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Anthropological Terms of Christian Faith

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.

Psalm 127

A reflection of the human share in the building of the Christian faith enables, to varying degrees of accuracy, an identification and a critical asessment of elements of human speculation, imagination and inventiveness and facilitates their distinction from those preconditions of faith which basically transcend the human horizon, thus making possible Christian faith in the genuine sense of the word: faith not created by man but rather coming as a gift from the realm of the „supra-human“.

A detached look at Christian faith from the outside is usually associated with serious doubts whether the Christian faith really is such a gift; there are indications that this faith needs for its existence nothing more than the Scripture, tradition of orthodoxy, liturgy, and Church organization. The Christians themselves tend to persuade one another that all of this may safely be relied upon even though man lacks God's presence. The above-mentioned components and prerequisites of Christian religious life can be completed, investigated, cultivated, and improved even without God. Consequently, relationship with him is thus easily interchangeable with an attitude to religious symbols and spiritual programmes.

This substitution can be forestalled and resisted only through a consistent reflection of all the anthropological terms of faith as precisely anthropological ones, unlike the preconditions coming from „Elsewhere“, which make the Christian faith what it really is in its authentic form – a relationship to God. The key objective here is to ensure that what is human in faith should not be a crippling substitute for this relationship but rather its available tool. Only in this way can the Christian faith be for the other people not a stumbling stone but an open view to what can be given to them as well.

The generally welcomed Christian movement towards the world and towards man, launched at the dawn of the modern era, sometimes happens as such a process of making the Christian faith more accessible which reduces it to the various horizontally graspable elements; this can eventually bring the earthly institution of the Church (and its conceptions focused on the world) closer to man and to this world but only at the cost of a gap between them and the authentic Christian faith getting ever wider. From this point of view, too „humanized“ a Christianity appears as supremely inhuman: it denies man his basic relationship. It reduces his spiritual motion to a mere contact with the palpable and understandable religious realities, which can be perceived and contemplated as any other realities of the world. Anything beyond that appears to be inaccessible, begins to be regarded as unnecessary, and eventually as unreal. The liberalistic fears of unpredictable claims of the sovereign Divine authority (which cannot be incorporated into any human ideal, programme or experience) lead to efforts at shunning anything that cannot be subjected to the immediate criteria of plausibility. But this is where Christian liberalism commits the same mistake as dogmatism, against which it raises its critical edge: both tend to limit the Christian faith to a mere human, immanently controlleable matter.

Confining faith solely to its „safe“ anthropological terms – one-sided justification of faith from „below“, from the natural horizon of experience, a „non-violent“ way of building bridges to faith from the generally accepted self-evident realities of life – in no way leads to the intended goal of approaching reality in its authentic entirety and profundity. After all, the same principle, namely that the Christian faith perfectly links up to human reality, that it is an ideal way of meeting utmost human aspirations, wishes and dreams, was already pondered by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Using precisely this correlation, they accused the Christian faith of resorting to illusions and being alienated from reality. Their critiques demonstrate that just that faith, which has been carefully and perfectly justified in anthropological terms, constitutes only an imaginary and self-serving way of satisfying the human need to believe. Horizontal substantiation – by saying that to believe is humanly possible and rewarding – has been viewed since the time of the Englightenment as undermining the Christian faith. If it is nowadays presented as a support of the faith, one may ask whether we are still concerned with faith in the true sense of the word – a faith which is given by God.

Therefore, what kind of an alternative approach – besides easy-going consent – can be reasonably assumed towards the anthropological terms of faith?

First and foremost, they can be neutrally reflected. Given below is one of the simplest possible modes of systematizing them.

(1) Rationality. This structurizing element of each faith, handed down in words, has its self-acting inner dynamics, aiming at the ideal of comprehensibility and coherence. Whether this or that claim refers to reality or not, rationality is principally capable of convincingly reconstructing such a relationship in our consciousness. Furthermore, it is capable of grasping any matter, even the one existing independently of us, in a way to be assimilated by our always limited thinking and living-world, regardless of the genuine shape of that matter.

(2) Experience. This is often accentuated in spiritual life on the basis of disappointment proceeding from the „Tower of Babel“ of rationality. It denotes human attitudes more or less through passivity: through an open perceptiveness based on predetermined structures of anticipation, which stipulate what and how man perceives. Applied here are the unconscious filters and projective mechanisms grounded in latent wishes, apprehensions, established social and cultural stereotypes, etc. Especially as far as purely inner experience is concerned, this does not provide any orientation as for distinguishing between the product of one's own inner self and an independent spiritual reality.

(3) Morality. Its significance can often emerge only after a person has sobered up from the process of „roaming“ through one's own experiences. Its objectivity (attachment to generally valid rules) and practicability has an integrating character. The focus on it is man's focus primarily on himself (on his own virtues, performances, work, consequences of his own actions).

The noticeable ambiguity of merely human terms of faith may lead us into adopting the position of a creatively critical detachment from such preconditions – if we really want to achieve that these do not block faith but rather serve God's work within and through this faith. One can reliably deal with their unreliability by first experimentally discarding all these solely human terms – attempting, so to speak „over our own corpse“, to find out whether God is merely what and how they prefer to present or whether... Naturally there arises the fear we might come to the recognition that without our human faith there will be nothing left to us. And exactly the fear of this risk seems to imply that the only things we believe in are probably solely our human constructs. If we are afraid of casting them off and critically reflecting their hot-bed, we presumably do not trust in anything outside them and independent of them. (We believe only in ourselves.) In such a situation, however, there is nothing to be lost anyway.

This immanentism of faith, which is not concerned primarily and mainly with God but which will manage solely with itself, with an inherent dynamism of a faith that is not given but merely conditioned by thinking, feeling or decision-making, can be surmounted only through a certain step into the void. But this should be no analogy to the ambitious step down from the temple Jesus was tempted to take in the desert. The objective here is not to verify in any self-centered manner whether we will be saved but rather to forget ourselves. Nothingness into which we are stepping by detaching ourselves from all the constraining anthropological terms of faith does not have to be a destructive, hateful, devilish nothingness (as we may apprehend, guided by our own human points of departure), in which we would stay enclosed and only in a defiant emptiness we would lay self-centred claims or lapse into apathy and disintegration. It is up to us whether this is an innermost nothingness of transcending love, a nothingness opened heavenward, a nothingness of humility, a liberating nothingness wherein gravitation towards „I“ has been replaced by gravitation towards „Thou“, a nothingness wherein this abandonment is followed by a given recognition that this is Thy nothingness, a nothingness caused by Thou, a Nothingness of an undisturbed encounter through which Thou introduce us into a relationship with Thyself. Within this relationship we can by no means become anything more than precisely nothing. This awareness radically transcends mere rationality, experience and morality and constitutes a turning point in our relationship with our own humanity. „The dark night“ of John of the Cross, Francisco of Assisi's „poverty“, Jesus's „kenosis“ mean exactly that. Jesus himself is, in a certain sense, an abyss which leads to his Father. If we „die unto ourselves“ – just like him, because of our love for him – his love will start living inside us. He can take hold of our nature without us preventing him in this with automatic self-centredness; only in a dialogue with our freedom with which we have overstepped our original vantage points can his grace work with all our anthropological terms just as he himself wants to. Our rationality, experience and morality, and generally everything we are, begins genuinely to serve him.

Linking up to the thousands-year long – and probably generally valid – spiritual practice, even today's theory could and indeed should reflect the anthropological terms of the Christian faith not with an immanentistic (and – as a result – atheistic) carefree nodding, thus gathering worldly fame, but rather with a critical detachment – intrinsically anchored in Transcendence. The anthropocentric-motivated fear – so typical of the present times – of the inscrutable, incomprehensible God, on the one hand, and of the menacing world, on the other, lead to an estrangement from God and a servile conformity towards the world. On the other hand, theocentric-motivated love leads to love of everything. Guided by this love, the intrinsically service-oriented theory is in a position to provide a pastoral, liturgical and similar practice with basic criteria of productive distinguishing between a faith which is genuinely dependent, first and foremost, on an absolute extra-human reality and a faith in which (to the detriment of its subjects) the projection of cultural, social or psychological issues seems to predominate. The key criterion of ascertaining the absence of transcendence in human faith is a permanent absence of a vivid awareness of that abyssmal, seemingly „destructive“ difference between the Divine and the human, an awareness which forms a paradoxical precondition of the genuine unification with what is really (not in human imagination alone) absolute. Domestication in human terms renders impossible the establishing a genuine relationship with what defies them. Only such a relationship can guarantee the authenticity of faith – ie. not a mere earnestness or sincerity, which can just as well be a mark of the simple experiencing of any illusion, but the authenticity in the sense of truthfulness.

Along this path faith is helped towards truth – and hence towards life – only by the theory which aspires not so much to incorporate God in the human world but rather to open man to God. Obviously, such an opening is impossible without liberating reflection of the anthropological terms of faith.

© Jolana Poláková | Licence Creative Commons
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