What does it mean to be human? [Questioning faith #26]

Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2023

One of my favorite theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker who died in 1972, wrote a profound little book called Who is Man? back in the 1960s. In that book, Heschel laments the negative view of humanness in our modern world. The human being, he writes, “is being excessively denounced and condemned by philosophers, theologians, and artists.” Heschel asks, what does the modern worldview say about us? “Humans are beasts. The only difference between humans and other beasts is that humans are beasts that know they will die. …You must cling to life as you can and use it for the pursuit of pleasure and of power.” Heschel concludes that human beings have “very few friends in the world, certainly very few in the contemporary literature about them. The Lord in heaven may prove to be humanity’s last friend on earth.”

While some Christian thinkers do agree with Heschel’s own positive humanism, a great deal of Christian theology—academic and popular—more likely reinforces the problems Heschel laments. In its actual view of humankind, Christian thought often has differed little from secular philosophy in its hostility toward humanity.

Hostility toward humanness

The roots of this hostility toward humanness go back a long way, perhaps at least to the fourth century, to the theology of Augustine and his powerful doctrine of original sin. This doctrine evolved into John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity. Human life, in the immortal words of a later Augustinian, Thomas Hobbes, is inevitably “nasty, brutish, and short.” We are born sinful, rebellious, and basically despicable.

It is highly ironic though, that these views commonly led to strong support for violent governmental control over the general population. I have never understood the logic. Why does belief in human depravity lead to trust in people with power? Why do we think rulers will transcend their own depravity and use their monopoly on violence in undepraved ways? Tying together negative views of humanness with support for domination systems has a long and still vital history. We’re all pretty bad, we’re told. That’s why we need so much military and police violence, to keep our human proclivity toward evil in check. But what about the human proclivity toward evil of those building, buying, and wielding the guns?

It’s not just theology that is hostile toward human nature. A lot of modern science is, too. Read popular writers such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker. These avowed atheists talk about total depravity in ways that would make a Calvinist nod in vigorous agreement. Our behavior stems from our selfish genes. We males naturally fight and struggle for dominance. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

The air we breathe in our culture tells us that the natural human condition is one of innate selfishness. Our received theology does little to challenge this. Indeed, we are told humans are born sinful, rebellious, and alienated. Many Christians, in face of their belief in humanity’s profound depravity have focused their energies on escaping this world of sorrows. Going back to Augustine, we are taught of the “city of man,” the city of brokenness and inevitable sorrow, pain, and conflict. This is the fate of all human historical existence. Then we have the city of God, the hope for after we die. Only after we die will the way of love be the norm. Only then will we be transformed, cleansed of our original sin, and finally empowered to be good.

Jesus: love defines humanness.

However, if we seek to do our theology as if Jesus matters, we will shape our values by Jesus’s. We will take seriously what Jesus taught about our humanity and his expectations for how human beings might live in this life. As we do so, we will be in tension with these negative notions of humanness that see humanness much more as a curse than a blessing. I believe, in light of Jesus’s message, that love defines humanness. The humanness that love defines is not only “pre-fall” humanness, Adam and Eve before they ate the forbidden fruit and changed forever our possibilities as human beings in this world. The humanness that love defines is not only an ideal for the heavenly city of God beyond history and death.

The humanness that love defines is the humanness of the woman who bathed Jesus’s feet in her tears and “costly ointment” because of her love (Luke 7:36-50). It is the humanness of the father who greeted his wayward, prodigal son with unconditional welcome when he returned from the dead (Luke 15:11-32). It is the costly and risky generosity of the Samaritan merchant who stopped along the Jericho Road to save the life of a person he had been socialized to hate as an ethnic and religious “other” (Luke 10:25-37). Human love, according to theology done as if Jesus matters, is a description of our basic nature. It is a realistic expectation. It is why we are here. When we love we are most ourselves. It is the most natural thing we can do.

However, we also are damaged as human beings. We are not fully in touch and do not act fully in harmony with our basic human nature. Each of us is damaged, our human societies are damaged, our world as a whole is damaged. So, it is not enough to define humanness in terms of our basic nature as loving, compassionate beings. We are also damaged. And the terrible irony is that our damage exploits our basic nature as compassionate, loving beings born to affiliate with others and turns it against us. We need others as a fundamental part of who we are. We are made to connect with, to join with others. Because of this basic need, we are vulnerable and fragile. We are, that is, easily damaged.

A terrible example of our fragility and how our loving human nature is easily exploited may be seen in the sophistication of our American military. Journalists interviewing American soldiers back during the Iraq War were surprised to learn of the educated anti-war sentiments of many soldiers. How could these young people who knew what’s going on and did not support it nonetheless keep fighting? One major reason was the military’s technique of creating cohorts of soldiers. They go through basic training together, bond closely with each other, and then go to war together. Thus, many would say, sure this war sucks, it’s a fraud, but I’m still going to go fight because my buddies depend upon me. This human need for connection, even for friendship—one of our strongest drives—carries much more weight than the drive to violence, or the drive to support one’s home country. And this need can be exploited to create fighters.

So, even in the heart of the beast we see evidence of a very different take on human nature than we get in the theological tradition, in the modern worldview, and in popular culture. We are not isolated billiard balls, inherently selfish and competitive. We are part of a web of life. We seek affiliation. We need love, and we are naturally capable of sharing love.

Theology of humanness in light of Jesus

Jesus’s core statement of faith: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40) provides a good starting point to summarize a theology of humanness in light of Jesus. This statement by Jesus tells us several important things: (1) The core meaning of life is love, trust, and mutuality. We are valued. (2) We find ourselves insofar as we are oriented toward God, the God of love, that is, insofar as we say yes to God and to life. (3) We find ourselves, also, insofar as we are oriented toward other people. We are social creatures with a need and an ability for friendship.

Human beings contain a mixture of attributes that foster a sense of tension. On the one hand, we are limited, finite, and dependent on God and other human beings. On the other hand, we are imaginative, spiritual, and creative. We are limited by our earthiness, yet also able to imagine not being limited. We are material creatures with a sense of life beyond the material. Scripture presents human beings as having been created good. This “goodness” is not the same as perfection. Goodness is an attribute assigned by God, meaning that we are created as God wants us to be. We remain good in this sense—loved by God. As God’s good creatures, we are of intrinsic value. We are created good also in the sense that this means that we are able to be responsive to God, able to live in relationship with God.

The New Testament speaks of Jesus as being the “image” of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). This identification implies that Jesus’s way of being human provides the norm for all of us. God created us in God’s image, and Jesus reveals the core characteristics of that image. Jesus’s way of being human meant being loving, just, willing to suffer, intimate with God, in partnership with others, inclusive of outcastes, in general showing an “upside-down kingdom” in relation to the sense of “kingship” of his day and age.

Humanity in the image of God

Genesis one refers to humanity being in the “image of God” and the New Testament refers to Jesus being in the “image of God.” As such, we are, in our essence, relational, creative, powerful, rational, communicative, aware, and gifted with free will. Jesus is the model human being, our guide for our theology of humanness. In Jesus we see two key aspects of the calling of human beings. First God calls us to live responsibly. We are called to take responsibility to follow God’s will, to live with trust in God, to care for other people and creation, to be creative, and to respect others. Secondly, God calls us to love. Jesus showed this love in his “Abba relationship” with God and with his openness to all sorts of people.

In the Christian confession that in Jesus God was incarnated in human flesh we also confess that God endorses and is committed to humanness. Jesus shows what all human beings might become. We tend toward God. We also tend toward nature. We are spiritual and material beings. Human beings are “bio-historical creatures.” That is, our physical life begins and ends. We have instincts. We exist in time. We share many essential characteristics with other animals. We are “flesh and blood.”

While recognizing our bio-historical nature, we also confess that we are not reducible merely to physical and instinctual elements. We are not simply quantifiable machine-like entities; though we also believe that nature itself is also not simply a quantifiable machine-like entity (in contrast to some forms of modern scientism). We understand life to be the breath of God, not mere random chance. Each human being has inestimable value. Each has non-quantifiable and non-reducible elements. Each of us has a spiritual aspect that touches on all parts of our being with creativity and love.

When we look at the development of newborn human beings, we also find evidence that love is of the essence of our humanness. Human beings are born utterly dependent upon others. Requiring nurture to live, we enter the world powerless to care for ourselves. Our first and most primal experience is requiring nurturing love simply to exist. And this dependence continues for much, much longer than any other animal. Without love, human beings would be extinct.

Think about our on-going lives and these two questions: What are our most fundamental survival needs as human beings? And what elements of our lives give us the most pleasure? Notice that several of the exact same things are high on both lists. Our survival needs and our pleasures often go together. We need to eat. Our lives, like other animals’, are to a large extent organized around our meals. We think in terms of working so we may “put food on the table.” At the same time, we love to eat. For most of us, when we think back to the times in our lives when we have had the most fun, they often have involved food. Our taste buds generally give us pleasure—as does the feeling of have a satisfied stomach after we have been hungry. We need to drink. We love to drink. Few pleasures are as intense as a glass of cold water when one’s thirst is strong. We also enjoy many other beverages beyond simply satisfying our thirst. Sex is very pleasurable, and we don’t continue as a species without it. When we talk about our “sex drive” we do not simply have in mind some kind of need we feel to have children. We also know that the “sex drive” is linked with a “pleasure drive.” As social creatures we need friendship to survive. Friendship brings us great joy.

The overlapping of our survival needs and our deepest pleasures tells us something profound about the nature of life. We human beings are not simply automatons with strong survival instincts that govern our behavior. Much more so, we are creatures who love the activities that keep us alive. Life is meant to be good. Our humanness is meant to be a source of joy. So, here is the basic picture: Our humanness is a blessing, not a curse. We are created by a loving God in order to love and to be loved—and we can do just that, we must do just that. Maybe survival of the fittest is the law of life—but what makes us fit? Not a quest for domination. Not selfishness. But love and sharing and mutuality.

Humanity as damaged

We cannot avoid the reality, though, as I noted before, that we humans are damaged. We live in a damaged world. Our lovingness is turned against us. Look at the basic survival needs I mentioned—food, drink, sex, friendship. Each is a source of profound pleasure, but each can become an obsession, an occasion for disease, even a source of bondage. For many of us in North American society, our wealth has lifted us above the need to devote all our energies simply to survival. Yet, we are plagued with an inability to limit our use of the goods that allow us to survive. So, the pleasure we derive from food and drink, when overly indulged in, leads to obesity, alcoholism, heart disease, and various other health problems. An obsession with sex simply as individual pleasure leads to myriad problems of broken relationships, sexually transmitted diseases, and emotional trauma. As I mentioned above, the need for friendship lends itself to exploitation by forces that utilize the close ties we develop with friends as a strategy for wreaking violence on designated “enemies” outside the circle of our friends.

We may be good; we certainly are loved by the Lord of heaven and earth. But we also need healing from the damage of our sin. Sin is a relational problem that involves alienation in the relationships of human beings with God, with other human beings, with one’s self, and with the natural world.

Sin finds expression in harmful activities and in the lack of good activities. It leads to brokenness among human beings, characterized by violence, exploitation, objectification, exclusion, and avoidance. Humanity in the image of God is humanity with power, creativity, the ability to shape our surroundings. Under sin’s influence, this power remains—but it becomes destructive rather than life enhancing. Human beings are uniquely creative in our ability to destroy. This destructive ability is the flip side of our ability to create as stewards of God’s creation. Human beings, distinct from other animals in the main, act violently toward other members of our species for purposes that do not serve our own survival needs.

Sin is connected with building walls of separation and with fearfulness. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis two and three captures this connection between sin and fearfulness in a powerful way. After they disobey God, God approaches them as before for fellowship, but this time the human beings hide from God, fearfully. In so doing, they set in motion a terrible spiral of fearfulness leading to violence leading to alienation. Human false worship interrelates with the structures of human social life (the “principalities and powers”). When created things (including institutions and ideologies) are “worshiped,” they take on a power outside of individual consciousness. This power fosters idolatry, sin, and evil. We trust in things in ways that lead to a spiral of death. These empowered “idols” may be seen to epitomize the demonic realm. They take on a will of their own autonomously from God’s will and, as Paul writes in Romans eight, seek to separate human beings from God.

Sin corrupts our humanness. Human beings under the power of sin fail to achieve our potential as God’s creatures. However, even as “fallen,” even as living under the power of sin, human beings remain “good” (“good” here being defined as loved by God). As “good” creatures, all human beings retain their value in God’s eyes and retain the capability of responding in faith toward God. The “fall” does not change human nature from good to evil. Human beings remain good—loved by God, creative, powerful, and capable of loving God and other human beings.

Sin is best thought of in “public health” terms. We need to consider sin not in order to condemn and punish and eradicate and avoid. Rather, we seek to find healing. Just as public health officials focus on understanding the causes of the disorder and finding ways to treat the problem, thus also should Christians think of sin. We should hope to foster honesty about the sins, objectivity about their causes and consequences, and seek to undo the harm caused by the sins and find healing and restoration for all involved.

Repair is possible—and it is simple (though not easy). Jesus reemphasized the prophets’ teaching about salvation. Recognize and repent of your idolatry. Turn away from the idols and turn toward God. Simply trust in God’s presence and embrace God’s love. Break free from that which dehumanizes and enslaves and turn toward the restoring power of God’s healing justice. Embrace our humanness and live humane lives. And healing will come.

Questioning Faith blog series

6 thoughts on “What does it mean to be human? [Questioning faith #26]

  1. “Tying together negative views of humanness with support for domination systems has a long and still vital history. We’re all pretty bad, we’re told. That’s why we need so much military and police violence, to keep our human proclivity toward evil in check. But what about the human proclivity toward evil of those building, buying, and wielding the guns?”

    I think this stems from two things: first, a naive belief that as long as we entrust the monopoly on violence to “the best of us” – i.e. those selected by the public through elections as being the best equipped to hold and wield that power – they will use that power wisely and responsibly (this hasn’t always worked out so well); and second, a failure of imagination (our inability to imagine the world configured in any other way than as a system of power enforced by violence).

    1. I agree, Rob. Your points underscore the vital need for an expanded imagination about what kind of world we actually can have. I find the Bible helpful for this work, even if I have many doubts about Christianity as a religion.

  2. “Jesus is the model human being, our guide for our theology of humanness.”

    Orthodox theologian and Patristics scholar John Behr suggests that, when Jesus utters the iconic last words “It is finished” (John 19:30), this means not that Jesus’ earthly life and/or mission has come to an end but rather that God’s supreme creative work – the creation of the human being – has now been completed and perfected in Jesus. This also nicely echoes/recalls Pilate’s famous words back in John 19:5, “Behold the man”, or, as we might perhaps recast it following Walter Wink, “Behold the human being”.

  3. Another great, thought-provoking post, Ted! How concerned should I be that I find myself agreeing in such large part with your posts? 😉

    I believe that God IS love. God is not so cruel that we would be taught to pray for God’s Kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven” without Heaven on Earth being an actual possibility (probability?). If everyone on earth followed Jesus’s teaching that “love defines humanness”, we would achieve God’s Kingdom on earth.

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