Do you like being human?
I know, what’s the alternative? No, I mean what do you think of being human? See, I hear a lot of negative talk about our humanity. I hear people say things like “to err is human” or “forgive me; I’m only human.” And I get the impression that deep down we think “human” is a kind of insult roughly equivalent to Charleton Heston’s “You damn dirty ape!”
But is it? What is this thing called “human” anyway? Something to be dreaded or gloried in? It’s complicated because humans certainly have a lot to be ashamed of, but we’ve also done some pretty amazing things. So which is it? Are we just dirt bags or are we minor deities?…or could it be that maybe, we’re both.
Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
We’re funny creatures—humans. We experience such high and noble states as love and friendship and yet we are capable of betrayal and genocide. We are at one moment altruistic and the next consummately selfish. Today we wolf down whatever calories are at hand even if they’re barely edible, and tomorrow experience such a specific craving that we’d rather go hungry than eat anything else. We write poetry and slander. We speak of compassion and tolerance while thriving on a predatory 24-hour news cycle. We whine about the Kardashians while applauding the next hit from Kanye. We are a fickle bunch—capable of the divine highs, diabolical lows, and persistent lethargies. How are we to explain this?
Well, understand that I’m not asking this just because I’m a Christian. Humans of every generation have tried to understand why we oscillate like the fan. The Greek philosopher Plato believed this tension existed because we were a dual-natured creature. We are an eternally existing soul trapped in a finite corrupt body. Sadly our physical body is busy making our soul forget it’s real identity—weighing it down with passions and desires. This isn’t going to help us much, because while Christianity agrees that we are creatures who will experience an eternal life or death, it is also clear that no part of us is eternal in the sense of uncreated. God is the author, not just of our bodies, but of our souls as well. And as we’ll see in another homily, whatever problems we have as humans, they are rooted at least as much in our souls as in our bodies—and maybe more so.
I tend to think Plato’s student Aristotle was more helpful. Not that he was wholly right either, but his categories are just more useful in building toward a Christian answer. He said that to be human was to be a “rational animal.” This also has a two-part feeling like Plato, but it doesn’t as quickly turn into a “soul good/body bad” dilemma. He simply means that there is a part of that is shared with the other creatures in this world and a part of us that stands above and over that part. The rational part is supposed to rule over the animal part like “a king in his house.” So far as it goes, I think that’s a helpful distinction that matches my experience. I can see the biological resemblance between myself and the other animals. Surgeons can take the heart valve out of a pig and put in me and it will work. And I am well aware that I possess the same hungers and drives as the other animals in this world. I have urges to eat, survive, and mate that I see in them.
But I also sense a “self” in me that stands over and above those urges. One that tells me that I ought to and even can control them so that I can choose not to eat though I’m hungry. I have the power to risk my life for some noble cause when I’d rather stay safe. I can choose not to mate even when I I’m feeling…you get the idea. Aristotle calls this ruling part “reason.” And I suppose that’s as good word for it as anything.
If his “rational animal” idea has a problem, it’s that the animal part can quickly come to mean, not “lower”, but actually inherently bad or corrupt just like Plato. If we go this way, I’ll have to part company with him. Good robust Christianity will want to say that whatever God gave us in the beginning was good. And if there is a part of me that I share with dogs, horses, and orangutans then it is good and right that I have it.
All this simply highlights that great thinkers throughout history (and I could name a dozen more) all seem to sense that the “human creature” is a complicated one. There is an aspect of us that is deeply in touch with the created world and the other creatures here, and there is an aspect of us that transcends it, rises above it or out of it, that’s actually capable of contemplating—even communing—with God in a way that tweety-birds and puddy-tats cannot.
What is Christianity’s explanation of this phenomenon that thinkers of every strip and flavor in history have sought to understand? What is the “human being?” To start with, Christianity too recognizes the absurdly odd mixture that is the human being—that strange creature made from mud yet given all authority. It is most clearly felt, I think, in the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 8…
1 O YAHWEH, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, who has displayed your splendor above the heavens!… 3 When I consider your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, 4 what is man that you think of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
You hear the Psalmist’s awestruck question? In the face of the grandeur of the universe, he is dismayed with just how small and irrelevant he is—how inconsequential he must be. Surely you have felt this yourself—when listening to the thundering ocean surf or when looking upon the immensity of the Appalachians or the far-flung isolation of the prairies or the green of an interminable pine forest—that nagging suspicion that you are just too small, too irrelevant to matter. And our head is bowed under the humble recognition that all our accomplishments, all our pride, is worth less than nothing.
Now I know that this moment I’m supposed tell you instead how important you really are—“Here’s your participation trophy.” And don’t worry I will, but not yet. We mustn’t rush past this. I know the temptation is to run back to noise of Facebook and Twitter so our friends can reaffirm how beautiful, clever, and important we are. But resist it. This is too high and holy a truth to run away from because it makes us feel bad. The solution to low self-esteem is not to become arrogant in a lie. The universe really is reminding us of a truth we must embrace… no, even more, a truth we must learn to delight in. The truth that one saint summed up in her prayer, “Dear Lord, give us the grace to see how little we have to do with it anyhow.”
The solution to low self-esteem is not to become arrogant in a lie.
See the Psalm concurs with the universe—how could it not? They both have the same author. They agree in reminding me that whatever gifts I have, whatever delights I enjoy, whatever status I possess, it is not because I somehow merit it. No progress can be made as a Christian so long as I cling to the idea that I somehow merit God’s favor, love, or grace.
Wisdom begins by agreeing with that suspicion that the great, big, beautiful universe raises in me—that whatever God wants done in the world, God does not need me to get it done. If I matter, is it not on the basis of my own stunning personality and magnetic charm.
Now that’s a pretty big downer. But don’t despair; the Psalmist is not done. After having conceded his own irrelevance, he can now safely and without the threat of false pride, continue to extol, not us, but God, for the lavish grace poured out upon us—a gift beyond measure. He continues in the next verse…
5 Yet you have made us a little lower than the angels, and you crown him with glory and majesty! 6 You make him to rule over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
How can this be? A creature made from reddish brown mud elevated to the status of royalty in this world? How can we deserve it? How can we merit such an exalted glory? Don’t you see? We can’t. That’s why the first part of the Psalm was so necessary. If we did not walk the dark path of irrelevance, we would misunderstand the glory into which we have been ushered for mere merit. We would become proud. Even knowing it all comes by way of free blessing, we still struggle to remember.
That is the Christian understanding of what it means to be human—irrelevant, yes…but gloriously so! On the one hand we’re humble creatures, one step removed from imbecility, and yet graced with an endowment and authority denied to the very angels themselves. This is the great tension of being human—that God should form divine emissaries out of dust.
This is the great tension of being human—that God should form divine emissaries out of dust.
But it almost has to be this way. In the beginning, there was nothing in our Adam and Eve that God really needed. God had just made the whole universe out of nothing; the last thing God needs is a gardener. God can do whatever needs to be done in the world without aid or assistance. So in this sense, it is understandable that this new creature should be made simply out of mud. After all it is an “earthly” creature…body, soul, and spirit.
And yet, out free love, grace, and generosity, this hospitable God has extended the hand to the lowly born creatures to participate in the divine agenda for the world. God determined that our hands would be the hands of God in the world. That whatever deeper glory creation would be shepherded into, it would come from our actions and choices, or it would not come. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that your choices don’t matter to God. Long before there was any sin in the world, God was already counting human choices as nearly final in what would happen in this place. The responsibility is real… and so is the invitation. God really means to do the divine work in the world by means of human hands.
This I think is one of the central intentions behind the awkwardness of God producing a creature from the mud that is yet made in the Divine Image and Likeness. It emphasizes the two aspects of being human. It means (I think it has to mean) that everything we possess as humans has one of two referents. Either it is an expression of something we hold in common with the other creatures in this world or it is an expression of something that we receive as a unique endowment from God for our work in the world.
You can see this distinction in two of the commands given to Adam and Eve. First, they are told to “be fruitful and multiply.” This is a command that we share with the other creatures in the world. God bids every lion and every dandelion, every goldfinch and every goldenrod to likewise multiply on the earth. To all of us together we’re given “the trees of the field” as our food. The very structure of the story reminds us that we hold some things in common with the other creatures of this world. Thus the other creatures in this world are truly our brothers—our fellow creatures, deserving of a justice and compassion befitting their nature.
And that brings us to the other command, “to subdue and govern the earth.” This command is given uniquely to us because we alone have been endowed with all that is necessary to govern—with that Kingly Image of God. God who rules all with justice and grace has called us to mirror that divine governance in the world. And we have been given all the capacities necessary to fulfill that plan. We are rational animals—we think, we use language, we build and create, we sing, we dance, we play football and plant flowers, we imagine and we dream.
We have not been placed here with all these dramatic abilities to do to the world whatever we want, but whatever God wants. These gifts are not merely self-serving. They are missional. They are given so that we may fulfill our mission of deepening the glory of God in the world. To this end, we are commissioned. Our authority is a delegated one…but it is real.
Now the fact that most of human history consists of us denying, forgetting, and trodding on that responsibility to our own sorrow and that of all the creatures of the world does not change the fact that just governance is what we were made for. This why Aslan the lordly Lion in CS Lewis’ Narnia says to Prince Caspian as he becomes king, to be of the stock of Adam and Eve “…is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”
Don’t you see? Before this story is done, yes, Adam’s race will have much to repent of, but being human is not one of them. Christianity wants us to know first that we came from God’s hands good and blessed, commissioned, and equipped. God does not make broken creatures. God makes good ones and enables them for their work. If we have weaknesses and addictions, sins and shortcomings for which we must give an account, don’t worry, in due course we will.
We came from God’s hands good and blessed, commissioned, and equipped.
For now we just need to distinguish between the gloriously good humanity God made and whatever we did with that humanity later on. A vase may be shattered, but it is not that which made it a vase. A car may break down, but the breaking down is not what made it a car. Human failures are real, but the “failure” is something in addition to the “human,” not part of the definition.
Whatever sorrows or failings we carry around with us, we must allow our heads to be lifted up with knowledge that God desired great good for us. God’s intention is that you and I would rule and reign at the divine hand. And if I may forecast the story a bit, God will have God’s intention. There is one coming in this story who will be all that God desired humanity to be. And even more, there will be a way for us to share in his achievements. For his righteous humanity to be credited to us, so that we may again begin to taste the glory for which we were made. What can one say to this glory beyond glory? We need not search for words. The Psalmist has already given them to us…
O YAHWEH, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!
See you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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