Despite all the talk in our culture about the need to accept people the way they are (including yourself), there is probably no better-testified human trait than the wish to be somebody else. Indeed, even to become something else.
Vast numbers of us daily launch out onto the trackless waters of Weightwatchers, life coaches, physical training, psychotherapy, cosmetic plastic surgery (14+ million in America alone annually) – even current oddities like “gender reassignment.” And this is not merely a recent phenomenon.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve wanted to be, not themselves, but gods. If you look into the future, things don’t much change. An influential “futurist” like Ray Kurzweil predicts that, starting in 2020 or so, a “singularity” will meld men and machines. What that will mean, we don’t know. The consensus – at least among the futurists – is that we’ll be better, maybe even something like gods. In any event, not poor old us anymore.
The odd thing is not that human beings want to change: It’s that, today, there’s such a big disconnect between false democratic cant about accepting everyone and the concrete evidence that we/they constantly strive to be other.
The confusion has especially impacted our religious thought. Religions around the world differ a great deal, but you’d struggle to find one that doesn’t preach the need to change, to pass from where we are (always mostly a state of ignorance and suffering) to elsewhere.
Except, that is, in certain forms of modern Christianity, in which we are told God loves us all as we are – which is true, and thank God, because otherwise where would we be? But that is not at all the same thing as saying that God wants us to stay the way we are. He’s got much bigger plans than that for us.
We seem to have forgotten that for bland kindness. The traditional – and shocking – term for where Christianity points is theosis, that God became man and suffered, died, and rose again, as we remember this week, so that man could become God (Theos).
Most of us will be more than a little wary of the futurist “singularity,” if it ever happens, and with reason. There’s a Tower of Babel/Promethean side to it, the belief that we can reach heaven under our own steam. As we see in the many apocalyptic books and films just now, we intuit that going that route won’t end well.
But in such schemes there’s an echo of a long Biblical tradition: making efforts, including via science and technology, to subdue the Earth and repair the human condition since the Fall. The crucial difference lies in whether that transpires under the divine and natural order – or in its own illusory and, therefore, disastrous disorder.
The Last Supper by Pieter Pourbus, 1548
However much you may dislike industrial civilization, it helps a great deal. As people close to the earth know, scratching out a living in the midst of the titanic forces of nature is not, as a certain kind of ecologist thinks, like puttering around in an English country garden.
All of this, however, is external to the main thing that we remember this week. The ancient Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians, the other Middle and Far Eastern peoples all had civilizations and technologies.
The history of Israel and its continuation in the Church is about a different kind of change – and hope. It’s not mere Christian triumphalism to say that had the Jewish root not flowered into the global phenomenon we call Christianity, Europe, the Americas, the vast stretch of Eastern Christianity across Russia, the Middle East, into Africa, China, India – the whole world would be very different.
Christianity introduced a radical change and radical hope. God, by becoming man and suffering tortures and a cruel death, did for us what most needed doing: saved us from something inside of us untouched by science and technology. Indeed, as we’ve seen over the last century, absent an equal growth in wisdom, advances in science and technology become a force multiplier for human evils.
Sadly, that tremendous story of a change effected by God Himself, the source of Christian hope, is now largely forgotten, trivialized, perverted. Because we don’t know real Christianity any longer – surveys show widespread ignorance of the simplest Bible stories, including the mere outline of the life of Jesus – we’ve concocted a Christianity more to our liking in which God loves us even in our sins and, therefore, we have no need to “change.”
Religious people used to be wary about what the anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace,” the notion that there’s no “cost of discipleship.” As W.H. Auden has Herod, who also misunderstands Christ, say in For the Time Being, the upshot will be: “Every crook will argue: ‘I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”
We don’t “earn” grace, of course, and Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran, would never say we do. He was getting at how easy we are on ourselves (and he was writing before the self-indulgences of the late twentieth century) – and how presumptuous about divine forgiveness.
Christianity, if we’re allowed to quote Christ anymore, must include: “if you love me, keep my commandments,” and “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” No simple task. And that’s assuming we want to make the effort.
Most of us are like Pharisees: “The effort of self-mastery that must be made in order to give ourselves fully to the truth and to God is so great that many prefer to stifle the grace and inspiration that would lead them to make it. Many, that is, prefer blindness to sight.” (Bossuet)
That’s why the light of the world had to come and do such strange and marvelous things, none stranger than dying on a Cross and none more marvelous than rising again: To make us see, see what we are not and, with grace, could become. And still can.