In 1989 eminent McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor, published a book entitled Sources of the Self. Taylor’s book is a history of western philosophy that, as its title suggests, seeks to explain the origin of the western mind.
While this book is instructive and explains much about the way we now think, a theologian would want to argue that it misses the primary origin of the western self, the person of Jesus. In this we must make a distinction between the contribution to the self made by philosophical ideas and that made by one whose significance cannot be explained in terms of philosophical ideas or in codes of morality, and certainly not as a founder of a great religion, but in his very being as the one true human being.
This is why the New Testament is so puzzling to the modern mind which looks for ideas or even great actions. Here we have a person whom John the Evangelist describes as the Word made flesh, that Word that was with God and was God, the eternal truth of all things. The Christian proclamation is not of a set of ideas but of the perfection of a person, the source of true self.
The process by which men are influenced and changed by this self, that is always “other” is by discipleship. This is more than mere imitation, a decision to attempt to be like Him, for that would make faith a work that we could do and open the door not to the true self that exists in freedom, but to religion, especially that kind of religion called pietism, where individual piety is emphasised.
This is the crucial point. While we seek to perfect ourselves by imitation, manipulate the divine through prayer or cultic practice or seek the wisdom of the ages, or even seek to enter the darkness of nihilism, we remain enclosed within a self in bondage. This is why Christianity should have no investment in calling itself a religion among the religions.
The creation of the true and free self cannot come about through our own efforts since those efforts, having their source in the self, cannot transcend the self. Even the most adept attempt at detachment remains attached even if it is attached to the process of detachment. Even though we trumpet freedom we remain in bondage. The libertarian who would shrug off all restraint will enter into a moral and spiritual vacuum that will hold him in bondage just as surely as the most authoritarian religion.
There is a temptation to think that the creeds and dogmas of the church are the object of faith. If one is a Christian one should be able to say the Nicene Creed without crossing ones fingers at any point. One should be able to believe in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit even if there is little understanding of what that means. While the creeds of the church are important markers of the faith that should not be discarded, they are not, in themselves, the object of faith. One does not become a true and free self by adhering to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ.
The God of Israel and God of the church has always been framed in terms of person. However, there are warnings - despite all of the Old Testament narratives in which God takes part as a person - that God is not a person among persons, even when God speaks and acts in ways a person would speak and act.
In the modern age the understanding of God as a person within the context of natural science, has led to God being a supernatural person. Theism and atheism have come to define belief or non-belief in the existence of a supernatural agent. For many, this question settles whether one is religious or not. Given the lack of contemporary evidence for a supernatural agent, most have sensibly opted for the non-religious option and have turned their back on the church which is seen to be hopelessly backward and retarding of the human spirit.
The criticism of German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach - that we created God and his attributes - holds true. How, then, can theology proceed after such a devastating critique that seems to remove the ground from under it? I am pleased to say that the tradition is deeper than the critique and indeed takes it into account. The struggle that Israel endured with religion and with the nature of God conceived as a person yielded a subtle theology that skirted the temptation of idolatry while at the same time preserved a way of talking about God as a person.
By describing Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, as an integral part of God, the church continued the Israeli tradition of understanding God as personal. Thus faith cannot be understood as voluntarily assenting to certain beliefs but must be understood as a personal meeting in which the self is transformed. John’s gospel has Greeks saying to the disciples: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Faith springs from the meeting with this “other”, this stranger, whom Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “… bids us come and die”.
To meet with this one is to know that before him we must give way. This is not a voluntary action but a necessary one brought about by the meeting. For we see in Him what it means to be truly human and truly free and we have no choice but to throw our lot in with him. The paradox is that instead of losing our lives, they are given back to us for the first time. It must be stressed that this is an event in the midst of life and its consequences are lived out in the midst of life. The fruit of this death may not be postponed until after our physical death because God is God of the living, not the dead. Thus faith can never be a voluntary act of belief that will guarantee a favorable outcome after death.