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  /  Resources   /  What Does It Mean to Be Human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human? with Cherith Fee Nordling

In this interview, Dr. Nordling discusses the humanity of Jesus Christ, and what it means to be human.

JMF: Would you begin by telling us how you came to be involved with Trinitarian theology?

CFN: Trinitarian theology (without having that name, and especially the fact that those two words feel very loaded and hard to under­stand) has been part of my way of knowing and loving and thinking about God for my whole life. Having come up through the tradition that I did, the person of the Holy Spirit was very present, clear and active. My understanding of Jesus as God who had come among us and as Savior was something from my childhood that I’ve always known and loved, and God as Father.

I was raised in a family where I was invited into the love of God as my Father through my father and my parents. This was the way that we spoke about God: as Father, Son, and Spirit – that was always part of how I knew God. It was much later, in my mid-to-late 20s, where the term Trinitarian began to take root as a way of being part of our worship life in our Presbyterian church.

I came into that Reformed tradition in my 20s and I loved being in these creedal traditions where you got to say the Nicene Creed and you got to say the Apostles’ Creed like bullet points or shorthand, or sort of PowerPoint presentation of the gospel. To affirm these things would get deep in my soul. Finally, one day a dear friend was worshipping and praying to God as triune, as the triune one who she exalted and loved and was loved by. The penny dropped – I thought, that’s a beautiful term that isn’t in the Bible but all of its content is in the Bible – this beautiful way of speaking about God as the one God who is God this way – as three persons in communion.

The theology side (I’d always been a little nervous about theology) is very ivory tower and distant from the way that we’re trying to live day-to-day as faithful believers in the market place. Yet I started to recognize that as a general term for saying, “How do we think about God, and how do we think about everything else in relation to God – to let that word be this covering. I thought, “There is a lot at stake whether we get this theology accurate or not.” I don’t mean right, because theology is deep and rich, and God’s way of giving himself to us is clear, in terms of who he is as Father, Son, and Spirit. But the ways that he lets us reflect on him are many and good. Right and wrong always feels like there is only one way, and everything else is wrong. One of the beauties of being in the Trinitarian theology conversation is to go, “It’s sort of like this, and when we think about this…” There are many angles that we as creatures can try to glimpse, and love and worship out of.

All of that life in the church made those terms less frightening to me when it came time to actually doing study, which I hadn’t anticipated falling into but ended up in my mid-30s. I went back to school and realized that the deep questions I had – what does it mean to be truly human, what does it mean to be human in relation to God – were going to be answered only out of the only true human who has ever pulled it off – Jesus.

JMF: So you started to pursue some work in psychology at first…

CFN: I did. We were noticing a lot of amazing things in our congre­gation. People were coming in through radical encounters with the Lord. Lives were deeply changed, but they were coming in out of horrendous situations, with lots of brokenness and psychological baggage – sometimes deeply disordered. We had a counseling center as part of the church, and we were in good relationships with counselors in the San Francisco area – there were times when counselors would say, “Could we gather to pray?” … because what we’re doing in our therapy session, sometimes we need to discern whether this is something of the Spirit, or something of the evil one, whether this is demonic, whether this is psychological, what is it? I wanted to understand what we were doing.

Whatever we are doing, are we caring well, and loving well? So I went back to school and started a Masters in Psychology. Someone caught me in the middle of that experience and said, “Cherith, none of your questions sound psychological – they always sound theological – they’re always of a much bigger picture, a much bigger arena in which all these things come to matter.” That became a moment where I thought, theology is not so much a frightening word – it’s a nice term for the arena in which we as the people of God get to think about the things of God. He encouraged me to think about doing theology instead of psychology. So I changed course and I’ve become what I never thought I would be, which is what people call a theologian.

JMF: You started at Regent College?

CFN: I started my first Masters at the College of Notre Dame in Northern California, did my Masters in Christian Studies and Theology at Regent College, and then we moved to England. I had two sons who were 9 and 11 at the time. That was a big move for us, and my husband gave up his ministry and career so I could go back to school for five years there, and I ended up in London and then in St. Andrew’s, as my supervisor took a post up there. That was a wonderful experience for us. We’ve been back in the States for about seven years and I’ve been trying to do this thing called theology professionally in the academy and in the church ever since.

JMF: A lot of people would be wondering, how did the kids do? Apparently it was a good experience for them.

CFN: It was a great experience for them. It was incredibly stretching. They thought they knew what English was, but discovered that England English and ours are different languages, but it was a gift to all of us. One of the most beautiful parts of that experience was to live in a little town far away from my school. I wasn’t in a university setting. I wasn’t surrounded by fellow students. I was surrounded by people who, by and large, had grown up in that little town – walking twice a week to a little church that had been there for a thousand years. We were part of this Anglican communion that had a deeply Trinitarian liturgy, and we took the Eucharist and participated in that communion on a weekly basis with wonderful people. They gathered around and helped me type parts of my dissertation and basically we were adopted into this amazing little fellowship of believers in England. They have continued to be part of our faithful family ever since, and that radically shaped not just my sons’ lives but my husband’s and mine.

JMF: You’re asked to do a lot of lecturing. What sort of topics are people usually looking for when they ask you to come?

CFN: My father (Gordon Fee) was born and raised, as was my mother, in the Pentecostal tradition, but I lived in Reformed worlds that are curious about how to have conversations about what does it mean to live the life of a Pentecostal… I grew up as a person who deeply loved the biblical text, watched my father who deeply loved the Lord, and then love the biblical text (and not in the reverse order). I used to go with my dad when he would teach, or go on retreats to do these kinds of things. I couldn’t get enough of the story and it never occurred to me that I should be like him, because I thought, this is equipping me to get out into the marketplace. So I was a paralegal for 15 years and loved being just a Trinitarian believer in the work that God had called me to do at that time.

I came from a background that made life in the Holy Spirit normal or natural to me. I did not see a lot of excess, I did not see a lot of things that were confusing or frightening (I hear a lot of horror stories from people’s experiences). So I’m asked to speak about that.

I’m also asked to talk about how and why the life of the Triune God matters to us, and what it means to actually being a Christian. I say, “There is only one kind of Christian and that’s the Trinitarian Christian – the only life that you are invited into, is to know this God. This is how he’s made himself known to you and this is the impact that it has.”

Then, to talk about Jesus’ life, which is a challenge, because his life is a mystery that I can’t describe any better that I can describe the Trinity. But at this point in my life, I take very seriously the incarnation in the sense that God has taken on my humanity and restored my humanity permanently, and he holds in his current and on-going humanity the life that I will have as Cherith, female human image-bearer of God, and that is a permanent reality that God has made for me.

There is no splitting of my body and my soul, even if following Jesus has a thing I do with my head, or my heart. I think part of it is being around college students who are deeply ambivalent or confused or have a million messages about their embodied life and their sexuality, and then watching in my life in the church how those kinds of things get set in place, either very early or in those later years when they start becoming aware, whether they feel free to let the Lord be the Lord of that part of their life as well, so just trying to think how do we understand ourselves because of who Jesus is.

Not just who he was, but who he is, and what he’s presently doing that helps inform our own understanding of getting up in the morning saying, “What are we doing today, Jesus? What are you doing today and what, by the Spirit do I get to participate in that continues to bring glory to the Father, in a way that you take my human life seriously and mediate my human life and pray for my human life today, and intercede that I would not be led into temptation but to walk in the way that looks like the kingdom come on earth, so as in heaven.” And to pay attention to what that would mean and not get my belief system locked in, but to function as somebody who is supposed to look like Jesus in a way that I’m going to look for. That raises a new wonderful dynamic about how to follow the Lord. That has become a deeply incarnational conversation that I didn’t see coming, but just sort of developed over time over the last ten years.

JMF: Let’s talk about your first book, with Peter Lang Publishing group. How did that come about, and what led you into that topic?

CFN: I was at Regent at that time. I knew in my heart of hearts (although I kept taking as much Bible as I could instead of theology, because I was afraid that systematic theology would become dry, cate­gorized and compartmentalized) I loved theology emerging from the text. It took me a while to trust the theology classes that I was taking would reinforce that, and they did, beautifully.

It was later in my time at Regent, that I had a professor named Stan Grenz, who said, “Cherith, I know you’re interested in doing something in your final thesis on the Triune life of God and how that influences our life as a community who participates in God. Here’s this book called She Who Is, by a Catholic feminist theologian, who has re-constructed the doctrine of God, the Triune doctrine of God, in female form. She believes that she has permission to do this from her Catholic tradition and her understanding of analogy, and that being a way of talking about God. So would you mind reading this book and doing your thesis around this, because we are all curious whether she has a leg to stand on in this argument.”

Naively, I said, “Yes.” [JMF: You don’t even have to think of the topic.] Exactly, except that I had no idea that I just jumped off the deep end of the swimming pool into 19th and 20th-century liberal theology, which I’ve never read, feminist theology, which I hadn’t read, and Catholic theology, which I hadn’t read.

So it threw me into a variety of new worlds. Instead of trying to sit back and observe, I was trying to get in. I was trained to understand this from the inside out, to ask, “Why did she want to write this book, why is this important to her?” She, very straightforwardly, said, “I do this because my tradition, as I have experienced it, feels like God is this solitary male figure, this ego who’s unrelated to the world, who doesn’t care about the world.” She used the term “classical theism” for this old way of talking about God out there.

JMF: That’s the way most people think about God.

CFN: They think about God singularly… kind of, there’s God and us, as if there are two subjects, and that’s it…

JMF: The popular movies about God, as good and as interesting as they are, present this solitary picture.

CFN: Solitary picture, that’s right, and always a male picture. She was of the conviction that the people who suffer most, including at the hands of the church, because of the way theology is either spoken or enacted, are women, and usually women of color with children. She had spent a lot of years caring for the poor and the oppressed in Central America, in South Africa… Over time, she felt that if we could talk about God as a female, then men would not use God as their alter ego and have God function in these ways that she perceived as distant. If we could have God be female, then it would be hard to see God that way and then hurt or harm women. I’m not convinced that that’s true – not because it’s not an interesting idea, but because we’re so broken that no matter how we perceive God, we’re still going to harm each other, and need to forgive one another.

I was curious about why she thought it was important to come up with a new way of thinking about God in order to get what she thought God was doing, which was loving people… What was it about the gospel that didn’t sound like good news to her? What was it about Jesus that hurt her, that wasn’t life-giving to her own life, or to the lives of women? I wanted to understand what drove her and her colleagues (who are dialogue partners in her book) to write what they did. I felt like I needed to sit with some humility and listen to that, and say, “Where has the church not stepped up? Why do they think they need to do what they’re doing, because they see a big hole, a big empty space where the church should be bearing the image of God and being for the other, and especially the other who cannot be for themselves in the current world?”

My challenge in writing that book was to say, “There’s a very different thing going on when you call the church to account” and say “Who are we really, and what are we called to in our obedience, and where have we really blown it, that we need to rethink God?” What does Trinitarian theology – as the church has understood its life lived in the presence of the Father because of Jesus by the Spirit – have to say that is the good news as it has been given to us, and where do we go back and listen to it in a way that calls us to account to change our ways of behaving. So I have a deep respect for them. But I also have a challenge…

JMF: You’re seeing the same problem, same ways to meet the same roles…

CFN: I answer it with, I think, the conversation that God has given us over a very long time without needing to completely change that conver­sation. But one of the fascinating things that’s come out of writing that book is that this vein of modern theology that her book is part of, does, in one way, take Jesus’ humanity seriously. They’re nervous about a sort of divine Jesus who doesn’t really touch the human condition. But what you end up with, in a lot of that theology, is you have a Jesus who never gets to be God made flesh. It’s never really the Word who has come present to us. It’s God who has adopted this man to be a divinely appointed or anointed or Spirit-filled man in a unique way. That changes the story completely – because you don’t have God being present to us enacting, suffering with, dying, atoning – you don’t have the things that are the reconciling acts that only God can do.

I have to think, “What does it mean to look at Jesus’ humanity that says, ‘the one who is present to me is God as this person, one person, Jesus Christ, God and man’?” How is his life completely unlike mine in that there will never will be and ever would be another incarnation, because there is only the Son who has become permanently part of his own creation as the Creator. That is unique to Jesus and to no one else in the world, and yet his having become human is to take on everything that belongs to my humanity. Yet to pull it off, to be one who walks in obedience to the Father, who does not sin but who takes all the brokenness that is tempted toward that, and challenged by that, and think, “that means he lives his life everyday, all day long, having to obey – having to say, ‘Ok, who gets this moment – me or the Father?’”

What does it mean for him to say, “I only do what I hear the Father tell me to do, I only do what I see the Father doing, I enact by the power of the Holy Spirit what God is doing in the world. [That is what a true human being is about – to bear the image of God for the good creation and for its flourishing, and for its life to be restored and for its healing and for its re-creational restoration.] …to be faithfully what I am supposed to be and what I am going to be, as well as being God who is present to me, is …”
I don’t have words to explain the mystery and the beauty like that.

I’ve started to take his humanity seriously, because without his ongoing life, then it feels like he sort of dipped into the human story for 33 years, did a saving kind of thing for three of those years by talking about what life by grace is and what life in the kingdom is about, and then dying on the cross to make sure that we all get that life someday, and then being resurrected and ascending and popping off the scene and dropping his body somewhere and going back to being the eternal Word or this Son and his pre-existent “whatever.”

JMF: In a sense that still leaves us alone.

CFN: It does. Suddenly there is not God with us. What I grew up assuming, without ever knowing it, I thought Jesus dropped his body somewhere and was back to being the Son and was glad that he was done with that. I’ve read John 17 and I’d hear in that, “I can’t wait to get out of this situation.” The outpouring of the Spirit was my way of thinking, “I understand that God is still with us, and God is present to us, that the Spirit is Immanuel in this time. Because I didn’t understand, fully, that it was not just the Spirit but it is actually Jesus who continues to mediate my presence before God as the firstborn of the new human race, the firstborn from among the dead or the firstborn of the new humanity.

In Hebrews 2 where it says (I always think like Jesus was having his arms around me) “both the one who is holy and the one who makes them holy, have the same Father. So he’s not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters because we have the same Father.” I think, “that’s right, he is in that position – high priesting for me, mediating my life, saying, ‘we’re in this together,’ we belong and we stand.” Not only that he stands in that place for me before the Father, he really gets my life. Hebrews says he’s tempted in every way except without sin. Well, that’s every way, weariness trying to pull away, watching through the Gospels – where does Jesus, where do you get this where the sense of the Spirit is going? No, this is what we’re doing.

I think of Jesus getting in the boat after being weary from teaching and healing and going away. It says he looked back and saw these people on the shore and had compassion. He says, “turn the boat around,” and he begins to teach the next day, empowered by the Spirit to do this hard thing. In that day he feeds the multitude. Did he wake up that morning saying, “I’m God, so I think I’ll do a miracle and that will convince them”? Or is he really living a life that is like mine, which would mean that he would have to be listening to the Father and listening to the Spirit? I’m curious as I listen to that story thinking, “When did you have this sense that this is what was going to happen, that is what the Father was inviting you into, that this is what the Spirit was empowering you to do? Was it when you prayed? I don’t know, he doesn’t tell us that, but to realize that this is not Jesus in his divine brain saying, “I think it’s time for a miracle, I’d better do something holy or God-like.”

When he was tired in the boat, this was his humanness coming out? What does it mean for him to be God who has become like me and relinquishing the privileges that come with acting divine without being human – which is what Philippians 2 says, that he relinquishes these divine prerogatives, to enact them in a way that is a faithful human and image-bearer of the divine.

I watched his life through the Gospels and think, “how did he do that?” He said, “by the Spirit, and what have I invited you into, Cherith? Life in the Spirit – so what about your life? Do you think I don’t understand? What about my life do you think you’re not supposed to be doing?” That’s Paul’s language in Ephesians 1 and 2: “this is the one who’s ascended to this place and sits in this place of power and authority under which everything has been set. By the way, you, in Christ, have already been seated in this place of power and authority.” That’s what human image bearers are to do, to manifest the power and authority and the love for the other which is God in the world. “So you too should be getting on and being part of what Jesus is doing from that position.” That makes me wake up differently and say, “What would you invite me into today that isn’t what I would do by myself?”

About Cherith Fee Nordling

Associate Professor of Theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. She earned her PhD in 2003 from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.