Quite a few theologies take humanity as their starting point. I can understand why, since theology is human work—our human reflections on the big issues of life. However, I have chosen to pick up the doctrine of humanity (“theological anthropology”) only in this seventh essay. I believe our reflections up to now have given us a better perspective for a theological affirmation of our humanity.
One of my favorites theologians is Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker who died in 1972. In his profound little book, Who is Man?, Heschel laments the negative view of humanness in our modern world. The human being, he writes, “is being excessively denounced and condemned by artists, philosophers, and theologians.”
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 agree with Heschel’s critique, a great deal of Christian theology—academic and popular—more likely reinforces the problems Heschel laments. In the actual view of humankind, Christian theology often has differed little from secular philosophy.
Hostility toward humanness
The roots of this hostility toward humanness go back a long ways. In the Christian tradition, they go back at least to the fourth century, to Augustine’s 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 named Thomas Hobbes is inevitably “nasty, brutish, and short.” We are born sinful, rebellious, and basically despicable.
It is highly ironic though, that these views 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. Read the newspaper editorials—we’re all pretty bad, we’re told. That’s why we need so much military and police violence, to keep our human evilness in check. But what about the human evilness of those building, buying, and wielding the guns?
The air we breathe in our culture, the images with which we are bombarded, the lifeblood of our economic life, tell us that the natural human condition is based on our innate selfishness. And our received theology does little to challenge this. Indeed, we are told humans are born sinful, rebellious, and alienated. We are born in sin.
Most 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. The best we can do now are small, almost symbolic, nods toward peace and love—mostly experienced as peace as order and love as kindly feelings.
Jesus: Love defines humanness
However, if we seek to do our theology as if Jesus matters, we will shape our values by Jesus’ own hierarchy of values. We will take seriously what Jesus himself 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.
My conviction, in light of Jesus’ message, is that love defines humanness. The humanness that love defines is the humanness of the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet in her tears and “costly ointment” because of her love (Luke 7:36-50). The humanness that love defines 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). The humanness that love defines 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, and of course this is a huge “however,” this is the “however” that explains the entire biblical story following Genesis 3, we are damaged as human beings. We 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. Our damage exploits our loving nature 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, easily damaged.
A terrible example of our fragility, of how our human loving nature is easily exploited may be seen in the sophistication of our present-day American military. Journalists interviewing American soldiers have been surprised to learn of the educated anti-war sentiments expressed by many soldiers. How can these young people, at least some of whom know what’s going on and do not support it, nonetheless keep fighting? One major reason is 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 will 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.
Biblical support for Jesus’ perspective
Jesus’ affirmation of humanness as a blessing fits with many other parts of the Bible. From start to finish the Bible portrays human beings addressed by God as responsible beings, capable of understanding and responding to God’s call—in this life.
Let’s notice just a few biblical texts that support this assertion, beginning with Genesis 1, where we read of our being created in God’s image. Human beings enter as the final act in the creation story, standing as the culmination of creative work that is good, very good, so good that when it was done God could take a rest, a time of contentment. The image of God, male and female, provides human beings with a vocation—be fruitful, multiply, cultivate life and abundance in this good creation God has placed human beings in. It is natural for human beings to do this work of creativity and bringing forth fruit in community, to all the ends of the earth.
Although Christian theology in the Augustinian tradition has placed a huge break between human beings before the fall of Adam and Eve and after, Psalm 8 actually pretty much repeats Genesis 1 in speaking of “post-fall” humanity. God has made human beings just a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and given dominion over the works of God’s hand—a call to be stewards, to work fruitfully, to glorify the maker of heaven and earth.
In Matthew 6:25-33, Jesus anchors the high value that human beings have in the care and respect God has for us. He also emphasizes that because we are loved by God (and therefore are good), we may devote ourselves to seeking to further God’s justice in the world.
In Romans 5:6-11, Paul reiterates Jesus’ affirmation of God’s love that gives worth to humankind. Paul clearly understands that humanity lives in an alienated condition, separated from God’s love by our bondage to the power of sin. However, he emphasizes powerfully that God responds to this alienation with transforming love. God proves the worth of human beings by reaching out to us in the most profound way possible, bringing reconciliation through Jesus’ self-sacrifice.
Theological anthropology in light of Jesus
Jesus’ 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). Jesus’ words here provide a good jumping off point to summarize a theological anthropology 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. It is appropriate for each of us to take up space in the world. (2) We find ourselves insofar as we are oriented toward God, the God of love. That is, we find ourselves insofar as we may say yes to God, and to life. Life is characterized by abundance and not scarcity. (3) We find ourselves insofar as we are oriented toward other people. We are social creatures with a need and an ability for friendship—and we wither without 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.
Genesis tells us that we are created in “the image of God” (1:27). We should begin our reflections about the “image” with the exercise of creative power. Human beings, echoing characteristics of God, are given the ability to shape our environment. In Genesis one, God’s “kingly” power creates what is. Human beings, then, are created to share this power. Thus, we are given the vocation of exercising responsible stewardship in relation to God’s creation.
Genesis 1 also tells us that as beings created in God’s image, we have been created male and female. Inferred here, human beings created in God’s image are relational creatures. We are created to relate with God and with one another.
The New Testament speaks of Jesus as being the “image” of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). This identification implies that Jesus’ 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’ 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.
Jesus is the model human being, our guide for our theological anthropology. 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.
From within a Christian framework, we confess that as finite, fragile, limited creatures we depend upon God for life. We confess that our origins rest in God’s creative intent. We also confess that our ongoing sustenance depends upon God “providing rain and sunshine in due season.” Our hope for life beyond death rests on God’s resurrecting power, not on something inherent in our physical or spiritual makeup.
Human beings have consciousness of our spiritual natures and an ability (and longing) to relate to God, to the infinite, to the eternal and transcendent, a sense of mystery. Human beings combine in volatile ways, flesh and spirit, an anchoring in earthly existence combined with imagination, a longing for the stars.
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 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 (sinful)
We cannot avoid the reality, though, 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.
In North American society, 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.
We may be good; we certainly are loved by the Lord of heaven and earth. But we are also in desperate need of salvation. Sin is a relational (more than legal) concept. It involves alienation in the relationships of human beings with God first of all. Sin also involves alienation in the relationships 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 unique 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 lack of trust in God, with false worship (given that we are “worshiping creatures”), with building walls of separation, and with fearfulness. Human false-worship interrelates with the structures of human social life (the “principalities and powers” referred to in the New Testament). 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 other than God leading 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.
How is sin overcome? This question brings us to the theme of salvation. In chapter two above on christology, we learned of two core christological concerns: (1) Jesus’ person and (2) Jesus’ work. We reflected on Jesus’ person in that chapter—his identity as God’s Son. And we postponed considering Jesus’ work until we learned more about our broader theological framework—and the human predicament. Now we are ready to look more closely at the theme of “salvation” in our next essay.