What Does it Mean to Be Human?

Nebuchadnezzar, painted by William Blake in 1795.

I think it’s ironic that God made King Nebuchadnezzar an animal for a while to teach him how to be a better human (read: how to be able to control the distinctly human gifts of consciousness and free will), and yet many in society today just want to become like animals, either in their sex lives, the Reality TV shows they watch,1, fashion, werewolf and vampire obsessions, etc. It's hard to believe, but an increasing number of people are beginning to mistake animals for humans (e.g. Cecil the lion, PETA) and humans for animals (e.g. Planned Parenthood). And we traditional, conservative Americans shake our heads, renew our concealed-carry permits and donate double to the NRA. We don’t want none thank you. We stand for humanity, for the dignity and value of human life, young and old.

But what does it really mean to be human?

We’ve long established humans as being different than animals because we are more valuable, but that isn’t a given anymore. We have to prove our value over animals, and if our only answer is “because God said so,” we’ve lost because we’ve just handed over another fundamental question to ignorance, doing, in effect, what animals do. They don’t bother with asking and answering questions like these.

But, some say being human simply means that we have the awareness to ask these questions, not that we have to find answers. I’m going to defer that relativistic debate to another day and assume we can at least agree that there are objective truths we can know about being human, and it’s out job to find them. I’m also going to assume we can agree that God created humans, and He did so with great intentionality.

If we have a Creator, and if He had intentions about our existence, then it’s safe to say we can find out who we are and what we are to do with our lives. Just like a CEO who is hired for a reason and exists in the corporation to perform a vital function, so we humans exist on this blue planet hurtling through space for a purpose.

“King [Nebuchadnezzar] reflected and said, ’Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?…’ He was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle… [Then Nebuchadnezzar said], ‘My reason returned to me and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored him who lives forever…for all his works are true and his ways just, and he is able to humble those who walk in pride.’”

The Biblical Evidence

Created in the Image of God

God created man in His own image (Gen 1:27). This is a concept known to history as the imago Dei, the idea that the very essence of the human spirit is created in reference to something else. This has puzzled some thinkers because they wonder does God look like us? If God is a spirit how are we created in his image? That word "image" has more to do with character than visual appearance. We are like God in what differentiates us from the animals, in our distinct humanness. More on that in a second.

Fallen, Broken by Sin

We were created for glory, in a glorious likeness to our God, but as life reminds us, we are absolutely broken. If we were to rely on our eyes alone, we may see we are absolutely and irreparably broken. Humanity fell in the Garden of Eden by rebelling against God, assuming a position higher than God. Adam and Eve believed Satan and their own words over God's, and as C. S. Lewis wrote, it's been history's entire goal to find something other than God to be satisfied with.

Redeemed in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus

But at the center of history there lived a man who was to be the hero of history. John 1 talks about Jesus "tabernacling" among us (John 1:14), so that God literally became visible to humanity in humanity. So even though we are broken (Rom 8:23), it’s not irreparable. There is a hero who has taken our burdens and restored us to our former glory.

“For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Col 1:19-20).

Humanity in Comparison with Nature

The Bible gives us clear definitions for who we are, but that doesn’t mean we should stop there. We can discover very practical things about ourselves just by comparing ourselves with nature. We don't believe in quote/unquote Mother Nature—we know she isn’t our mother—but we don't really know what to do with her either. Psalm 19 says she shows forth the glory of God but we look at it all a little bored (unless you live on the west coast where Adventure! is the supreme ethic). And we are so scared of pantheism (or panentheism) that to say that His creation can make you experience Him would be, to us stiff Evangelicals, borderline Buddhist.

But as G. K. Chesterton said, Nature isn't our Mother, she's our Cousin.2 We can look at her and discover more about both God and ourselves since we are kin under a common Father. God does reveal himself in His works in the world, and it’s not pantheistic to say that a sun-kissed dew-laden tree swaying in the wind, leaves rustling with the chirping of the birds, isn’t an act of God meant to mean something to you, to show you more of Himself.

Now this can all get very deep really quick, but I want to just keep skimming, to introduce the idea of a human ontology. The basic ideas involved in measuring the humanness of humans are (in no particular order): life, consciousness, responsibility, power, authority, meaning, emotions, feelings, free-will, etc. etc. So let’s just compare a few of those to animals, and see what we find about us humans.

Animals don’t get bored

Humans do, and we go even further: we complain about it. We expect to not be bored, which is to say we expect to be entertained or occupied in some way. Which is all to say we have a consciousness, an ability to have self-awareness and therefore weigh thoughts and circumstances in critical ways in an act of discerning values. We can notice ourselves being bored, realize we don’t have to be, and do something about it.

Animals can’t communicate in propositions

Ok, so I know bees can communicate like four things by jiggling, buzzing, and bobbing up and down, and monkeys can warn the pack of danger with shrill calls, but animals don’t have language. Which means animals don’t have the cognitive ability to name things, to make value judgments on them, to make meaning, to represent that meaning with grammatical relationships, and to communicate with each other the full gamut of what they think and feel. They can’t empathize or be freed from their subjective perspectives. Humans can use their words to create an alternative reality in their imagination and see what it would be “like” to be someone else, and thus find a sense of unity with the diversity of the world around them.

Animals don’t have a free will

Theologians and church folks get tied up in a knot sometimes over the idea of man’s having a free will, but as I’ve learned in my chronic illness, stripping a man of his free will isn’t godly; it’s dehumanizing. (Dehumanizing: it makes us less human.) We Christians believe that the Universe is determined by God—that there is quote/unquote Fate—but we also believe that we humans are masters of our destiny, that our decisions matter and that we bear the full responsibility of our actions. So yes, we believe contradictory things. That God is absolute sovereign and that man is absolutely responsible. 3

Getting past that theological nuance, the more practical aspects of free will simply refer to the ability we humans have of asserting ourselves on the cosmic system and making change. Steve Jobs once said, “Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” He knew! Animals lack the mental ability to even think that way, much less have some sort of plan for identifying problems and fixing them.

Animals don’t daydream

Which is to say they don’t have an imagination they can command at will. Ben, my childhood dog, used to dream; he’d run his legs in his sleep and huff his breath, and sometimes bark and wake himself up. But those aren’t the kind of dreams that people have about enacting their will on the Universe. He didn’t wake up going “AHA I know how to fix this!” And he certainly didn’t sit himself down for a nice daydream and lose himself in his fantasy world.

Becoming More Human

Animals don't have a soul, we know that, and that may be the one huge difference in making humans more human. But what is it really that makes us more human? Another way of asking that would be, what has “dehumanizing” effects on us, and how can we reverse that into “pro-humanizing” effects that cause us to become deeper, more genuinely human? More on that…next time.

  1. TLC’s Buying Naked, Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid, etc. ↩︎
  2. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. ↩︎
  3. This is the doctrine of compatibilism, a word theologians came up with to say, in a more comfortable jargon, “We believe contradictory things.” But really, compatibilism allows us a way of saying, “Yes, they seem to contradict, but they are in fact compatible.” Just as paradoxes really just seem to be paradoxical—that’s just our inherent limitation obscuring a clear reality. ↩︎