One of the primary ways in which the Spirit speaks into my life is in my conversations with books. I grew up in these conversations. I’ve become more and more appreciative of the potential in reading for a transformative dialogue with people who reflect deeply on the significance of living.
It’s been two and half years since John Duncan, one of my most provocative mentors in ministry, died. He was addicted to books. On the day he died, he ordered four new books from his hospital room. He appointed me his literary executive. One of my first acts in that capacity was to invite those who came back to the limestone house in Norland after his funeral to wander around and choose whatever they wanted from the book shelves that held over 6,000 volumes. A gratifying number of books left the house that day. Then I got to cull what I wanted.
Among those books was Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Who Is Man? (1965). It’s based on his Raymond Fred West Memorial Lectures on Immortality, Human Conduct, and Human Destiny at Stanford University in 1963. As befits the terms of reference for the lectures, these are challenging ideas that invite deep listening and considered response.
Reading this book is the first time I’ve run across the idea of ‘awkward authenticity.’ I’m fascinated. Here are some of the ways this phrase has informed and reformed my understanding of being human.
1. Authentic human living is a gift of God. It is the image of God implanted in every human being. It is a gift that is precious and unique to each person. We all activate it when we take our first breath. With each succeeding breath, we receive the opportunity to grow more deeply into the authenticity God has bestowed upon us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, as Jesus summarizes it, that authenticity is love of God, love of others, and love of self.
So, there is always room to grow further into this gift of authenticity. Hence, the awkwardness. Somewhere, deep in our human being, we know there is more to our authenticity. The Spirit nourishes it in us, invites us to step further into it, one breath after another, one conversation after another, one act of kindness and generosity after another. To trivialize being human through callous competition and consumption is to thwart God’s desire for the authentic significance of every person.
2. The gift of authentic living comes to us as a challenge, as a question. “What,” the Spirit pesters us, “will you do with your gift? How will you appreciate your gift by making your unique contribution to the community of justice, peace, and joy that we are co-creating? How will you overcome this stage of your awkwardness by learning to flourish more fully?”
Our awkwardness arises from an instinctive sense that there is more to our destiny that we currently are realizing. In our God-given preciousness and uniqueness, there is a worth and dignity that deserves to be respected and nourished. We, in friendship with the God who gave us all of this, are responsible for cultivating that. This poses a significant challenge in a culture that too often treats human beings as animals or machines. Authentic human being, as we learn moving from one stage of awkwardness to another (both backwards and forwards), is realized as we accept ever more faithfully the gift of being created to contribute to a compassionate community.
3. Gratitude for that challenge is the primary driver in contributing our unique and precious gifts to the well-being of creation. This runs counter to many current versions of spirituality that encourage us to rest in being in the moment. This biblical spirituality inspires us to live rather than simply to be. It encourages us to search for and strengthen our unique significance. It invites us to celebrate and cultivate this evolving authenticity and offer it back to our Creator and the whole creation with ever-deepening thanks.
There is so much more wisdom in the 119 pages of Who Is Man? I feel awkward trying to summarize it.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Appreciate the awkwardness. See it as an invitation to learn more about the authenticity that is uniquely and preciously yours. Recognize that this same growth is going on in every other human being on this planet. Find in that commonality the dynamic of living into the authenticities that are coming together to form the Commonwealth of God, one awkward insight after another.
I trust and pray that we may meet on the way some day.
Brian Fraser is lead provocateur of Jazzthink and minister with Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Burnaby, BC. He works primarily with not-for-profit staffs and boards convening COOL conversations for SMARTer leadership. You can find out more at www.jazzthink.com and www.brentwoodpc.ca.
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, The Spiritual View,, HERE