January 30, 2011
After Jesus had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
How old were you when you first realized that Juan Valdez was not a real person, but a symbol, a marketing tool, a human face for a marketing company? Or have you ever had to explain to a small child who Uncle Sam is—that he is a representation of our country in the form of a person? It really is not an easy concept to wrap your head around. I mean, shouldn’t Uncle Sam have three heads—one for each government branch?
In both art and literature, humanity has a long history of turning everything from trees to dogs into human-like creations. This anthropomorphizing or personification—giving human qualities to something that is not—can be seen in all sorts of arenas. And it has not gone unnoticed in the world of theology and religious studies. However, theologians and scholars of religion dismiss personification as a human tendency to be self-referential whenever we seek meaning or understanding.
I think we can all see where this is heading: God, a man with a long white beard, sitting on a throne.
It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that anthropomorphic or self-referential thinking is a sign of arrogance or weak-mindedness. After all, we first thought our villages were the center of all creation— and a small creation at that. Eventually, we realized our home was a much bigger place, and our biggest worry became not falling off the edge. When we realized the world was round, we immediately assumed that the sun revolved around us. And now that we understand that the whole universe exists, people claim that it exists to fulfill human purposes. Clearly we do tend to want to reside at the center of creation.
What has come of this tendency, however, is an assault on the image and likeness of God as a person. And when you add very valid concerns about sexism to the image of God, the tendency is to make God into an abstract mist or some wizard behind a curtain. God is basically reduced to analogies to nature or science—a far less effective approach to understanding God. In fact, there are only two options if we trace this line of thinking to its logical conclusion: (1) we lower God to our earthly level, or (2) we cannot even begin to conceive of God.
But then again, I grew up in this church, which believes very firmly that God is a person, and a person who embodies both genders. This church also believes that God took natural, physical form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to save all of creation from eternal damnation through the process of glorification. Glorification can be briefly put as the purification of Jesus’ natural body. This he accomplished by undergoing temptation and the pangs of human life, until his inner self, the divine self, actually transformed his natural self into synergy with the spiritual world.
Theologically, we understand that the attacks of the hells had to be fought against—balanced out cosmically—so the Lord came to do just that. Christ’s coming, then, can be classified as a salvific event for all persons everywhere (and Swedenborg asserted that aliens were people too). “Why did God have to take human form?” one might ask. Because God had to find a way to keep human freedom intact while also removing some of the influence of the hells on us. What we do not often realize is that we are spirits clothed in a human body. We exist in the spiritual world as well as the physical. Sometimes the word “spiritual” confuses us, because in our tradition we also use it to describe the state a person exists in when she has achieved love of the neighbor. Yet not all things in the spiritual world are spiritual—see how that is confusing? Now if I say, “Not all things in the spiritual world are loving,” that makes sense, doesn’t it? We humans, precisely because we have free will, exist in both the loving parts and selfish parts of the spiritual world at once, making us prime targets for the hells and hellish spirits, which in the spiritual world run from God. When God took human form, he was able to draw all the excess power of the hells to attack him, so we ordinary folk could be left in freedom.
God’s presence here on earth makes sense within our church’s overall approach to freedom and salvation, but it also does something far more powerful for our daily lives as Christians: it creates a God each of us can relate to in a new way. It could be claimed that in our understanding of Christ we are trying to create God in our image; however, if I were going to do that the Bible would have been full of way more stories about Jesus watching television, playing board games, and eating ice cream. The Lord is not made into my image; I am called to form myself in his image. I cannot love like the wind. I cannot have compassion for my neighbor like a tree. These metaphors do not make sense to me. I can, however, dream of trying to be a more compassionate, more patient, wiser, more truthful person.
Back to Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam embodies more than the sum total of any one citizen of the United States; no one person embodies the totality of all that this symbol represents. I can dream of being a person who is as smart as, say, Einstein, or as loving as Mother Teresa, even though they do not contain the fullness of the Lord. Is it still anthropomorphic if we turn the understanding on its head and say we are a poor reflection of the one true Life? Possibly, but then we can go one step further than a mere image. Through our use of correspondences, we understand all of creation to be present within God, and the totality of creation yields a human form.
But what is a human form? While we might perceive it as a shape, heaven does not operate in length and width or shape like a human, and yet it still is human. Why? Because it operates in states or places of certain types of love. These states range from interior to exterior, just as in the human body. All of these places and states communicate, have divine energy, and function seemingly independently, but are always under the auspices of God. The human form we speak of is less about shape and more about sheer beingness. It is not about drawing a picture of God, but understanding that our being is in God.
And as the Lord was glorified, and in him God was glorified, all who are within God are also glorified. That means us. All people are in the Lord. We are just left with the question of what to do now. Do we look to the Lord, or to the parts of us that disappear after death? Amen.
I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake, and accepted to dwell in matter, and through matter worked my salvation; therefore I will not cease to reverence matter, through which my salvation was worked.
- John Damascene (c. 675-750)
In the life which wells up in me and in the matter which sustains me, I find much more than Your gifts. It is You Yourself whom I find, You who make me participate in Your being, You who mould me. Truly in the ruling and in the first disciplining of my living strength, in the continually beneficent play of secondary causes, I touch, as near as possible, the two faces of Your creative action, and I encounter, and kiss, Your two marvelous hands—the one which holds us so firmly that it is merged, in us, with the sources of life, and the other whose embrace is so wide that, at its slightest pressure, all the springs of the universe respond harmoniously together.
- Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955)
Rev. Kevin K. Baxter