Saturday, September 14, 2013

I Am Not Myself Today (But May Be Tomorrow)

But this larger and more adventurous Christian universe has one final mark difficult to express… all the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up. The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall.

In Sir Oliver Lodge’s interesting new catechism the first two questions were ‘What are you?’ and ‘What, then, is the meaning of the Fall of Man?’ I remember amusing myself by writing my own answers to the questions; but I soon found that they were very broken and agnostic answers. To the question ‘What are you?’ I could only answer, ‘God knows.’ And to the question ‘What is meant by the Fall?’ I could answer with complete sincerity, ‘That whatever I am, I am not myself.’

This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves.
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Reflection – We celebrate today in the Church the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Originally commemorating the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, it’s an invitation to contemplate and celebrate the mystery of Christ’s death on the cross and the victory it wins for us.

A strong aspect of this is communicated to us by this last excerpt from Orthodoxy. We are not ourselves; we do not really know what a human being should be; at the very heart of the human experience is the fact that we alone among creatures struggle with what it is to be the things we are. As I write in my book The I-Choice, cows don’t have existential crises about the nature of bovine life, dogs don’t lament the de-caninizing effects of modern life.

We and we alone struggle not alone to become better than ourselves, but even to be ourselves. This universal experience surely bears a strong witness to the doctrine of Original Sin. There is something badly wrong with us and we all know it, even if we sometimes like to deny it or turn our face away from it.

Well, Christ came to fix that, to put it simply. ‘Whatever I am, I am not myself.’ Christ came to make us ‘ourselves’, and amazingly enough what this turns out to be is not merely a restoration of human dignity and human decency, but an exaltation of our humanity to share in God’s divinity by his own gracious gift.

In modern New Age thought, this possession of divinity is held to be something innate to us: we are all ‘god’, and what is needed is an awakening to our true divine nature. That is the classic claim of Gnosticism. Christianity holds that we are not ‘god’ but are indeed human creatures, but that a share in divinity is given us as a gift, as a grace, by the One True God. This is quite a different thing, and makes our whole life relational and receptive to an advanced degree.

Now, what does all this have to do with a man being arrested by Roman soldiers, put on a kind of show trial, beaten, tortured, and nailed to two rough pieces of wood until he died? I would have to echo GKC’s lovely agnostic reply here: ‘God knows.’ And I think the best of our theologians acknowledge that pious brand of agnosticism.

We know that original sin, the collapse of our humanity, manifests itself most tragically and horribly in the experience of death. We know that original sin in its origin and essence is estrangement from the love of God through rebellion and disobedience. So here we have the love of God and the obedience of the Son entering into the experience of death. What does that mean, and what does that do to death, and what new action of God does this bring into the world available to all who seek it? God knows.

And that’s enough for today. God knows what He’s doing, and what He has done. Because Jesus did this thing for us, we can become ourselves, and be raised up to what we are meant to be. The Cross is triumphant, and because of it, so are we. There is hope, and that is what we celebrate today. So… celebrate!

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