Since the days when I was a little child I’ve been interested in the roles human beings play–child, parent, teacher, student, coach, player, minister, congregant, etc.–and how much those roles really are roles, as in characters that actors assume in a play or movie. Something inside me has always said that our roles in family, work, society, etc. are only things we put on and that they aren’t really, well, us.
Sure, in day-to-day dealings with others I’m often caught up with the role rather than the human being behind that role–either mine or the other person’s. But I also often find myself trying to see the other person as a human being per se, and not merely as he is filling what Aristotle might call an accidental role at that moment.
There’s a lot of good in trying to see every other human being in his essential humanity. If you believe, as I do, that every human is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), then everyone is, essentially, of infinitely more value than any role he may happen to be playing. Such a view, incidentally, is in keeping with the second formulation of Immanual Kant’s categorical imperative, which says that one should treat every other human being not as a means to an end, but as an end in himself.
Expecting others, however, to treat us in this way can, to put it mildly, lead to disappointment. Even at age 50 I occasionally find myself saddened that someone I thought really like me may have actually cared more about what I could do for him. Imagine that.
In fact, taking an instrumental view of others, by which we see another person as an instrument to use toward our own selfish ends, is one side of the essence of the sin that afflicts all humanity (Rom. 3:23). The other side, of course, is disobedience to God. Maybe that’s why Jesus summarized the whole Old Testament in two laws: love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:37-40).
Today’s column is a little more technical than I usually write, but it’s a preview of a feature I plan to start here tomorrow: Theological Thursdays. Please check back then to find out more. Thanks for reading.