The End of Human Alienation
Over the past 2,000 years humans have become increasingly conscious of their alienation from the self, from others, from the world, and from God. This consciousness has brought deepening frustration and despair. It has led to the present global, human crisis.
“Difference” and Human Alienation
Alienation is an unavoidable result of the difference between creator and creature. All creators experience an inevitable separation between themselves and their creations. This conscious difference exists between parents and children, doctors and patients, artists and their works, inventors and their inventions, and even between God and his created universe.
As Creator, God experienced the difference — and thus the alienation — between himself and his creatures. In previous articles1 we have seen that this alienation could be resolved on God’s side only by his acting as the incarnate Christ, adopting the creature as his own reality. In Christ, Creator and creature became one.
On the Godward side Christ’s life, death and resurrection fully resolved the alienation between Creator and creature. However, on the manward side the sense of alienation continues. Man (male and female) is both a creature and creative (a creator). As such, man remains deeply troubled by the differences — and therefore alienation — between himself and the self, his fellow man, the world and God. Religion, philosophy, psychology and psychoanalysis have long tried to explain and resolve this alienation. For example, “Existentialism” is a philosophy that has attempted to cope with this gulf in man’s existence.2
Unsuccessful Attempts to Resolve Human Alienation
There is a universal conviction that, if the alienation between mankind and the transcendent God could be resolved, all other alienations likewise would be healed. This conviction has led to a number of unsuccessful approaches to resolving human alienation:
1. Deny the Transcendent.
This approach tries to remove human alienation by denying the existence of the Transcendent in history, in life, and in death. Classical atheism is not alone in the futile attempt to deny the existence of God:
In The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966), Thomas J. Altizer claimed that the “good news” of God’s death had freed us from slavery to a tyrannical transcendent deity: “Only by accepting and even willing the death of God in our experience can we be liberated from a transcendent beyond, an alien beyond which has been emptied and darkened by God’s self-alienation in Christ.”3
However, all efforts to deny the Transcendent are a self-deception.4
2. Absorb the Transcendent.
Another approach acknowledges the Transcendent but employs man’s predatory instincts to absorb, possess (“God in us”) and even become the Transcendent Self through reason, knowledge, experience, etc. Such “knowledge” (Greek, gnosis) has long been the preoccupation of Gnosticism. Absorbing the Transcendent is also the purpose behind sacramentalism — particularly the supposed Eucharistic eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. Likewise, absorption and possession of the “other” has been the obsession of sadism and cannibalism.
3. Be Absorbed by the Transcendent.
In this approach mankind submits to the predation of the Transcendent, which then ostensibly consumes, possesses (“us in God”) and terminates true human identity and individuality in a Universal Oneness or Nothingness. This is the object of masochism and of a distorted Christianity which declares that man is nothing and God is all.
4. Assume the Alienating Distance of the Transcendent.
This approach recognizes the existence of the Transcendent but assumes its alienating distance from mankind. Such views include the impassible God of Platonic Christianity, the ultimate Nothingness of Buddha or Heidegger, the God-shaped hole of Sartre, the Superman of Nietsche, or the Essence of Tillich — in the face of which man can only rage or remain in helpless and hopeless despair.5
5. Assert the “Immediate” Presence of the Transcendent.
Another approach has been to assert the “immediate” presence of the transcendent “Thou” with the creaturely “I.” This presence is supposedly manifested as unexplained joy and love in the mystical dialogue between the “I and Thou.” This was proposed by the Judaic philosopher and scholar Martin Buber, who was fascinated by the mysticism of Hasidic Judaism.6 Unfortunately, this presence is transient, individualistic and ultimately unfulfilling.
6. Return to the Appearance of the Transcendent at the Beginning or End.
This approach denies mankind’s human existence in history and, through religious devotions, seeks to return to the epiphany (appearance) of the Transcendent, either at the beginning (protology) or at the end (eschatology) of time. For thousands of years this has been the preoccupation of both primitive and modern religions.7
Because they abandon man to his preexisting alienation in history, all these approaches to resolving human alienation leave mankind in a hopeless predicament. None corresponds to mankind’s potential to be fully and truly human. None removes the alienation of “difference.” None truly “re-ligions” (from re-, back + ligare, to bind, bind together) man to God.
This leads us to ask, If God has actually removed the Creator’s alienation from the creature by adopting the creature as his own reality, how can he proceed to end the alienation of the creature from the Creator?
The True Resolution of Human Alienation
There is a final and effective approach to resolving human alienation. It long has been intended as God’s way for man to achieve true humanity. Unfortunately, mankind has not yet seriously entertained this option:
The “Intermediatorial” Presence of the Transcendent.
The true resolution of human alienation is none other than the “intermediatorial” presence of the Transcendent. It is the Risen Christ, intermediatorially present in history. What do we mean by the “intermediatorial” presence of the Risen Christ in history?
As noted earlier,8 the Creator God resolved the alienation of the Creator from his creature by becoming the creature. He now is present as Creator/creature to resolve the alienation of the self-conscious creature from its Creator (Matthew 28:20).
This presence of the Risen Christ is not “immediate.” That is, it is not our absorption of the Transcendent. It is not our being absorbed or possessed by the Transcendent. It is not the mystical merging of “God in us” or “us in God.” Immediacy would destroy all relationships. It would destroy true human identity and freedom.
The Risen Christ therefore “mediates” his presence with us in history. That is, he reaches us through our neighbors. We reach him through each other. We reach each other and our own objective selves9 through him. That is why we may speak of this “reaching” as Christ’s “intermediatorial” presence.
Christ’s intermediatorial presence is not transcendent in the sense that it is unattainably above or beyond us. However, it is transcendent in the sense that it remains the ultimate cause behind all causes. It also is transcendent in the sense that its effects reach beyond all reason and judgment, beyond all knowledge (Greek, gnosis) and wisdom, beyond all mystical or ecstatic experience. This “reaching beyond” is defined by love and compassion, not hatred; by commitment, not aloofness; by faith and trust, not unbelief or skepticism; by hope, not despair.
How We Can “Know”
How, then, can we “know” that Christ is risen and that he is present with us? Not by sight, reason, rationalization or reflection. Not by knowledge, wisdom or understanding. Not by mystical or ecstatic experience. We can “know” only as we actively reach out to the “other” in love and compassion, faith and trust. We can “know” only as we exhibit hope and joy toward ourselves, our neighbors, the world, and toward God. This is why the mutual love, compassion, hope and trust manifested by the early Christians — and which extended from them to mankind — were the assurance and inviolable proof to them that Christ was risen and present (see Philippians 3:10; cf. John 17:3).
How, too, can we “know” that Christ is visibly returning to usher in a fully human future? How can we be sure of this coming Parousia10 (Second Coming)? As the gifts of love and compassion, faith and trust, hope and joy are the assurance that Christ is risen, so they are the “proleptic” (anticipatory of the future) assurance of Christ’s return.
Love never ends; as for prophecy, it will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge [Greek, gnosis], it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. . . . So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, RSV.
Our challenge today is to forsake all false and discredited options for human existence. We can live as humans in this existential world — that is, in the face of ourselves, others, the world and God — only through the “intermediatorial” presence of the risen Christ. There is no other way to a truly human existence. Because mankind is in the process of becoming human, we have the freedom to will, to decide and, thus, to choose our existential world — that is, to choose whether or not and how we shall live in the face of God, the Transcendent Human One. Having exhausted all other options, let us now appeal to the One who rose again to be with us. Let us respond to this One. Let us choose this One. For it is this One alone who can end our alienation and bring us to eternal fellowship and friendship with himself, with the world, with each other, and with ourselves.
- E.g., see “The Openness of Man,” Outlook (Prequel 1994.6). (go back)
- See F. H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1958), pp. 1-13. (go back)
- Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 380. (go back)
- See Stephen E. Erickson, Human Presence: At the Boundaries of Meaning (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984). (go back)
- Ibid. See also note 2. (go back)
- See Martin Buber, “The Eclipse of God,” in Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, eds., The Great Ideas Today: 1967 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1967), pp. 308-371. (go back)
- See Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954). (go back)
- See subhead, “‘Difference’ and Human Alienation.” (go back)
- See T. J. J .Altizer, “Replies: The Self-Realization of Death,” chap. 6 in R. P. Scharlemann, ed., Theology at the End of the Century (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990), p. 131: “Now nothing is more important in that history than the historical advent of self-consciousness, a self-consciousness that apparently did not actually or fully exist until the advent of Christianity.” (go back)
- The Greek word parousia, translated, means both “presence” and “coming.” See Wikipedia — The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Parousia,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parousia: “Parousia . . . is an ancient Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or official visit.” (go back)
This article was originally published August 1994 under the Quest imprint.