What is a human? What behaviour is appropriate for humans? What behaviour is good for humans? Do the answers to these questions stem from our nature? Is there an immutable, original essence to a human being that determines what we are, who we are, and the kinds of things we ought to do and ought not to do?
Christians may call this essence the “image of God” – inherent to our creation is likeness to this being who is eternal and immutable, therefore who we are, what we are, and what we ought to do are questions that have eternal, immutable answers. Any contingency that exists in our self-understanding ends with God, the uncontingent one. When we peel back the layers of our history and our culture and our rationalities, we get an essence to which our stories and our cultures and our rationalities must conform. Our cultures have changed down the years, but our justice within these shifting cultures either does or does not meet the immutable standard of justice determined by God and determined in humans as image bearers of God.
Human beings do not get to make up their own essence, or essences. Human beings do not determine what they are and what they should do. As created beings we have been given an essence, and our faithfulness to God is measured by our faithfulness to this essence – faithfulness to this self that is our true nature and which goes all the way back to the beginning, to the decision of creation, to the eternal moment right before history and contingency began.
There is a problem, however. The Apostles Paul says that this self has been crucified; it no longer lives. As Volf explains, this ahistorical essence is not our centre, if it ever was. We understand what it is to be human by appealing to history; not the history of all human beings, but the history of one human being in whom all of history is judged and with whom all humans have been crucified. We may still say that our essence is our being made in the “image of God”, but we can only understand that term by the story of the Christ who is that image. Union with this Christ now determines our self, and we must know his life if we are to live as we ought to live. His life does not confirm everything we think with regards what it means to be human. He does not obey a law that we know in advance of his coming, a moral code that is inherent to our nature. We do not know what love is, and then affirm that Jesus loves. We do not know what justice is, and then affirm that Jesus does justice. The life of Jesus must shatter all of our preconceived notions of justice and love that we think are immutable, and rebuild them with his story as their foundations.
Following Jesus does not mean that he gives us the power to live a virtuous life that we know apart from him. It means to really follow him as people whose selves are not our own, not eternal and immutable, but rather dead and made alive again only insofar as they are lived in de-centring dependence upon the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. This dependency, this uncertainty and discomfort about where the living Jesus would lead us, is now our essence, our centre.
...the new centre of the self is not a timeless “essence,” hidden deep within a human being, underneath the sediments of culture and history and untouched by “time and change,” an essence that waits only to be discovered, unearthed, set free. Neither is the centre an inner narrative that the reverberating echo of the community’s “final vocabulary” and “master story” has scripted in the book of the self and whose integrity must be guarded from editorial intrusions by rival “vocabularies” and competing “stories.” The centre of the self – a centre that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, which has become the story of the self. More precisely, the centre is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.