By Ben Swift
‘Science does an excellent job of telling me why I don’t have a tail, but it can’t explain why I find that interesting.’ (Rob Bell)
The question of what it is to be human is one that has surely bounced around in the minds of any person who has the mental capacity to reflect on the deeper things of life. But just how far must we travel in our search for a satisfactory answer; an answer that we can confidently call truth or at least reality? Finding answers to such questions can and will take us in all sorts of directions and so we firstly need a starting point, a contemplation that serves to steer us in the right direction.
A few years ago, the band ‘Casting Crowns’ released a song titled ‘Who Am I?’ that serves this purpose well. In the tradition of the psalmists of old, their lyrics cry out:
Who am I, that the Lord of all the earth, would care to know my name, would care to feel my hurt….
I am a flower quickly fading, here today and gone tomorrow, a wave tossed in the ocean, a vapour in the wind…
Surely such anguish-driven thoughts have paved the way for many a search for meaning. But before we head down the philosophical road, let’s take a detour and see what Science has to say.
At a scientific level, humans, like all other animals, consist of cells, the very fabric of life. These cells work together to enable the physiological and biochemical processes required by the organism to take place as it lives in an environment that meets the conditions needed for its life. The specific bundle of cells known as the human are classified as mammals, along with apes and lemurs, and belong to the order Primates – the highest level of mammal. They are first in the animal kingdom in brain development with especially large cerebral hemispheres. (Hickman, Roberts, Hickman) That’s right, humans have, in terms of the animal kingdom, relatively big brains. But it’s what drives these brains beyond biological explanation that is of greater interest.
Science – recognised as a discipline closely associated with logic – has led people to strange places when it comes to finding answers about the human condition. In 1907 Duncan MacDougall, an American physician, conducted a bizarre investigation known as ‘Weighing the Ghost’. He actually attempted to measure the weight of the human soul. His investigation involved placing humans literally on their death bed, enabling a difference in weight between the alive specimen and the dead specimen to be taken at the exact moment the soul was to hypothetically leave the body. Not surprisingly, nothing was really gained from these experiments. (Rooney)
Science as a discipline can teach us many things but it has its limits. Obviously, as humans, we are more than complex cellular organisms and not everything about us can be tested and measured scientifically.
Unless we are prepared to tackle the, ‘Who am I?’ question at a psychological and spiritual level, rather than at a material level, something of crucial importance to the understanding of what it is to be human remains a mystery. (Vardy)
While it would be foolish to deny that genetics plays a role in many aspects of the human being, just as it does throughout the animal kingdom, it cannot explain why we, unlike other animals, have a consciousness that calls us into a place of reflection and a search for meaning. You will find no written accounts reflecting on the longings of the heart from the perspective of a lemur. There’s just something higher about the human race, something that cannot be explained by including us purely as a piece of the evolutionary jigsaw puzzle.
It turns out however, that there are many voices trying to flag down our attention, hoping to convince us that they have the keys to the vault holding the truth about who we are. Thoughts from humanists, philosophers and religious teachers among others. Consider a thought from The Buddha:
‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.’
But what is the basis for such a claim? If we choose to venture down this path, our meaning as humans lies completely with the self, and it seems that the self has been unable to truly satisfy its own desire for higher meaning. The truth about who we are must transcend ourselves. Denial is a powerful mental state but surely we can’t deny that reality exists simply by thinking it into being something more palatable.
Alternatively, Genesis 1:26 clearly illuminates the special creative intentions that God has for human beings, explaining why we are the way we are.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Theologian Neil McKinlay puts it this way:
‘He gave His own reflection five senses to appreciate His beautiful creation. And with His own finger He delicately wrote His law of love on His little mirror as He breathed life into him. As the three persons love the eternal Godhead, so man was to image his Creator by loving God and his neighbour personally, perfectly and perpetually.’
It is exclusively through our understanding of who we are in relation to who the Triune God is that we come to comprehend what it means to be human. We have been gifted with the capacity to reflect the very nature of our Creator. Who we have become as human beings is often far from who we have been created to be and perhaps that’s why throughout history we have so widely missed the mark when it comes to answering the question of what it means to be human. The more we close our eyes and ears to all that Christ reveals to us about ourselves, the more we use our creative capacities to construct meaning from a source separated from truth and life itself.
Let us not be reduced to a complex clump of cells answerable only to our DNA or philosophies that preach the death of God and the power of the self. Instead let’s turn to a God who knows us better than we know ourselves; a God who has experienced what it is to be human.
“Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh.” (John Calvin)