“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”
If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers. For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.
The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.
This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.
But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.
From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge. Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask Alexa. She’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.
But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.
The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them. Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.
There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.
It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.
This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.
According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.
The Bible says differently.
The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26). Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral. Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).
Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23) The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways. But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.
That work can only be done by Jesus.
Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).
Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender, – as tools to divide and oppress.
Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.
For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.
And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.
“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”
We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?
One thought on “The Statement the World Needs Most”
I was just sitting and listening to a lecture on what Anthropology is. As I listened to the professor, who clearly loved his subject, speak about the wide variety of fields of knowledge that Anthropology covers in its study of humankind. I was conscious of something lacking, despite the interest the material had for me. Your post made me realize what that was. For all the professor dealt expertly with the complexity of studying human beings, he never defined what a human being was. Modern science cannot define a human, because according to their scientific origin story, a human is the result of a series of genetic chance happenings that might, given different conditions, have gone another route. So, while they rightly recognize that humans are worthy of being studied, they cannot explain why. As you say, perhaps the definition of a human is what we can offer a world who is no longer sure of what they are.