Around this time, I get a bit somber during the days the birthday of a friend who died a few years ago. He was an unusual guy in a good way. And while I feel I’ve never struggled to be clear, I have struggled to be understood as a person (and who hasn’t?). Anyway, my friend [we’ll called him Bradley] understood me and I think I understood him. Many of his life struggles mirrored mind and a great deal of his personal suffering and demons surpassed mine by a long way. While some of his life struggles made it difficult for us to hang out, we saw each other regularly until he disappeared, which led to his untimely death.
I think about Bradley a lot, probably every day. Spontaneously, at this point, I mostly recall the good and the dark spots of his life only come up when I call them to mind. Bradley’s influence on me, particularly in high school, remains to this day. I was a dorky do-gooder with a chip on my shoulder because I was picked on, thought I was funny but nobody liked my jokes, and when I did good things I wasn’t applauded or I was ignored. When I met Bradley, I thought, “Here’s a guy who’s smart enough for me to admire and whatever mischief he cares to get into, he plans a way to do it just for fun.” And so coinciding with my conversion to Christianity, Bradley and I became friends. We were in a band called the Exploding Chaos Parade and had a lot of fun doing it. Our rag-tag group of friends studied scripture together, went spelunking, got in trouble for parading without a permit, learned to write music, pranked the band director, pranked the whole school, and on and on. And so my whole life since, I’ve learned to let social conventions go when they contradict the things that really matter. Strangely, through learning to be more free from Bradley and learning to obey the gospel command to “treat others as you wish to be treated” my social problems disappeared. Since about my sophomore year of high school, I’ve made many friends in all walks of life and I’ve learned to really care about people in their circumstances. Incidentally, at Bradley’s funeral, it was powerful to learn how much he was willing to sacrifice for literally anybody with a need, because he just didn’t care how things looked…unless the appearance of it was part of the joke.
Bradley was and is part of who I am. The Geoff Smith that exists now, as a father, husband, teacher, Christian, son, and brother is necessarily in relationship to Bradley. David Bentley Hart makes this observation more generally, “After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us? We are those others.”
In other words, there is no sense in which I am the person that I am without the existence of the other people I have known, and in the case of Bradley or my wife or my parents, I am who I am even in the sense that approximations of these people are in my mind that lead me to make choices wondering what their input would be or how they would interpret my choices or thoughts. This raises a serious question, “In what sense could I be redeemed from death, the world, and sin in isolation of any one of those people?” And it’s a serious question because what it means to be me is necessarily tied up in what it means for Bradley to be Bradley. If I am to be redeemed, what of my memories of those who made me me, how can those memories and the relationships that form them be redeemed except in the redeeming of the relationship itself? Elsewhere Hart described persons this way, “But finite persons are not self-enclosed individual substances; they are dynamic events of relation to what is other than themselves.”
So here’s a syllogism:
- A finite person is a dynamic event of relation to what is other than themselves.
- Redemption in Christ is for finite persons.
- Therefore redemption in Christ for a person must be ultimately inclusive of the relationships that make a finite person themselves.
If we accept Hart’s definition of a person, I think we have to entertain the possibility that for a person to be redeemed, so too, the persons that made that person themselves must be redeemed. Now, I harbor no doubts about Bradley’s faith or his reception into God’s grace. I just use our friendship as an illustration in this case because the melancholy of the time of year has overtaken me. Now, I do not doubt the existence of hell, the necessity of God’s justice, or the moral prescriptions of Scripture and plain reason. I merely mean to reflect on what it means for an individual to be redeemed. C.S. Lewis imagines even animals in close relationship to saints finding themselves with spiritual bodies in the New Heavens and Earth.