In thinking about original blessing, we come face to face with the notion of creation. Or rather, of being created, of being creatures. But what does it mean to be created? What does it mean to be made in God’s image? And how does a meditation on our createdness affect how we live and how we treat others?
Let’s start by looking at an example from a very traditional source: a passage by John Calvin, the powerful Reformation theologian whose influence is still felt in the various Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, and in a few Baptist denominations. In one section of his masterwork, the 4-volume Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin repeats several times the argument that “we are not our own” but “are God’s.”
(You can find a translation online under the name “On the Christian Life,” Book II, Section 1.)
We’ve all heard this idea a million times: we have been bought by Christ and now belong to God. This idea did not originate with Calvin; the scriptures tell us repeatedly to do God’s will rather than our own, to seek God’s ways instead of relying on our own wisdom. When Jesus prayed in the Garden, he asked that God’s will be done, even though it conflicted with this own. This idea is therefore at the heart of the Christian message, and Calvin reminds us that we need to live lives devoted to the God who has called us to be examples of God’s glory, just as Israel was meant to be an example of justice, peace and worship for the world.
So, what does this idea have to do being created? In most churches, probably not much; it’s taught to be more about the atonement, and this was probably Calvin’s intention as well. But if you’ve ever read any Buddhist texts, you might be able to see another way to read this passage, one that seems just as valid but that focuses more on our creation than on our redemption.
How? Through the idea that the life we experience is not really our self. To put it as simply as I know how: one of Buddha’s teachings is that we don’t have an eternal soul – it arose through a series of events and is therefore not a stable object, not permanent, not independent, not autonomous. We are not self-existent, but exist only as the result of external factors. Therefore, the body, the mind, the feelings that we experience are not truly our self.
Centuries later, this idea was captured by one of the patriarchs of Zen Buddhism, Huineng. As a student at the monastery, Huineng heard that one of the star monks had written that Buddhism meant keeping the mirror of the mind clean. Huineng knew right away that this statement was false; instead, the student should have written that there is no mirror to keep clean. The presence of a mirror would imply a stable core of the self; but there is no stable core – therefore, there is no mirror to get dirty in the first place.
This concept – the emptiness of human nature – doesn’t mean that we don’t exist (this idea would be as incorrect as saying we do exist), but that we are constantly changing and being changed by our experiences and surroundings, which themselves are constantly changing. For Buddhists, it is only by realizing the impermanence of the world, including ourselves, that we can become free from the attachments and cravings that cause us anxiety and suffering.
That’s a very simplified explanation of a complicated idea (one that has many interpretations). But it should be enough to shed new light on Calvin’s statement about belonging to God. I want to be clear: I’m not equating Christianity with Zen (although many scholars see similarities). I don’t believe Christianity would accept that human nature is truly empty. The notion of creation implies that there is something that has been created – something that remains beneath the changes of our lives. So the two traditions maintain some fundamental differences.
Still, I think the notion of emptiness can be very useful for understanding what it means to be created. For even if Christianity proclaims that we do have some sort of stable core, a “self” that exists before God and that perseveres through all the world’s fluctuations, it remains the fact that this self – whatever it is – is not eternal. This self at one time did not exist. And it did not come into existence by its own effort. We certainly did not create ourselves!
Now let us look back at Calvin. He begins his passage by reminding us:
“We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours.”
I don’t know that there is no mirror to wipe clean. But I do know that our lives are gifts to us: our bodies, our talents, our families, our hometowns, our neighbors, etc. Everything we have – everything we are – comes from God. There is nothing for us to claim for ourselves that is not truly God’s gift to us. In fact, everything we grasp onto is also created by God: the possessions we are attached to, the relationships we cling to, the jobs we trust in, the power and wealth we strive for – even the people we despise are all made by God. We cannot own ourselves, and we cannot own things; why do we continue to hold fast to these mistaken ideas about the world?
Calvin’s response is for us to deny ourselves and focus on our Creator:
“On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him. We are God’s; therefore, let his wisdom and will preside over all our actions. We are God’s; to him, then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed.”
In these statements, we see the importance of our createdness. By meditating on the fact that God created us, we realize how little we truly have to hold onto besides God. If our life is God’s – including the skills we so arrogantly boast of, the body we so carelessly wear and the mind we so indiscriminately fill – if there is no “us” outside of what God has created, no self other than what God has given us, and if there are no things that God did not also create, then our relationship to the entire world changes. God becomes the goal of our existence, replacing wealth and power and pleasure. God becomes the source of our wisdom, instead of science or psychology or even religion. God becomes our comfort, our strength, our guide. Even death is not fearsome. The world truly does become empty; and so do we – empty vessels ready to be filled with God’s love and light.
There may in fact be a mirror that needs to be wiped clean. But that mirror is itself God’s gift to us. We are created, not just in God’s image, but by God’s choice, by God’s love, for God’s friendship. Our entire existence belongs to God. Let us therefore rethink our view of ourselves, cast off our sense of independence and learn to live for the One who gave us life, for the one who alone is able to give us true freedom – freedom to live in the very image of God!
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.