It’s not a flaw. It’s a feature

We sang a hymn this past Sunday I had never sung before.[1] I did pretty well in the first stanza but I hit a serious speed bump in the second. It goes like this:

“Teach us, O Lord, your lessons
as in our daily life
we struggle to be human
and search for hope and faith…”

That seems like a odd thing to sing in church, where the state of being human is the problem that is solved by God’s grace. Colloquially, “we’re only human” is a way of dismissing a fault of some sort, so that fault = human and vice versa.

Christian theology begins with our “fallen nature.” It is the first part of the story our faith tells. I’m currently working on a way to represent the book of Romans as a series of arguments Paul is making. The argument about what being human is like starts at 1:18, as soon as the preliminaries are over.

18The retribution of God from heaven is being revealed against the ungodliness and injustice of human beings who in their injustice hold back the truth.

There is a charge, “hold back the truth;” there is a guilty party, “human beings;” and there is a response from God, “retribution.”

This case goes on until 3:21. That’s 65 verses of pretty dense prose.

21God’s saving justice was witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, but now it has been revealed altogether apart from law: 22God’s saving justice given
through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals.

There is a solution which addresses the problem Paul has identified. It is “God’s saving justice (“the righteousness of God” in the King James that I grew up with”) then a means, “through faith in Jesus Christ.”

That’s a long argument. It begins very broadly describing the great flaw of human beings (we hold back the truth) and continues on to how God is dealing with this flaw (“saving justice through faith”).

We say this every Sunday at several places in the service. It not just the confession that we all read from our bulletins. It is the explicit teaching of the hymns generally, of the liturgy generally, and of the homilies most of the time.

Given that, it is not an oddity, really, that I was surprised to learn that our great struggle is to be human. This is the classic case of “It’s not a flaw; it’s a feature.”

A New Standard

The idea that being human was a goal rather than a deeply flawed condition probably dates, in western thought, from the Renaissance. The Renaissance didn’t celebrate the provision for the salvation of humankind, as the Church did, but rather it celebrated humankind as such. The Prince of Denmark in Hamlet makes the classic case:

What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

God is cast, in this scenario, as part of the applauding audience. For those who achieve true humanity, God can only approve in this model. Again, I don’t object to the model. You can hardly read the classic texts in philosophy and history without taking it for granted.

It is not the way the church has looked at it, however, and I don’t think we should start now.

[1] This in a old mainline Presbyterian church in Portland, Oregon. We are not a hotbed of doctrinal innovation. On the other hand, we don’t always pay attention to what we are saying.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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