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February 17, 2007

I have read various books discussing what exactly constitutes the essence of personhood–i.e., what it means to be a person. Basically that personhood is grounded in various webs of relation. Personhood is relational. We are what we are in terms of our relations to others and other things that we encounter constantly in our lives. This concept of our humanitty directly opposes alternative models that seek to ground personhood in individualsm, which has become the normative vision of the person in our western culture. Such notions of individualism tend to emphasize either the rational or ethical elements to our humanity. Both of which having become means of measuring our goodness, rightness, and worth. All of which determining an individual’s acceptability to the extent that they have correct thinking and morals.

This alone creates problems, because at least one door opens that draws individuals to seek acceptance wanting to fit the particular mold in order to receive acceptance. The other problem moves in the other direction by accepting or rejecting individuals based on their conformithy to the particular mold.

My point in mentioning this is in reference to a recent reading of mine in Walter Brueggemann’s “Theology of the Old Testament.” Brueggemann essentially argues that, based on the analysis of Israel’s relationship to God, the human person stands in relation to God by the movement from “complaint-petition-thanksgiving.” What is so boldly present in the Psalms, Job, and OT Israel but grossly absent in today’s church is “self-assertion” before God. I think this is primarily because of fear–fear of abandoning faith and one’s relationship with God. But can one truly say they have a relationship with God if they cannot be honest before God, even if that means complaint in their venting of self-assertion? When looking at Israel in the OT, they did not have this fear–it was part of their identity as people, as a community that stood in relation to God. But what Brueggemann says has resulted in the church, and I totally agree because I have seen it and still do, is the creation of the “false-self,” of phoniness.

By attempting to save face and silently conform (if conformity is the right word; the idea is perhaps better described by “appear”) to right thinking and a right morality true humaness is loss, and a culture of phoniness has embedded itself within religious communities. See, I believe that embracing self-assertion before God can only be grounded in a relational model of the human person, whereas the false-self is the child of individualsm.

I will leave this with some comments from Brueggemann and you can chew on what he says or respond to my reading of it.

Brueggemann, pp. 475-76:

It occurs to me, nonetheless, that compaint and petition wherby the speaker can be fully honest before Yahweh and expect Yahweh to accept the self so expressed requires a strong sense of self on the part of the petitioner; it also requires, with equal urgency, a God who can cede initiative and authority in the transaction to the petitioner who speaks imperatives to Yahweh and so enjoys an instant of omnipotence. Thus in Israel’s practice such prayer belongs to a healthy self.

In my judgment this matter of omnipotence before Yahweh in prayer relates to healthy believers before Yahweh. If one must always please God (like always pleasing mother), one learns to fake it and so become a “false self” vis-a-vis Yahweh. I suggest that in its characteristically flat articulation of God as omnipotent, the church has unwittingly done much to nourish believers to be false selves. The predictable consequence, now so evident, is church persons who are inordinately moralistic in an insistence that others should please God in the same undifferentiated way they have learned to do.

Moreover, the loss of this standard practice of complaint and petition from theological perspective, which has entailed the loss of self-assertion over against Yahweh and the forfeiture of countertestimony about Yahweh, is precisely what has produced “false selves,” both in an excessively pietistic church that champions deference and in an excessively moralistic, brutalizing society that prizes conformity and the stifling of rage. Quietisitc piety and conformity moralism together have encouraged docility and deference that generate phoniness at the most elemental levels of human existence. Israel’s sense of healthy humanness is profoundly transactional, with the two parties in turn exercising initiative. Israel, moreover, understood that the drama of rehabilitation, including the sequence of complaint, petition, and thanks, requires the Holy One, over against whom the human person in extremis must take shrill and vigorous initiative.


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