What Distinguishes a Christian?

I wondered about this question while catching a glimpse of the cardinals processing into the conclave, each one speaking Latin in a particular accent.  Sure, this ritual had its uniqueness in the world of religion and had impressed many a loquacious television commentator, but really, the solemn and secretive form aside, this event was hardly otherworldly.  Leaders of an institution came together to select a new supreme head.  Good old politics.

Now they’ve made their choice, and the new pope has adopted the name Francis after the saint of Assisi.  One mustn’t be too hasty, as Treebeard reminds me, but this symbolic choice, coupled with Pope Francis’ asceticism, gives me hope for a greater emphasis among my fellow Catholics on the disposition of kenosis.  Theologically, the word means “self-emptying,” and it is the word I would choose were I to speak of a Christian habit of being using only one word.

The kenosis of Jesus Christ refers to his emptying himself of divine majesty to become a fragile human being, his humility and obedience and receptivity to the Father, even unto death.  Christ called his followers to kenosis, to humble themselves and serve and give everything they had for the good of others.  It’s the ethic behind the principles of turning the other cheek, losing oneself to find oneself, and the last being first.

It is not passive slavery, but perhaps the greatest exercise of personal freedom. To empty oneself of ego and to make oneself unconditionally disposable to others is a choice that can come only from within; it cannot be coerced from without.  Nothing can be taken from one who gives everything, but to give everything one must have everything to give.

Are Christians today a people of kenosis?   Rarely and for want of trying.  I include myself.  My fellow Christians might consider these questions.   Do we care more about making the world full of us than about giving ourselves wholly to the world?  Do we work more to fashion the culture and state in our image and likeness than to forgetting ourselves in care for the needs of the poor, oppressed, and destitute?  Are we more concerned about protecting our rights than about responding to the rights of others?

The Scriptures say to work out your salvation in fear and trembling, not to seek it in power and strife.  Christians who practice their faith by playing the game of thrones have little to offer.  Christian doctrines and rituals are meant to translate into an orientation of loving self-giving toward other people, and through them, to God.  I would suggest that without kenosis these doctrines and rituals are dead.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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9 Responses

  1. BlaiseP says:

    We empty ourselves that we might be filled.

    hoi ouk ex haimaton
    oude ek theimatos sarkos
    oude ek theimatos andros
    all ek theou egennethesesan
    kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskenosen
    etheasametha ten doxan auto
    doxan hos monogenous para patros
    plereres charitos kai aletheisas

    who not of blood was born
    nor yet out of the will of the flesh
    nor yet of the will of man
    but of God were sired.
    And this Word became flesh
    A tabernacle within us
    and we gazed upon his magnificence
    The glory of the only-born of his Father
    full of grace and truth

    -my own translation.

  2. Is kenosis, in your view, peculiar to Christianity, in the sense that if any other faith exhibits something that can be called kenosis, is that faith then approaching something like your Christianity?

    I suppose I mean this question somewhat rhetorically, because I think if one looks closely into other faith traditions, one might see something comparable to kenosis. I’m thinking particularly of Buddhism’s destruction of the ego, but I suppose one can find similar paths in other faith traditions.

    Finally, I have a couple points to comment on about this:

    Are Christians today a people of kenosis? Rarely and for want of trying.

    First how much weight would you put on “today.” Is today any different from anytime since or before Christ?

    Second I think the accurate answer to your question is indeed “Rarely and for want of trying.” But that answer also seems embedded in the notion of original sin. Christianity in a sense already believes that people will rarely attain kenosis and they will succumb to the temptation not to try. It’s part of being human.

    Of course, you follow up your answer with a description of what you mean, with a takedown of games of thrones, etc. And I agree with that takedown.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Is kenosis, in your view, peculiar to Christianity, in the sense that if any other faith exhibits something that can be called kenosis, is that faith then approaching something like your Christianity?

      Not necessarily. There’s a particular style of kenosis and a sense of its meaning that is peculiar to Christianity, namely the association of kenosis with a divine act (the incarnation/Christ event) and with the imitation of Christ; but I wouldn’t say Christians have an exclusive claim to kenosis. Rather, I would recommend that Christians study other religious and non-religious ways of understanding and practicing it so as to better understand its meaning and value.

      First how much weight would you put on “today.” Is today any different from anytime since or before Christ?

      I speaking mostly of Christians that I see. Saints, so to speak, have always been a rarity, but looking around today I do not even see the semblances of kenosis. It’s largely not preached or taught or considered. I bet the concept is foreign to a lot of Christians.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Bluntly, the lack of kenosis among American Christians is what first drove me out of the church.

    I recently mentioned how far I had come from my days as a Christian, and last night I had the strange experience of being asked to give an invocation last night and experiencing something very near to sheer panic. A few years ago I would have been merely a bit uncomfortable, but last night the thought overwhelmed me. Fortunately another agnostic stepped in and did a fine job. Although it clearly was not quite a religious invocation, I think it did have that sense of kenosis that makes for a good invocation.

    • Jaybird says:

      When I used to be asked such things, I tended to yell stuff like “ARES! GRANT ME VICTORY!” or “POSEIDON! FILL THE LUNGS OF OUR ENEMIES WITH WATER!”

      By the time I grew too mature to pull that crap, people had stopped asking me to give invocations.


      • James Hanley says:

        The president of my college was there, and I’m not a full professor yet. It didn’t seem to be a strategic choice to take that route, much as I would be tempted. Of course our president’s an ordained minister himself, so I’m still wondering why he didn’t step up and do it (other than that I suspect he may be no more of a believer than I am).

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      There’s a great scene in Woody Allen’s movie Hannah and Her Sisters in which Allen’s character, after experiencing his own mortality, begins a short-lived search for meaning by trying out various religions. He goes to a Christian bookstore and sees a picture of Jesus whose eyes open and close as he sways side to side. We next see him return home with a paper bag, out of which he pulls a crucifix and Wonder Bread. I don’t blame him for moving on. The Christianity that Christians have willfully marketed offers no more grace and marvels than a the loaf of bread provides wonders.

      • James K says:

        Although, when you think about the amount of human knowledge and organisation required to make that loaf of bread is pretty awesome.

    • James K says:

      This is one of those things that gives me a little culture shock. I can’t imagine having a prayer at a public event in New Zealand, unless it was a religious even or one of a small number of ceremonial occasions. It wouldn’t be offensive, it would just be weird.