Pat Your Head, Rub Your Belly
God is at once perfectly simple (‘the Lord is one’) and infinitely vast- we can and will continue to behold and learn of Him for eternity! But when it comes to humans, at the heart of thinking theologically is the necessity of holding two thoughts in your head at once (hence the title!). We are made in God’s own image, and we are the inheritors of original sin. At once open to the transcendent, and flawed. For this reason we Christians must be the most pessimistic, as to ourselves, and the most optimistic, ultimately and as to God, of all human beings.
Sometimes holding a tight hold on the primacy of God’s grace, as well on our own primordial flaw, even at our seeming best, goes by the name of ‘Augustinian.’ The great saint of the fifth century in North Africa is called the ‘doctor of grace,’ but also had a deep sense of the mysterious recalcitrance of the human will. Think of the verse from Romans 7: ‘for the good that I would do I do not, and the evil that I would not do, this I do’ (v.19). This self-suspicion is directed not only at others, but at ourselves. This lies at the heart of the introspection to which Lent, and Advent as well, call us to. But this insight is important not only personally, but when we look at the world as well. For almost a century, political thinkers have at times repaired to the thought of an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, who worried over the American options of overly optimistic forays into world affairs, followed by an equally unrealistic retreat from those same exigencies. Niebuhr saw that engagement, along with self-critical, sometimes tragic, awareness, was required.
Niebuhr is helpful as well look out upon the social, cultural, political scene of our time. Both left and right easily impugn their foes, while exempting themselves from the same flaws they see in others. Have we forgotten the old adage about power corrupting and absolute power doing so absolutely? A breathtaking example of this may be found in contemporary imagining of what the supposed Shangri-La of AI will be like. Writers as diverse as Noah Harari and Altman in all sincerity tell us that all shall have pensions, while the technologically ‘best and brightest’ run things. Do you feel better? It is at just a point such as this that Christian theology has something urgent to contribute.
I want to close my meditation, since we are nearing Thanksgiving, with the example of our relation to native people. We recall that time of gratitude a little more than 400 years ago for survival, made possible, thanks be to God, by the help of native people who came to the Pilgrims’ aid. In the subsequent history there are many examples of cruelty and duplicity on the part of the dominant culture. But there are also many examples of good, not least from the Church, as well as harm, which seemed to be, at the time, aid. We are called to thanksgiving for blessings yes, as well as to contrition, and most of all to dependence, all of us together, in our diversity, for the divine grace, extended to us sinners, though children made in His image, in our Lord Jesus Christ.