existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Tag: personhood

The soul as inheritance

The theme I have been developing the past few weeks is that personhood is both an inborn right and an inheritance. I’ve written about in a few other places. It is an insistent topic, and so it is one that I would like to pay closer attention to.

It started, I think, with the prodigal son. We tend to think that our soul is ours, so we can do with it as we like. Like the prodigal son, however, we find that this is not the case. We see the soul as something that belongs to us, but really it is more that we belong to our soul, that we are our soul. It is our existence in the world, and if we treat it as a commodity, then we will treat our very existence as a commodity.

The idea of the birthright comes up throughout Scripture. Jacob tricked Esau into giving him his birthright for a pot of soup. Adam and Eve rejected their birthright in exchange for the fruit of knowledge.

There is a pattern here. Our desires grab on to things that they want. Why would this be? We are mistaken about where value lies. These things are goods that we want for ourselves-  knowledge, food, travel and good times. But how, and why, does this transform us so? When I think that I can do whatever I want with myself, I become a fungible asset. In some way it removes me from the moral order of the universe.

Coming into our inheritance of personhood is a matter of taking our place in the moral order of the universe. This is not at all to say that our course in life is mapped out already; our inheritance is to labor in freedom. We are not consigned to any fate except for that which exists by the factors of control inherent in existence, but not being so consigned does not exempt us from obligations and commitments freely entered into. Regarding the first part, we are contingent beings who inhabit a contingent world, and therefore we are delimited by the natural physical limitations of the world as well as by the exercise of power by others. We can, as far as we are able, change those things, but only as far as we are able. We might say that we are born into this earthly or natural inheritance. Regarding the second part: it comes to pass, then, that we come to understand our heavenly inheritance, which is our personhood, and to which we are called to live into. This is not, as for the prodigal son, a fungible gift which can be freely exchanged for whatever is desired. Rather, it is an invaluable pearl for which we labor freely, not as a means of our desire, but the very end (telos) of our desire. Thus we enter into commitments and obligations, but only out of desire for that which is eternal. The matter is not whether we will satisfy the desires of some person or persons, or whether we will earn our place in the world, but whether we will live into that which is our true calling.

We have this inheritance as our general calling as human beings, which is to labor for the kingdom of God, to exercise compassion, to work toward union of all things, and to lift up all proximal beings into eternity through praise. Yet our personhood is not simply a general living, but it leads us to a particular kind of living, directing our usage of our earthly inheritance for the greater good. The earthly inheritance may be dispensed with as necessary, but only in view of the heavenly inheritance. Thus it says “let your Yes be Yes and your No be No,” yet our ultimate allegiance is to our heavenly rather than our earthly inheritance.

Now I have written about the world as inheritance and the soul as inheritance. This makes sense, because the soul is as large as the world. Buber says that the really real is relation, and that we meet the world. In this meeting the duality of self and world are overcome; that which desires and that which is desired meet in the self-giving being of God.


The world as inheritance

It is sometimes said of eco-friendly practices that they are necessary if we are to continue living on this planet. The assumption is that resources are limited, and if we want these resources to continue to be available to future generations, we must limit our use of them. Is it necessary to leverage utilitarian arguments in order to advance the cause of social justice? Arguments in favor of prudence and care – redude, reuse, recycle – are cast in terms of rapidly-diminishing resources and the fact that we may have to be wise now so that it will last longer. Do we need to capitulate to this ultiltarian ethic? This may well be a Faustian bargain that proponents of eco-justice are asked to make.

The question, according to Erzium Kohak, is not what kind of world do we want to leave our children and grand-children, but what kind of people do we become when we only see the world around us as a supply – albeit limited – for our own purposes. The answer, in short, is that we do not become much at all. It is not so much the speed with which we grab, but the notion that the world is merely there for us to use as we like. We become much like the prodigal son who saw the inheritance as his, to do with as he liked. Yet in grabbing what, in his ruthless, glib, logic, belonged to him anyway, he gave up his claim to sonship and personhood. The next part of the story is simply the logical outcome of giving up this claim. He was tossed around by circumstances, used by the world that he aimed to use for his own pleasure.

In grabbing what is, in our own ruthless, glib, logic, rightfully ours, we give up our own inheritance as persons and as participators in a world of meaning. How do we want to live in this world? If we take our place as belonging to the world – not possessing the world – we might find that we do indeed have a place in it, and that it is sufficient for our needs. This depends on recognizing value beyond instrumental, and beyond the motive of attainment. It is understandable that we look at the world and see only wealth to be used, as the younger son must have long daydreamed about the money that belonged to him and that he could use for good fun. Understandable, but nonetheless destructive.

We’ve made a mess of things, of that there is no doubt. Not only have we squandered our money on easy living, but we’ve become strangers to this world, aliens and alienated. So much so that “natural” has come to mean “that which is not of us.” The world that looks back at us is dead, because we have turned it to our own use. And as the prodigal son thought of the well-fed servants on his father’s homestead, we see animals that all have bread enough. They all have a place in this order of creation, whereas we are dying of a hunger both physical and spiritual. How did we come to be strangers in the world over which we rule?

And what would it mean for us to come home?

The son did not return home demanding sonship – he rightfully recognized that he gave up his right to sonship. He came home to be a servant. He is given sonship, yet, but as a free gift, which is the only way it can be given and the only way it can be received. So also we, when we do not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, when we resist the opportunity to act as gods in this world, when we take the form of a servant, then we also will be given the glory of sons and daughters. When we humbly acknowledge the worthiness of our great inheritance – this magnificent world – then we will be ready to receive it. Becoming servants is the only way that we can live into our personhood. If we would become great in this world, we must become the world’s servant, not only of our fellow human beings, but of the whole order of creation.