Quaker Theology #14

We Are the Missing Link
Reflections on Walter Wink’s The Human Being

Douglas Gwyn

The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, Walter Wink. Augsburg Fortress, 368 pages, $26.00.

When I began my seminary education at Union in New York in 1971, I took a New Testament survey course with Walter Wink. I vividly recall that he began his first lecture by announcing that historical criticism of the Bible is "bankrupt."

I was shocked. In some survey courses I had taken in college, historical criticism had added valuable perspective on the Bible. For one terrible moment, I feared I had chosen the wrong seminary! In the weeks that followed, I learned that Wink did not reject historical-critical interpretation, but urged that we must advance with more reader-centered, depth-psychological, and politically engaged forms of interpretation.

Many of us have gained over the years from Wink’s engaged biblical scholarship, particularly his trilogy on ‘the powers’: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). He later summarized that work in The Powers That Be (1998). Wink used Pauline and other New Testament texts, in combination with modern psychological and sociological theory, to define the spirituality, or interiority, of institutions. He further combined that elaborate hermeneutic (interpretive structure) with his own political engagement for change in South Africa and elsewhere. The result is a compelling vision for faith-based communities to see their world with new eyes, and to respond to violence and injustice with transformative courage.

Human Being and Human Becoming

Wink’s work on the powers helps us see the institutional forces that prevent us from realizing our full humanity. Here I want to focus on a successor work, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Fortress, 2002). In it Wink takes a different (but complementary) tack, utilizing the "Son of Man" sayings of the gospels to define what it means to become more fully human.

The Human Being is long and challenging, but rewards perseverance. I believe it could be useful to Friends and others looking for ways to renew and apply a Christian faith in our time. It combines solid New Testament scholarship with Jungian archetypal psychology and a trenchant vision for personal and social transformation. (In a helpful Glossary, Wink offers a definition of archetypes as inherited patterns of thought derived from the experience of the human race generally. These exist in the collective unconscious of our species but are known to us only through specific archetypal images in individual consciousness.)

Wink’s title is a variant of the traditional biblical term, "son of man," which he uses interchangeably with more gender-inclusive paraphrases such as "Human Being," "Humanchild," and "Wisdom’s Child." He pointedly credits Elizabeth Boyden Howes [Intersection and Beyond (1971) and Jesus’ Answer to God (1984)] for her pioneering work in identifying the archetypal dimension of the Son of Man sayings.

As a starting point, Wink notes that as we look around the world today, we seem to be losing the struggle for humanization. Violence, oppression, domination, terror, poverty, and environmental degradation are at unprecedented levels. What can we learn from Jesus about being human, and can that help us overcome these plagues?

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