On being human

Throughout the history of philosophy and theology, scholars and thinkers have reflected on he nature of humanity. What are the essential qualities that make us what we are? How are humans similar to and different from other creatures? For theologians a parallel problem has to do with the nature of God. What are the distinctions between the divine and the human? Reading the history of academic thought about these questions can pose a problem to contemporary thinkers because up until the middle of the twentieth century, it was common to use “man” as a generic term for all humans. There was at the same time a use of man that referred to the male gender and also the use of the same word to indicate all humans regardless of their gender. To understand the history and to wrestle with the problem of the nature of humanity requires an understanding of the conventions of speech that were employed in certain time periods.

If you can look beyond the gender issue, Reinhold Niebuhr’s book, “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” is a classic theological study of what it means to be human. Niebuhr begins with a powerful first line: “Man is his own most vexing problem.” The intellectual challenge of understanding human nature is among the most difficult problems of human thought. The very fact that we are able to entertain a degree of self-analysis is truly remarkable. I suspect that there is something uniquely human about our reflections. Other creatures don’t seem to carry concern about their nature and role in the universe. They simply are. We, however, question our identity and our role in the larger scheme of things.

We wonder about what of us remains after our death. We think of our legacy. We question the meaning of our lives.

Other thinkers have used different words to wrestle with the problem of human identity. The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck began his best-selling, and some would say pivotal, book about humans with the simple observation, “Life is difficult.” Just to be human is a challenge that requires effort and persistence and determination.

I am challenged by these very different thinkers and many other writers who have reflected on the nature of humanity. It seems to me that one might equally argue the opposite of their perspectives. Humans are not only our own most vexing problems. We also are our own greatest joys. Life is not just a problem to be solved. People have lived joyful and meaningful lives and participated in the great flow of history without spending all of their time trying to solve life as a problem. And just as it is true that life is difficult, it is also true that life is deeply rewarding and meaningful. Systematic theology did not come naturally to me and I don’t remember much of what I wrote for the required class when I was a student. I do know that I was expected to address the challenge of thinking about the nature of humans and our relationship with God. Looking back, I think that it might have been an opportunity to take a very different path than Niebuhr or Peck. Were I to attempt such a challenge at this stage of my life, I think my opening line might be less about the problems of humanity and more about the joy. Perhaps I could begin, “Being human is a delightful experience.”

As I age, I am more conscious of my gratitude for the experiences of this life. The simple pleasure of just being able to walk strikes me as a daily miracle. I am frequently overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, or seascape that greets me in my daily life. I am amazed at the love that is shared in family and in the community of the church. I am delighted to simply observe my children and grandchildren. More than a problem to be solved, life is a source of endless fascination and deep joy.

My perspective does not mean that life is without problems. There are times when I am deeply aware of the cruelty of some human interactions. Violence is a devastating reality and its victims are shaped by pain and sorrow. It is easy to despair when considering the enormous impact of human greed upon the world in which we live. It is possible that we humans have created irreversible damage to our environment that will lead to the end of human life as we know it. It is not difficult to become aware of the depth of evil present in this universe. On the other hand, the simple fact that we do not fall into complete despair is a testament to the incredible resilience of the human spirit. We humans have a capacity for hope that is as real and as powerful as our capacity for evil. And, beyond all of that, we are capable of giving and receiving love.

I am struck by the words of the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, who began his book, “Anam Cara” with these words: “It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you.” Those words capture much of my sense of the experience of being human. To be human is to be immersed in mystery. It is not so much that human life is a problem to be solved, but rather a mystery to be explored. The exploration of that mystery, including the many opportunities for reflection about the nature of life and our place in the vastness of the universe, is the task of each person who is allowed the luxury of time for thought. Being human is having the capacity to go beyond mere survival. We not only survive, we are aware that we are surviving and we think about what it means to survive.

Equally amazing and mysterious to me are the ways in which we are shaped by the thinking of others. My reflections on the nature of humanity are shaped by the books I have read and the thinking of other humans, some of whom lived long before I was born. I am who I am because of the lives that others lived before me.

It seems possible that I will never complete a book about the nature of humanity. I’m still working on that first sentence. “Life is awesome” might be the kind of beginning I am seeking.

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