The Essence of Being

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Rector and member of the National Executive for UNITE representing the Faithworkers’ Branch.


Lord Rowan Williams opened Inspire at Magdalen College, Cambridge this Saturday by inviting delegates to consider the two most toxic ways of knowing oneself and being human; first: ‘I know who I am and it’s not you’, second: ‘I know who I am and I don’t need any help from you [to be me]’.

Whichever position we take, whether it be that of a tribal group closure that looks for the differences to be avoided, or an intense independence that is beyond an openness to new perspectives (‘I did it my way’), the movement is that of pushing others away from ourselves, unless they reflect back to us precisely the image we hope to be cultivating for ourselves.

In my visit to the Diocese of Bloemfontein in South Africa some years ago I learned the term ubuntu which translates as ‘I am because you are’.  In other words, I do not exist on my own, I exist only in relation to the other people around me.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains the concept as “mean[ing] my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “a person is a person through other people.” It is not “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong.” I participate, I share.”

To be human is essentially to encounter ourselves in relation to others.  Ancient creation mythologies do not refer to the making of humankind singularly with the Christian tradition specifically resting upon the words, ‘And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him”’ (Genesis 2:18, NKJV).  Isolating ourselves as individuals, and, I would suggest, isolating ourselves as people groups, is ‘not good’.

Sadly, in our desire to attain power we often focus on finding ways of subordinating ‘the other’ to ourselves as our ‘helpers’.  We must lead, they must follow.  ‘We’ are the dominant cultural norm, ‘they’ must jettison their cultural norms and take on ours.  ‘I am working hard at ensuring I live well, live aright, therefore if you think or live differently to me, you must be wrong’.  However, the Holy Spirit is the Trinitarian equivalent of just such a ‘helper’ to Jesus, and what does the Holy Spirit do if not to empower Jesus to fulfil His ministry as the Christ? What does the Holy Spirit do but shower God’s people with spiritual gifts in order to build up a diverse group of people into a new kingdom that does not rely on geo-political states to define boundaries and borders, but which shatters previously held religious and cultural ghettos in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28, NKJV).

To be a ‘helper’ is not to be subservient in any way; to be a ‘helper’ is to enable the other to see themselves in a new light; to become all that they might be; to release their own gifts whether mined in the darkness or the light.  To be a ‘helper’ is to reflect back to the other all that they are and all that they might be.  Of course, one of the problems with this, is just how painful it can be to recognise how we are seen by others.  This is possibly why it is so much easier to return to ‘the tribe’ whether it be an affirming partner, or a political or nationalistic tribe in order to find the image in which we have cast ourselves reflected back positively without ever being challenged, extended, critiqued or indeed explored for consonance and depth.

Consequently, the imageo dei with which we are all endowed becomes shrouded in a hall of mirrors as we pick and choose through which one we wish to be viewed. At times we seriously risk losing an authentic sense of self as we build a self-image that is two-dimensional and cannot risk authentic, intimate, honest connection with the other; the not-like-me; the challenge-to-my-thinking; the stranger; the danger-to-my-status-quo.  In trying to become human on our own terms, we lose our genuine humanity.

In these days where mass migration across the globe affects every locality and continent, encountering the stranger, encountering the ‘not-like-me’ gives us myriad new opportunities to harbinger the kingdom in where we are not divided geographically, politically or along any other tribes of race, religion or cultural norms.  It gives us fresh insight into who we are and who we have been, both as individuals and as people-groups or nation-states.  Our preconceptions – and misconceptions – must be challenged afresh as our minds, our hearts and, dare I say, our spirits are enlarged with all that we did not know until we allowed ‘you’ to help us see ourselves for what we are, as we began to truly know you for who you are.  What a gift that is; a pearl beyond price.

Yet there is a stranger much closer to home, a stranger who we ‘other’ for ourselves and who is perhaps all the more dangerous for that.  The one who has (or seems to have) the power, the great job, the perfect partner, the health, the wealth, the happiness.  The person we ‘other’ from envy, bitterness, hatred; the person we judge as undeserving of that which we ourselves desire.  Why were ‘they’ chosen and not me?  It is this ‘other’ that we deliberately construct as an enemy that destroys the imageo dei within us most profoundly, preventing us from radiating that which connects with others as we refuse to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15).

Genuine human connection exists only between those willing to risk encountering people who will show us our shadow side, dredging up our depths that we might have the opportunity to bring all that sullies our humanity (that which we Christians call ‘sin’) to the surface. Not that we might despise ourselves or lose all hope, but precisely so that we might have hope in bringing all that darkens us to the expansive light of Christ’s love for His all-forgiving, transformative, healing touch; a touch that might well come through those we find most uncomfortable to encounter.

Being human has been packaged into any number of self-help, self-starting, self-reliant ‘life-hacks’ but it will never be the ‘self’ that truly transforms.  We were born out of relationship; we grow and develop in relationships, and as adults continue to become all that we are through relating riskily, readily, intimately and authentically with others.  Then as individuals and as people-groups, we grow ever more confident that whoever we are, and with whomever we are, we share in the profound bond of a common humanity.  It is only from that place that real understanding and a genuine sharing of safe-haven and resources can occur.  Until then, the vast global inequalities and Western protective paranoia with which we live will continue to divide and dehumanise those with whom we are, in fact, inextricably bound.

Picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a gathering of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation






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1 Response to The Essence of Being

  1. William Courtney Hensel says:

    Thank you. One of the richest, cleanest and most helpful offerings I’ve encountered lately, with a very high Yes!!!/Yeah but… ratio :-). Will Hensel, Houston


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