I’ve been writing recently about my recent trip to Israel. My last post had to do with experiences that helped me better understand the divine nature of Jesus. This post will have to do with his humanity.

Jesus was ” truly God and truly man,” said the Council of Chalcedon in response to heresies that denied one or the other of these aspects. The idea that Jesus was fully human didn’t fit with the Gnostic idea that matter is evil. In line with Gnosticism, the Docetists thought that he was pure spirit and his physical body was an illusion. The modern emphasis on spirit and spirituality can easily take on a neo-Gnostic tint, viewing the physical world as unimportant and, by extension, downplaying Christ’s physical nature in preference for his spiritual and divine aspects.

Going to the places where Jesus spent time helped me appreciate both the physical and psychological aspects of Christ’s humanity. We went to Capernaum, the home base for much of his ministry. Ruins of the town’s living quarters have been excavated. The foundations of the houses are nearly all identical, low stone walls demarcating one house from the next, each house essentially a single long room. Looking at the residential area, it occurred to me that Jesus in all likelihood lived in one of these houses. He wasn’t just an ethereal figure who spent his days on the mountaintop and floated into town now and then to dispense some wisdom. He lived right among the townspeople, sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, one of them. And he taught in their synagogues.

Synagogue in Capernaum

Synagogue in Capernaum

Capernaum has the remains of a fourth-century synagogue, probably on the site where the previous synagogue stood when Jesus spoke there. We visited the ruins of first-century synagogues in the nearby towns of Chorazin and Gamla. Since Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher, going from town to town, he may have spoken in those places. I imagined a Sabbath long ago, the local community of Jews gathered for worship. Jesus and his disciples walked in, and Jesus started to teach (perhaps after reading from Scripture, as in Luke 4). Everyone was amazed. Not infrequently, though, his message evoked resistance, even rage–again, see Luke 4. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing, slaughtering sacred cows in order to replace them with something more faithful to God.

Synagogue in Gamla

Synagogue in Gamla

I tried to imagine myself walking into a synagogue knowing that what I had to say would evoke a furor, and I immediately felt a visceral resistance. I couldn’t have done what he did! Is that because he was God and I am not? I  think instead it is because he was more truly human than I am. My humanity prompts me to seek approval from others, to fear offending anyone, and to lack confidence in myself, especially when doing something that is difficult or that provokes opposition. In reacting this way, I am living in only a portion of my humanity, the self-protective and cowardly part. I am being inhumane, since a humane response to others would be to have such compassion for them that I would have the courage to tell them what they least want to hear.

In Habitation of Dragons Keith Miller wrote of his temptation during speaking engagements to say only what gains approval: “I unconsciously tone down the unpleasant aspects of that which I am saying and accentuate those things which affirm the group’s existing beliefs and prejudices” (p. 172). He recognized where that led him: “So for that night I became what the Scriptures call a ‘false prophet,’ more interested in material approval than in speaking any creative, freeing truth God had given me” (p. 173). I admit that when it comes to speaking the truth I am more likely to behave like Keith Miller than like Jesus.

Another way of describing the difference between Jesus’ humanity and mine is to say that he is willing to fully be himself, and I’m not. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that we are all in despair because we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. Maybe I could walk into a gathering and upset everyone with my message, but only if I was a better me, a me who had all my issues worked out, who was sure of himself. In contrast, Jesus was entirely confident in who he was. In becoming human, he not only took on flesh but was more comfortable in his skin than anyone who has ever lived.

So, in this and other ways (such as his relationship with his disciples and his relationship with God), Jesus showed us how to be human. I hope that I will continue to learn from his example.


This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.


I was walking on Bridge Street in Grand Rapids yesterday and was startled to see a huge banner under the US-131 underpass proclaiming “Shame on Ritsema.” It’s not every day that I see my name (or, in this case, a variant spelling of my name: Ritsema rather than Ritzema) openly shamed. What had the Ritsema in question done to deserve such approbation?

There were two people by the banner, a slight woman and a tall, muscular man, and I stopped to ask them what they were protesting. They said they weren’t permitted to discuss the matter, but they did offer me a flyer, which I later scanned into my computer. Apparently the Ritsema in question is a business named for some distant relative in the construction industry, whose alleged offense is failure to pay employees the area standard wage. The flyer is illustrated with a picture of a rat chewing an American flag, pictorially representing “desecration of the American way of life.”


I am more amused than disturbed by having my name maligned publicly. I react as most members of modern Western societies probably would—that this matter has nothing to do with me, that I personally did nothing wrong. That reaction is characteristic of a culture that is much more guilt-based than shame based. In centuries past, and in some cultures to this day, such a public denigration of one’s name would have been much more distressing. In a shame-based culture, the possibility that others could see such a sign and think ill of anyone who bore that name would bring distress and a sense that one is somehow less than others. In such a case, to dishonor the name I carry is to dishonor me.

I’m glad that the sign didn’t cause me to feel shame or dishonor. I’m not sure, though, that indifference to such aspersions on one’s name makes life any easier. We are still being evaluated by others, though the basis for such evaluation is not what someone says about our names but our words and actions. The onus is then on us to create a positive impression. Just as we don’t bear much shame from the reputation of our families, we don’t get much benefit from their reputations, either. Few of us anymore get a pass for our transgressions because, after all, we come from a good family. We’re responsible for what others think of us. So we worry about how we’re coming across to others. We may not feel much shame, but we have enough anxiety to take its place.

One topic that I’ve had particular interest in has been how our selves are shaped by culture, particularly how cultural developments are changing our sense of self.  I’m planning to write more about that topic; this will be the first in a series of posts about 21st Century selves.

Question-mark-faceFirst, a word about what I mean by the term “self.”  William James gave a decent definition when he wrote that “[A] man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his land and horses, and yacht and bank account.”  We have self concepts—ideas about who we are.  We also have self-awareness—we reflect on who we are and recognize that we are separate from others.  Finally, we engage in self-presentation—intentionally presenting ourselves in a particular way to others.

Here are a few things I’ve written about cultural influences on self-concept, self-awareness, or self-presentation.   In The Facebook Self I described a friend who, as she goes about her day, often reflects on how she will write on Facebook about what she’s done.  I noted that social media have intensified our use of self-presentation strategies and have made what we present to others more central to ourselves than ever before.  I noted that, as we reveal less to others, our self concept is likely to become more constricted.  At the extreme, we end up thinking that we are nothing more than the selves we present to others.

In another post about social media, I wrote in Facebook, Depression, and Community about the association between heavy Facebook use and increased levels of depression.  I looked at how social media profiles are designed to be clever rather than genuine, and asked whether authenticity and community are possible on Facebook.

In Anxiety and Meritocracy, I looked at the effects that the American belief that the hardworking and talented will be the most successful have on our self-evaluation.  I described Maura Kelly’s argument that we are likely to blame ourselves and see ourselves as having little worth if we make poor decisions or don’t achieve at a high level.   I suggested that the high levels of anxiety characteristic of our society are due to our selves constantly being threatened by the negative self-evaluation that results from less-than-stellar achievement.

Finally, my last post was about substance abuse in privileged youth as being related to a lack of character development.  I cited Liz Kulze’s comment that those who have been protected and coddled fail to develop an adequate sense of self.  Such thinly developed selves seem particularly prevalent among young white males from wealthy homes.

So, that’s a summary of what I’ve written so far.  I hope to make more posts about 21st Century selves in the coming weeks.  I welcome any thoughts that you the reader have about how changes in culture are affecting the selves that we construct.