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Grateful Selves

Every dimension of what it means to be a loving person needs to be placed within the Christian theological understanding of God and the reciprocity of the love that God has for humankind and that humankind can have for God. The Christian acknowledgment that human beings are made in the image of God indicates that as whole persons united in themselves—as souls in fact—they are at liberty to follow the example of Christ. In so doing, Christians express their gratitude to God for all they have received and all they are when they give themselves in service to the well-being of the world, their neighbors, and society at large. This has implications for every human being who wants to contribute to “the common good,” which I assume includes every professional. The professional who knows what it means to be grateful to God is free to take account of other selves and to give attention to the client’s personal well-being, as well as his or her professional concern. In so doing, both professional and client are helped toward self-conscious maturity. There is no professional responsibility that is free from value judgment. Compliance and moral concern arise together and are in mutual support of one another. This is a fact that is true for everyone, though the Christian will ground it in the particular human relationship with God.

To sum up, my discussion of the Christian concept of selfhood has shed the following light on the concept of gratitude as understood in the Christian tradition. In the beginning, there is the wholeness of the commitment of God’s self to the world’s well-being. Our understanding of ourselves is rooted in our gratitude for this gift; the wholeness of humankind’s gratitude is expressed in the personal quality of its relationship with God, creation, and other people. God’s creative authority is apparent in his desire to reveal himself graciously rather than to demand attention, let alone unthinking obedience, to his commands. Hence he is said in Genesis to have taken care to see that the world was good (Gen. 1:31). The Hebrew word tobh covers a wide range of meanings but is commendatory in principle like the use of the English word “good.” In the case of the creation, the book of Genesis declares that God pronounces each day’s work to be “good,” which gives what he does special significance. I suggest that it implies that God was satisfied that his creation was capable of bearing the stamp of his loving presence and encouraging the character of human response in his image.

If that is indeed the character of God’s world, it can therefore be understood and, above all, enjoyed by humankind, since it will naturally encourage an analogous (if not identical) character and the emergence of a reciprocal quality of love. This is a key aspect of what it means to be human when looked at from the Christian perspective: humankind is blessed with the capacity to give and receive love. God profoundly realizes this in the person of Christ: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). I take “eternal life” here to imply “eternal awareness of the loving presence of God.” For those who have eyes to see, for those who have faith, the world does express the loving presence of God; so clearly is this the case that it can bear the stamp of God himself without threatening the distinct nature of either God or the creation. The invitation to humankind to try to follow the example of Christ and live in the image of God is therefore reasonable and not impossible. It was Pierre de Caussade, SJ, the French eighteenth-century writer on spirituality, who remarked that our Lord would not have commended perfection as a reasonable ambition for human beings if it were impossible. He goes on to say, “Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (cf. Matt. 5:48). It is possible in the moment; unfortunately, pride leads us to aim beyond our strength, which is not God’s will. As de Caussade writes, “The duty of the present moment is the only rule” (de Caussade, 1921, p. 57).

However, love is not an exclusive quality of the life of the faithful Christian. The Israelite tradition assumed love to be the central focus of the life of the pious Jew, who prayed the following every day: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deut. 6:4-5). This must be put alongside the words of the book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18). These two commands assume that humankind’s love of God embraces all one’s senses and the wholeness of creation, including other people. These many aspects of love were held together formally in Christ (Mk. 12:29-31).

 
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