must not be elevated as something more essential than the body, for a man “is bodily soul, as he is also besouled body. … Soul would not be soul, if it were not bodily, and body would not be body, if it were not besouled.” Each individual must maintain the tension of what it is to be human: both body and soul, the balancing act, as Rob Bell writes, between “angels and animals. … Animals have a physical body but no spirit. … An angel is a being with a spirit but without a body.” To live the tension that holds both plurality and unity is a part of what it means to be created imago Dei.

The essential nature between God and humans is relation. Humans relate to God even when unaware they are relating, and even as they deny doing so. Because we are differentiated from God, we are able to respond to her as one outside our own self. God is loving, and the nature of love is that it cannot be coerced, so she gives us the freedom to respond in any manner we wish. We would be unable to truly love God if we weren’t given the choice to not love God. However, while there is freedom to respond in any way, Alistair McFadyen notes that “there is no freedom not to respond. … We can refuse to enter into dialogue: we cannot, however, avoid being in relation with God.” Simply put, when two beings exist, there is always a relationship between the two, even if the relationship is backs turned to one another. Arguably, those who greatly struggle against religion have more contact with God than those who submit to it; a push requires more contact than a bow.

At the same time as this differentiation takes place, a unity between God and humanity exists. Bell argues that God is as close as our own breath, the holy tetragrammaton unpronounceable because the letters “were essentially breathing sounds.” Therefore, the divine breath lives in every person; the Spirit is our breath. With such an integrated understanding, being a bearer of God’s image is as inescapable as relation with her. God’s presence with the world as a whole is reflected in ecological doctrine of creation, which Moltmann claims recognizes “the presence of God in the world and the presence of the world in God.” The picture is hard to imagine — is God smaller than the world and thus in it, or larger than the world and thus the world is in her? The language defies differentiation. Ken Wilber explains that Spirit includes and transcends all that exists: “It’s the highest rung in the ladder, but it’s also the wood out of which the entire ladder is made.” This is the mysterious unity: we are part of the ladder, and yet the ladder is part of us. God is in humanity, and humanity is in God.

If human breath is Spirit and the world is God, the question remains of where Christ is represented in unity with humanity. Ronald Rolheiser answers that he is visible in his followers: “In the incarnation God has chosen, marvelously, to let his power flow through us, to let our flesh give reality to his power.” More blatantly: “Your touch is Christ’s touch.” The church is a reminder to the world that Jesus did not only live, die, and live again; he lived, died, and continues to live through the Christian community. Encountering imago Christi is less about looking within one’s self as it is about looking around at one’s community. When Christ was resurrected, the disciples repeatedly failed to recognize him. It would demystify the miracle of Christ’s resurrection to state that the disciples simply began to see the incarnation in their fellow humans; I do believe that it really was the person of Jesus who returned to the disciples. However, after a few encounters without immediate recognition, the disciples must have developed an awareness that Jesus could show up at any time, must have been on the lookout for him in everyone… and finding him in everyone. They suddenly had eyes to see, and found Christ in the legions.

The nature of humankind is to be in relation with one another as God is in relation with herself. McFadyen writes that “the three divine Persons are united by sharing uniquely in a common nature”, and similarly, humans are to recognize themselves as a unity that shares the commonality of the human condition. It is not enough to recognize that I am an image-bearer of God; I must also see the spark of the divine in my sister, my neighbor, and my enemy. The oft-repeated cliché that we all bleed is true, and yet few people live as though it is. Although we all have the same essential needs—air, food, clean water—we continue to pollute the skies and seas and competitively hoarde resources. Re-ordering the world in such a way that love is communicated brings the presence of the divine into existence. As Peter Rollins writes, God is not an object worthy of love, rather “God is found in the very act of love itself”. For example, as Advent Conspiracy (2011) notes, Americans spend 450 billion dollars a year on Christmas, and yet the global clean water crisis could be solved with a comparatively minuscule 20 billion dollars a year. A humanity that exists as a unity would not allow such injustice. Recognizing individuals across the globe as brothers and sisters, as continuations of our own existence and as bearers of the divine image, would radically alter the way we spend, consume, eat, live. It is in such a recognition of unity that a relationship between people points to God and glimpses of his Kingdom become reality.

At the same time, the differentiation of humanity need not be destructive, but can be a reflection of God. One of the most visible aspects is sexual differentiation, designed by God in the creation accounts of both Genesis 1 and 2. Moltmann states that the “human plural is supposed to correspond to the divine singular”; it is difference that sparks relation between male and female that reflects God’s image. The trinitarian God is three in one, and we are “singular in the plural,” one humanity divided into two beings. What is significant about the sexual plurality is that it was an intended image for both distinction and relation. In McFadyen’s view, the sexes were created “in encounter rather than simple opposition.” God’s plan was for us to complete one another through encounter and dialogue.

Humans are also differentiated from one another on an individual level. In order to have genuine encounter, one person cannot absorb the identity of another. Each must retain his or her own self. This is necessary for true relationship as defined by Martin Buber’s in I and Thou. As McFadyen explains, “distinct identity is impossible except through relation, and relation possible only through the distance which separates the partners.” There must be two independent selves in order for healthy interdependence and freedom to take place. It is through the uniqueness of each individual in interaction with others that defines “their orientation on one another.” In terms Buber would use, there must be an ‘I’ against which ‘You’ can stand—I have no identity unless it is differentiated from the identity of those I encounter. There must be boundaries of individuation in order to have something to push against and to embrace.

God’s plurality within unity leads us to understand the same aspects of ourselves as individuals, as a community, and in our relations to others. Similarly, the differentiation within human relationships points us back to a God whom our image reflects, informing us of his nature. The question who am I? is always followed by the question who is God? The answer can begin to be found, as McFadyen states, in “structures of divine and human being [which] both contain a dialogical encounter between separate but intrinsically related beings.” Individually, relationally, and divinely, we are both differentiated and unified; how we handle the tension between the two drastically alters the world in which we live.

This piece was originally written as an assignment for Interpersonal Foundations with Roy Barsness. Students were asked to write the basis of their belief system including imago Dei, imago Christi, theological anthropology, and interpersonal relationships.

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3 thoughts on “parts in a whole: differentiation and integration in god and humanity

  1. mshedden says:

    Good paper for an assignment I hated. If you still have interest left in theological anthropology check out David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence. It shook my beliefs and is what looks more like a true “theological anthropology” rather than talking about ourselves with just a louder voice when talking about God (Barth’s critique.) Theology really informs his anthropology rather than anthropology writing his theology. He also takes pluralism seriously in that he doesn’t need to provide a grounding that all humans would understand but one that is particularly Christian. This avoids the idea non-Christians really believe what we believe when what we believe is properly explained (Hauerwas).
    Unfortunately it is over 1000 pages so maybe you should read it when you finish seminary.

  2. Why did you hate the assignment? I hated trying to fit in the page limit, but I could see why it was helpful—especially for counseling students.
    Thanks for the recommendation! It’s going on my ever-growing to-read list.

  3. mshedden says:

    I think my dislike for the paper came in that the resources I was suppose to use to craft my response were not the ones I would choose. So many of the required terms, and books, didn’t reflect what I thought was a good (or true, to use an out of date term) theological anthropology.

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