Personhood

This is the final post, part five, of my reflections on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.  If you would like to read the other posts you can click on the numbers for part one, two, three and four.  You’re certainly invited to read the previous posts, but it’s not necessary in order to follow this one!

Brueggemann begins the final chapter of Finally Comes the Poet* by sharing with the reader what the previous chapters have told us about the character of God.  God resolves the residual ache we experience when what we’ve done isn’t enough.  God breaks cycles of alienation and rage that come from our subjective or objective views of the world.  Thirdly, God commands, and in our obedience of those commands, we surprisingly find freedom and new life (p. 111).  And as we learn about God’s character we also learn something about our own character as God’s creatures.  The human person is:

  • A creature who is finally and fully forgiven
  • One who is invited to communion
  • One who is summoned to obedience and life-giving listening

“Human persons are creatures, created and recreated, claimed and reclaimed, according to the power of the gospel” (p. 112).  Our world, with all its reductionisms in secular and even in faith life, seeks to suck our personhood away from us.  It seeks to reduce us simply to what we can “do.”  It tempts us to make God in OUR image, by putting God neatly in a box that we can control and mold to our liking.  It seeks to separate us from our neighbors by making us self-centered individualists.

It’s important for us to remember, however, that individuality and personhood are NOT the same thing. Individuality is important, but it will only get us so far.  There is more in the universe than just me.  I am unique and precious, finally and fully forgiven – but I am also invited to communion – into community with God and my fellow creatures.  PERSONHOOD respects individuality, but also that we are part of a community – it gives us our IDENTITY. Who am I?  I am a wife, mother, pastor, daughter and friend.  But I am fundamentally more.  First and foremost, before any of those things, I am a child of God – THAT is my primary identity; it is from THAT starting point I meet the world.  “It is in the reality of being loved and reloved, treasured, trusted, summoned, and gifted, that we become free enough to be the children of God – freed for life with God” (p. 113).

Brueggemann examines the story of Daniel to give us an example of what human personhood looks like. The book of Daniel, as apocalyptic literature, is concerned with giving hope in the midst of persecution.  “In our own cultural context, our crisis of identity concerns not persecution, but seduction into false notions of self….  The Daniel stories… Model an alternative personal identity that was crucial in that ancient persecution and is crucial in our contemporary seduction” (p. 114).  “The issue of personhood is one of hope in the face of the powers of despair and defeat” (p. 115).

Daniel is prominent in the empire and flying under its radar at the same time.  He is willing to comply with requests that don’t conflict with his personhood – with his identity as a creature of God.  While there are those around him who will conform in order to save themselves, “Daniel will resist the empire for the sake of saving his self.  Daniel knows that he needs to risk his life if he is to have a life” (p. 118).  Notice that Daniel doesn’t resist simply to be rebellious.  He’s not itching for a fight.  But when asked to conform in a way that goes against his personhood (his individuality AND who he is as a member of his community) he chooses his personhood.

Nebuchadnezzar does not know that “…Daniel is an utterly free man, living life on his own terms, nourished by his own faith, guarded and advanced by his own God” (p. 120). Nebuchadnezzar, as the head of the empire, “embodies human arrogance that imagines it is accountable to none and so is free to do whatever it wants…. The premise of such autonomy is that we do not have to do with God” (p. 125). Nebuchadnezzar is in charge, or so he would like to think.  However, his ultimate insecurity comes out in his dreams.  In his sleep he is confronted with his fears of being out of control.  Daniel, the servant, the one with no outward control, is able to not only sleep well, but interpret for the King.  In the end, the tables are turned and we see that it is Daniel who is free, and Nebuchadnezzar who has been trapped! “Both Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar act for an alternative way in the world, resolute Daniel by daring resistance, chastened Nebuchadnezzar by yielding doxology” (p. 139).

“How odd, how inescapably true, that our yearning for God requires both the resistance of Daniel and the relinquishment of Nebuchadnezzar… we are always both Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar:  like Daniel tempted to submit and called to resist, like Nebuchadnezzar, tempted to autonomy and called to relinquish” (p. 140).

This is our life.  We are constantly needing to discern between resistance and relinquishment.  For while we’d like to see ourselves as Daniel, (standing against the system), many times we are also Nebuchadnezzar, wanting to be in charge, believing we can do it all ourselves, seeing no need for obedience to God.  It’s the continual pull of the world, to drift away from God toward a sickening individualism that has nothing to do with our identity and everything to do with burying our it.  We think we’re being our own person, but we are really only obeying a different master – giving our obedience to the world that traps, instead of to the God who frees.  Conforming to the empire that wants to mold us into what it wants us to be, instead of living who we ARE.  And many times we have conformed without even realizing it.

When the preacher addresses , both the character of God, and the character of the human person, challenging the reductionisms that want to separate us from God and each other, what the preacher is doing is allowing the “reappearance of a faithful self” (p. 112).  The preacher reminds us of our fundamental personhood – our true self. The self that is precious to God.  The self that is forgiven.  The self that has communion.  The self that finds freedom through listening and obedience to God.  It’s SO easy for our personhood to be swallowed up – dead and buried.   In hearing the Word proclaimed and in our communal worship we are reminded of the promise of resurrection that brings us back to life.  We are reminded who we are, by remembering whose we are (p. 112).

questions to ponder:

  • Is it hard for you to see yourself as a child of God before anything else?  Why might it be important to see that as first before all else?
  • How can our individuality enhance our personhood rather than stifle it?
  • How might worship help us to remember and bring us back to our personhood?

*Finally Comes the Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

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