Walter Wink’s The Human Being

by Alan F. Segal

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I am delighted to review Walter Wink’s book, The Human Being: Jesus and theEnigma of the Son of the Man. Walter Wink and I occupy practically the same space at different times. We go regularly through the same corridors at Union Theological Seminary, but mostly on different schedules. So we share something in common in daily life as well as the problems he studies. Wink’s book contains an enormous number of really interesting, provocative, and significantly new perceptions about the famous Son of Man problem. It also contains some puzzlements for me, which I will address here.

I want to say that I am not a Jungian but I appreciate a good Jungian treatment when I see one and I think that there are a number of interesting perceptions which come from this book because of its Jungian orientation. As a theology that emerges from a psychological and therapeutic perspective, Wink’s Jungianism changes the focus from history to the effect of the story on an individual who hears it today. Instead of presenting us with the Christ of dogma, which has dominated Western theology, Wink tries to show that the Son of Man is best understood as an archetype, which helps us understand our humanity. The goal of our psychic development in Jungian terms is individuation. God is a way of using external symbols to help us individuate. As Wink says:  

If God is in some sense true humanness, then divinity inverts itself. Divinity is not a qualitatively different reality; quite the reverse, divinity is fully realized humanity. Only God is, as it were, Human. The goal of life, then, is not to become something we are not—divine—but to become what we truly are—human. We are not required to become divine: flawless, perfect, without blemish. We are invited simply to become human, which means growing through our sins and mistakes, learning by trial and error, being redeemed over and over from compulsive behavior—becoming ourselves, scars and all. It means embracing and transforming those elements in us that we find unacceptable. It means giving up pretending to be good and, instead, becoming real. (29)

I do have a quibble with Wink here because my understanding of the Jungian system suggests to me that Son of Man cannot in fact be an archetype. It must be something more developed than that because it is a culturally developed symbol and not a predisposition to understand the world in a certain way. I would call the Son of Man a constellation in Jungian terms.

Beyond the symbolic or constellated treatment of the Son of Man, Wink emphasizes the apocalyptic traditions of transformation as the background for the depiction of the Son of Man. This is quite important and helpful I think. We see that the angelomorphic traditions and transformations of various persons into the son of man or God’s Glory in one merkabah text and in several of the Enoch traditions. A new book, too new to be included by Wink, bears this out. It shows, I think, that the angelic liturgy, 11QshirShab, describes a liturgy in heaven but the officiants are not merely angels. They also include the leaders of the Qumran community who have been transformed into angels. So the process of transformation of human beings into angels is more thoroughly pre-Christian than I thought and certainly more founded in Jewish life than even Wink describes. See Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis, All the Glory of Adam: Liturgical Anthropology in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

All of this, of course, helps demonstrate that the Jungian symbol or archetype or constellation which Wink describes is already working quite well in Jewish society even before the life of Jesus. And of course this would be the problem with the story from the point of view of a non-Jungian Christian for whom the events of Jesus’ life should not just demonstrate the process of individuatation but offer an insight, a revelation that has never before been witnessed. The historical Jesus ought to offer a way to avoid this quandary. The quandary is best understood by Feuerbach’s famous dictum, quoted by Wink that “humanity empties itself into transcendence” (35). By this he means that humanity projects its capacities and values onto an imaginary, supernatural figure. Awareness of God is nothing but self-consciousness writ large. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of human nature perfected. This is exactly what Jung suggests happens. But for Jung the process is positive; for Feuerbach it is not. The historical Jesus, one immediately feels, is the datum of human life that will keep the Son of Man from escaping into self-projection. For Wink, the historical Jesus represents this new revelation, not in a theological but an epistemological sense. As he says, “[We should] regard a ‘revelation’ as any new idea that bursts upon the world with sufficient force to bring about positive change in people and history” (14–15).

For Wink, the historical Jesus, by proclaiming the Reign of God, is also proclaiming the end of the domination system in any form. This apparently comes from work which Wink developed in his previous trilogy of books on the powers that be. Here, I am at a disadvantage because I admit, to my detriment, that I have not read those well-known books. I have no excuse and offer that fact as a criticism of myself, not him; but it does keep me from appreciating the full force of Wink’s argument.

This is a modern de-mythologization and re-mythologization of the figure of the Son of Man. There is nothing in the ancient world to suggest that anyone thought of the Son of Man in this particular way. Indeed, the Son of Man was a figure of vengeance, someone who was going to even the score between Israel and her enemies in the ancient period. Wink is using the historical record to display and expose his theology of Christianity. The Son of Man becomes not just the figure of the ancient world but one who can be understood in the modern world. It is not history and it is not uniquely Christian either. As with the Son of Man, one does not really have to be Christian to appreciate the sentiment that the historical Jesus is the person who reveals that the domination system in any form is to be defeated. But that is the great problem. Since it is not an historical claim, it is actually a claim for the universal significance of the Son of Man as a symbol of human liberation. This is essentially the same kind of claim that Jungian analysis yields.

I have a rule of thumb when looking at religious claims. If an idea is recursive or never fully instantiatable on earth, it is not an historical claim. This would include concepts like “the Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.” We could also suggest that the peace that surpasses understanding or the kingdom of God, are similar constructs. All these are important claims; they are transcendent claims by definition. Indeed, I would submit that they are religious ways of proclaiming transcendent truths and that all religions have them. By defining the Son of Man as the figure who brings an end to the domination system in any form, one is actually defining a universal human and transcendent symbol, not the divinity of early Christianity.

It is another question whether there are actually transcendent values or whether they really are fictional, and just recursive claims. That is to say, just because we say that there is a Tao that surpasses any understanding does not mean that there is one. Because we say that we can posit an heavenly figure called the Son of Man does not say that such a figure exists. It only says that we can imagine a symbol that has this significance for us in our attempt to symbolize the greatest goals of human life. We could just as easily say that the force of the Star Wars trilogy is just such a symbol, though everyone understands it is fictional.

It is also another question altogether whether all of these symbolizations similarly fall victim to Feuerbach’s observation that we empty ourselves into transcendence and, thus, lose the chance to live authentically. If we deliberately make up symbols which we know are fictional, are we then avoiding Feuerbach’s critique of human religion? These are large questions which need to be addressed more fully in the book or somewhere else in Wink’s very important system.

In some sense then, Wink’s book is not one that attempts to resolve the issue of the historical Jesus and the Son of Man. It is a book that uses the Jungian analytic model to sidestep the entire historical question. It is saying that the importance of the Son of Man has little to do with its historical instantiation: In fact, the historical question is swallowed up in transcendence. Rather the Son of Man is a Jungian constellation of values, the purpose of which is to help us individuate as persons. Therefore the actual historical question is irrelevant; it is the potency of the symbol which does the work for Jungianism.

I am partly sympathetic to this position, I must say, because it honestly admits that certain historical understandings of the Son of Man before Christianity are not really relevant to the Christian theological understanding of the problem. But this is complicated by the fact that Wink does make historical judgments throughout his development, some of them quite astute. I am partly sympathetic with Wink’s analysis because I, too, think that a symbol that functions to free us from any domination system is important. On the other hand, because I believe that the entire historical Jesus question is extremely difficult, though, in theory, not impossible to resolve, I am not sure that this is the right place to hang that particular and very worthy symbolization, that every domination system must be defeated. It may even be that the Son of Man problem is impossible to resolve, in practice, with the information we have, though it is certainly, in principle, resolvable. We simply need more historical data to resolve the problem. But it also seems rational to me to think that we will not resolve the interpretation of the Son of Man until we look at what Jesus could have meant when he used the term. Did he mean a person who was against any domination system? I doubt it; he seems to have been referring to a heavenly redeemer figure in Daniel 7:13ff but that is not entirely clear to me.

I personally believe that the attempt to demonstrate that the Son of man is a reflexive idiom in Aramaic is pretty lame. It is not the same as hahu gavra; but I cannot demonstrate that in detail here. On the other hand, it also seems clear to me that the term Son of Man was never a title in New Testament times, though I have been following convention and capitalizing it. Wink seems to recognize this but he does not take that observation far enough. If it is not a title, what is it? I would suggest that what is happening in these cases is that people are referring to the vision in Daniel and discussing the identity of the two angelic figures in Daniel’s dream. The rabbinic and Jewish ways of dealing with these texts would be to link the figure with a known figure, someone else who appears in Scripture.

It is possible that Jesus identified himself with that figure, on the basis of the same kind of angelification process we can see at Qumran. But we do not have enough information right now to propound that as proven. On the other hand, we do know that this connection is the basis of the post-Easter proclamation of the church; and that really is enough to understand how Christianity came up with its connection between the son of man and the messiah. It is even present in Paul’s writing, if you make allowances for the fact that Paul describes the heavenly figure as the anthropos, or the Christ and never the son of man. This suggests to me that Paul was too good in Hebrew and Greek to make the same kind of mistake that the Gospels do. This is Wink’s position as well. In the end the historical issues are not the most important issues; and they are sometimes insoluble issues because we do not have the information we need. On top of that, as Wink is aware, we never quite escape our own time in describing them, as Wink notes; but that is not to say that historical issues are unimportant. I am just suggesting that an historian may not be satisfied with this detour around the problem that Wink has given us, clever though it may be.

My own religious commitments suggest to me that all these symbologies are relative and do help us understand our world. Any symbolic system that makes absolute claims would be a kind of idolatry. But if it points to a transcendent value, it can help us understand our place in the world. I do not actually take a Jungian point of view as necessary or primary, only a possible and personal way of looking at how the symbols function, mostly because, as Wink also points out, life is lived communally and so the symbols must have social signification as well as personal signification. Different communities will find different symbols more important.

Jungianism offers us, primarily, a psychological understanding of symbols. It also behooves us to try to understand why religious symbols are such poignant and important signifiers for us in each society and speculate on how they can be compared adequately. When viewed in society the symbols themselves, as well as their transcendent referents, are continually being revalued by society. Wink’s book is just such a remythologization.

An important perception comes from J. M. Balkin, Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). He compares the ideological content of culture to software. At first, this may seem to compare the human brain with a computer and hence to replicate the mistakes of Cartesian dualism; but this is not so. Balkin does not merely restate the Cartesian mind-body problem because he suggests that ideology, even culture itself, is a kind of software or programming, not that the human mind is a computer. Individual minds are only secondarily involved since culture is not produced by individual minds at all; it is an intersubjective phenomenon. Furthermore, it is not meant to suggest that ideology programs us to perform as machines, without having to make decisions. It merely gives us the terms with which we make our decisions, and those terms very often predispose our decisions.

Religion is, from this perspective, like the program Windows, or any other graphic operating system. The program utilizes a simple metaphor: a personal computer can be managed like a desk-top. Because of that visualization, any computer user can then perform important procedures—move, copy, store files, perform various useful operations. But a computer is in no literal sense a desktop. There is no literal analogy between the two. Religion is, likewise, a creative visualization that allows us to live our lives within a culture and society. The difference is that religion is part of a much larger and more complicated symbol system than the society of DOS computer users and claims to point to transcendent values that go beyond the experience of any individual person believing it.

Although we may have conventions and traditions for dealing with the world, in a culture we have a group of different and sometimes contradictory ones and we differ in social class, as well as political and economic groupings, as well as in our personal abilities to adjudicate between them. It is hard to think, therefore, that only one symbol can or does express the will of humanity to form a society without a system of domination. Our culture does not force us to make decisions but predisposes us to see decisions in certain culturally approved terms. Furthermore, each of the units of this software, units Richard Dawkins called memes, (suggesting both the English “memory” [after the Greek, mimesis, imitation] and the French [ même ]), changes over time, sometimes due to an individual talent but never only because of one person. Richard Dawkins, “Viruses of the Mind,” in Dennett and His Critics, Bo Dahlbom, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993): 13–27.

It is not clear to me whether memes need to be real, actual, cultural basic units of transmission or just heuristic devices for linking biological principles with cultural norms. If memes need to be real, which part of a myth provides us with the basic unit? I am not sure that is a profitable way to go; moreover, I am sure that investigating that now will take us far from the point of this essay. I am sure that, however one chooses to refer to culturally transmitted ideas, religion plays a significant role in the perpetuation of culture, something that Jungianism in its classic formulation was unable to address fully. The self-evidence we call religion is in constant need of renovation. None of this is adequately theorized in the classically expressed Jungian system, though it may be discussed by more modern Jungians.

In the end, my observations about Wink’s book can be summed up by looking at the title, indeed, both the title and the subtitle. Son of Man does not mean human being whose presence in the heaven destroys the system of earthly oppression; historically, it refers to an angel or divine character who was shaped like a human being and who will bring justice to those in a small religious group who are oppressed. Wink is therefore breathing new life into this symbol, a life that goes beyond its original meaning in its original context. Perhaps that is why I would seek to use the term theology in describing Wink’s work. However, there are historical observations in his work: for instance, Christianity innovated by identifying the figure in the vision at Daniel 7:13 with the man Jesus. That, of course, is no guarantee that people in Christianity will not use the symbol to reassert a system of domination over others.

Positing the existence of transcendence is itself a transcendent value, as we cannot be entirely sure that we have not just happened on a culturally important symbol that will lose its importance when translated into another culture or time. It may be that the symbol should lose its sense of transcendence, if it is misused by a society to promote one religious truth over another, to re-establish a domination system. That too makes the process of conceiving these ideas recursive. But that really does not matter much just now; they are functional to us as definitions if they point to the phenomenon in culture; and they are functional to us in society, if they do help us value and emulate some positive norm, even if we must always fall short of attaining it.

Indeed, most of our formulations of transcendence are combinations of high ideals with images that fail to express transcendence as time goes on. For example, the Grail legend encompassed a great many of the characteristics of transcendence. For the society that produced it, the Grail represented an ideal of courtly love, sexual innocence, religious fervor, endurance, and devotion, all represented narratively. Yet, today many would argue that its devaluation of women, sexuality, and ordinary existence could be seen as a real failure of human potential. Though we seem still to be able to appreciate some aspects of its symbolization, even when it is presented by, let us say, an intolerant, anti-Semitic man like Richard Wagner in his opera, Parzifal, we certainly say that we only appreciate the artistic achievement in and of itself and reject the social context that we recognize is behind it. Even more important is the problem of the subtitle. It reads, Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man . It could equally well read: The Human Being: The Enigma of Jesus and the Son of Man. The character of the Son of Man is, in the end, historically clearer to us than the character of Jesus.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2003, Vol. 53,  No 2.