On Becoming: Between Statues & Clay

Michelangelo, the Renaissance Italian sculptor and painter who greatly influenced Western art, is known for his understanding of sculpting as a process of revealing. Michelangelo understood his role as sculptor as that of a discoverer and liberator. The statue, he believed, is hidden in the rock from the beginning, and his role is merely to discover it – and to chisel away every piece of rock that is not part of the discovered statue; thereby liberating it. Hence, he didn’t perceive himself to be making something, but rather bringing forth what was there.

This principle resonates throughout history in a broader sense. According to American author, William Sahakian, Aristotle believed that the soul of a person is the entelechy (self-contained purpose) of the body, and that it was the role and task of the person to actualise himself. A become thyself resulting from Socrates’ know thyself.  Akin to the work of the sculptor, man therefore becomes the discoverer and liberator of himself, of his entelechy.

By the 18th century, German philosopher Emmanuel Kant reframed these ideals in what became known as the Enlightenment. Kant stated that man needs to be liberated from the self-imposed, suppressing tutelage of others; from the external marble surrounding us, preventing the real us from being free and actualised. This principle greatly influenced the work of the likes of Georg Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, who continued the exploration of this principle in the fields of political and economic theory, and psychology.

Chiseling Methods and Systems

The foundation of this self-actualisation linked philosophy and, honestly, worldview, is that man is an inherently determined (almost static) being, born with a potential to be revealed and actualised. Any failure on the part of a person or a collective people, if indeed inherent potential is to be assumed, is to be ascribed to the failure to successfully discover or liberate the self. In the individual’s case, remedy can be found in the form of self-help. In the case of the collective, the fault is to be attributed to the system – the political and cultural rules, structures and institutions that shape the habitat in which the collective’s members find themselves. If I am not happy, free or successful (in whichever way it is defined), I am not sufficiently liberating/actualising myself and need to up my game to become myself – or I must be oppressed in some way.

New “wisdom” is released daily in terms of what to eat to feel great, how to exercise to have more energy, what to wear or which shampoo to use to be more confident – the list goes on. If you’re unhappy at work, you’re probably in the wrong place, or perhaps you haven’t been given the right opportunities to flourish. If your marriage is a mess, you should be able to fix it with an 8-step program – or your significant other might not the right one for you after all. Even modern trends or movements looking to counter the speed and clutter of conventional consumerist culture, such as slow food and minimalism, perhaps unwittingly, still speak to the unspoken promise of if you do this, you will be more you. The right method, the right habitat will allow you to be yourself, be free and find happiness. Chisel away at that marble.

Similarly, our collective systems play this same game. In the realm of politics, each election campaign tells the story of how people have been oppressed by the system, and how a new system will liberate people and unleash their underlying potential. Economics, which originally referred to “household management”, has become a system almost with a life and rules of its own, perpetually promising to reach a steady state that will provide faithful individuals with life, liberty and the funds with which to pursue happiness. Personal clubs, societies and (dare I say) many religious communities are not excluded from this. Systems and institutions (those that weather the chiseling storm) carry the task of actualising its individual members and eventually exist to do so.

Yet it seems the methods and systems fail to truly deliver on these promises. The “wisdom” of yesterday is quickly forgotten and replaced by new advice and to-do’s, to continue the search for the right tool and the right chiselling action to set us free. In the political sphere, promises fade quickly after election time, and disgruntled people around kitchen tables the world over pile their frustrations and if only’s on the way the system works (or doesn’t). Do you hear the people sing? Singing the songs of angry men?

Nowhere is this truer, perhaps, than in post-Apartheid South Africa, where I live. Years after the abolishment of the Apartheid system, the country is still a volcano spewing up anger surrounding various matters. And the target of the frustration changes rather quickly. While the legislative oppression of the Apartheid system has been lifted and a 24-year process of aiming to restore dignity to the black and other previously disadvantages people groups has been underway, they still make up the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s poor. Many are treading the bread line. And so, there is a frustration with the fact that the glorious abolishment of Apartheid and the reign of the African National Congress has not translated into the liberation and empowerment hoped for on the ground. So every now and again, Xenophobia flares up (“it’s the foreigners that take our jobs!”). So too does protest actions – from vandalism of statues from the previous regime to a demand that private land can be expropriated without compensation (“if only I had land, I would…”). Now there is truth in most of the demands, since South Africa is a country still learning to shed its colonialist scabs, as is the rest of Africa. But over the last 24 years it has been striking how changing the system has itself been and is the hope of a people longing to be liberated – and it’s not bearing fruit. We will get back to this.

A Growing Alternative

In Michelangelo’s picture it is presumed that there is already a good and complete statue inside the marble. The picture of become thyself, of self-actualisation and –liberation, similarly assumes that there is a good and complete person in each human being born onto this planet. Are we indeed good, and complete?

Augustine’s Confessions tells the story not of a complete man to be liberated and actualised, but of a broken man to be saved and redeemed. A reading of the first 3 chapters of the book of Genesis reveals that the assumptions that we are good and complete are incompatible with the Judeo-Christian worldview. English journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, stated that “the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality, but at the same time most intellectually resisted fact”. Though a beautiful icon of God, man is broken and incomplete. And, as the rest of the Biblical narrative tells it, man requires to be saved, redeemed and made whole – and not discovered, liberated and actualised as is.

In other words, and here we get to the crux of the matter, rather than being stuck and requiring to be chiselled from a rock, we are the clay in the hands of Isaiah 64’s Potter. We are becoming what have not yet been. We are being made.

Additionally, according to the words of Christ, we are not only being made, but what we have already become also needs to be surrendered to the Potter, so we can be remade – redeemed. Therefore, in contrast with Socrates and Aristotle’s know thyself and become thyself, we see the invitation to surrender thyself in order that you might become by His hands. Do you feel the difference?

How does this change the self-actualisation picture we’ve painted thus far?

With this worldview as bedrock, if a person seems to be failing in some sense in their lives, it is clear how mere methods to liberate the self will always fall short. One cannot liberate a baby, hoping mere freedom will make him a man. No, the baby must grow. And so, the formation of man himself is to be the main focus, rather than the steps to liberate or actualise him. The formation of the man, not at his own hand – as that would take us back to Michelangelo’s rock – but in surrender to his Maker. And here, of course, as Karl Barth had to admit to his Rencontres Internationales audience in Geneva, 1949: if we are to now consider the Christian proclamation as something relevant here and now, we at this point inevitably need to leave the secular ground of humanism – as this surrender requires walking to the precipice at the end of “I am in control” and taking a step of faith. There’s no secular alternative, although in a secular world significant steps can be taken on the way to the precipice in facilitating growing and becoming. On both sides of a surrender to Christ, good and helpful movements and initiatives can be redeemed by reimagining them as assisting our process of becoming what we’re not yet – or rather, of addressing habits and rhythms that might work against our Potter’s hands. The same holds for worldly “wisdom”: it’s amazing what happens when man-made tips and methods (which we hold and in which we hope) become tools in the hand of the One who is worthy of all our hopes of becoming.

What about the system – our rules, structures and institutions? If these cannot liberate us, are they to have a place? I would like to submit that they do. Our Maker does not merely live in isolated relationships with us; He employs and engages us in the formative practices of each other. As James K. A. Smith notes in You Are What You Love, we (as creatures of habit) are constantly engaged in habituating one another and therefore in forming one another. We are in a sense the Potter’s hands. And so, while systems and institutions, political structures and economies cannot liberate us and save us, much can be done toward reimagining these to serve the pursuit of the One making us. Co-partnering to foster a habitat of growth, of character building, of learning to love and becoming who our Maker says we are. And yes, very often this needs to be contextualised to a secular environment.

Reframing Institutions

In the South African context mentioned, this reframing of the role of rules, structures and institutions sheds new light on what is to do in the pursuit of a beautiful, empowered society. Rather than relying on changes in the system to remedy the legacies of a broken past, there is an invitation to admit that white, black, and all races and culture groups alike are broken and incomplete. That the physical walls of division mirror walls within our own hearts, and that the brokenness of the system we have is a culmination of the fears, lack of understanding and therefore deeply limited love your neighbour in each South African person and people group. When posed with the question of what is wrong with the world, English writer G.K. Chesterton replied “I am”. And as people being made, being redeemed, saved and remade, perhaps the pursuit of a system that will bring about justice and empower disadvantaged people groups should start with a formative question: how do we break down the inner walls and facilitate a good and beautiful becoming in our context? How can institutions – schools, universities, libraries, societies and clubs, and most notably, the church – be reimagined and influenced to become (trans)formative forces of our people and that sacred, deeply formative institution: their families?

In a world where self-actualization and –liberation is a hidden assumption and pursuit guiding much of what we’re seeing, it is no surprise that institutions that were central to the pursuit of a good and beautiful world in past generations are now at the receiving end of widespread distrust. The belief that I am all I need (to draw on English musicians Above & Beyond’s album title) especially challenge the institutions that most significantly form us. The nature and/or existence of these kind of institutions are being questioned and reconsidered; most often not formally, but as by-product of a parallel pursuit. Incrementally, the relevance of institutions are held up against our individualistic, self-actualization assumptions, and institutions lose micro-battles causing significant drift and erosion over the years.

Yet, those of us aware that we are being made, that we require redemption and need to become what we are not at all yet – we are in a rare position to see and communicate the necessity and deeply significant role of our schools, universities, clubs and societies, the church, the family and broader circles of community. They shape us, and in a very real sense, through them we are being made.

This article was first submitted to Comment Magazine, as essay in the run for the Seerveld Prize.

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