I would like to begin with three preliminary observations.
Firstly, there are three different understandings of personhood: Personhood as the problem; Personhood as an achievement; Personhood as a gift. For those keen to follow the ways of the East, being an individual, with hopes and fears, aspirations and anxieties, pleasures and pains””this is the root of the problem of the human condition. Get rid of individuality and one gets rid of the mixed bag of issues that comes with it. To see both pain and pleasure as impostors is to begin to escape from self’s hold on us. To seek union with all creation is at last to find freedom in becoming a water drop reunited with the ocean. Although the Episcopal Church has declined to consecrate a Buddhist-leaning bishop, its Presiding Bishop has publicly endorsed concern for the self as the key vice of our era.
Personhood as an achievement, however, takes the exact opposite approach. Individuality is not the root problem of human existence, but rather the source of its healing. Human beings have the opportunity to define themselves by what they choose to do and, in so doing, they can become “somebody”, i.e., somebody they would like to be, but do not feel they are now. Personhood as achievement can take many forms. We can follow the dictates of society and seek to define ourselves by becoming a success in the eyes of others. We can follow the dictates of our own inner drives and seek to define ourselves by our fierce commitment to honest self-expression, regardless of the social cost. We can even follow the dictates of a religion and seek to define ourselves by endeavouring to embody the values and commitments we think honour God and which he will honour in return.
Lastly, there is personhood as gift. This approach takes seriously the notion of divine vocation, that God himself has selected a specific mission for each person, complete with everything necessary to fulfil it, including the abilities, opportunities, successes and even failures that will enable us to learn, grow and eventually perform the good works he has set aside for each one of us before the foundation of the world. In other words, like the agent at the beginning of every Mission Impossible episode, we each receive an identity kit from God that enables us to fulfil his purpose of us. The task in life then is not to escape from this divinely established personhood, nor seek to determine and achieve of a personhood of our own choosing, but rather to receive from Him the understanding and power to live out the personhood which he has established for us.
The Nature of Saving Grace
My second observation concerns the current crucial need to distinguish between unconditional affirmation and unconditional love. Today, in both popular culture and within the church, unconditional love is often considered synonymous with unconditional affirmation. Yet unconditional affirmation is what an owner receives from a dog. The dog’s joy at being with his master never poses a challenge to the master’s being the centre of his own universe. That’s why it feels so good! No, unconditional affirmation never confronts human self-centredness. It simply affirms individuals as they are.
Of course, the hope of those churches which preach unconditional affirmation is that assurance of acceptance will release healing power into the lives of the wounded and broken. Yet, if the root of so many human problems are relational, and if the root of so many relational struggles is actually the bitter fruit of the seemingly intractable problem of human selfish self-centredness, how can unconditional affirmation be the answer? It can’t.
But to make things even more confusing, these same churches don’t say that they are preaching unconditional affirmation. They claim to be preaching unconditional love in the name of the Gospel of Grace. Should reformed Anglicans question their Gospel of easy acceptance, they in turn question how can good heirs to the Protestant Reformation can protest at the proclamation of the wonders of saving grace.
Yet, unconditional love is not the same as unconditional affirmation. Affirmation, well, it simply affirms. Love, however, creates a crisis. And the greater the love, the greater the crisis. For love reaches out for union. For implicit within the gift of love is a calling of the other into relationship. To accept the gift of love is admit into our heart a power from outside ourselves that tugs at our very self-centredness, seeking to draw us into relationship by stirring up in us a desire to love in return the one who gave us the gift of love. Yet, the price of this relationship is a dent in our self-sufficent autonomy, where our selfish ways thrive unquestioned. And the greater the love, the greater the loss of the right to live for oneself alone. And perfect, unconditional love seeks to stir up an equally unreserved giving of all of ourselves to the other. In short, true unconditional love does not simply affirm us in our self-satisfied self-centredness. True unconditional love provokes the ultimate crisis where we are called to die completely to our desire for autonomy and wholly give ourselves to the one who has already done the same for us. Groucho Marx famously said that he would not wish to belong to any club that would have him as a member. The true meaning of the Gospel of Grace is this: that God unconditionally calls us to join the fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and his love is a work so to transform us that one day we will enjoy fellowship with God as much as God enjoys fellowship within Himself. Unlike Groucho and the clubs of Hollywood, we will feel comfortable in God’s company, because by its very nature, a relationship with God makes us more like Him.
Understandings of Repentance
My third and final preliminary observation is how the first two relate to repentance. How one understands personhood and love determines one’s understanding of repentance. Let’s consider the possible combinations.
By definition, personhood as the problem and grace as divine love cannot be combined, because in this belief-system there is no higher personal being with whom to have a relationship. Salvation is simply pursing inner numbness as the way to inner peace. Of course, this is simply another false association. There is a huge difference from feeling inner peace and considering not feeling to be peace! A church community which espouses such a view can only simply affirm the individual by mislabelling his retreat from life as repentance from self.
If we instead combine personhood as achievement with grace as affirmation, self-actualization becomes the way of salvation. We remain the centre of our own universe, but we have the opportunity and the responsibility to use our abilities and choices to shape it. Repentance then is simply saying no to all the things that hinder us from becoming all that we can be. Much of modern psychology is based on this premise.
If we combine personhood as achievement with grace as divine love, then we are challenged by God to give up our autonomy. How we then decide to respond determines who we will become. In this understanding, repentance is choosing to say no to self in order to become worthy of a relationship with God. Much of religion is based on this premise.
If we combine personhood as gift with grace as affirmation, we remain the centre of our universe, because that’s just the way God made us. As a result, self-fulfilment becomes the way to salvation. Hence, repentance is simply turning away from those societal pressures that will hinder our natural self-expression. The rest of modern psychology and, consequently, much of progressive Christian thought, is based on this premise.
Finally, if we combine personhood as gift with grace as divine love, we encounter a dilemma. God’s love challenges us to give up our autonomy, but since personhood is a gift, not an achievement, it is not in our power to do so. Divine love not only confronts us with the need to change, but also makes clear our utter inability to do so. Consequently, in this approach repentance is not a work we do to please God, but a divine gift which God is pleased to work in us. Repentance is turning to be turned and all because the power of God’s love is relentlessly drawing us to say no to self in order to enjoy a relationship with God.
In classical Anglicanism, personhood as the problem and grace as affirmation would have been considered decidedly unbiblical and, therefore, completely unchristian. The only two possible positions were either divine love combined with personhood as achievement or divine love combined with personhood as gift. In other words, in Classical Anglicanism, repentance was either a work or a gift, a decision or a dilemma.
–The Rev. Dr. Ashley Null is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Western Kansas