Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities

Article excerpt

Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities. By Jean Bethke Elshtain. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. 178 pp. $20.00 (cloth).

The issue of personhood has been central to the development of ethics in the last quarter century. The intensity of the debate on this subject has increased so that today we have reached the point that it has been said that there are only two types of bioethicists: those who explicitly distinguish between "humans" and "persons" and those who make the distinction implicitly. Jean Elshtain enters the conversation by asking, "Who are we?"

Her first answer, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is, "Whoever I am, 0 God, I am thine." This is not the answer of the autonomous, sovereign, personal decision maker who is in control of every element of life. We belong, we do not own. Her second answer is equally evident, "VVe are fallen," and that changes everything.

To understand the present consequences of the fall, she compares the exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope John Paul II. For Bonhoeffer, man is in rebellion against his remote, totally different creator. Despite rebellion, the created is totally dependent on God and also dependent on relationship with others. It is only in relationships with others that one can be free. We do not have bodies, we are body and soul, enmeshed in one another without possibility of distinction. Yet, after the Incarnation, this rebellious piece of earth is also in the image of God, the whole person is fallen, but the whole person is redeemed.

John Paul II is more concerned with "from the beginning," who we were before the fall. We were created for communion; communion with God and with each other. After the fall, redemption is proffered early and humans begin, as historical beings, to live within this theological perspective. The authentic reflection of the image of God is found in the communion of persons, the existence of a person for another. Through mutual recognition of each other, we come to know the meaning of our own bodies.

Bonhoeffer places more emphasis on the sovereign, remote Creator who comes close to us only through the Incarnation and the cross. John Paul places more emphasis on the continuing relationship between the Creator and the created. Both write powerfully against the individualistic and voluntaristic constructs of human life and freedom. Both oppose the contemporary notion of an independent, self-sufficient, wholly autonomous self. Both stress the need to be at God's disposal.

Elshtain considers two generic sins that result from our fallen state: pride and sloth. Pride is evil action, sloth is evil inaction. Pride causes us to engage in the culture of the world, sloth is the acquiescence to the conventions of the world. Both are sins.

Pride causes us to seek to become our own point of origin. In the world of pride we are neither Bonhoeffer's shattered creatures who must throw ourselves on the cross nor are we those described by John Paul II who yearn for more intense relationships. Instead, we normalize pride and selfsufficiency and call it good.

We fall into utilitarian thinking without realizing that we need a common value in order to judge the various alternatives. For Hume, this common value was happiness; today it is money. This means that everything and everyone has a price. Such thinking is the antithesis of the anthropological presuppositions of Bonhoeffer and John Paul II who believe that human life is Godgiven and not made for the market. The market, like all human institutions, is distorted by sin, and to allow it to make life a commodity is to sin again. …