God’s Provision, Humanity’s Need: The Gift of Our Dependence
In a recent class discussion on theological anthropology, one of my students raised her
hand and offered the class the gift of vulnerable honesty. Looking around the room, she expressed her frustration with being human. “Sometimes I get really frustrated by my need to sleep, that I don’t have enough time in the day, and that I have to eat.” Deep in the heart of the semester, her recognition of the challenge of human finitude struck a chord with all of us in the room. Weary from the rhythm of the academic semester, we all wished our limits, our need for sleep, our need to rest from writing papers or grading them, could be—to put it plainly—a little less limiting. However, my student’s admission of encountering her limitations as burdensome ignited an exploration of why we all struggle to see dependence on sleep, food, others, and God as gifts to cherish and celebrate rather than obstacles to overcome on our path to flourishing. As we discussed, we entered into a deep and honest reflection on what it means to be human.
During our discussion, Christa McKirkland’s book God’s Provision, Humanity’s Need: The Gift of Our Dependence, which I had been reading over the course of the semester, kept coming to mind. Her book, along with some other recent works in theological anthropology, draws on a thread long woven into the heart of Christian theology, namely, that to be a human is to be a creature whose existence is a gift and whose flourishing is found in depending on God and living in his presence. McKirkland, however, draws on this thread and develops it, incorporating insights from contemporary biblical studies, theology, and analytic philosophy in order to present a rich account of humans as creatures who need the personal presence of God to flourish—a gift that God graciously provides. The beauty of her book is its ability to remind us that our dependence on God and the need for his presence is a gift to be embraced rather than a burden to be tolerated. The contribution of her book to contemporary discussions is a fresh, creative, and constructive account that utilizes the concept of ‘fundamental need’ from analytic philosophy to produce an account of what it means to be human that integrates biblical studies and theology.
Utilizing and building on the analytic philosopher Garrett Thompson, McKirkland begins her work by laying out his understanding of fundamental need. According to McKirkland, the constitution of a thing determines “the fundamental needs it has” (2). Flourishing comes when fundamental needs are met, whereas lack results in harm. Understanding the constitution of a thing illuminates what it needs to flourish. For example, “a rose needs sunlight in order to flourish because it is a plant.” (2) Applying this to humanity, McKirkland argues to be human is to have a fundamental need for a“second-personal relation to God,” and this is foundational for human flourishing. This need is a passive disposition, which can only be met through divine gift, and it remains a need whether it is being met or not. The meeting of this fundamental need results in human flourishing, whereas the lack of this need results in harm or impoverishment.
Furthermore, applying the concept of fundamental need to biblical themes in the second and third parts of her book, McKirkland points out that even before the fall, the proper end of humans, who are created in the image, was to become like Christ (the true image) through “reliance on the divine presence (the Spirit),” and to bear the divine presence to the world. (85) Dependence and need, then, are not a result of the fall but a part of the original creation. Humanity was always meant, through reliance on the Spirit to become like Christ, who is the one and only true image of God. After the fall, God continues to graciously provide a means to his second-personal presence, particularly through Christ. Masterfully weaving together the biblical symbols and themes of temple, bread, water, Sonship, and covenant community (some of the best parts of this book!), McKirkland shows how these realities “stress the need for all humanity to be in second-personal relation with the divine presence. From Eden to the garden in Revelation, God’s presence is the centerpiece of the biblical narrative, and human beings are meant to be in special relation to that presence” (122).
McKirkland concludes her book with a constructive theological proposal in which she seeks to integrate the biblical themes in parts two and three with the concept of fundamental need to develop what she describes as a pneumachristocentric anthropology. In a review of this length, it isn’t possible to explore the intricacies of this approach, but the broad strokes are as follows: “The Spirit is the empowering personal presence of God,” and human beings “must rely on the Spirit to flourish” (160). The Son, the second person of the Trinity, is the true image of God. When the Son, the image, is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, “the true image in human form” both mediates the divine presence and “need[s] the divine presence himself” (160). The incarnate Christ lives a Spirit-directed life. McKirkland here is careful to note that the Christ- Spirit connection is not just related to his humanity (which needs the relational divine presence to flourish) but also because of the relations of the persons of the Trinity. However, what becomes clear is that for McKirkland, a pneumachristocentric anthropology affirms that to be human is to need communion with God. This need is not an imperfection but “the greatest creaturely dignity God could have granted” (179). For McKirkland, communion with God is made possible by the incarnation of the Second person of the Trinity—which would have happened even without a fall. The goal of the incarnation is to bring humanity to its intended end, which is union with Christ—full flourishing in communion with God, “becoming like the true image” (179). This end can only happen through the work of the Spirit. After the fall, the incarnation restores the possibility of reaching this intended end, but it is a restoration to humanity’s proper end.
Drawing back to the honest and vulnerable discussion in my class a few weeks ago, McKirkland’s work is a beautiful reminder and exposition of the reality that human need is not a result of the fall. Rather, dependence is a gift, and as she says so poignantly, this is “the greatest creaturely dignity God could have granted” (179). Why? Because it is a recognition that God graciously gives us the gift of communion with him, and in that, we find our flourishing. This reminder is beautifully communicated throughout the book. However, while God’s Provision, Humanity’s Need has much to offer and contemplate, there are also some theological moves and implications that McKirkland makes that don’t always seem obvious or inevitable from the biblical exegesis in the first half of the book. Even as she notes that her constructive section is a ‘skeleton’ of a pneumatochristocentric anthropology, I often wished that she engaged more with other works of theological anthropology or accounts of the image of God from the Christian tradition that also highlight creaturely dependence as a created (not fallen) reality. These critiques aside, it is well worth reading, especially the sections that explore various biblical themes.