Often my academic theological work can seem (note the emphasis) kind of, well, useless. When you’re spending your days speculating about the future resurrection, you’re quite open to the accusation of being “so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly use”. And I’m the first to admit that it’s a luxury to live in a society where this kind of work can be deemed “work”. But often the insights are profound and meaningful for everyday human life. So I’m pushing pause on my work this morning, to share this thought prompted by Bernd Wannenwetsch’s writing.*
In Genesis 2, when Adam first meets Eve, he joyously cries
“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”Genesis 2:23
While he doesn’t look so thrilled about it here, no one seemed to be very happy about anything in Byzantine art. They all had a serious case of resting bitchy face, God included.
He isn’t stunned by her beauty or her perfect female form; he doesn’t first notice her difference, instead he sees himself in her. He recognises their shared identity and the human community that starts with them. In contrast to the rest of created order there’s no “dominion” and no hierarchy. Unlike the animals, he doesn’t have the job of categorising her, of identifying the difference that sets her apart. When he does name her, he chooses a name that proclaims their connection and their shared identity.
But as people we love to draw distinctions, to classify, to label… to judge. When we first come across a person we subconsciously ask whether a person is one of us or one of the “other”, and we answer that question by looking for the markers of race, culture, socioeconomic status, disability, and so on. We label people according to our categories, and then behave differently according to whether they’re in, or out.
But that’s not how humans are supposed to relate. First we are to recognise our kinship as imagers of God, to see ourselves in the other. And out of that shared identity we then make decisions about how to treat that person. As Wannenwetsch writes,
“It marks the human condition under the Fall that the recognition of kinship and its concomitant moral claims are no longer a matter of course, but seem at times exceedingly difficult”
We all experience an urge to judge, to rule right/wrong, bad/good, me/other, us/them. It’s part of the broken human nature, and I wonder if it can be traced back to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (whether you think of it as a literal event or merely a powerful metaphor). We think we can know and judge, distinguish and name. But really we’re rubbish at it, and it was never our job from the start.
It’s when we see ourselves in the other, that we start to see ourselves as we really are. There’s an act of self-recognition, of being truly human.
“The revelation of kinship and belonging to ‘one family’ is never unilateral as uncovering of the other as kin alone but always dialectical: we discover our own humanness in the humanness of the other.”Bernd Wannenwetsch
We saw this dynamic at work in response to the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019: all over New Zealand a cry was taken up, “They are us”. These victims, this Muslim community – even though they are different to most of us – they are part of who we are. There was also a bit of a backlash, as people very fairly pointed out that “they are us” did not at all reflect the lived experience of minorities in NZ. Racism, including even the most casual kind, is alive and well. Both messages are true, however. “They are us” is an aspirational statement, a very human goal, and not an assessment of reality. It resonated deeply for many people, even though in normal situations they wouldn’t have fully lived it out.
Hopefully that statement of self-recognition, and others like it, shift our patterns of “normal” behaviour more towards a reflection of the human kinship that always was.
Now, back to “work”…
* Wannenwetsch, Bernd. “Angels with Clipped Wings: The Disable as Key to Recognition of Personhood.” In Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church, edited by John Swinton and Brian Brock, 182-200. London: T. & T. Clark, 2007.