Baptism and a new humanity: Some reflections on themes from John Yoder’s Body Politics ( Ch 3)

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Ian Barns

Talk at the Conference of the Anabaptist Association of & ,

Perth , January 2007

Part 2

The challenge of a post-Christian global humanism: a new humanity without Christ?

I want to talk a bit more about this sixth point, and the challenge that the ideals, rhetoric and fragility of a globalised secular humanism pose for followers of Jesus as we seek to live out the reality of our new humanity in Christ.

* For many people it is now a global humanism, not Christ, which has come to express our common humanity. Our common humanity transcends the particularity of race, class, creed and religion, including that of Christianity, which many people now see as just one religious tradition amongst many. The ethic of a common humanity continues to inspire the many different efforts to bring about greater human equality, protection of various human civil, political and social rights, and improvements to the basic living conditions of billions of people on the planet.

* Particularly within western modernity, this enlightenment faith affirms a fundamental social egalitarianism against older systems based on class or gender hierarchies. Its core ideals are those of democracy, equal opportunity, affirmative action, anti-discrimination and so on.

*A western liberal modernity also affirms an inclusive, democratic form of politics, based on universal franchise, the freedom of speech and the protection of the rights of free association.

* Liberal modernity also affirms the freedom, autonomy and responsibility of the individual self; the right and the natural capacity of individuals to choose what they want to be, to pursue whatever vocations, desires and interests they wish, no longer constrained by custom or tradition.

* Finally, liberal modernity is marked by a particular attentiveness to the life of the body, to enabling and enhancing its potential. Late moderns are obsessed with the possibilities of transforming their bodies, but of course this hope of transformation has been transferred from Christ to that of technology.

The fragile ideals of liberal modernity

However, in each of these aspects of a globalised western humanism, there is an obvious fragility:

* The ideal of a common humanity is threatened by new forms of nationalism and by the resurgence of old forms of tribalism, racism, and prejudice.

* Within late modern societies, the ideals of equality are threatened by new systems of hierarchy, based on wealth, education, networking power and by forms of ‘status anxiety’ as more socially mobile middle class families become caught up in climbing the ladders of aspiration and opportunity.

* Despite the universal support for democracy, even in mature democracies there is a sense of alienation and cynicism as citizens feel excluded from effective participation by self-perpetuating elites that control the major political parties.

* Even the core ideal of the freedom of the self is threatened as people experience the increasing social and personal fluidity of modern urban life, with greater ‘ontological anxiety’ and the insecurity of more fleeting and provisional personal relationships.

  • Finally, the preoccupation with the body beautiful in western culture has become, for many, obsessive, pathological and idolatrous, and yet, despite all this attention and support, the abuse of human bodies becomes a bigger and bigger problem.

How should we respond to this?

The continuing power of a vision of a new humanity ‘without creed or religion’ (think of John Lennon’s secular hymn, ‘Imagine’) together with the privatised nature of Christian faith, has meant that many Christians have simply absorbed a humanistic understanding of the human person. Despite having a personal relationship with Jesus, and the hope of a life with God after death, many Christians think of social and political life in terms of the secular languages of human rights, personal freedoms, democracy and so forth. Other more conservative Christians, mindful of the fragility of these ideals, react against them and embrace the language of Christian nationalism and traditional forms of hierarchy and authority.

How should we respond?

First, we need to humbly acknowledge, as John Yoder does, that it has been ‘Enlightenment humanism’ rather than the Christian churches, that have done the most to preach the ideals of social egalitarianism, human rights and a fundamental common humanity that transcends ethnic and nationalistic differences. We cannot but acknowledge that those ‘outside the faith’ have in certain respects been clearer practitioners of the social expression of the gospel than church traditions have been (although this should not be overstated, as we are mindful of the sacrificial ministry of missionaries, Christian philanthropists and campaigners for welfare reform).

However, secondly, we need to recognise that the Enlightenment vision of a new humanity can be critically deconstructed and ultimately lacks, of itself, a clear foundation, and that as Christians we need to recover the alternative vision of a new humanity that is grounded in the social practice of baptism into Christ.

As Yoder points out, the ideals of universal human equality can be deconstructed as the rhetoric used by social groups seeking to gain power held by an existing establishment:

The equality of all people as they are created certainly is not self-evident. Most people in the world, including most North Americans, do not really believe it. The founding fathers said, “All men are equal,” but they meant all land-owning white men – excluding all women, black men, Native American men and poor men [1].

In our present times, the language of a universal humanity can also be deconstructed to facilitate the spread of a globalised consumer culture, enabling the colonising of the world’s cultures by the institutions, practices and ethos of a global capitalism, in which there is no discrimination against those who can pay for the goods and services of the global economy.

What is alarming is that as a culture of enlightenment humanism moves further away from its Christian roots, its lack of any clear ontological basis for the grounding and shaping of moral personhood becomes more clearly evident. This results in a pervasive nihilism, fuelled by the promotion of celebrity, violence and desire by various forms of electronic media. There are forces of reaction, dismissed as ‘fundamentalisms’, but these alternatives, including radical Islam, may be able to sustain some kind of moral life against the acids of late modernity.

Thus it is urgent that western Christian communities repent of our accommodation to the world view and practices of our late modern culture, and recover the alternative narrative and social practices through which the vision of a new humanity in Christ is to be lived out.

A Christ-centred vision and practice of a ‘new humanity’ is significantly different from that of enlightenment humanism. I shall mention just two fundamental differences:

First, our identity as human beings, with its associated rights and responsibilities, is at the deepest level not a natural possession, or a fact of ‘creation’, but a gift that comes to us through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than making our human-ness more provisional or uncertain, it is actually more sure and certain. In his discussion on ‘Inter-ethnic inclusiveness beyond the church’, Yoder comments that what freed Americanism from racism was not

a notion of equality through creation, but the good news of redemption. It was strengthened by a sober theological judgement on selfishness and sin, as in the vision of Abraham Lincoln. This vision of a covenant of justice, which the nation had not lived up to, could condemn and call to repentance. Both in the thought of the abolitionists and then in that of Lincoln , it saw equal dignity as a gift of grace, not something with which we are born [2].

Second, our identity as members of a new humanity it is not a ‘badge’ of membership, but first and foremost an identification of its source. As Paul puts it in 2 Cor 5: 16 – 17, we now see everyone in relation to Christ. Because of Christ, each person, whether they be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female has worth and dignity, as one for whom Christ has died. To be a ‘Christian’ is not to acquire another ethnic, national or even religious identity. It is rather to indicate that over and above all such particular identities, who we are is to found in relation to the risen and ascended Christ, the Lord who is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11).

In fact, to find our true selves through baptism into Christ does not erase the particular differences that mark us in terms of our ethnicity, our gender, our cultural traditions. As Will Cavanaugh argues in his essay, ‘The World in a Wafer’, to belong to the global people of God does not dissolve our particularities into an abstract humanism, or market-oriented cosmopolitanism, but reframes these differences within an order of mutual submission and love [3].

Living in a way that is faithful to our baptismal calling isn’t something that is straightforward – simply a matter of trust and obedience, motivation, love and discipline. It also requires of us wisdom, discernment and insight, and that’s something that we should be able to foster in a community of conversation, nourished by the eucharistic ethos of our lives together.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will ( Romans 12: 1-2)

[1] Yoder, Body Politics, p 35.

[2] Yoder, Body Politics, p 35.

[3] William Cavanaugh, ‘The World in a Wafer: A Geography of the Eucharist as Resistance to Globalization’ Modern Theology, Modern Theology, 15, 2 (April 1999). See also John H. Yoder’s chapter on ‘Revolutionary Subordination and Love’ in The Politics of Jesus, Grand Rapids , Eerdmans, 1967.