Being a person with integrity
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
2 Corinthians 3:1–3
I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:8
In the third lecture, I show how the process of making the self into an emotional and public matter finds its most potent expression in the technology of the Internet, a technology which presupposes and enacts a public emotional self and in fact even makes the public emotional self precede private interactions and constitute them.
Cold Intimacies, The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Eva Illouz
As Christians we strongly hold to the idea of personal selves. But we have to ask ourselves ‘what constitutes our personal selves?’ I picked up this book Cold Intimacies at the Rochester L’Abri Conference last year. It is a sociologist’s argument that sociology ought to include emotions as a major field in their discipline. But I’m no sociologist, I’m a pastor thinking about caring for the souls of people. The summary of her argument in her third essay reminded me again of the perilous depersonalization that has defined our generation. So in this devotion, I want to think through this depersonalization, then I want to commend, just a little, how Paul extends his personhood beyond his immediate context through his letters. And then we might have a path for us to travel.
So first, I think the 20th century was a century of depersonalization. Beginning with the car in the early 20th century, then the development of consumerism in the mid-century, to the internet at the end, we built all the tools to distance ourselves from other humans which had the result of diminishing our personhood. So for instance, without the car, we were less able (except perhaps for the very wealthy, the ‘landed gentry’) to live differentiated lives. Humans lived closer together because they had to. And so your neighbor included a more mixed multitude. Remember how Jesus walked the world and said, ‘You will always have the poor with you.’ In other words, they’ll always be around. There are certain places in cities where there is still this mixing of economics and cultures. My brother lives in an area where some wealthier people live and then there are homeless encampments. Most people avoid that. The point is: we can very easily choose to only see the neighbors we’re comfortable seeing. We pick one grocery store vs. another because of which is more comfortable. We chose one church over another. And the result is that we are mostly in contexts where we have chosen and where we are affirmed and rarely feel threatened (by loss of status or theft). I know I would hesitate to go to a private golf club again. I feel threatened because I know I don’t know their codes. How does this affect our personhood? I think it makes it easier to hide ourselves when we’re around the places we chose and are rarely in places that we can’t control. That’s our average place. And I think it makes us less likely to mature in our personness. And now the internet has come along and suggested that your interactions online constitute your personhood more than even your in-person relationships. And it isn’t too hard to see this. We talk about others cheaply. I am amazed how in conversation people will dismiss others they don’t know by attaching them to an identity. ‘He’s a Christian Nationalist,’ says one, ‘they’re CRT,’ says another, all resulting in dismissing a someone’s personhood as they join a depersonalized category in our head. And oddly enough, we are content with the shallow personhood that we express online as though it even can attempt to become our whole selves. Now I realize that this isn’t all of us all of the time, but I am afraid we’re often going to be tempted in this way in our cultural context, and it has no signs of letting up.
I think the apostle Paul commends a different approach. Paul was physically present in places. And he worked with people, had conversations with people, knew people, and loved people. When he was absent from these friends, he used his personhood for spiritual renewal and edification in specific letters. There’s wasn’t any of this pontificating that is common in online discourse. I’ve just listed above a few instances where he grounds his heartfelt, personal interaction in his letters in how he gave of his very self—in person. Paul and Silas gave their own selves. The people of Corinth are a letter of recommendation. Paul vouches for Onesimus with his very self. If our online interactions were grounded in our real hard-fought and real relationships in life, and we had that real aim of spiritual edification and pursuing good, I wonder if Christian discourse (both in person and online) might be more edifying. Unfortunately, we have had a long strain of men and women who act more like Christian trolls and have somehow cultivated a bombastic person on the internet that sometimes is unfortunately reflected in their personal lives and sometimes is actually the opposite of their very ministry and lives. Men and women in previous generations have had the temptation to live such double lives (I think John Yoder is one egregious example), but this double living is now democratized. Now anyone can have this dissociative identity dispersed throughout the world, which is really just a shallow exercise of personhood.
With all that theorizing, then what do we do? First, I’d suggest that we ought to as much as we can invest in real relationships where God has placed us and ask ‘How can I not neglect the least of these and how can I not neglect the richest of these and everyone in between.’ Love the widow and orphan as a friend. Give your very self. When Jesus said, ‘You’ll always have the poor with you,’ I think his intention wasn’t that we give up on helping those in need, but that we not exhaust ourselves at the expense of our place in the world. We have various callings. So the disciples should have valued their time with Christ and let the woman pour the ointment over Jesus for his burial. Let it be, you’ll have ample opportunity every day or week. Tomorrow, you can still care for others.
Second, I’d suggest that your personhood is constituted in your in-the-life relationships especially. Ground all of your interactions in being with people. This is why your pastors are expected to be hospitable: their personhood is a unified expression whether in the more intimate setting of their homes or their public teaching and everywhere in between. Let your more distant interactions be more like seasoning that flow out of your real life. Like the apostle Paul, having given of himself in real life, then communicate to edify others.
Finally, a person’s personhood is actually constituted by creation: we were made in the image and likeness of God. And so our personhood is grounded first in worship of God and then in living in accordance with God’s word. When we live double lives, when we express or support bitterness, rivalry, dissension, envy, or the like online or in person, we are not living in accordance with God’s words, and we should perhaps take a step back and reorder our priorities. Our aim instead should be integrity, consistency throughout our lives and with God’s word.