Category Archives: Christianity

Becoming Human: Competing Global Anthropologies

Dr. Charlie Self
Professor of Church History
The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary
Sr. Advisor, The Acton Institute
Board Member, Missio Alliance

Dorothy Sayers, playwright, novelist and Christian scholar, wrote an important feminist work in the 1930s entitled, Are Women Human? In her essay, she presents the biblical case for gender equality in a humorous and insightful way, grounding mutuality in theological anthropology.  From the Genesis narratives to the new earth of Revelation, she affirms this thesis:

We are all human beings, made in the image of God with a job to do. And we do our jobs as a man or a woman.

This theological vision – of men and women in mutual love and respect carrying out their vocations for the glory of God and the good of others – undergirds the best of ecclesial, economic, political and social liberty. Notice the order of reflection:

Creator > human identity > the call to worship/work > gender identity.

Alas, the effacing (not erasing) of the imago dei has led humankind down all manner of oppressive pathways, from dehumanizing and disintegrating practices of pagan and secular ideologies to the degrading subjugation of women and minorities in the name of religious tradition.

Amnesia of the Creator’s design has also yielded serious psychosocial confusion. Many view gender as a personal preference, a social construct or malleable identity.  In the USA alone, there are ten major family systems, with nine of them alternatives to biological parents and children in the same home. This is not the essay to offer easy answers to these challenges; however, they affirm our need for anthropological clarity and the redemptive grace of Christ.

For followers of Jesus, a full vision of God’s reign includes living the future now in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the church as the herald and witness of the fullness to come. This includes redeeming the wholeness of being human, integrating all facets of individual and social being, including relational shalom with all women and men. Women and men who love Jesus are icons of the coming kingdom. Singleness is not incompleteness, but a signpost of a future where all God’s people are married to Christ and sisters and brothers of one another. Marriage is a special illumination of Christ’s delight in his church, not a superior status.

When we survey other anthropologies, we discover vast “differences that make a difference” (Os Guinness). Our global conflicts are theological and anthropological before they are economic and political. How we understand God and each other is the foundation for liberty and love that empowers the flourishing of all.

A Global Competition

There are three “missionary” anthropologies competing for global influence (and for some, domination). As I outline these, it is important to note that large numbers of people situated within these broad categories are neither self-reflective nor caricatures of the extremes implied by the ideologies. Many women and men, especially those that have relocated to other lands or experienced education and travel, represent synergistic or syncretistic worldviews. It is helpful, however, to uncover the implications of these anthropologies and their concomitant epistemologies and moralities.

(There is a fourth anthropology not articulated in this essay. Eastern pantheistic monism, embracing Buddhist and Hindu traditions, deserves attention for mission and neighborly love, but it is not a proselytizing force in the world. Over a billion persons share this complex and paradoxical perspective that affirms the illusory nature of the cosmos and a call for humility and self-denial that can break the karmic cycle.)

Anthropology #1: Naturalism: pagan and secular visions. This is a catchall category that includes the most ancient fertility cults and polytheisms to contemporary atheistic materialism. In this matrix, humankind is the product of biological evolution or other natural forces (with or without deities that need appeasing). Human nature, however evolved, is completely material, including our ongoing explorations of conscience and morality, religion and spirituality. There is no mind-brain or body-spirit distinction. Westernized proponents see religion as dangerous. Human progress depends on ridding human consciousness of belief in any god. This “vision of the anointed” (T. Sowell) creates inequity by dividing humankind into their version of “enlightened” and “ignorant.” Bureaucratic, intellectual and social elites are given honor while religious groups are objects of hatred or pity.

Anthropology #2: Islam. Yes, Islam. Not some “aberration” or “hijacking” of a great religion, but the heart of the Qur’an and Hadith (authorized interpretations and teachings) itself. Islam’s highest value is submission – to Allah and Allah’s appointed authorities. A qualitative, structural hierarchy pervades all aspects of all Islamic traditions. At the top are male Muslims, followed by female adherents. Next are the misguided followers of Jewish and Christian tradition. At the bottom are found the atheists and pagans. What is of particular note is the inferior status of women throughout the Qur’an and Hadith and in the sociopolitical structures of all Islamic societies. Expressions of this vary from very “liberal” traditions that open most fields of education and work to women to the most strict ideologies that want to reify the 7th to 15th centuries and keep women cloistered and dependent, banned from education and professional vocations and subject to premature marriages, mutilation, honor killings and other oppressions. Enslavement of non-Muslim victims of conflict is part of this ethos.

Anthropology #3: Biblical Anthropology informed by Christian history and theological reflection. Christianity has influenced any land with freedom of conscience, economic opportunity and political liberty. This said, the Church has a long history of is own unbiblical structures, including racism, sexism and moments of syncretistic colonialism. Hubris is not allowed here. What is sanguine is the gradual progress toward full equality rooted in sound theological anthropology. This gradual advance brings the end of slavery, abusive child labor, structural sexism and the foundations for growing racial reconciliation. Christian anthropology declares that in Christ, all are equal: married or single, male of female, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile (the latter couplet covers all ethnic and religious backgrounds).

The Missio Alliance (and this author) assert a robust evangelical egalitarian vision, grounded in the biblical text and realized by the work of the Holy Spirit, who continually liberates our souls from sub-biblical thinking and praxis. All of God’s vocations are open to all women and men, according to God’s sovereign initiative and each person’s willing response. Even more than roles or vocations, Christian discipleship liberates single and married, clerical and lay from the unbiblical classifications that keep some people from enriching the Body and the world.

Choosing Door #3

The only anthropology that liberates people of all faiths (or none) is Anthropology #3. In its best expression it is non-coercive and honors all people of conscience that are willing to live civilly with their deepest differences while working for the common good. As believers partner with the Triune God in his mission for the world, we long for every person to repent and believe the Good News in Christ. Those still considering Christ can be our partner, creating flourishing communities and nations and combatting all forms of hatred, intolerance and sexism.

The pagan or secular materialist ultimately dehumanizes us as we are reduced to biological functions or the victims of natural forces. Islam (even while its many adherents make good neighbors) will never produce a pluralistic land of equality and opportunity. The apriori commitment to a three-tiered anthropology and the inferiority of women, along with the concomitant doctrine of Dhimmitude and long-term commitment to a restored caliphate, make it a poor choice for human liberation.

As we reimagine mission and kingdom influence for the 21st century, communicating biblical anthropology reveals the stark contrast of Christianity to materialist and oppressive ideologies. Jesus’ words and works included deliverance, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. A robust biblical anthropology, when believed and practiced in community, delivers from arrogance and self-hatred, forgives and reconciles with former opponents, and heals personal and communal wounds when dignity, love and respect flow unimpeded.

We are human beings made in God’s image with a job to do. We do it as men and women being transformed into the image of Christ and walking in the God-ordained works prepared for us from the foundation of the world. What a vision! What a mission! Christ is the contrast to every alternative competing ideology.

Certain Predictions for 2015

As 2014 ends and 2015 begins, prognosticators are hard at work, offering their insights on everything from fashion to global politics, cultural mores to economic opportunities.

If history is any guide, predicting the future is an uncertain science at best, though trend analysis and evaluation of the past can help us anticipate what may happen. The divine gift of freewill coupled with our global connectedness keeps certainly out of reach.

With these qualifiers, including my non-omniscience (a fancy way of saying only God knows everything and I am not God.), I do offer the following as “certain” predictions for 2015. They are general enough to keep me from being stoned and sufficiently specific so that future assessment is possible.

Here are my certain predictions for 2015:

  • Millions will come to faith in Jesus Christ and thousands of new Christian churches of all traditions will be planted – most in the Global South.
  • Almost under the radar, the Christian churches will grow in the West and the USA through compassionate, insightful outreach, church planting and revitalization and the awareness among thoughtful people that science and technology will not usher in Utopia.
  • Political and social leaders will continue to struggle to find consensus on shared principles and vision for America’s future.
  • The new Discipleship Dynamics Assessment from The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary at Evangel University will help thousands of individuals and hundreds of communities celebrate progress in their relationship with Christ.
  •  The Acton Institute’s new video series, “For the Life of the World; Letters to Exiles” will grow in fluency as thousands catch a new vision of human flourishing.
  • Hollywood will continue its march toward mediocrity.
  • The Oikonomia and Made to Flourish Networks will increase in influence as seminary leaders and pastors help their students and parishioners grasp 24/7 whole-life discipleship that integrates faith, work and economics.
  • Missio Alliance’s evangelical and egalitarian vision will inspire creative missional enterprises among diverse Christian communities.
  • The Institute and its sister organization REP will equip hundreds more for business-as-mission and the transformation of all spheres of society.
  • Messenger Fellowship will advance a mission of Kingdom vision and the ways of God as many more leaders learn to think kingdom before institution and mission before preservation of tradition.
  • Jihadi Islam will find resistance from two camps. The first will appeal to base passions of nation and race. These will gain momentary influence, but do not offer compelling principles for peace. the second will be diverse people of all faiths choosing resistance to evil and active peacemaking, calling on Muslims to accept philosophical and religious plurality as part of a free society.
  • Israel will resist all unilateral attempts by the EU, UN, USA and others to shrink her borders without the guarantee by a new Palestinian State of full diplomatic recognition as a Jewish nation.
  • Their will be new voices attempting to restore civility to public discourse and offer solutions instead of slogans.
  • New African-American voices will be heard, offering an alternative to the Jessie Jackson-Al Sharpton narratives and shakedowns. Hopefully they will be heard for their substance and not labeled/libeled for being different. By today’s standards, MLK was not “truly Black” with his appeals to Christian principles, non-violence and the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution!
  • China and Russia will continue their militant ways, trying to intimidate smaller neighbors and blackmails nations dependent upon their resources and wealth.
  • Republicans in the US Congress will have to choose between capitulation to totalitarianism from the White House and serious confrontation with policies detrimental to America’s future.
  • And in the midst of all this, Dr. Charlie and Kathy Self will continue to love God and each other and serve productively with our callings and gifts. All of this is possible because of God’s grace and the prayers and support of so many friends!

A very Happy 2015 to all!

 

From Noon to Three

Today is Good Friday on the Western Christian calendar. Our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters will celebrate the same in a few days.

After the show trials before religious and secular authorities, the beatings by soldiers who will gamble for his garment and the ravings of a rent-a-crowd, Jesus of Nazareth in crucified between two criminals on a small hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Even in his death his detractors dare him to perform miracles to save himself while his followers either scatter in fear or watch in incredulity and sorrow as he experiences unspeakable agony.

While suffering, Jesus asks his Father to forgive the perpetrators of this heinous crime and finds time to offer absolution to a repentant thief.

From noon to three, a veil of darkness shrouds the scene as the One called the King of the Jews endures unutterable agony and alienation, the bearing the pain and penalty, alienation from God and humankind, and, in the end, a peace as he declares, “It is finished!”

What just happened?

According to the earliest Christian confessions in both the New Testament and first-centur literature, Jesus died for the sins of the world, bearing the judgment of God for humankind’s rebellion. Jesus is both the sinless representative and atoning substitute of guilty humanity. In his death is satisfaction of divine justice and the expression of unconditional love. His death bears all the deserved and undeserved suffering of humankind, from Adam to the Apocalypse. In his cry of, “Why?” are all the unanswered questions of our circumstances. And in his words of comfort to the humble thief are the seeds of hope as we already glimpse that death itself is defeated in the death of Jesus. And when Jesus declares, “it is finished” and “into you hands I commit my spirit” we see the triumph of hope over despair, mercy over wrath and love over all.

From noon to three the world is reconciled, an amnesty offered a race of rebels as uncompromising holiness and unconditional love embrace on a wooden stake. These hours do not explain evil – the Cross defeats its. These hours do not remove us from challenges – they offer strength to endure, knowing that Easter Sunday is coming.

This is the Good News of Good Friday, the cruciform heart of the Christian faith. All the “red letters” – the words and works of Jesus of Nazareth – are proclaimed and performed with this moment in mind. From Advent to Trinity, from a babe in the creche to a man on a Cross, all of the divine search for lost humankind culminates in this moment of passionate embrace.

May we receive this love once again…and share it across the street and around the world with boldness, humility and wisdom.