God’s Provision, Humanity’s Need: The Gift of Our Dependence offers a fresh and insightful proposal for what it means to be human. With the tools of analytic theology and philosophy, Christa McKirland establishes and unpacks the thesis that all humans have a fundamental need for a second-personal relationship with God. While the notion of “need” is often viewed negatively, as a deficiency or lack of some thing, she turns this idea on its proverbial head demonstrating that our need for a second-personal relationship with God not only distinguishes us, but is in fact the foundation for our dignity and value. This fundamental human need serves not as liability but as an asset in fulfilling human destiny, namely, flourishing in communion with God and his presence. Our need is God’s gift to us; his presence is his provision for us.
The book is a tour de force in theological anthropology. Her proposal is not only worthy of deep reflection by professors, but pastors, priests, and parishioners alike will benefit greatly in discovering what it means to be a flourishing human.
This is not a review per se. Instead, I offer a few reflections from my gleanings on what I found to be significant contributions to my understanding. Hopefully I have captured her gist and my musings encourage a wide readership of this excellent offering.
First, after “Defining Fundamental Human Need” (chapter 1), chapters 2-4 take on the imago Dei. As I said elsewhere, “not a little ink has spilled over the centuries … on what it means for humans to be created in the image of God.” With substantive engagement with Catherine McDowell’s significant work (summed here), McKirland concludes early on that “being made in the image [of God] is best described relationally … and this is intimately related to knowing God second-personally” (pp 46-47, emphasis mine). How this fundamental human need relates to the imago Dei becomes clearer in the final chapter as she loops into the equation the humanity of Christ and the Spirit. She explains,
God always intended to have a special relationship with human creatures whereby they would depend on God’s own presence and become more like God’s self as expressed in the incarnate Logos. At the incarnation, the Logos chose to enter into our same human needs and depend on the Spirit as a fundamental aspect of his humanness … On such an account, the concept of “the image of God” functions as the mechanism connecting Christ’s humanity to all humanity. (p 158)
As I understand, the imago Dei serves as a means of or (perhaps) the faculty by which this fundamental human need is expressed. As we embrace God’s “gift” by leaning in on our dependency just as Christ did, then we come closer to being more like him.
To be sure, there is discontinuity between Christ’s humanity and ours. After all, humans are created in God’s image, whereas Christ is the image of God (Col 1, Heb 1, 2 Cor 4:4, et al.). Still, because we share the same fundamental human need to have a second-personal relationship with God, there is also continuity between Christ’s humanity and ours. As the consummate paradigmatic expression of human form (our Second Adam), Christ is our telos (or goal) for achieving optimal human flourishing.
Second, criteria used to identify a fundamental human need include whether the need is “non-circumstantial” and “inescapable.” For a need to be non-circumstantial it must persist regardless of external circumstances. A need is inescapable when the need remains present, despite desires that emerge from that need being met. Though my thirst is satisfied with drinking water, she writes, I still need water. I still need food, even while eating a meal and satisfying my hunger. That is, while desires that emerge from a need can be satisfied, the need remains; it is inescapable.
One implication to theological anthropology suggests that even when desire for a second-personal relationship with God is met, the fundamental need behind the desire continues. Further still, this aspect of human existence remains true into the eschaton. My future self will continue to have this foundational, inescapable need because intimacy with God is ever expanding. Like a ballon that is ever expanding when being inflated, my need for God persists into eternity.
Third, image bearing humans are embodied and “emplaced” beings. With the introduction of sin, humans become displaced, dislocated. In fact, “being displaced, is central to God’s judgment in Genesis 3” as the first humans were banished from God’s presence (p 68). Our sense of God’s presence is, therefore, either lost altogether or distorted at best. Even our sense of place in this world and in this body is fragile and fractured.
The good news is that God intervenes with a plan to reintroduce his presence. McKirland puts it beautifully:
God initiates a covenant with Abraham that includes promise of worldwide blessing for people and a blessing of place in the form of land. Later, in the covenant at Sinai, God covenants to meet with his people in the place of the tabernacle — a place patterned after the prototype in heaven. The through line appears to be God’s intention to relate to humanity through God‘s own presence, which must be related to by emplaced persons. This circumscription exists not because God cannot be everywhere but because humans are embodied, and, therefore, emplaced. (pp 68-69, emphasis mine)
It is through the incarnate Son, who is himself God emplaced, that we rediscover our sense of place. We begin learning what it means to be temples who bear God’s image; sanctuaries from which God’s glory emerges. Our sense of place is then restored as we discover – and continually rediscover – God’s personal presence. The net remains of our lives, therefore, are spent cashing this out by drawing closer to the One who is closest to us and present in us by the Spirit. In so doing, we express and extend God’s image into the world.
Finally, the conclusion in her last chapter brilliantly sums the entire work:
The dispositional need for a second personal relation to God requires ongoing fulfillment … While having needs is typically understood negatively, on this view, such need indicates the greatest creaturely dignity God could have granted humankind — that it is created to be dynamically satisfied in and through communion with the triune life of God. Such communion is made possible through the incarnation of the Logos, who put on human form, so that all humanity might reach its intended end of union with the divine presence and becoming like the true image through the work of the Spirit. (p 179, emphasis original)
Christa McKirland’s God’s Provision, Humanity’s Need is rich with insights and implications. I know that I will be pondering it for some time, referring back to it frequently. I’m grateful for the gift that it is in showing me the infinite value of God’s gift of dependency.
Foreword by Alan J. Torrance
Introduction: Theological Anthropology and Human Need
Part 1: Introducing Need
1. Defining Fundamental Human Need
Part 2: The Image of God
2. The Image of God and Initial Humans
3. The Image of God and Jesus Christ
4. The Image of God and the Temple
Part 3: Divine Presence: Temple, Bread, Water, Sonship, Firstborn, and Adoption
5. Divine Presence in the Old Testament: The Significance of Bread, Water, and Sonship
6. Divine Presence in Jesus: The New Significance of Temple, Bread, Water, and Firstborn
7. Divine Presence in the New Covenant Community: The Ongoing Significance of Temple, Bread, Water, and Adoption
Park 4: Divine Presence and Needs-Based Anthropology
8. Pneumatic Christology and Pneumatic Anthropology
9. Christ the Key to Need
10. A Constructive Proposal: Pneumachristocentric Anthropology
Afterword: Building Bridges and Moving Forward