The reality of public life simply is not what it was prior to 2020. Even a trip to the grocery store can feel like wandering through some artificial dystopia where we encounter fellow survivors, smiles hidden and eyes hardened by our ever increasingly masked existence. Remember warm public greetings? Remember smiles at the department store? Some wonder if the good ol' days are behind us.
A hot topic from the beginning of all these measures has been whether or not there is any end on the horizon. Many think that the masks are here to stay and that our future is one of relative public facelessness, whether voluntary or enforced. Regardless of your take on masks and social distancing, perhaps you feel the weight of the relative isolation these measures bring. This time provides us all with a unique opportunity to consider the meaning and the future of personhood and community.
"Many think that the masks are here to stay and that our future is one of relative public facelessness, whether voluntary or enforced. Regardless of your take on masks and social distancing, perhaps you feel the weight of the relative isolation these measures bring."
The face is the primary means through which we know, recognize, and communicate with one another, often without even using words. Faces, presence, and personhood are all tightly bound in their meaning. In fact the Latin “Persona,” where we get our word for person, is likely derived from the ancient Greek “Prosopon.” Prosopon (πρόσωπον, Greek) is translated in a couple different ways. In the New Testament, the word is translated as “face,” “presence,” “person,” and other similar variants. Makes sense when you think about it; to be “person to person” or “face to face” is to be “present.”
This is not accidental nor limited to Latin and Greek. Even the Old Testament Scripture sees faces and personhood as linked in the highest degree. The primary problem for humanity within Scripture is estrangement from the presence of God due to man’s fall into rebellion and sin. Likewise, the height of redemption is defined by reconciliation and communion with God. Indeed, this is what Sinai was all about — a Holy God coming down to dwell with an unholy people. Hence the priesthood, the tabernacle, the altars, and the sacrifices. God is Holy. Sinners are not. The ceremonial law and the priesthood demonstrates what God’s presence requires. The height of grace and blessing of this presence is described by the Aaronic blessing upon the people of God. In this blessing Aaron is to plead that the LORD would make his face to shine upon his people and that his countenance, (i.e. facial expression), would be lifted upon them (Numbers 6:22-27).
"The height of grace and blessing of this presence is described by the Aaronic blessing upon the people of God. In this blessing Aaron is to plead that the LORD would make his face to shine upon his people and that his countenance, (i.e. facial expression), would be lifted upon them (Numbers 6:22-27)."
In the New Testament we see the fulfillment of this blessing and grace in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Word made flesh and he “tabernacles” among us (John 1). When Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John we read that his face was like the brightness of the sun and his clothing was a radiant white (Matthew 17:2). Peter suggests building a tabernacle. His thinking is backwards though. The tabernacle was a copy but Jesus is the real thing (Hebrews 8:5). And so we read from Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:6: "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
This hope is at the heart of the Gospel and it contains a radical and foundational understanding of reality itself. According to the Word, reality is ultimately personal rather than material. "In the beginning God" (Genesis 1:1) means the personhood of God produces the material world, rather than the material world producing personhood. Time itself is carried along by the person who is the Alpha and Omega. Hebrews 1:3 even tells us that the energy and material of the universe is upheld by the person Jesus. In this rendering of reality itself, the beginning was personal, the middle is personal, the end is personal.
"According to the Word, reality is ultimately personal rather than material."
This undoubtedly is extremely odd to those who, by faith, believe in a Naturalistic Materialism. Naturalistic Materialism is the primary doctrine of our day and age and its dogma is that everything in existence is ultimately derived from matter and energy. In this view, ultimate reality is personless and personhood is accidental. Persons in this view can be listed among animals, rocks, gels, gasses, liquids, and other states of matter as yet another eccentricity in the unexplainable existence of matter and energy. Personhood is merely a mechanistic and deterministic feature, though one that consumes much of our attention.
Here we have two fundamentally opposed visions of reality: For the Christian, the daily and future hope is the person and the face of Him who is God, Savior, and Lord. For the Naturalistic Materialist, the past is personless, the present accidentally contains something we call “persons,” and the future is faceless.
Though this is foundational to their doctrine, there is a fundamental inconsistency that even most Materialists refuse to mend. They can't help living in God's world, and so they often can't help affirming the value and sanctity of persons. Why should human life be protected? There can be given no account of the value of human life without the doctrine that human beings are made in the image of God.
"Why should human life be protected? There can be given no account of the value of human life without the doctrine that human beings are made in the image of God."
As C.S. Lewis reminds us in his small book “The Abolition of Man,” often there is an attempt to account for the value of human life by the assertion that our biological instinct is to preserve posterity and that the best way to do this is to live civilized. So, the reasoning goes, we ought to live civilized (ie. follow the golden rule). But as Lewis pointed out, one cannot get an "ought" from an "instinct," nor can one justify a value through appeal to instinct without running into the conundrum of what to do with our more problematic instincts. What about our instincts for war, murder, or theft?
"...one cannot get an "ought" from an "instinct," nor can one justify a value through appeal to instinct without running into the conundrum of what to do with our more problematic instincts."
This inconsistency is explained in Paul's letter to the Romans. In chapter 1, we read that the evidence of God's nature is obvious to all — such that all are without excuse, and all "by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." Romans 1:21-23 goes on to state "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God…" Is there a more tangible example and proof of this today than how so many passionately hold to ethical values while simultaneously affirming a reality which renders those ethical values meaningless? According to Paul, this is “unrighteousness” suppressing the truth. Ethical values and the “oughtness” of those values are borrowed (stolen?) from the knowledge that we all have of God while suppressing the truth of his Lordship. So, the value of persons is often affirmed while refusing to acknowledge and give thanks to the God who gives all persons value.
Romans calls this futile thinking and a darkened heart. It is inconsistency motivated by disdain for God. But there is a spectrum of how deep this futile thinking goes. Can you imagine a world wherein Naturalistic Materialists no longer inconsistently affirm the value of human life? Imagine a world led by consistent Naturalistic Materialists, and that world is guaranteed to be a hell hole.
"Can you imagine a world wherein Naturalistic Materialists no longer inconsistently affirm the value of human life? Imagine a world led by consistent Naturalistic Materialists, and that world is guaranteed to be a hell hole."
Look at the history books folks. It's been tried and I'm sure we'll try again. The 20th century, the most openly godless century, has undoubtedly been the bloodiest and most tragic. This is not coincidental. It has been the century of those who believe that reality and the future are both faceless, and thus slaughtered so many of those who are face bearers. Rebellion against God in whose image we are made always goes poorly for his image bearers.
The further rebellion against God goes the more it results in de-facing his image (i.e. People). Full blown consistent denial of the Person of God also can’t stand his image and leads to a division even within the self with a variety of detrimental outcomes. Just because this view is held inconsistently doesn’t mean it always will be. I, for one, thank God that those who hold a natural materialistic view aren’t completely consistent. (Indeed, the Lord holds them back.) But even more than that, I am thankful for and rejoice in the hope of the personal Lord who was, and is, and is to come.
No, indeed, the future is not faceless. He will fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory. He will continue to reconcile and call men unto himself. He will do it.