Sunday, July 10, 2011

Humans Act Out of Their Formation

Monroe sunset
There used to be a sign on the Alcan Highway (Alaska) that read, "Choose your rut carefully. You'll be in it for the next 200 miles." Our human personhood is like that. Scripture uses the Greek word morphe to indicate that our being, our "heart," has a shape, a form. Out of that shape, we act and behave and choose.

I'm reading through NT scholar Joel Green's excellent Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Green's book is an essay in "neuro-hermeneutics." There is so much here that is intriguing and illuminating. Green has a section where he uses Peter's "imaginative" vocabulary of sin to illustrate the formation of the human spirit.

Before being found and indwelt by Jesus and the Spirit, we were "shaped by the desires that marked [our] former time of ignorance." (1 Peter 1:14) But now we have been "liberated from the emptiness of [our] inherited way of life." (1:18) We've now "set aside every evil and deceit, and pretenses and jealousy and all slander." (2:1 Peter declares that "enough time has been lost discharging the will of the Gentiles, conducting [ourselves] in acts of unrestraint, lust, drunkenness, carousing, bawdy partying, and unseemly idolatry." (4:3) Such were our former, before-Jesus days, when we were immersed in and swept along by a "flood of unrestrained immorality." (4:4; see Green, 88)

For Peter there are "worldly cravings that wage war against life." (2:11) We are now to live our lives, our remaining time in this life, "no longer in accord with human desires but in accordance with the will of God." (4:2)

About such things Green writes: "According to Peter's diagnosis, the past was marked by the work of an artist who sculpted human life according to the conventions, values, and dispositions of ignorance. Igorance thus functions like a master determining the thoughts and movements of its slave, like an artisan creating human life in its own image." (89) This "ignorance" is not due to a lack of information or the need for more education and knowledge. Petrine "ignorance" "is potent as 'a faulty pattern of thinking,' influential as a mistaken life-world." Such ignorance is not so much "not understanding" (in some cognitive, reflective sense), but is more like "misunderstanding." It is "a failure at the deepest level to grasp adequately and thus to participate fully in God's aims." (89)

"Sin" inhabits the muck of a religious and moral kingdomn that is set against the ways and ideas of God. "It is present as an ethos of unrestrained immorality and craving that cannot but shape persons in its own likeness." So we can see that "sin" has power. We get the idea of being trapped in sin's unyielding grip. Like being imprisoned. "In broader biblical terms," says Green, "this is simply the way of sin. Genesis 3-type sin "is like a contagion, transmuting from shame and vulnerability to heightened alienation, even to the point where Yahweh's own voice is no longer invitation but threat." Sin not only has power, sin is a power, "worldly craving that wage war against life," even against the reborn. (2:11; Green, 89)

The basic question is, as Henri Nouwen once put it, "Who do you belong to?" The word Peter uses here is "slavery": followers of Jesus are now slaves to God. (2:16) Therefore we "cannot be enslaved to the empty, ancestral ways that shape ancient society-at-large." (90)

"For Peter, then, human life is life on the potter's wheel, so to speak - being shaped one way or the other, by the ancestral ways expressed in taken-for-granted social conventions, or by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the formative influence of the people of God. Humans act out of their formation, so the primary questions must be, Formed according to what pattern? Formed withn what community?" (94)