What Does it Mean to be Human?

The philosopher Plato details the painstaking exercise of understanding humanity when he articulates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”[1] Cornel West takes that proclamation and places it in a contemporary revolutionary theme when he contends through the lives of Ella Baker, Notorious B.I.G., Malcolm X and Tupac that the “examined life is hard.”[2] What is produced through this literary conversation is an existential thought –What does it mean to be human? Moreover, as Christians we should wrestle with the troubling process of answering such a question in a state of humbleness –“to be human is not God’s parlor game; it is what God intended for us all along”…it is good theology.[3]

The theological moment rests in the contemplative understanding of “being human.” What does it fundamentally mean to be human? Is it absurd to qualify that being human affords or extends opportunities to sin and sin well? The Apostle Paul address such behavior in Romans chapters 5-6 as he beckons that though one sins, grace has the potential to render the sin helpless. He concludes with the perspective that even though grace has such potential it does not issue a license to sin. Being human consequently, calls us into tension with God to experience being vulnerable. It is with this Howard Thurman pathology that we experience mutual worth and value –looking past our disinherited perspective and diving into a love-ethic that locates all as neighbors.[4] Thurman would contend that a neighbor is not just the person that lives close to you but is also captured in all those whom you may encounter throughout your daily living. [5]The abandonment or embracing of such a claim would call into the question of the image of God.

The image of God then presses all to adopt a love-ethic that will become central to life in community. Once the image of God is etched in the lives of the community then the biased compartmentalization –the unnecessary need to deem others wrong in comparison to what a particular group allocates as right –will be challenged in light of biblical truth. It is quite possible that the sovereignty and image of God has an element of cruelty attached if analyzed from a personal perspective. Yes, all things work for good but the road to that good is sometimes a heavy a price to pay. The image of God stands as a benchmark in how one views others and should also present a mirror of how one views self. This is the point when doctrine has to take the lead and redirect our paths.

Doctrine will get at the crux of the issue with a foundational backing of scripture and tradition. It is within scripture that solace can be found and illumination can be envisioned in the lives of the community; where a doctrinal stance will highlight the influence of the image of God carried out in our everyday affairs. The opportunity to freely engage with God gets to the heart of what it means to be human.[6] Though one may have proclivities to commit crimes or do certain things that may be labeled as “pure evil” does not necessarily forfeit their rendering as being the image of God. The error of interpretation is locked in the thought that being human is an excuse instead of a privilege. The mere fact that we are human should serve as a reminder of the reward that we have with a great God. Instead we choose to provide excuses for our lack of being responsible and disciplined in the guise of humanity. The simple fact is that we have not embraced that we are the image of God, but have reduced ourselves to mere copies –copies lose something during the replication while images stand strong in the very essence.

The end goal is to make sure that what we believe matters. How we understand and interpret things have profound outcomes, so there must be levels of certainty. The great theologian, educator, and pastor, William August Jones, highlights in his seminal text, God in the Ghetto that the theological lens shapes your anthropological lens and impacts your sociological lens.[7] Ultimately, Jones concludes if your theological lens is wrong then how you view people and society will be wronged or distorted. The moment of clarity is embedded in correct theology and it becomes prudent in understanding the image of God. Properly understanding the image of God becomes paramount in the need for constructive and beneficial community. The goal is not to develop a systematic treatise of what community resembles but to actually be the very essence of community.

Examining life in order to define humanity is a daunting task. We have been issued tools and guidelines to assist in efforts to understand ourselves. The image of God permits us to enter into perfection with the notion that God has given his best but we have chosen the lesser. We have chosen to disrupt a natural relationship in order to connect with knock-offs. Yes, we are only human but to be human is to experience the best that God has to offer locked in an earth suit name Jesus. He set an impressive example for us to follow that pointed use in the right direction and gave us the blueprint for success. We must now take the information gained and implement it into our everyday struggles.

[1] Some have state that it say not worth living. This is taken from Plato’s Apology line 38a.

[2] This was a conceptual thought that he has introduced during many of his speeches.

[3] Robert Lischer, The End of Words, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 136.

[4] Thurman denotes, “Once a neighbor is defined, then one’s moral obligation is clear…a man must love his neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between.” Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.), 89-109.

[5] Ibid., Thurman.,89.

[6] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understand: An Introduction to Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991.), 123.

[7] William A. Jones, God in the Ghetto, (Elgin, IL: Progressive Baptist Church Publishing, 1979.)