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Chapter Nine:  Understanding the Self



Chapter nine deals with two interrelated questions:

            What does it mean to be human?

            How does humanness relate to the divine?


The text briefly explores a number of  understandings from the social sciences and philosophy, (ability to reason, to produce, etc.) before it focuses on centers on the 19th century Danish Theologian Soren Kierkegaard.

            Kierkegaard was a Christian theologian who was also an existentialist.  Although we will not explore existentialism in this course, you should know that existentialism is a philosophic movement that believes that existence precedes meaning.   Of importance for our study is the fact that Kierkegaard believed that the unique thing about human beings is that they are both finite and transcendent.

            Finite:  Bound by space, time, limited knowledge, cultural factors, etc.

            Transcendent:  able to imagine, or sense, the infinite.


 If Kierkegaard is correct, it means that life lived in the  tension between the two poles of the finite and the transcendent.  At the very least, Kierkegaard has given us one way of exploring how religious traditions resolve – or at least – balance the tension between the finite and the transcendent within humanity.


            East:  Self is divine.

            This is most often emphasized in Hinduism, especially in the Upanishads,  the parts of the Vedas that resemble philosophic dialogs between a student and a teacher.  The theme that is encountered repeatedly in the Vedas is that the self (atman) is actually identical with the Self (Brahman).  In other words, the self is the same as the divine.  The most famous of these dialogs often describe the mysterious Divine power that is present in all things, and then conclude with the teacher proclaiming to the student:  “That thou art” ( that is, you ARE Brahman).

            Note that there is a clear relationship between the concept of the divine and the concept of humanity.  Since Hinduism’s concept of the Divine is a   Dualistic pantheism (“God is everything; everything is God”), it is impossible to separate “humanness” from divinity.


            In  Buddhism one encounters a concept of humanity that reflects the concept of the concept of Nirvana as ultimate reality.  Remember that one of the unique teachings of Buddhism is anatta: there is no such thing as a permanent self.  In other words, what we perceive to be a unique, enduring self or personality is merely an abstraction of a complex of energies and activities that are constantly changing and becoming. Consequently, in Theravada Buddhism the tension between the finite and the transcendent is embodied in the quest to overcome the finite self (which is impermanent) by entering nirvana:  the state of egoless bliss where there is neither being nor non-being.  


It should be noted that in Mahayana Buddhism, there is the concept that each person has the enlightened “Buddha nature” within themselves.  This enlightened nature is part of ultimate reality.


            West: Self as Image of God


Judaism and Christianity accept the idea that human beings are created in the image of God. In other words, while human beings are created by God,  they are also “like” god in some way.  In Judaism in particular, the concept of the image of God is understood to indicate that human beings are “co-creators.” In other words, human beings are meant to do what God does: to create and govern.  Human beings are “next to” God

Remember that in the monotheistic faiths, the concept of God is that of transcendent-immanent.: God is wholly other, although God is active in the world. Consequently, the concept of humanity reflects this concept of God: God is wholly beyond the create world, yet is present in the world in the image of God within human beings.

            Although the text book does not address the nature of humanity in Islam, a couple of observations needs to be made. (1) Islam does not   employ the concept of the image of God when describing what it means to be human.  Rather, human beings are created to be God’s caliphs:  God’s rulers on earth.  To say that humans are create in God’s image is to associate/equate something with God which is not acceptable in Islam.  (2) As God’s caliphs in the world, human being are to create and govern a just society according to the teachings of the Qur’an.

            While Islam thus differs somewhat from Judaism and Christianity, it does reflect the transcendent-immanent view of God.  Moreover, human beings  are both a part of the created order (finite), but stand in a special relationship to the Creator as his caliphs on earth (transcendent).


            Another consideration in defining the self deals with the concept of the individual and society.  It should be noted that the concept of the individual as the primary identity is to a large extent Western and modern.  In many societies, you are what the society says you are.  Your identity is that of a member of the group.  For example, in traditional Hinduism, the caste into which one is born determines one’s role and identity.

            Among the Western religions, Judaism has probably has focused most clearly on an individuals place in the group.  It isn’t that the group actually determines one’s role and identity; rather being a part of the Jewish community is an essential part of one’s identity. Thus you have a strong emphasis on rites of passage in which the individual which clarify the individual’s identity vis-à-vis the larger community:  Naming rituals, bar-mitzvah, etc.

            Typically in Christianity in the US. the individual’s identity is not so dtrongly defined by the group/community. (Exceptions to this statement can be found – such as in the Amish community).  One’s identity is defined less vis-à-vis the group and more by one’s own choices and accomplishments. As a matter of fact, participation in the community of faith is largely a matter of choice: one chooses the community that best reflects his/her sense of identity.