The Global Church Engaging the Nature of Sin
and the Human Condition
Reflecting, Reinforcing, Sustaining, or Transforming
Section I The Fragmentary Human Context Shaping the Church
Chapter 4 Giving Voice to the Human Condition
When the person saw that the tree was good for consumption…
a delight to the eyes…to be desired to make one wise, the person acted.
Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard,
so that we do not drift away and reflect, reinforce and sustain the human condition.
The human condition, our human condition, has been narrowly perceived from the beginning in varying ethical-moral terms. Even with strict moral standards (e.g. as shaped by the ten commandments), this perception has weakened or distorted the voices of those occupying the human condition, that is, making many of their concerns inaudible, not understandable or simply insignificant to warrant a response. This response would unlikely emerge only from others but most importantly even from oneself.
Such a weakened or distorted voice emerges from Charlie Brown (in a recent rerun of the comic strip “Peanuts”), which will help us give voice to the breadth of our human condition needing a response. Charlie Brown is a kid with very low self-esteem, whose self-worth is in a constant state of pessimism. On this occasion sitting next to Lucy (a close neighbor girl), he is seriously wondering “if God is pleased with me.” In his woeful contemplation, he turns to the self-centered Lucy and asks “Do you ever wonder if God is pleased with you?” Though she was perhaps in a moment of self-doubt herself during Charlie’s wondering, she turns to him with an optimistic smile and answers in self-confidence “He just has to be!”
The pessimism of Charlie Brown reflects the condition of humanity, which many Christians perceive as composed by Augustine’s doctrine of original sin to define the innate sinful nature of all human persons. Charlie Brown rightfully wonders if God is pleased with him, and he has no basis to be optimistic that God is pleased given his woeful condition. In contrast, Lucy simply (though not without some doubt) assumes that God “has to be” pleased with her based on her optimistic view of her condition—which conflicts with the doctrine of original sin. Their interaction is a serious theological discussion in which more Christians need to engage, ironically even in the theological academy. Is God pleased with us? Yet, as we consider this question, we need to understand that this theological contemplation involves only a relational issue, composed just by relational terms in a specific relational process (as in Heb 10:38). God being pleased with human persons is not about the pessimism or optimism of their doctrine of the human condition.
The realism of our perception of the human condition certainly could be enhanced or weakened, sharpened or distorted, by our doctrine of sin. It is important, however, to understand that the breadth and depth of our perception of the human condition, our human condition, emerges primarily as an experiential reality in relational terms, which reflects what God has revealed as the experiential truth of the human condition. Doctrines of sin in referential terms, even the doctrine of original sin, narrow down the human condition (which is already a narrowed-down condition) such that our response to it becomes fragmentary, and even reflects, reinforces or sustains the breadth and depth of the human condition. That’s why listening to sin and the person (like Charlie Brown) is critical to giving audible, understandable and significant voice to the human condition, which will not only warrant our response but whole-ly evoke, if not provoke, our relational response to make it whole.
When we go back to listen to the human person from the beginning, we can understand what emerged in God’s relational context that set into motion a contrary relational process composing the human condition of all persons who followed. Who followed is determined by what emerged from the beginning. What emerged and was set into motion for persons who followed (including us) are contingent on how carefully we listen to the person from the beginning. And what voice the human condition has is modulated from this process.
What then was set into motion from the beginning? When we listen carefully to the persons in the primordial garden, we cannot narrow down their context and impose our human context on them. That would both take them out of God’s context and thereby immediately reduce them to the limits of referential terms. Most doctrines of sin involve referentialization of persons in the primordial garden, whereby the human condition is limited to ethical-moral failure (namely their disobedience). In God’s context, however, ethics and morality are insufficient to compose what is of significance to God that would please God. While ethical-moral behavior is important to God and necessary in the human context, this function is incomplete to fulfill the whole relational terms distinguishing God’s relational context and process, and by which human persons necessarily are created. As long as persons are incomplete from their created ontology and function—which mere ethical-moral behavior is insufficient to complete—they can only emerge in reduced ontology and function that limits and constrains them to the breadth and depth of the human condition.
In the beginning, the persons in God’s relational context were complete, created in whole ontology and function in the qualitative image and relational likeness of God, the whole and uncommon (holy) God. When persons in the primordial garden assumed they could renegotiate relationship with God from God’s primary relational terms to their secondary referential terms, they shifted from God’s whole and uncommon terms to human fragmentary and common terms. This subtle transition involved focusing on parts (“the tree”) over the whole (the ‘forest’ of God’s context) and becoming preoccupied with the secondary (“good for consumption…to make one wise,” Gen 3:6) over the primary. That is, they transitioned from the primary in God’s context, which constituted them whole in the beginning, to a reduced alternative (or substitute) in a contrary (or competing) context. What emerged from this act of self-determination were persons and relationship together in reduced ontology and function. The relational consequence was two-fold: (1) on the one hand, persons now were composed “to be apart from God’s created whole” in a contrary context (“knowing good without wholeness and sin without reductionism”); and (2) on the other hand, persons were also relegated to the limits and constraints of their condition “to be apart,” embedded in a contrary relational process (“naked and covered up”) that set into motion the human relational condition “not good to be apart” for all persons who followed.
What was set into motion from the beginning was reduced ontology and function. Reductionism and its counter-relational work emerged directly from the redefining influence of Satan, who contends with God, God’s whole and the wholeness of God’s creation. Satan’s subtle challenge of persons unfolded from the beginning to fragment persons and relationships to a reduced ontology and function. We need to pay close attention to the trajectory of Satan’s presence and involvement because the subtlety of Satan’s influence also becomes redefining for our person and relationships. When persons chose to undertake this seemingly reasonable challenge (“Did God say that?”), they enacted a contrary relational dynamic to redefine themselves by self-determination (“be like God, knowing good and evil”) that unfolded as follows:
First, their perceptual-interpretive framework and lens had to be narrowed down to quantitative outer-in terms (contrary to “your eyes will be opened”)—reducing the primacy of the qualitative and relational integral to be whole—in order for a self-determination to emerge; and thus secondly, they shifted out of God’s relational context and process, which constituted them in whole ontology and function, to undertake a subtly contrary relational process (“you will not die”) that redefined their persons and relationships in the condition “not good to be apart” composed in fragmentary terms (“naked and covered up”), whereby their ontology and function were now reduced in a distinctly different context and process from God’s whole to set into motion the redefined condition of all human persons who followed in this context and process—the common human context and prevailing human process contrary to the whole and uncommon God’s relational context and process.
What unfolds and is set into motion is not mere referential information for us to formulate referential doctrine. Moreover, this pivotal redefining of human persons and relationships has not merely occupied our history for us to have referential points of human development (or lack thereof). On the one hand, it gets to the innermost depth of human ontology and, on the other hand, it pervades the encompassing breadth of human function, both of which inseparably compose the human condition, our human condition. In other words, this reduced ontology and function is the experiential reality that all of us must address in our persons and relationships, as well as respond to in other persons and relationships embedded in this human condition.
Whether this reduction becomes the ontology and function of choice by persons who followed is not a viable issue because whole ontology and function is no longer an available option of choice in the common human context and prevailing human process. Whole ontology and function only exists in God’s relational context and is available only by God’s relational process. Nor is this reduced ontology and function a reality sufficiently accounted for by the doctrine of original sin, the theology and practice of which tends to be about sin without reductionism and thus does not include the full depth and breadth of the human condition. All persons are rendered to the default ontology and function of the human condition unless they undergo the redemptive process necessary to be restored (transformed) to whole ontology and function—a process available only in God’s relational context and not in the human context. This relational outcome then certainly cannot emerge from self-determination or any other human terms. The person-consciousness discussed in chapter three is not the outworking of self-determination but the relational work unfolding from the relational outcome of God’s creative action and salvific response to our human condition. Until persons are restored by God to whole ontology and function, the only ontology and function enacted is limited and constrained to the human condition set into motion from the beginning.
The reduced ontology and function of the human condition is what we witness from the primordial garden and thereafter. God was grieved in his heart over the depth and breadth of reduced human ontology and function, such that “the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth,” with the exception of Noah (Gen 6:6). This reduced condition existed in its various expressions, both explicit and implicit, either blatant or subtle, all of which cannot be narrowed down to ethical-moral failure and simply a moral condition. Given the extent and depth to which God was affected, the human condition that was set into motion permeated all of human life—even in the important purpose of humans’ secondary work “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Yet, Noah was different from the other persons of his time and “found favor in the sight of the LORD” (6:8-9). How was Noah different?
We don’t have all the details of Noah’s life but there is a summary of what distinguished him. Noah was defined as a righteous person. Yet given what was set into motions from the beginning, how is this possible? Certainly, Noah was not righteous from self-determination; as Paul later made conclusive, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). We have to look beyond Noah and his surrounding context for the source of his righteousness. Who, what and how Noah was (leading to his righteousness) remained involved in the primacy of God’s relational context and process over his secondary engagement in his surrounding context; and thus he “walked with God,” that is, was relationally involved with God necessarily by God’s relational terms in reciprocal relationship together. The relational outcome of the whole of who, what and how Noah was with God unfolded in Noah receiving God’s relational response of grace for the following: (1) to integrally make him complete, whole (the full meaning of tamiym that the term “blameless” is commonly rendered in ethical-moral terms) by restoring him to whole ontology and function, and (2) to experience the relational reality of having “favor in the sight of the whole and holy God.” In other words, God was pleased with the reciprocal relational involvement of Noah’s whole person (however imperfect), distinguished only by God’s whole relational terms, contrary to the common that prevailed in his surrounding context. This is the reciprocal relational dynamic in relational terms that the author of Hebrews later made definitive (Heb 10:38). Noah was different (uncommon) only because he gave God the relational opportunity to respond to his human condition and to make him different, uncommon, tamiym.
The human condition that was set into motion continues to unfold in reduced ontology and function, even in Noah’s son (Gen 9:20-27, think in terms of honor-shame, not in ethical-moral terms). Any optimism about the human condition that emerges from seeing the rainbow has no significance in human reality. The rainbow has relational significance to God’s relational response to the human condition for the nonnegotiable purpose of covenant relationship together in wholeness (Gen 9:16-17). And God’s relational response to the human condition unfolds whole-ly in the relational dynamic of tamiym to constitute the covenant relationship together of love, which distinguishes God’s whole family in contrast to the common’s prevailing terms and condition (Gen 17:1; Dt 7:7-9).
If selfish genes have dominated human development from the beginning, there is no other composition to the human narrative. I contend, however, this does not compose the human condition, nor can natural selection account for the whole in human development. Human development and progress in human achievement have to be differentiated, since the former is qualitatively oriented while the latter is quantitatively oriented; thus they emerge from contrasting and conflicting roots. Consequently, what each lens pays attention to or ignores is different, with different and even conflicting results. For example, social media has greatly expanded the quantity of human connections and, in the progress, reduced the quality of human communication and relationships, along with the persons so engaged. The shaping influence of this reality must not be confused with human development. This modern reduction pervades further by hookup relationships dominating youth-young adult culture (and the millennial generation) in the U.S., which has fragmented the persons engaged and the relationships assumed to be without consequence.
What emerges here from redefining the human person in quantitative terms from outer in (mainly preoccupied with the secondary over the primary), unfolds in self-determination as an alternative person substituting for the whole person in the beginning. This is the redefining alternative that reduces the person to one’s parts (notably in multi-tasking or insignificant connections) and results in fragmenting both the whole person in ontology and function as well as persons’ relationships together. Such results cannot be confused with human development, yet human achievement is often mistaken for it and such so-called progress becomes a pervasive substitute for it. Moreover, if such results occur from natural selection, physical determinism certainly has a dark forecast for human life that perhaps warrants fatalism. At the same time, for theological anthropology to shed light on the human narrative, it must clearly illuminate the human condition from the beginning in order to spotlight who and what distinguishes the whole person—whose whole ontology and function are needed to emerge, develop and survive to expose, confront and make whole the human condition.
Human intervention may attempt, and has attempted, to construct wholeness in human ontology and function, only to be faced with the limits and constraints of their condition that makes it impossible to go beyond self-referencing. In the absence of whole ontology and function, two persistent and pervasive conditions converge for our human condition to prevail regardless even of good intentions: (1) the persistence of self-determination as the alternative for redefining persons and determining human life, and (2) the pervasive need for epistemological illusion and ontological simulation to support and maintain, even to justify, engagement in self-determination despite its limits and constraints.
This converging dynamic was demonstrated by ancient residents of the world (Gen 11:1-9). As human migration expanded, these residents determined to “build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make an identity for ourselves and not be fragmented over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4, NIV). In their self-determination, they wanted to construct a unity and have an identity together, without being fragmented into separate entities. What also converged with their self-determination was having good intentions (discussed later in this chap.), which is a common motivation that we often assume as sufficient basis for our function. Yet, there is a deeper understanding critical to human ontology and function that unfolded in this context paralleling contexts today, which needs to be given a voice to articulate the human condition, our human condition. God totally rejected their good intentions and denied their human intervention and achievement for a common unity and identity together. Why wouldn’t God be pleased with them? Wasn’t this human progress from what God witnessed before the flood?
The reality is that this just further unfolded from what was set into motion from the beginning. We cannot merely assume that their good intentions didn’t reflect ‘good without wholeness’, or that their optimistic efforts engaged in anything more than reinforcing and sustaining the human condition. The parallel reality for today is the good intentions of human achievement for the purpose of so-called human progress (such as in technology and globalization) and the optimistic (vain or arrogant) efforts to build empire (such as in colonialism, including by the U.S., with economic neocolonialism). Our ancient counterparts chose the redefining alternative of self-determination, which conjointly required unavoidably a narrowed-down perceptual-interpretive lens and also composed them unmistakably in reduced ontology and function. Therefore, they assumed they could construct the whole based on their fragmentary parts and the sum of those parts, and that the result would be wholeness in their life together. Furthermore, their self-determination assumed they could construct the whole from ‘bottom-up’, and that the result would rise above the human context (with its limits and constraints) to achieve human progress to the level of God’s context (“a tower that reaches to the heavens”). The latter assumption is to be expected from a narrowed-down perceptual-interpretive lens, while the former assumption is understandable given the need for epistemological illusion and ontological simulation to sustain engagement in self-determination despite its limits and constraints.
Reduced human ontology and function can never achieve wholeness because the reality of its irremediable (not irreversible) condition, however variable, can never be whole. Human intervention, whether at the systemic level or interpersonal level, cannot go beyond the limits and constraints of its context and its defining ontology and function. This is indispensable to understand for the tower of Babel and for parallel efforts today to construct unity, wholeness and the whole. In relational response to the human condition, God deconstructed Babel in order to clarify their illusion and correct their simulation, and thus to expose the influence of reductionism composing their human condition in reduced ontology and function. Throughout human history—from Egypt, Babylon through the Roman empire, Great Britain to the United States and Soviet Union, and now likely China—we have witnessed the recurring dynamic of Babel unfold, with God continuing to clarify and correct our illusions and simulations in relational response to our human condition in reduced ontology and function. As long as we don’t pay attention to our condition and consequently not respond to God’s pursuit of us, then human development in our persons, relationships and churches will not grow and mature in wholeness; and we remain enclosed epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically, functionally and relationally to the limits and constraints of our condition.
What does this say today, for example, about expanding efforts in globalization, for U.S. politico-economic policy, and for the encompassing Internet with its social media, including efforts even for the global church (notably vis-à-vis the Western church, and supplementing Jesus’ post-ascension critique of churches, Rev 2-3)? Is what currently unfolds in these contexts an extension of Babel and what was set into motion from the beginning? Do we need to give voice to the human condition in such contexts as these and respond accordingly? As far as I am aware, God is not deconstructing any of these contexts as he did at Babel and as Jesus later deconstructed the temple. Yet, we should never assume that silence indicates they are not reduced or fragmented. God continues to clarify and correct, if we listen carefully and pay attention closely. God does not, however, engage in unilateral relationship and simply impose his will upon us—even if we affirm God’s sovereignty or submit to a doctrine of prevenient grace.
Perhaps Christians and the church experience a reenactment of the primordial garden, yet in a contemporary context into which converge all the dynamics composing the human condition, but which emerges progressing in subtle and seductive complexity: the contemporary context of the city as the new primordial garden. Whether in the West or the majority world, the increasing presence and development of urbanization is the most prominent evidence of the human condition. Wherever the city has emerged and exists in our contexts, it represents the influence and consequence of reductionism both of persons and relationships; and the urban process has constructed monuments of good without wholeness and sin without reductionism—seducing persons with opportunity for achievement, even though most persons get lost in the city and are lonely in its crowd.
What unfolds in the city reenacts the human condition that unfolded in the primordial garden. Industrialization compounded what already existed in ancient cities; and this human intervention emerging from self-determination further mobilized assumed progress to usher in the post-industrial era, which has accelerated technological progress into the digital age with expanding cyberspace centered in the city. All this has unfolded to embed and increasingly enslave us in this narrowed-down context of reduced function as persons and in relationships. Families, for example, have fragmented from tribes and extended families into the nuclear family in migration to the city; and this narrowed-down family unit has further broken down to the individualism required by self-determination. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem and lamented “if you had only understood on this day the things that make peace, well-being, that is, make you whole” (Lk 19:41-42), he previewed for the global church the nature of sin and the workings of the human condition in the centers of life in which his church will live. Jesus’ words imply that the church must ongoingly decide whether to reflect, reinforce, sustain, or transform this prevailing condition—the latter only by being whole and living whole as persons and in relationships together, and thereby making whole the human condition prominently enacted in the city.
Human intervention, achievement and progress are facts of life, yet are also realities limited and constrained by the human condition, our human condition. Regardless of the breadth and depth of the human condition that the global church is subjected to in the city, these are converging realities that Christian persons, relationships and churches commonly become subject to, and thus which further reduce us in our human condition. Listening to the Word—notably as embodied by Jesus (e.g. over Jerusalem)—is integral both for giving voice to the human condition and for the relational path necessary to be redeemed from it and to make it whole. Not listening carefully to the Word, or being selective about what we pay attention to in it, will render us subject to these realities surrounding us—“But now they are hidden from your eyes,” as Jesus wept.
Western Christians in the global North may find the context of Scripture somewhat anachronistic to its modern life, whereas Christians in the global South more readily find Scripture directly relevant to the issues they face today, given the similarity with issues in biblical contexts. Yet, Christians both in the global North and South need a new lens to look beyond (1) ethics and morality, and their limits of justice and their constraints of conformity, and (2) honor-shame, and their limits in duty and their constraints in obligation—both likely enacted with a pervasive good without wholeness and perceived as a prevailing sin without reductionism. Looking beyond exposes reductionism and going beyond gives voice to the human condition of reduced ontology and function, which is the primary condition requiring urgent care for all Christians to address, confront and redeem the existing sin as reductionism in order to make whole the human condition, our human condition.
Self-determination is the default human condition, and this is unavoidably our human condition unless we respond to God’s relational response of grace to be redeemed from the limits and constraints of reduced ontology and function, and to be restored-transformed to whole ontology and function. The fact is, however, that human achievement is very appealing, as seen from the beginning. The defining alternative for persons of self-determination has increased human intervention, which has increasingly been seduced by the human progress resulting from our achievements. Regardless, such assumed progress does not go beyond our limits and constraints, and thus usually emerges from ‘good without wholeness’ even for the common good—even with good intentions. For example, medical progress has increased medical intervention—particularly in Western medicine in the U.S., which also involves overly diagnosed conditions with unnecessary treatment—ostensibly in order to prolong life. Even with good intentions, much of this effort only extends the quantity of life without the primacy of the quality of life. Yet this is the expected rationale that unfolds from our limits and constraints and thus doesn’t go beyond them. The seduction of human progress is compounded when a narrowed-down mindset doesn’t question, challenge and even oppose progress if it is perceived to serve the common good—despite the fact that this good is without wholeness and this progress does not develop the whole of human ontology and function.
Human progress, then, must be understood in terms of its reduced ontology and function; and such progress emerging from the achievements of subtle engagement in self-determination (e.g. “to make one wise”) also pervade into the global church. Christians, notably in the global North but equally in the global South, can remain within the limits and constraints of their surrounding human contexts and subtly be both defined by human interventions and determined by human achievements. Much of this subtle effort is assumed to be good and not to be reduced or fragmented. This has become the norm for how we define ourselves and others, how we engage in relationships with each other, and how we build the church—inevitably engaged in a comparative process that subtly becomes competitive. Or we can listen to sin, persons and the voice of the human condition, and then pay attention to the whole and uncommon God’s vulnerable presence and relational involvement with us and reciprocally respond in compatible relationship together. That is, we can shift back to God’s relational context and process and respond according to God’s whole relational terms over our terms. To some, this may appear naïve and will only lead to human regression, not progress. That’s why we must not confuse human achievement with human development, because the latter only involves human ontology and function emerging, unfolding and maturing in wholeness.
If we referentialize the Word from God, we remain narrowed down to human contextualization—for example, influenced in what we pay attention to or ignore, and become selective about in the Word—and thereby are rendered by default to the human condition of reduced ontology and function, even with the best of intentions (as embodied by the church in Ephesus, Rev 2:1-4). Likewise, the development of wholeness in our persons, relationship and thus the global church will neither emerge from self-determination nor unfold from our achievements, no matter its progress in human contexts (as evidenced by the church in Sardis, Rev 3:1-2). We who belong to the global church need to be clarified and corrected of our condition by the primordial garden from the beginning, and further convicted by Babel of our self-determination reenacted in our cities. “Unless the whole and uncommon God builds the person, the relationship, and the church, those who build them labor in vain” (Ps 127:1)—that is, labor in the subtle optimism that assumes their condition is not reduced or fragmented.
Sin is not a popular subject to discuss, and the human condition is either assumed or eludes understanding in discussion about the realities of human life. Perhaps accordingly, the human condition prevailing in the human context has been noticeably lacking or absent in theological anthropology discourse. Either too much is assumed about this condition or too little discussion takes place about it. And not enough is said when discussion does focus on the human condition. This is curious because how significantly can we discuss, define, determine, know and understand the person (individually and collectively) in human context without factoring in the human condition? The consequence for theological anthropology and its ongoing implications reverberate throughout human life, because our theological anthropology underlies our theology and practice. Any reduction or fragmentation of theological anthropology notably converges on the development and survival of the whole person and relationships together in wholeness. Therefore, theological anthropology is integral for our understanding of the human condition and is defining for the human condition to either have a voice or to be silent. And we cannot escape the reality that our theology and practice is dependent on theological anthropology and what can unfold from it.
The human context, by the nature of its limited epistemic field, imposes limits that preclude conclusive knowledge and understanding of human life. When the prevailing human condition is factored into the human context—a condition that is inescapable, though commonly ignored or even denied—added to the limits imposed are now also constraints that are unavoidable. The dynamic interaction between limits and constraints also unfolded in the primordial garden. When the question was raised “Did God really say that?” (Gen 3:1, NIV), not only was the epistemic field limited to only the human context but the epistemic field was further narrowed down and constrained in interpretation and meaning to a reductionist bias. In other words, the constraints of the human condition are always imposed to fulfill a reductionist purpose, and therefore quite naturally and very conveniently converge with the limits of the human context for this reduced result. This is further demonstrated by the assumption “You will not surely be reduced.” Their convergence makes constraints less distinguishable and limits more reasonable, despite the pervasive existence of this defining interaction between them, and as a consequence renders us to a default human condition.
The constraints, now inseparable from the human context, explicitly or implicitly diminish, minimalize or distort our knowledge and understanding of human life, such that without epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, human life is rendered to epistemological illusions (e.g. “not be reduced”) and ontological simulations (e.g. “covered” and “hidden”). That is, human life is not rendered necessarily to fictions—though many essentially live a lie or believe in lies about themselves—but to various facts of life that in actuality do not adequately or truly represent reality in human life, only the limits and constraints of the human context. Any anthropology is subjected to these same limits and constraints, but whether its discourse is subject to them depends directly on having epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction from a larger epistemic field.
The parameters of anthropology are defined by the human context. Understandably, anthropology depends on the facts from this narrow and biased epistemic field to compose its discourse. Given the above limits and constraints under which anthropology works, theological anthropology must be clearly distinguished from its counterpart in order for its own discourse to go beyond the limits of the human context and rise above the constraints of the human condition—and thereby compose validity statements. In its primary function, theological anthropology must fully account for the human condition and unmistakably distinguish the reality of the whole person in ontology and function from any reductionism. Not distinguishing this reality renders the person by default to the human condition, which theological anthropology by definition should be responsible to illuminate and give voice to in its pivotal position and vital function.
Anything less and any substitutes of the whole, particularly the whole ontology and function of the person and relationships, can be found along a wide spectrum of expression. We tend to look at human fragmentation and reduction at only one end of this spectrum, located in more extreme forms of expression. The genius of reductionism even promotes this perception so that our interpretive lens either does not pay attention to or even tends to essentially deny the wider range of the spectrum, thus making it difficult to locate anything less and any substitutes of the whole. The consequence is that most of the spectrum engages the undetected human condition by default. In terms of our theological anthropology, unless the depth and breadth of the human condition has a voice, most of our human condition continues in silence and our practice is rendered by default to reflect, reinforce and sustain the reduced ontology and function of the human condition.
The journey of self-determination from the beginning has undertaken a path of known and unknown limits, which certainly have challenged science to explore these limits without either understanding or accepting the nature of their accompanying constraints. The constraints of the human condition are also imposed on self-determination, which thus makes relative all that this self determines. Since the person is never isolated with the human condition in the human context, any and all self-determination require competition because of the underlying comparative process inherently necessary for this alternative defining process of the person. Intentionally or inadvertently, competition engages the human comparative process with its subtle use of a ‘deficit model’ to measure, rank and thus stratify persons (individually and collectively) by their achievements—achievements and possessions that can be real or merely perceived as existing. For self-determination, therefore, to be successful it must be perceived on this human scale as ‘more’ or ‘better’ at the expense of others perceived as ‘less’. Moreover, with the use of a deficit model, anyone (again individually or collectively) considered ‘different’ from this defining standard of measurement is also considered less, as in inferior or deficient. This has obvious repercussions in human relations, both at the interpersonal level and the systemic level, which can be engaged explicitly or implicitly, blatantly or subtly, along the wide spectrum of the human condition. The consequences range from a biased lens of prejudice to systems of inequality, unfolding even in the church. Social minorities and people of color are well aware of these consequences on their lives, and this includes what the global South has experienced from the global North.
The seductive appeal to be ‘more’, or at least not be ‘less’, is an obvious motivating factor for self-determination; and this increasingly silences the human condition underlying this human dynamic and its relational consequences. This unfolds even among God’s people, which was the path Israel undertook as the defining alternative for the persons in covenant relationship. In place of involvement together in tamiym (be complete, whole, Gen 17:1), the people of Israel turned to self-determination and thus redefined the terms for relationship together (Torah, cf. Dt 31:26-27) from God’s whole relational terms to narrowed-down referential terms—terms given originally as communication in relationship and transposed to merely the transmission of information. That is, the law became their code-template of conformity (their deficit model), by which to measure, rank and stratify their achievement in self-determination according to a comparative process with each other (cf. Mt 5:20; 15:8-9; 23:1-7; Acts 15:10). In his major discourse on discipleship (the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5-7), Jesus contrasted prevailing Judaism’s self-determination (Mt 6) and accompanying self-justification (Mt 7) and exposed clearly their narrowing down the law to referential terms without relational significance, to which they merely conformed without regard for the relational consequences on others (Mt 5:21-48). As they renegotiated the terms for relationship with God, their practice of the law (or Rule of Faith) became either a means for their end of self-determination (as in Mt 15:3-9) or just an end in itself (as Ezekiel learned, Eze 33:30-32, and other church leaders also need to learn).
God’s people were not constrained by only their own human condition. The limits of referential terms were further narrowed down to fragment the whole relational terms for covenant relationship, as their human terms were influenced and shaped by their surrounding context. They shifted from God’s people as covenant family to become a nation-state, just like all the surrounding nations (1 Sam 8:4-5, 19-20). Then the law (such as circumcision and the Sabbath) also became their identity markers by which to establish their place in human contextualization through self-determination—further ignoring the limits and constraints of their human condition in reduced ontology and function. Therefore, rather than being distinguished as God’s covenant family for all the nations (Gen 17:4;18:18), they became reduced like all the other nations and just further reflected, reinforced and sustained the prevailing human condition.
This is the expected destination for God’s people undertaking the subtle path of self-determination—perhaps not contrary to their own theology yet so engaged in their practice. No matter what we achieve in Christian practice and how far we’ve progressed in church ministry, when the voice of the human condition is silent in our own condition, we cannot and should not expect to rise above its limits and constraints (as seen in the church in Sardis, Rev 3:1-2). Thus, even without intending to practice self-determination we should not be surprised to find ourselves engaged in self-determination by default—for example, falling into the practice of ‘works’ while holding a theology of ‘saved by faith’. God, however, corrects the subtle boasting inevitable to self-determination in a contrary human comparative process—widely demonstrated also by churches and seminaries competing for larger enrollment—and transposes any boasting to whole relational terms in the primacy of relationship together and its relational outcome “that they understand and know me” (Jer 9:23-24). And the relational outcome of understanding and knowing God cannot emerge from self-determination, even by scholarship in biblical studies.
One of the prime indicators that we have subtly undertaken self-determination is getting preoccupied with the secondary. This may not be apparent if we also have referentialized the Word and assume our focus on the Word is engaged in the primary (as exposed in the church in Ephesus, Rev 2:1-4). As constituted in the beginning, however, the primary is only composed in whole relational terms by the primacy of relationship together. Anything less and any substitutes are reduced in ontology and function, which is what unfolds from a narrowed-down Word in fragmentary referential terms. Even scholarship engaged in the referentialization of the Word is preoccupied with the secondary—notably for achievement in a Christian comparative process of self-determination, or simply progressing in our human condition. Therefore, if our secondary involvement is not integrated into God’s primary relational terms and thus the primacy of relationship together, we invariably get preoccupied with the secondary and will find ourselves on a different relational path from the embodied Word.
This dynamic further unfolded among Jesus’ early disciples, even as he clarified and corrected their practice. In the competitive terms of a human comparative process, the disciples argued about “which one of them was the greatest,” which Jesus clarified for them in whole relational terms (Lk 9:46-48, cf. Mt 18:1-4). Rather than listen to Jesus’ clarification for the development of their wholeness, they continued to define themselves by their achievements and assumed they made progress in their discipleship. Perhaps in secondary matters they could make this claim but not in the primary, namely the primacy of relationship together that is definitive for composing “Follow me” only in relational terms (as they demonstrated in Mt 26:35). Their self-concerns about their self-determination kept them from being vulnerably involved with Jesus in relational terms, even though they were committed to him in referential terms. The relational consequence was keeping relational distance that prevented them from receiving Jesus’ whole person (e.g. Jn 13:8) and responding to his whole person (e.g. Mt 26:6-13); and in spite of their intense time together, because of their relational distance they didn’t truly know the person Jesus (Jn 14:9). The reduced ontology and function of our human condition persists as long as it is silent and doesn’t provoke our needed response to change. And the disciples persisted in their self-determination, even through their last table fellowship together with Jesus, seeking to achieve “which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest,” which again Jesus not only clarified but also corrected for their wholeness together (Lk 22:24-26). Otherwise, their persons would remain fragmented and their relationships would be stratified, which are evident today in the global church.
I doubt that the disciples intended to practice self-determination with Jesus, and they certainly had good intentions in following him, at least in the common rabbinic tradition of following the rabbi. Likewise, the reality for all of us as his disciples continues to play out in our midst: When the voice of the human condition is silent about our own condition, we cannot assume and cannot expect to rise above its limits and constraints, nor assume that our persons, relationships and churches are not reduced or fragmented. “Therefore, we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away and reflect, reinforce and sustain the human condition” (Heb 2:1). As the writer of Hebrews alludes to in highlighting God’s relational response of grace to the human condition, there is a wide spectrum of practice composing our human condition that easily and subtly puts us on a different theological trajectory and relational path from the whole and uncommon God (2:2-4, cf. Mt 7:13). That’s why we need to give voice to the depth and breadth of the human condition, our human condition, beyond just ethical-moral terms of guilt-innocence, even beyond honor-shame.
We don’t commonly associate good intentions with the human condition. This occurs when the depth and breadth of the human condition’s wide spectrum is silent, and reductionism and its counter-relational work subtly direct us on a different relational path—seemingly good (e.g. for necessities like “food” and improving oneself by “gaining wisdom”) and with no intention of sin, that is, except for engaging in variable ontology and function.
When the embodied Word is referentialized, this opens the door to a variation of ways the Word is engaged—all of which are composed by narrowed-down human terms that fragment the Word, usually for more convenient consumption. To relate to a fragmented Word is to be on a different relational path from Jesus’ whole person. Throughout the incarnation, Jesus vulnerably presents and integrally discloses his whole person (and the whole of God), distinguished only in whole relational terms for the only relational purpose of reciprocal relationship together compatible to his wholeness. Anything less and any substitutes in this discipleship relationship are insufficient, unacceptable and relationally insignificant to Jesus—no matter the sincerity or good intentions.
As the early disciples found themselves on a different relational path than Jesus, three other would-be followers of Jesus were confronted with the reality that their good intentions blocked them from following Jesus’ relational path and actually redirected them to an alternative path (Mt 8:18-22; Lk 9:57-62). To these would-be followers, an alternative path was either unthinkable or reasonable and even necessary; this is the perceived reality when the voice of the human condition is weak or silent and our human condition is not carefully listened to, and likely assumed to be good.
As we listen to Jesus’ involvement with these persons, note what emerges to understand that what’s unfolding is not good. The first person is identified as “a teacher of the law” (scribe) who asserts to Jesus, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (Mt 8:19). Since he was schooled in the rabbinic tradition, he knew what it meant to be a disciple (mathetes). That would suggest an advantage in his favor as he now offers (or responds, if Jesus called) to become a disciple of Jesus. Whether he merely wants to learn a “fresh” interpretation of the law or he is expressing a deeper commitment to Jesus—likely the latter, given that his “wherever you go” is in the Greek middle voice, subjunctive mood to indicate his planned involvement—Jesus responds in a curious way: “…the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). This is commonly interpreted as Jesus identifying the rigorous sacrificial life of discipleship; an alternative reading I propose is about sojourning. With this relational lens, Jesus is making a deeper response to this teacher of the law—not about what his disciples do, achieve, and their progress, but of who, what and how they are and whose they are.
Since “nowhere to lay” is in the Greek subjunctive mood, Jesus is not describing an existing reality. Rather the subjunctive only expresses a potential possibility and only marks contingency. While using the contrast to the reality of the animal world (foxes and birds having a place), Jesus then is not pointing to current reality of discipleship or even future discipleship in the world—though he is pointing to a distinct process of discipleship in this context. Part of this process involves being a sojourner in the world: unlike the animals of the world, “nowhere to lay.” Yet, the reality of sojourning in this world can only emerge from the further and deeper relational process of discipleship that composes a person’s response to “Follow me” only in whole relational terms. While a sojourner in this world is subjected to the pressures and influences of the world, that person cannot be defined and determined by the surrounding and prevailing human contexts. If any person is so defined and determined, they are also subject to reduced ontology and function of the human condition, even by default despite good intentions. This is the deeper issue Jesus addresses in his response.
As a teacher of the law, this person is not merely deeply knowledgeable about the law, he is also embedded in the Judaic religious and sociocultural context that has referentialized its theology and practice. Thus, he is bringing this narrowed-down perceptual-interpretive framework with him in his assertion to Jesus, which influences how he sees Jesus as well as himself. Without specifying what his own framework is, Jesus implies the following in his response: that as a sojourner he himself is not defined by the human contexts of the world; that who, what and how the Son of Man is can only be defined and determined by the further and deeper relational context of his Father; and that together his whole person is of this trinitarian relational context as family, in which the person he vulnerably presents is compatible in function only with the trinitarian relational process of family love—that is to say, nothing less and no substitutes of his whole ontology and function.
What Jesus implies in all this for this person to understand centers on the person’s own human condition: his framework needs to shift from a reductionist quantitative framework to a qualitative relational framework; thus he needs to change how he is defined and what defines him; and that discipleship is ongoing vulnerable involvement with Jesus’ whole person in the primacy of reciprocal relationship together only in the trinitarian relational context and process of the whole of God—in nonnegotiable relational terms,, nothing less and no substitutes also of his whole person being transformed to whole ontology and function. And that no matter how good his intentions, the de facto state (functional reality) of who and what he is will always implicitly shape how he functions as his disciple, in the default condition of reduced ontology and function with its insurmountable limits and constraints.
Jesus clarified that discipleship is this call to be redefined, transformed and made whole, and not about serving in the subtle variations of reduced ontology and function. Whatever this teacher of the law heard in Jesus’ response and however he perceived Jesus after this, we are given no further indication about his response back to Jesus. I suspect that following Jesus involved being accountable for more than he expected, even with his previous experience as a disciple—radically more deep, not to mention threatening to his self-determination and confronting of his condition needing to change. This interaction, however, provides the complete context for the following two would-be disciples, which suggests looking at these three interactions as a set rather than separately (see Lk 9:57-62). These three would-be disciples exercised strong initiative and displayed considerable interest in following Jesus, yet something happened to each of them. While these appear to be describing the sacrifice and service of discipleship, the underlying accountability for Jesus’ self-disclosures exposes the deeper issue.
Prior to undertaking his discipleship in response to Jesus’ call “Follow me,” the next person requests “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (Lk 9:59). It was an important responsibility in the ancient community of the Mediterranean world for a son to bury his father, particularly the eldest son. Certainly, as Son himself, Jesus understands the importance of honoring one’s father. Given the role of a son, this man makes a legitimate request of Jesus to adjust to his special circumstance so that he would not incur shame. Yet, Jesus appears to deny the request, counter the religio-cultural values of honor-shame, and change the man’s role (9:60). If we look only at this son’s circumstance, Jesus’ response would definitely imply all of this. If, however, we look at this person’s circumstance in larger context, beyond the human context to Jesus’ relational context, a deeper picture emerges.
In saying “let the dead…” and “…proclaim the kingdom,” Jesus is juxtaposing two different realities here: (1) the prevailing sociocultural reality of the world, which includes the family of those whose essential function is spiritually dead (“let the dead bury their own dead”); while this sociocultural reality is a basic one in which we all participate, Jesus is clarifying for this would-be disciple not to let this reality define him nor determine who, what and how he is; in contrast, thus functionally in conflict, (2) Jesus brings forth the reality of the kingdom of God—not a conceptual idea (reign) or a future condition (realm) of the kingdom of God—that is, the present reality of the family of those who truly are alive, a new creation in Christ, who are redeemed from reductionist definition, determination and control, and its limits and constraints that dominate the social reality of the world; those belonging to this new reality also need to share it directly with others in family love, just as Jesus discloses it, for relationship in God’s family, because every person needs the experiential reality of this family of the living in order to be made whole as persons and in relationships together. And mere family duty and obligation do not fulfill this relational purpose and outcome in wholeness (cf. Mt 12:46-50). Such practice is a common secondary reality, which by necessity has to be integrated into this primary reality in order to go beyond the limits and constraints prevailing in the common human context that render persons and relationships to a reduced or fragmentary condition—a condition signified by good intentions and thereby rendered by default.
When Jesus told him “but as for you, go and proclaim,” he neither denied him his role as a son nor denounced the religious value of honoring his father. He did clarify for him, however, what the ontology of his person as a disciple needs to be, into which his secondary must be integrated. By the nature of the whole of who, what and how this person is then subordinates all other determination and function. Discipleship is not a hybrid of the two realities, in which the whole of one’s person and function become conflated with and thus reduced to something less and some substitute. That would fragment his person to reduced ontology and function. Moreover, Jesus is not changing his role to a missionary (“go”) or evangelist (“proclaim”). “Proclaim” (diangello) means not merely declaring the kingdom (family) of God in fragmentary referential terms but to declare fully, completely in whole relational terms. By this relational imperative, Jesus means “go and proclaim” not in a quantitative sense (as many view the Great Commission and evangelism) but in its qualitative relational significance. The former does indeed make it about a role and what he should do by serving. This narrow emphasis reduces the whole person and functionally deemphasizes the primacy of relationships necessary to be whole constituting the family of God, thus a truncated soteriology with a gospel suffering from a lack of relational significance. Such a proclamation would not be full, complete, that is, whole, but rather would reflect, reinforce and sustain the limits and constraints of the human condition, our human condition. This is an existing reality pervading the practice of Christians and churches in their good intentions.
And Jesus corrects the good intentions of this would-be disciple to make unmistakable that discipleship is the call to be whole. Therefore, what is imperative in relational terms is not to fulfill his role to bury his father. That may be necessary along with other secondary matters in the sociocultural reality of the world but only as a function integrated into his wholeness as Jesus’ disciple. This is the nonnegotiable imperative Jesus presents to him—the relational imperative of the whole and uncommon God distinguished from the fragmentary and the common.
Following Jesus is about more than interest, however strong. The adherence of a disciple to Jesus involves vulnerable deep attachment and distinctly uncommon priority for the experiential reality of relationally belonging in reciprocal relationship together as one of his distinguished disciples, not as an intention but as an ongoing relational reality. The third would-be disciple in this grouping declared his plans to follow Jesus but first wanted to “go back and say good-bye to my family” (9:61, NIV). Seems reasonable, except saying good-bye (apotasso) in their cultural context connotes a lengthy process (maybe many years) and a number of duties to perform before leaving. His use of apotasso in the Greek aorist form also indicates an open-ended period of time. While this person may have had a stronger interest to follow Jesus than he had in his family, he demonstrates a stronger attachment to his family. Attachments reflect where the heart is embedded (cf. Mt 6:21) and thus would always exert greater influence than interests (which only reflect the focus of the mind), no matter how strong the interest and intention. As a consequence of his attachment, his primary priority was still with his biological family over Jesus, even though he apparently had every intention of following Jesus seriously at a later time.
The differences of interest, attachments and priorities disclose where the person is, which then unfolds in various ways of relating to God and following Jesus. Jesus ongoingly clarifies this for persons, particularly his disciples (would-be and real). When he talked later about the need to “give up everything” (apotasso, same word as good-bye) to be his disciple (Lk 14:33), this is not about relinquishing all else and detaching ourselves from them, particularly the relationships he described earlier (see Lk 14:26). In that context and in these current contexts, this involves the primary way of how the person is defined, who/what determines their lives, and thus how relationships are practiced. For this purpose basic to all persons, Jesus is emphatic with this third would-be disciple that anything less or any substitutes in discipleship are a reductionist compromise, a fragmentary hybrid, that is, a default condition, which is not “fit for service” (euthetos, usable, suitable, 9:62). Variable ontology and function is not distinguished in relational terms—though may have distinction in referential terms—thus is neither significant relationally to God nor acceptable for relational function in God’s family. In other words, his good intentions only reflected his condition in reduced ontology and function.
Jesus held these would-be disciples accountable for his whole person presented and disclosed vulnerably by the trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love in relational response to the human condition. Thus, his call continues to be clarified as the call to be redefined, transformed and made whole—not the common perception of a mere call to serve—to follow him for relationship together in relational progression to the whole of God, the Trinity in ontology and function as family. Anything less than and any substitutes for this experiential truth and relational reality are reductionism of the embodied whole of Jesus and the whole and uncommon God’s self-revelation, which render our life and practice both theologically and functionally to epistemological illusions and ontological simulations. Consequently, all who confess this Jesus are accountable—from the scholar in the academy to the teacher behind the pulpit to every person in the pew—for our good intentions and to give voice to our human condition.
Among Jesus’ main disciples, Peter demonstrated the good intentions that Jesus clarified and corrected both to expose his condition and to hold him accountable. The following summarizes Peter’s good intentions and Jesus’ responses: to walk on water to Jesus only to fall short in eventual self-determination (“You of little faith, why did you doubt and rely on yourself?” Mt 14:25-31); to correct Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path, thus exposing his own reductionism and counter-relational work composing his theology and practice shaped by the human context (“Get behind me, Satan! You are blocking my path; for you are setting your mind not on the primary of God but on the secondary of human things,” Mt 16:21-24); to build monuments dedicated to Jesus, Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration (“Listen to my Son, and pay attention to the primary,’ Mt 17:1-5); to promise to Jesus that he will never fall away and fall short (skandalizo, to stumble, related to stumbling block above, Mt 26:31-35); to be intimately involved with the depth of Jesus’ heart (“Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?” Mk 14:32-37); once again in order to “save” Jesus from his theological trajectory and relational path, Peter acts in self-determination (“Put your self-determination away, for all who function by it will be reduced and fragmented—contrary to any assumption from the beginning,” Mt 26:47-52; Jn 18:10-11); to love Jesus in the primary (“Follow me,” Jn 21:15-19), yet being focused on the secondary (“You must follow me in the primacy of relationship,” Jn 21:20-22), and also preoccupied with the secondary at the expense of the primary (Acts 10:13-14; Gal 2:11-14).
In spite of the undeniable sincerity of Peter’s discipleship, his good intentions above were composed only with ‘good without wholeness’ and thus in sin as reductionism, paying attention only to sin without reductionism. It is pivotal for our theology and practice to understand the nature of good intentions, the nature which only reflects, reinforces and sustains the limits and constraints of our human condition. Whether or not we listen and pay attention to Jesus’ clarification and correction of Peter extended now to us, we are accountable for the ongoing ontology and function of our persons, relationships and churches.
Therefore, we in the global church have to stop accepting (or excusing) good intentions by Christians and churches as sufficient (or excusable) practice to fulfill our relational responsibility to God and each other. Contrary to Lucy (in ‘Peanuts’) assuming God has to be pleased with her, God is neither satisfied with good intentions nor are they acceptable to God to determine who, what and how we are. This is understandable when good intentions are listened to for what they are, and thus paid attention to in their limits and constraints, as demonstrated above, and realized as subtle expressions of the following:
1. Illusion: the illusion generated by good intentions clouds the functional reality that we have either deliberately stopped short in our response-effort, or intentionally or even unintentionally lack the involvement of our heart in our response, and thereby failing to make the necessary relational connection (with God and others) for the relational outcome to be significant and not merely conveniently considered a good intention—all of which function in the fog of good intentions’ illusion.
2. Simulation: the simulation presented by good intentions masks the functional reality that we engage our practice (notably in relationships) by the limits of our own terms rather than the whole relational terms (namely for relationship together) defined only by God; any stopping short or lacks in our engagement are to be expected and are deemed acceptable practice based on the good intentions of our terms, which on appearance simulate what God expects and desires from us, for example, by taking on roles and by engaging a narrowed-down Word on referential terms—all of which function to mask the limits and constraints of our own condition and terms in good intentions’ subtle simulation.
The illusion and simulation of good intentions need to have a voice in our midst and be exposed in our theology and practice of persons, relationships and churches, in order to confront ‘sin as reductionism’ and to restore us to what’s ‘good with wholeness.’ This pivotal process will require redemptive change for our transformation from old to new, from the common to the uncommon, both in our persons and relationships together to be distinguished in whole ontology and function as the new creation church family of God. When this experiential reality emerges, the relational outcome unfolds in the global church with the good news of wholeness for both our human condition and for the human condition in the globalizing world. Yet, the existing reality of our narrowed-down condition is an antecedent priority needing our response before the global church can be distinguished in and have significance for the world.
Since the beginning, the human epistemic field has been narrowed down to engage in self-determination and to accommodate and justify its progress. The underlying process of narrowing down subtly has become more complex for persons and relationships, and increasingly sophisticated with modern progress in science and technology—for example, from industrialization to urbanization into globalization and the digital age with expanding cyberspace. This self-determined progress has unfolded in a subtle interacting dynamic: on the one hand, progress unfolds in the human context where the options for human practice (notably as consumers) are subtly broadening for our engagement, yet only extend from the beginning what’s “good for food and to make one wise”; and thus, on the other hand, progress stays within what still remain the limits and constraints of a narrowed-down condition—and what remains our narrowed-down condition until restored to wholeness. Just as the narrowed-down epistemic field of the referentialization of the Word has opened the door to variation in the ways that Christians address, approach and relate to God—perhaps a garden variety offering a smorgasbord for consumer tastes—our theology and practice shaped by our surrounding contexts have unfolded on a broad path; and they continue to unfold in the global church in a globalizing world with variable ontology and function. All this also unfolds, however, within the limits and constraints of our narrowed-down condition, an unavoidable condition needing a voice to be listened to for the response required to make us whole.
Paying attention to what we hear, as Jesus warns, is critical for determining “the measure we use,” which inevitably limits “the measure we get” (Mk 4:24). Listening to sin without reductionism has been consequential for Christians and churches in this measure. For most Christians and churches, sin is present in the human context indisputably in moral terms, while the issue becomes arguable in ethical terms. The former appears to be a given and the latter is increasingly relative to their surrounding context. Otherwise, sin is overlooked, ignored or simply not understood in its depth and breadth. The lack of understanding of sin reflects the theological fog generated from the beginning by the genius of sin’s author—“Did God really say that? ...you will not be reduced…your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”—which has progressed in composing sin by subtle ambiguous terms that directly or indirectly counter the nonnegotiable relational terms God constituted for relationship together in wholeness. In recalling the words depicting a junior demon asking his senior demon about the reality of sin: “If they are all doing it, is it still sin?”
The counter-relational work of sin is the nature of sin that must be clearly understood in its reductionism of persons and relationships from the wholeness created by the whole and uncommon God—that is, created irreducibly in this God’s qualitative image and relational likeness. Reductionism subtly narrows down persons and relationships from the condition that distinguished them in wholeness to a condition of fragmentary parts and distinctions, which become the key measures used by self-determination in a comparative human system and process for the persons and relationships it gets. This is our narrowed-down condition that requires voicing a wake-up call for our persons, relationships and churches to be complete and not narrowed down (as in the church in Sardis, Rev 3:1-2). Therefore, we have to pay attention to this existing reality in and around us: sin as reductionism and its counter-relational work extend further and deeper than sin conventionally defined in moral-ethical terms, even when qualified by honor-shame.
Even to the extent that conventional sin composes the human condition, the further and deeper reality of sin pervades and prevails to define the breadth of the human condition and determine its depth. This is the condition that has narrowed down our persons, relationship and churches, and that urgently needs ongoing voicing by those belonging to the global church. Unavoidably, this is the narrowed-down condition composing the global church as long as it continues to reflect, reinforce or sustain the human condition in its breadth and depth rather than transform it both within the church’s uncommon life together and in the common world. Until sin as reductionism is understood and confronted, Christians and the church will not be redeemed from it but unavoidably remain under its defining influence—even with good intentions (as discussed), but also despite any moral-ethical initiatives, which often have been subject to the ideology of surrounding contexts.
To narrow down persons and relationships from wholeness, the nature of sin as reductionism engages them subtly in anything less and any substitutes for wholeness, the whole ontology and function created in God’s image and likeness. This certainly involves a wide spectrum of expression to compose the human condition, which makes it more complicated for Christians and churches to be distinguished, and easier to drift, stray, wander and be misled from God’s whole relational terms and Jesus’ relational path (Heb 2:1; Ps 119:10,21,110,118). Even in the early period of covenant relationship, when God’s people engaged in sin unintentionally, they were accountable (shagah, Lev 4:13-14; Eze 45:20). Thus, even when we think we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing—for example, “to make one wise,” to have our eyes enlightened, even to know good and evil in the world—we could merely be reflecting, reinforcing and sustaining our narrowed-down condition, as in shagah. If we pay careful attention, however, the nature of sin exposes its presence with any and every reduction of God’s whole, which is reinforced and sustained every time we assume we are not reduced or fragmented.
When sin is distinctly identified as reductionism and what’s good is only with wholeness, then the process of narrowing down our condition is not complex to address for our persons and relationships. When sin and what’s good are conflated with the narrative of sin without reductionism and good without wholeness in human contextualization, then the human condition gets ambiguous and our human condition takes on a duplicity—in its depth perhaps analogous to a bi-polar disorder (highs and lows, ins and outs, unpredictable, even contradictory). Our prevailing narrowed-down condition has had a voice in what Scripture calls “double-minded/divided in heart” (se‘ep, Ps 119:113, cf. se‘ippiym, 1 Kg 18:21; and dipsychos, Jas 1:8; 4:8, cf. 3:9-12). Blatantly or subtly, negatively or positively, a fragmented mind or heart functions in duplicity, with ambiguity or shallowness of identity (as Jesus contrasted in ontology and function, Mt 5:13-16). And double-minded’s complexity composed from inner out by a fragmented heart requires redemptive change—not common changes shaped by human contexts (cf. Rom 12:2)—to be transformed to wholeness, distinguished by the relational process defined only in relational terms for this undivided relational outcome (Jas 4:7-10).
From the beginning and into today, the presence and influence of reductionism prevails in human contextualization to compose the human condition. Unless we can clearly distinguish our identity and function from human contexts (including culture, tradition and social norms), we become and remain subject to reductionism and thus under its defining limits and determining constraints. Whether explicitly or implicitly, its increasingly indistinct nature of sin pervades our theology and practice, to the depth of our ontology and function, with a dipshychos that renders us in shagah (unintentional sin) by default to unintentionally reflect, reinforce or sustain our narrowed-down condition (Jas 4:4-5; 5:19-20). Another way to understand the voice of double-minded and divided in heart is being selective with Scripture to compose our theology and practice (Jas 1:22-25; 2:8-10,20-24; 4:1-4,17). Even at the early stage of the emerging church (the original emerging church), James helps us understand the spectrum of sin pervasive in our midst and prevailing in human contexts. We urgently need to pay greater attention to this spectrum and listen to its subtlety being voiced for us to hear and respond accordingly.
As discussed previously, hybrid theology and practice and a bifocal identity (to be discussed further in later chaps.) also reflect a fragmentary condition that drifts, strays wanders or is misled from God’s theological trajectory and Jesus’ relational path. If the global church maintains a hybrid or bifocal identity (conflating human context with God’s context), its identity in the world will be ambiguous or shallow (as Jesus made definitive). If the global church has a hybrid theology and practice, the global church and each local part of it will be reduced to fragmentary ontology and function. Here is where selectivity of Scripture is exposed as the defining issue for “the measure we use.” The OT clearly maintained a necessary distinction of God’s people from the surrounding human contexts of the common in order to be distinguished as the uncommon belonging to God (Ex 23:24; Lev 18:3; 20:23; Dt 12:30-31; Jer 10:2-3). The integrity of their identity was compromised by any element of the common, which Israel engaged when their practice of the law became merely identity markers in human contextualization. This clear distinction between what’s common and uncommon—thus including between what’s good without wholeness and with wholeness—was to be maintained by Jesus’ followers “not of the world.” Jesus called them “out of the world” to be whole in order to be distinguished whole “in the world,” so that they would make whole the human condition (as Jesus prayed, Jn 17:13-23). Yet, as discussed earlier, the disciples in general and Peter in particular had difficulty being distinct from their surrounding human context and distinguished in the whole of who, what and how they were—for example, “which of them would be the greatest.”
This hybrid theology and practice extended into the early church (see Acts 10 and 15) and continues even more so today, as reflected in the wide-scale parallel with churches in Jesus’ post-ascension discourse (discussed previously). Past or present, this existing reality exposes double-mindedness, a divided heart, the fragmenting presence of reduced ontology and function, the narrowed-down condition of which is contrary to and in conflict with God’s whole relational terms (signified by commands, laws, statutes, decrees, precepts, summarizing the relational terms of God’s word in Ps 119) for covenant relationship together. The terms for the primacy of relationship were defined from its inception for God’s covenant family to be whole together (Gen 17:1), which are only relational terms both nonnegotiable and non-selective.
The global church today demonstrates either lacking complete understanding (syniemi and synesis) of God’s relational terms—likely narrowing them down to referential terms in ethical-moral practice—or simply doesn’t give them the complete significance required by their primary nature to define our identity and determine our function. Either way, we are accountable for the narrowed-down condition of our persons, relationships and churches. The Western church has led the way on this variable path of reductionism. With the roots of Christendom emerging from Constantine (4th century), the hybridization of the church narrowed down the new creation church family and has constructed distinctions—not the distinction made in contrast to the common but rather distinctions shaped by the common—which has fragmented God’s whole church family into secondary parts. Intrinsic to the measure used from self-determination is the comparative process that embeds the church in distinctions of ‘better or less’, ‘good or worse’, that cultivate attitudes, feelings and related behaviors of ‘superior or inferior’. The measurement from these fragmentary distinctions has been imposed by the dominant sector of the global church (i.e. the Western) on other sectors to enforce conformity to the common measure of theology and practice used—with the intention of what’s good for the church, though under the assumption of good not being reduced. Historically, this narrowed-down church condition also unfolded in missions with the notion of manifest destiny and the practice of colonialism with the intention for the common good, yet with the underlying use of a deficit model to measure persons and relationships—which subtly continues today as the measure used for and by churches.
Of course, the Enlightenment’s interpretive framework, modernism’s assumptions unfolding into the consumption manufactured by industrialization and the convenience produced by technological progress into a post-industrial era have been key determinants entrenching Western worldview and ideological practice in a process of dominance—from a position assumed to be superior and to be for the common good. And, certainly, Christians and churches have not been immune from this but indeed shaped by it. What has unfolded is this experiential reality from the experiential truth Jesus made indisputable: The measure the global church has used, signifying our narrowed-down condition, has been and will be the measure the global church gets, nothing more but a wide variation of anything less.
Accordingly, and not surprisingly, Christians and churches who don’t distinguish themselves from such a worldview and social ideology (or others prevailing) become complicit with their surrounding context; and therefore they inevitably reflect, reinforce and sustain the human condition—even by default if they do not contend with that ideology and oppose such practice. Such complicity and subsequent engagement of the common prevailing in human contextualization demonstrate a loss of the irreplaceable distinction that distinguishes their integral identity of who they are and whose they are. The Word gives voice to their narrowed-down condition, for which we all have the relational imperative: “Hear,” that is, give undivided attention (shama), “Do not learn the way of the nations” (Jer 10:2), and “Listen to my Son” (Mt 17:5), “my followers do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…but I ask you Father to protect them from the source of reductionism. They do not belong to the world” (Jn 17:14-16).
The shape of the global church, as it exists today, has been narrowed down in spite of its central shift to the global South. Many of the defining experiences of Christianity in the majority world have been colonial (dominance by the West). As the global church emerges from colonialism, however, it is insufficient to have a postcolonial worldview, interpretive framework and lens without deeply understanding the nature of sin underlying colonialism and the condition of the Western church. If the global church is to enter into truly postcolonial theology and practice that are redeemed, it needs to go beyond the limits and constraints of our narrowed-down condition.
The human condition predates colonialism. Unless the global church has whole understanding—syniemi, which the disciples lacked (Mk 8:17-18), and synesis, which Paul made definitive (Col 2:2-4)—of God’s relational response to the human condition to compose the whole gospel (the gospel of wholeness, Eph 6:15), the postcolonial church will be essentially no more significant than the Western church. The church remaining in such a condition will not be distinguished as the new creation church family constituted by Jesus and the Spirit, as well as composed by Paul, in wholeness (Eph 2:14-22; Col 3:15). When our narrowed-down condition has a voice provoking our response to the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of God’s relational response of grace to us in our human condition, then the relational outcome will emerge in the experiential reality of transformed persons in transformed relationships together in the very likeness of the whole and uncommon God (just as Jesus further prayed, Jn 17:20-26).
As the global church, “Therefore, we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it—stray, wander or be misled in anything less and any substitutes, and thereby reflect, reinforce and sustain the human condition, our human condition” (Heb 2:1).
From the beginning, this is the voice that reverberates from the human context, waiting to be responded to in nothing less than our human condition. From beyond this beginning, there is also the voice that resounds from God’s context, waiting to be received for nothing less than and no substitutes of the human condition both within the global church and in the globalizing world. As the global church responds to and receives what and who it hears, the church will transition beyond its common human shaping and emerge distinguished in uncommon wholeness.
 Created by the late and insightful Charles M. Schulz, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2015.
 The effects of technology on the quality of human life are discussed by Sherry Turkle in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
 Having learned these limits, physicist Stephen Hawking gave up his attempt to construct a “grand unified theory” (GUT) for knowing the world in its innermost. Discussed in Hans Kung, The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 15-24.
 Vinoth Ramachandra engages this discussion in Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).
 A discussion of U.S. empire building and the role of evangelicalism is undertaken in Bruce Ellis and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, eds., Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008).
 Internist H. Gilbert Welch addresses the issue of “How much medical care do we want in our lives?” and critiques current prevailing medical practice in “Life, medicalized”, Op-Ed, Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2010.
 The responsibility of theological anthropology’s pivotal position and vital function is undertaken in an expanded discussion in my study The Person in Complete Context: The Whole of Theological Anthropology Distinguished (Theological Anthropology Study, 2014). Online at http://www.4X12.org.
 An attempt pointed in this direction, yet still remaining within the limits and constraints of our condition, is found in Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and L. Daniel Hawk, eds., Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
©2016 T. Dave Matsuo