What Is a Human Being?

What Is a Human Being?

The poet asked God, "What is man that you are mindful of him?"

Close your eyes and imagine yourself alone at night, outside the city limits, where nothing separates you from the star-studded sky but an expanse of clear, crisp air. In the quiet stillness, you feel more aware of yourself and begin to ponder your place in the universe.

Thousands of years before you, a Hebrew poet gazed at the same night sky and found himself in awe of the thousands of stars overhead. With no knowledge of astrophysics, no measures of light-years in mind, no concept of deep space, he nevertheless felt dwarfed by it all and asked one of the big questions of life:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?1

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures on earth that possess a brain developed to such an extent that they can ask this question of themselves: What exactly am I—what is a human being? We can hardly imagine a dog reflecting on its “dogness.” But we, as people, are compelled to ask and answer the significant question of humanness, for the way we live our lives comes, in large part, from the answer that we give.

Historically, over the centuries there have been three main responses—which have surfaced in various forms—to this question. These answers can be found through three different cultural narratives that people have used to make sense of what they, as human beings, are.

The Material Narrative

On one hand is the physical or material option. Human beings are the most highly evolved inhabitants of earth’s ecosystem. Like everything else on the planet, we are the product of time and chance, of evolution and survival. When it comes down to it, human beings have nothing special but our highly evolved brains.

But even those brains—although capable of imagination, language, creativity, art, music, self-reflection, and reason—are themselves merely the workings of biochemical processes and electrical impulses. C. S. Lewis once pondered whether, from this perspective, one could proceed to reason at all. We don’t trust thoughts we believe come from irrational sources. But if this materialist answer is correct, apparently all thoughts originate from irrational sources—even this one.2

What ultimately distinguishes the thoughts of an eminent scientist from those of an animal? Both are merely biochemical reactions. And at death, both creatures cease to think. For many people, this is their answer to the question, “What is a human being?”3

It is worth pondering what such an answer might imply for human relationships. If a collection of thought processes is all a human being is, what reason is there for compassion, love, altruism, or sacrifice? Why treat another person as somehow valuable or sacred? The answer provided by this narrative option seems to lead us to more compelling questions.

The Spiritual Narrative

A second narrative that has been offered is grounded in a perspective found primarily in eastern cultures. In this view, human beings are essentially divine, spiritual beings that have become incarnated in physical bodies for a time. Death may free the soul from the body to return to the divine, or after death the soul may be reincarnated in a body of another sort. This view is found in various forms in the religious thinking of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other eastern religions.4

According to some versions of this story, human beings share in the divine in some way and so should be treated with special care. However, strict caste systems have also been constructed based on this narrative, relegating large numbers of people to lives of poverty and suffering.

The Bible Narrative

The “biblical” faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and their offshoots—offer a third narrative. In the biblical story, human beings are the intentional creation of a personal God. Some think God may have superintended evolutionary processes to bring about the human race. Others think that God created us in some more direct and immediate fashion. But what all who believe this narrative have in common is the belief that human beings are created “in the image of God”—that is, with the capacity for relationship with God and the capacity for love and community with each other.5

This narrative, when fully attended to, calls for the valuing and respecting of human life. All human beings bear the image of God, so all are infinitely valuable and worthy of being loved and served. Though religious people have often ignored this fact, it is nevertheless a part of the narrative.6 Men, women, and children are all to be equally valued. All races, all ages, and all genders stand equally loved by God. The categories that humans—in our fear and selfishness—have constructed to separate us from each other dissolve in the face of this narrative.

More specifically, the Christian version of this third narrative states that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. God entered into our world, further affirming the extent to which God values his creation and human life. God made available through Jesus the offer of a relationship with Him that extends beyond the experience of death.

The Big Questions

In one way or another, our inquisitive, reflective, pondering minds are forced to wrestle with some big questions. These questions simply do not have answers like algebra problems that can be proven with finality. Our “answers” to those questions are found more through a story that we believe and live into and out of.

Is there a God? If so, can God be known? What is a human being? What is my responsibility toward those others around me? What does this life mean?

What is the story you are living out of and into these days? Have you considered other narratives that might help you make the most sense of these big questions? What, exactly, are you?

  1. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Psalm 8:3–4.
  2. C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan Co., 1947), 19-24.
  3. Descartes summed this view up in his adage “I think, therefore I am.”
  4. See www.hinduism.co.za/natureof.htm and www.patheos.com/Library/Hinduism.
  5. The Holy Bible, Genesis 1:27.
  6. Tragically, when this narrative has been ignored or set aside in favor of other agendas (political, economic, racial), war, slavery, and oppression have been the result. Still, faithful women and men have responded in every era by seeking to make peace, abolish slavery, and establish justice for the oppressed.
  7. Photo Credit: Aleshyn_Andrei / Shutterstock.com.