Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings

Christ and the People Mosaic(Photo thanks to Picture Mosaics.)

Nowadays, we see people wherever we go–you might even say more than wherever we go. They follow us, and we follow them. They are virtually always with us, even in our most private moments. Oftentimes, without any personal connection, without ever hearing the sound of their voice, we watch their behavior, and scrutinize it, and display our own views on their persons to the rest of the “public.” We see what they’re up to while we sit in the bathroom. There was a time when we never would have thought of doing this. We have already seen them so often, so inveterately, that we no longer see just how we are seeing them. I myself have been as blind to this “seeing” as I am to the nose on my face.

I personally see them only as “them” and never as “we.” They are strangers I know everything about.

We live in an age of personally but digitally mediated people. This is the genesis of the “technoself.”[1] We have instant, individual alerts and updates of live events, brought about by people made into headlines made into capital letters. This is the viral-but-virtual, public-in-private complex of twenty-first century media. This is the current “BREAKING” on our 3.5-inch screens. Of course, picture and video more fully relate what has happened in real-time situations. But even then it is a clipped reality, a tiny square of our many quilted and rippling dimensions, narrowed to a focus, frozen out of time, and flattened for our screens.

We live in an age of platformed people. At least, I do. I personally have found that a great distortion occurs in the process that extracts an actual person or occurrence and mediates them to my tools for communication. What happens when I see them is an attenuation of perception: only my eyes as they have been made to see and my brain as it has been made to read the screen have been narrowly involved in the abbreviated posting or the captured event, while the rest of my senses remain largely non-participant. My experience—that word of such huge implications in my American theological lexicon—my experience has been platformed in these instances. Because even as it has been flattened by the screen, it has been raised to the level of publicity, opinion, indictment. It has been raised—I have raised it—to compete with and before and above the people.

People and their decisions. People and the decisions done to them. People and the decisions they intend, or imply. People and the decisions they claim they didn’t intend or imply. People and the decisions inferred upon them, and applied to them. Sometimes these people are the people—a phantom made in my image, and invariably different from “the people” in other people’s minds.[2] Almost always—except by a very narrow margin—these people are people I have never lived a single second with. They are not people like the people I know. And yet, I know, as a fact as firm as gravity, that they are people, and that to some degree they do concern me as if they were in the room, or even closer. More than that, they wear the veils of people I have truly known, do truly know, and thus they resemble real people. More than that, they are veiled with a screen of acknowledged reality proven to me by the effectiveness of my tools. These people are broken down as information. They are communicated to me through the efficient means of common terms and associations. I, correspondingly, look with these terms and associations already in sight because of their efficiency—it being longer to look for what I have rarely or never seen. And thus these people have a presence, but, again, of a peculiarly veiled and broken sort.

Now, this entry is not meant to be yet another exercise in techno-skepticism—another commonplace already gone by, I would wager. We are not anytime soon going to drop all our personalized media, which is only becoming more intimate and given to our natures all the time—and if that time ever comes, we can be fairly assured that it will be because of a bad time indeed. What it means to be human will only increasingly include what it means to be technological.[3] But we can, I think—I hope and I hope—we can make our tools more accustomed to our natures. Our tools have already shown us plenty of what we can be. It is time, once again, for us to do the showing.

At least, it’s time for me to show myself what I can be.

For the past several months—coinciding with a certain change, one might say a “revolution,” in our country—I have been deliberately sitting back. Well, in all honesty, I felt driven back. I fled social media, I have to confess, because I could see the flood coming. I knew, after this event had occurred, that the reactions would come pouring in, and if I wasn’t careful, I would be overwhelmed by them. It was like a phantom earthquake taking place in my pocket. I expected no end to the aftershocks. I ran like a meager Elijah: “It is enough. I am not better than my friends list!” Whether or not my reaction was defensible—whether or not a more moderate, less hypersensitive response would have been called for—this is nevertheless how I felt and what I did.

More personally, I went into hiding because I had been finding myself, for many months already, more and more like my screen: easily provoked but also provocative, always on the defense by preemptively striking. I began to see people in-person as automatic participants in my news feed. I even sought out the fight—so eager was I to have a human face to sneer at. My brain was so full of responses that my mouth never once asked a question. I went into hiding from social media because I was afraid of what I would see in others and most of all in myself.

There is a major trope about sight that runs throughout the Bible. Now, by “Bible” I mean both the Hebrew and Christian testaments. The fact that this trope runs through both—“both” being in fact many century’s worth of transmission—makes the common theme all the more striking: throughout many hundreds of years of tribe and kingdom, exile and return, diaspora and persecution, destruction and rebirth, these people (or peoples) have all noticed something about human noticing. They have perceived, because they have been brought to perceive, a certain misperception inherent in the human being. Sometimes, because its fault becomes tantamount to blindness, it might as well be called imperception.

This observation about how humans see, and then see that they failed to see, and then really see; this pointing out that the angels and prophets and sojourners do of the What that all flesh should have seen—this claim about us has been largely unclaimed as of late. In my little world, anyway, I have not seen anybody noticing it—which isn’t to say that nobody has, my eyes being what they are. It doesn’t seem to have appeared anytime recently on my screen, though it has been dwelling all along in between the old leather covers. I see this claim there if I read with the eyes to see it.

I see this claim when Abraham and Sarah see “three men” standing outside their tent, and they invite the strangers in for a meal. I see this claim when Jacob encounters “a man” at the ford of Jabbok in the middle of the night, and he struggles with him. I see this claim when Samuel hears his name called by an unknown voice, and he answers. I see this claim when Isaiah sees some sort terrific kingly figure[4] sitting in the temple, and he nevertheless watches and listens to him. I see this claim when the myrrh-bearing women go to mourn the body of Jesus one Sunday morning—only to find the tomb open, and “a young man,” uncommonly robed in white, sitting there inside. I see this claim on the road to Emmaus, when two disciples of that tiny, scattered upstart sect find “the only stranger in all Jerusalem” who does not know of their notorious failure. I see this claim when more of these disciples, having failed to catch a single fish on the Sea of Tiberias, receive unsolicited advice from a stranger on the beach.

Road to Emaus Illumination

The claim is this: that the stranger is not a stranger at all. At least, the stranger is not a stranger to seeing me. I might be a stranger to seeing “them,” but “they” in truth are not. “They” have been with me, attending to me in some deep sense, longer than I can imagine. Because this vague, imposing “they” is not a “they” at all, but Someone personally approaching or addressing my very being. Or, to give the most modest reading of these passages, anyway, the “stranger” I see as strange could turn out to be this Someone. The strange person, the scary sight, the simple voice—any or all could be a Figure of absolute blessing.[5] Someone who will change my life beyond my will to see.

A stranger could be God in disguise. This is the most modest reading I could infer from the Bible.

Other readers have been less modest. Some of them have been extravagant, downright prodigal with the claim. Quite a few of them, actually.

According to the early Rabbis, a devoted focus on the Torah (where the claim first appears, to restate the obvious) makes one a benefactor to “the whole world”: “he is called friend, beloved, a lover of the All-present, a lover of mankind.”[6] This sequence, or equation really, of fellow human beings with the Divine is a commonplace in rabbinic literature: “the Torah [or teaching of God] is acquired by . . . being beloved, loving the All-present, loving mankind.”[7] A lover of Divinity is a lover of humanity. Could this also be vice versa?

Now, it’s not surprising to find the “love God, love others” maxim in commentary on the Bible—obviously that’s important! Obviously. Anyone who has grown up amidst one of the many Christian peoples of the Book is no stranger to the strangely dual “Greatest Commandment”: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”[8]—i.e., the primary word of God as Jesus knew it. Dual or subsequent, it is obvious that, at the very least, a holistic love of God entails a total love of fellow human beings.

However, because we are human beings, and see but do not see, and because there is so much in the Bible for us to glare ourselves out of recognition of the Greatest, the First and next-to-First, and certainly first before the rest—because of our imperception, theologians have attempted to point us in the right direction.

There is Abraham Joshua Heschel, who sees that it is in the nature of God’s oneness to be “subdued, yet present everywhere.”[9] “Monotheism in teaching that God is the Creator” therefore teaches “that nature and man are both fellow-creatures.” Human beings have a kind of siblinghood not only with each other, but even with the planet itself: “The earth is our sister, not our mother.”[10]

There is John Calvin, who sees in that very first, that most primordial theological-anthropological claim, that human beings are made in the Image of God, the utter foundation of the Commandment: “Anyone who loves another will give him his due; he will not hurt or injure him; he will do what is beneficial to all so far as he can. . . . [T]he word neighbor stands for all flesh and blood; for, as Isaiah says, we are bound together by a common nature: Thou shalt not turn away from thine own flesh (Isa. 58:7). Above all, the image of God ought to be the bond of a holy friend or enemy: for no evil in man can destroy his nature.”[11] In no uncertain terms, Calvin sees—or sees that every one of us should see—the inalienable nobility of the human being: that in every face we should note the Creator. This kind of notice is everyone’s due. Everyone’s.

The word “nobility” comes from the root nobilis for “noted” or “known.” We—or I—think of “noble” as exemplifying virtue, as admirable, meritorious. But the term “nobility” has at times had a predominantly different denotation for societies. It became a noun. It became social and material power, superiority, and sovereignty, and a kind of acquisitiveness over all things human. Thus, the “nobility” in the Middle Ages were “noble” (i.e. widely known) not because of their moral virtues but because of their wealth and influence.[12] However, this equation is a malformation at the hands of history. The etymology has gone crooked. According to theologians like Calvin, the true nobility of human beings was the inextricable, undeniable knowledge of their identification with the Creator. To look at a human being is to acknowledge this inheritance.

And then there is Karl Barth, who sees the nobility of the imago Dei forever manifest in the Incarnation: “Speaking of this one man [Jesus],” the Incarnation “says of all other men—those who were before Him and those who were after Him, those who knew Him and those who did not know Him or did so only indirectly, those who accepted Him and those who rejected Him—at least, that they were and are creaturely beings whom this man is like for all His unlikeness, and in whose sphere and fellowship and history this one man also existed in likeness with them. This means that a decision has been made concerning the being and nature of every man by the mere fact that with him and among all other men He too has been a man. No matter who or what or where he may be, he cannot alter this fact that this One is also man. And because this One is also man, every man in his place and time is changed, i.e., he is something other than what he would have been if this One had not been man too.” For Barth, “every man is the fellow-man of Jesus.”[13] Even further than Heschel, then, the human being in this view shares a siblinghood with God, “the Neighbour, Companion and Brother of every man.” And still further, the Incarnation creates a reciprocal, if mysteriously subsequent, Divine-human identification. It is through God’s nature as love, as fullest freedom, that God chooses the bond of relation, chooses to become particularized in actual human flesh. This for Barth entails a “genuine humanity” in God, and causes him to make the astonishing claim that “God does not exist without man.”[14] For God to be love, as Scripture claims[15], God cannot be without fellows. It is the heart of the divine mystery that God is not satisfied with sole-sovereignty, but seeks out a “covenant-partner”[16]—not only in the act of Incarnation, but in the very first Grace of creation.[17] It is in the nature of God to be human. And because God is human (properly understood, Barth would say), human beings bear a “definite distinction”: “because God is human in this sense, [nobility] is actually due man and may not be denied him through any pessimistic judgment, whatever its basis. On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him on this assumption.”[18]

This, then, is the true nobility of the people, all people, even the people I do not recognize: they are every one of them fellow-partners with God.

* * *

In the process of writing this reflection I have found myself gradually approaching a question. I started out knowing some of my own personal norms—those few commitments that breathe and sigh beyond the flat magisterial page (so much of my collected theology being no more than a pack of cards)—and could already envision how I might use certain favorite formative books and concepts to illustrate beautifully my distantly seen point. But as I wrote, and read, and rewrote and reread, I began to see that a question still loomed hugely unanswered for me: can we do it? Can I do it? Really see it—that is, with the clarity that compels a corresponding behavior, a due?

The doctrine of humanity that I have tried to delineate[19] leads to social engagement: as Barth himself recognized, “It is identical with the practical acknowledgement of [a person’s] human rights and his [or her] human dignity. To deny it to him [or her] would be for us to renounce having Jesus Christ as Brother.”[20] It is identical with our ethics. It is identical with justice and fairness, with kindness—not to mention with sheer appreciation. But can we—can I find a way to give this due amidst all these false images? Today I am more than surrounded by warring camps of humanity—I am filled with them. I want to hit my neighbor over the head with my labels—meant to concuss this unseen fellow into a stupefied personhood. I want to disinherit them from their divinely innate nobility.

How do I see the person that scares me, who seems to threaten everything I hold dear, as a co-partner of God’s? How do I see the person who sees me the same way I see them as an immanent sibling? There is a frenetic relay between mutually threatened parties—a kind of crazy sonar of false collisions—that leaves no room for dogmatic thinking.[21] Worse, these threats appear so strong and fierce, and are so embodied, that they practically self-fulfill. It is a faster impulse than appearance or impression, or the arrow that flieth by day. Add to this the fact that our social media virtually multiplies and accelerates and habituates flattened versions of these impulses, and you have a veritable haze of hostility: a cognitive fog that seeps into the body, from all of the brain’s obvious connection to it (though our practices seem to forget); an atmosphere of cataracts, from all of our connection to each other.[22] Is there any room between us for this kind of human? Can we see them through these screens? Would we see them if they stared us in the face?

Is there any room in me for this kind of human?

The notions of the Image of God, of the Incarnation, and of the divine-human partnership are extravagantly, outrageously beautiful concepts. They’re enough to drive any one with Stendhal syndrome crazy.[23] The first drove me to graduate school; the second kept me from feeling a failure; and the third brought me face-to-face with hope. But in some very real sense, this is all immaterial: a kind of Quixotic quest for the key to the human side of all theology, and the theological side of all humanity, the personal self-justification of having spent many thousands of dollars to study a virtually unmarketable specialization, theological anthropology, and many more thousands of hours trying to redeem a mostly mental infatuation.

“Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, / Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.”[24] Good old George Herbert. He, at the very least, knew how to turn devotion into eloquence, and Providence into wit. His irony here is that our pleasure in Grace is pain to God. Pain and everything else that a body can sense. Life itself. Our doctrines in our brains can age and intoxicate our faith into fumes, while God takes up the whole sobering, harrowing world in the flesh.

“But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave, / Was cleare as heav’n, from whence it came. / At least those beams of truth, which onely save, / Surpasse in brightnesse any flame. / Love God, and love your neighbour. Watch and pray. / Do as ye would be done unto. / O dark instructions; ev’n as dark as day! / Who can these Gordian knots undo?”[25]

Herbert has a theologian’s double-sense. His poetry has a poetics of co-partnership. Who can these knots undo? We know the “correct” intellectual answer right away: well, God, of course! And in some sense human beings will always be in need of divine and only divine aid—say, in the very state living, moving, having being, or in the untying of that final knot, death. But as many commentators have noted[26], “undo” can be read in a figurative sense, one which changes the whole meaning of the line from a genuine aporia (puzzlement) or loaded question into a rhetorical one; this is the figurative question with an Image as its answer. Who can these knots undo (that is, destroy)? No one. And if no one can undo me, what am I doing?

I have been hiding. When Elijah hides, he faces a threat beyond rancor: “the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”[27] Obviously I will never have it so bad. And obviously I am not alone. But it is a strange thing that I have felt so alone seeing so many people. Of course there’s an obvious answer to this. The people I am seeing are perfect strangers. When Elijah hides, he feels no better than his fathers, the prophets of God who have been slain by their fellows. I myself know I am no better, and in some cases worse, than my siblings.[28] When Elijah hides, he witnesses God not in the rending wind or the tumultuous earthquake, and not even in the consuming fire, but in a still small voice. Not even disaster can outdo the humanity they share.

But I am still such a feeble likeness, such a dark reflection—the moment I reread my statements above I want to undo them. “If the other person knows [their nobility] already, then we have to strengthen him in the knowledge. If he does not know it yet or no longer knows it, our business is to transmit this knowledge to him. On the basis of the knowledge of the humanity of God no other attitude to any kind of fellow man is possible.”[29] I seem to have a crisis of attitude: I still need to strengthen my knowledge of true humanity. But, again, I know I’m not alone in this. Heschel himself agreed with James Joyce that history is a nightmare. This side of history we all know that the human family is capable of greater tragedies than King Lear. So it’s no wonder that Lear himself, in the midst of the storm and at the threshold of mental undoing, prays for humans to prove themselves better: “Take physic, pomp; / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, / And show the heavens more just.”[30] Perhaps that is part of the answer: we ourselves need to show the heavens more just on social media—that is, do each other justice, give each other our due. Obviously, spending less time on the screen wouldn’t be a bad thing—my sense of crisis gives too much credence to it already.

When I hide, I hear words. They are not my own words, but words given to me. These are words I have read or have had read to me since childhood. They really are like echoes from distant voices. Sometimes they have the voices of my parents, sometimes of friends, sometimes of a deep and close tone very much like myself. When I hear the words, do I respond? Do I ask what they mean? Do I trust what they say? That would have to be something like prayer.

Prayer, according to Herbert, is “Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest.”[31] It is the dialogue of the divine-human partnership. It is the voice that God and people share; it gives humans an ear for eternity. It broadens our language to listening and watching. Because for God these two acts are one with seeing. When God asks Elijah what he is doing, God already knows the answer; when Elijah speaks of his singular plight, he begins to hear of his greater partnership with others.[32] Watch and pray. Pray and watch. By praying we can watch, and by watching we can see. It reverses the estrangement of our cursed imperception.[33] Hear and do hear. See and do see.

The world of screens is filled with posts. How many more prayers are watching?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technoself_studies

[2] Much like, if not identical to, Kierkegaard’s “public.” See Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Kierkegaard on the Internet”: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/html/paper_kierkegaard.html

[3] Evidenced quite recently in the April issue of National Geographic: “The Next Human: Taking Evolution into Our Own Hands.”

[4] The word for this figure in the “Isaiah Memoir” is adonai, literally meaning “my lord.” Some interpreters have surmised this word-choice as a subtle show of Isaiah’s initial blindness to just Who he is looking at. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw my lord sitting upon a throne”—and thus Isaiah mistakes, at first, divine grandeur for human majesty. Indeed, some critics have read Isaiah’s vision as the divine interruption of his normal priestly duties (see Hebert Marks’ commentary for Isaiah 6:1-13 in the Norton Critical Edition of the English Bible). Most translations themselves acknowledge the lack of any divine appellation, while still approximating Godhood, by rendering adonai as “the Lord” and not “the Lord” (Yahweh).

[5] In Genesis, this kind of original “blessing-in-disguise” can even be an entire place, as in Bethel: the lonesome, stony wild can become the house of God (beit + el). “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (28:16).

[6] Sayings of the Fathers (Pirke Aboth), trans. Joseph H. Hertz, Behrman House: p.105.

[7] Ibid., 111-3.

[8] Matt. 22:37-40 (NRSV).

[9] Man Is Not Alone, p. 113.

[10] Ibid., p. 115.

[11] From Calvin’s—yes, that same severe Author of Predestination, that John Calvin—commentary on Galatians 5:13-4, taken from Calvin: Commentaries, ed. Joseph Haroutunian, p. 327.

[12] It’s hard not to know the bloke who owns half the roads and the whole forest in your area.

[13] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II, 2, p. 558 f. Of course, readers for whom “androcentric” bears real human significance will notice the unintended exclusiveness of Barth’s language here. I quote it unqualified only so as not to render it unrecognizable as prose with a riddling of brackets.

[14] Barth, The Humanity of God, pp. 51, 50.

[15] 1 John 4:8; 1 Corinthians 13.

[16] Barth, The Humanity of God, p. 52.

[17] For a relatively “concise” overview of Barth’s view of creation in this respect, see Helmut Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics: A Selection with Introduction, sect. IV: “Creation as Benefit,” pp. 148-59.

[18] Barth, The Humanity of God, pp. 52-3.

[19] Very obviously partially.

[20] Ibid., p. 53.

[21] And by “dogmatic” I mean the truer lineage of meaning, as in “principled” or “canonical,” any critical thinking based on one’s own core tenets.

[22] According to a recent Pew survey, the distrust between partisans in America has grown markedly over the past two decades, and has undergone a severe spike just this past year: “unfavorable” feelings have become “very unfavorable,” and, based on Pew Research Center’s “feeling thermometer,” both sides have gone from a “cold” regard for each other to a “very cold” one. (See http://www.people-press.org/2016/06/22/1-feelings-about-partisans-and-the-parties/) For an analysis of the self-destructive cycles of hostility and threat in an age of social media, maybe see Time’s “Addiction to iPhone: How Social Media Messes with Your Brain” and Rolling Stone’s “Why We’re Living in an Age of Fear” for starters.

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stendhal_syndrome

[24] “The Agonie,” lines 17-8.

[25] “Divinitie,” lines 13-20

[26] See Helen Wilcox (ed.), The Complete English Poems of George Herbert, 471, n. 20.

[27] 1 Kings 19:10 (KJV).

[28] After all, I obviously have a prophet complex.

[29] Barth, The Humanity of God, p. 53.

[30] King Lear, 3.4.34-7.

[31] “Prayer (I),” line 11.

[32] That is, Hazael and Jehu, whom he will anoint to be kings of Syria and Israel, and Elisha, his successor in prophecy (1 Kings 19:15-6).

[33] Isaiah 6:9-10.

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2 thoughts on “Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings”

  1. […] as a presence in my pocket without discussing what it really represents: people. Or, people of a certain sort. Indeed, I act as if I hold many people in my pocket. Some of them I communicate with directly, […]

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