What does it mean to be human?

What do you think is the biggest question facing our culture? Is it to do with Brexit, and questions of national identity? Is it about social media, and questions of truth? Is it to do with sex and gender identity? Or are you facing personal questions and challenges that dwarf these? My conviction is that, underlying all these questions is one, much bigger one: What does it mean to be human? All the questions we currently face can be trace to this, larger, underlying question.

And this question, in turn, as two parts to it: who counts as human? What really sets us apart and makes us distinctive? Within the different narratives in our culture, there are numerous challenges which threaten to undermine any confident answer to these questions. In the realm of science and materialism, we are challenged from two directions. On the one hand, we are constantly being told that we are not very different from other members of the animal world. We share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and we have discovered that they can communicate in a kind of language, have social rituals like us, and even go through mourning rituals when one of them dies. (Elephants do this too, but that doesn’t feel like such a challenge to our human identity.) On the other hand, more and more of our life is being taken over by computers, if not robots. Last month, a computer was judged to have won a debate with a panel of experts, and we are told that robots might one day soon care for the elderly. In the film I, Robot, Will Smith interrogates the robot Sonny and challenges him with the reality that robots are not human.

Will Smith: Human beings have dreams; even dogs have dreams. Not you. You are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

Sonny: Can you?

But questions about what it means to be human are also challenged by racist and sexist narratives, in which only those of the right ethnic group or sex are deemed to be granted all the dignities of being fully human.

And alongside the question of ‘What counts as human?’ we have to ask: what counts for us as humans? That is, not just who is included as fully human, but what is it about being human that really matters? Some would say ‘freedom’—to exercise free choice is the highest goal of human existence. Others would say ‘sex’; a prominent campaigner for change in the Church’s teaching on marriage claims that a life without sexual intimacy is certain to be one of pain and loneliness. Others would say ‘wealth’; the residents of Grenfell Tower have a strong sense that, living in one of the richest boroughs in the UK, their lives were not deemed worth spending money protecting.

In the first chapter of Genesis, in a remarkably few verses, we learn something that begins to offer an answer to all these questions—and to which Christians have turned again and again over the centuries.

God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1.26–28)

In these few words, there are some remarkable claims being made about what it means to be human.

First, we need to notice where these verses come in the creation account. This beautiful poetic description is carefully structured, with each day of creation have a rhythm and shape: ‘And God said…and it was…and there was evening, and there was morning, the (nth) day’. The passage does not hold back on painting, with a broad brush, the wonder of the world, with the moon and stars, the mountains and seas, and (my favourite phrase from the AV) all the creatures that creep across the face of the earth. Thanks to David Attenborough and the advances in camera technology, we are confronted more than ever before with the extraordinary nature of the world around us—we live in a world of wonder and mystery, and the more we discover, the more there seems to be to find out.

And yet, claims Genesis, it is humanity that is the pinnacle of the creation. The whole story builds to a thundering climax, and the climactic ending comes in these verses: ‘So God created human beings in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ When you wake in the morning and look in the mirror, you need to say to yourself: ‘You are the pinnacle of creation’. The next person you meet today, you need to greet in this way: ‘You are the pinnacle of creation.’ In fact, you need to say it to everyone that you meet!

This was as shocking and challenge when Genesis was first written as it is today. In other creations stories in the ancient world, it was kings and rulers who were thought to be the ones made in the image of God—they were the pinnacle of creation. Or perhaps it was men. Or perhaps the able-bodied. Or the powerful. Or the free. But Genesis says that all humanity is made in the image of God—including those with Down’s syndrome (though if you live in Iceland, you will not meet many of them, since they are mostly aborted in utero). Genesis says that the ‘world’s ugliest woman’ is the pinnacle of creation—challenging our culture’s values of beauty and self-esteem (and she is a Christian so she knows it).

The phrase found here, ‘image and likeness’, is found in only one other place in the Bible, in Gen 5.3:

This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created human beings, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them “human beings.” When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. (Gen 5.1–3)

In other words, the analogy is that we are in the image and likeness of God in the way that a child is in the image and likeness of his or her parents. In that sense, we are children of the one who is king over the world. We are part of a royal family.

But there is a further significance to the description of the creation of humanity. To anyone reading this in the ancient world, they would have seen the careful contraction, the forming of the world in the first three days, and its careful ornamentation, its filling in the second set of three days, as pointing to one thing: the world as a cosmic temple for the divinity. This is confirmed by the climax of the whole story: that God rests on the seventh day. In the ancient near east, temples were understood to be the place where the god rested. And when you have built a temple, what is the final thing that you add to it? The image of the deity. And this temple world has an image of the invisible God, in you and me. That is one part of the reason for the second commandment: ‘You shall make no graven images’ since we already have the ‘image and likeness’ of God to hand. And in his prayer of commissioning of the first temple, Solomon is clear that God does not really need a temple, since the universe is the temple he already has:

But will God really dwell on earth with human beings? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (2 Chron 6.18)

C S Lewis comments with customary insight on the significance of this, putting these words into the mouth of Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that 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. Be content.”

The main difference between the biblical account of creation and the scientific account is not really about timescales—six days versus billions of year—but of the status of the created world and humanity within it. It is not a difference of chronology but of theology—or, more precisely, of anthropology.

The last thing that these verses claim about what is means to be human is that we are called to be co-workers with God in exercising his delegated sovereignty. The kingship and rule of God is the implicit theme running throughout this chapter—and when we reach this climactic sixth day, we find humanity is to ‘rule’—and this is emphasised as an ‘inclusio’, as a bracket around the declaration of creation. God’s vocation for humanity, for each one of us, is to be a coworker with him, in whatever occupation we find ourselves in, in bringing order and fruitfulness to the world in which he has placed us. Here we begin to touch on very large themes indeed—but as a start there are several things we need to note.

First, it is only God who rests from work; we can only work from rest. Although the creation of humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creative activity, the climax of the whole narrative is only reached when God rests on the seventh day. When humanity is created, the first thing humanity does is rest with God. Everything else follows from this.

Second, a central part of humanity’s vocation is to exercise rule through parenting: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’. In saying this, I am conscious of walking in to a pastoral minefield—but we need to note that these verses are addressing humanity corporately. We now live in a culture, in the West, where we have largely lost the sense of the vocation to parenting, so much so that most Western countries are not having enough children to sustain their population. By and large, having children is seen as an inconvenience, something that inhibits our pursuit of leisure and a comfortable life, and causes an unpleasant ‘gender pay gap’ (since it is usually mothers who take time out for childcare). And yet the main factor affecting children’s attainment in education is the lack of parental involvement and interest. As many have highlighted, all our debates about sexuality arise from the detaching of sex from parenting. Genesis challenges us to recover a sense of the vocation of parenting.

Third, Genesis pictures God as a worker, and therefore all occupations (paid and unpaid) as a sharing in the work of God. If you are a builder, or a roadsweepers, or an accountant, or an artist, or a homemaker, or a secretary or administrator—ones who bring order out of chaos!—then you are sharing in the creative rule of God, bringing order and fruitfulness in his world.

Finally, we need to connect the kingly rule of God and our sharing in it with the ministry of Jesus. The first thing that Jesus preached was that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand!’ (Mark 1.15). In Jesus, not only is the covenant with God’s people Israel renewed, the creation itself is restored. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, Jesus was single! He was ‘fruitful and multiplied’ not through parenting, but through preaching. As he called the disciples to himself, and called people to new birth, he was exercising the rule of God, bringing order and fruitfulness—and we can do the same. Paul, also single, had spiritual sons and daughters.

The vicar was passing the house of Mr Smith, and he noticed what a beautiful garden he had.

‘Mr Smith, I see what a good job you and God are doing in your garden’.

‘Thank you very much vicar—but you should have seen the mess it was when God was left to himself!’

How are you going to being order and fruitfulness—as the pinnacle of creation, as the image of God, and as his coworker—in the world this week? This year? With this life God has given you?

(This is the outline of a sermon preached at St Nic’s, Nottingham on Sunday 29th Rule 2018. You can listen to the sermon online.)

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32 thoughts on “What does it mean to be human?”

    • Ron, Nonsense!
      This is a brilliant piece by Ian – and Biblical as God revealed it
      If we returned to Genesis 1&2 as a foundation for understanding of human identity the Church would not be in the ethical mess we are now!

    • Thanks for commenting Ron–but what a daft observation. If you think that the contemporary agenda eliminates the possibility of any past historic reference, then you are giving us a recipe for ignorance.

    • As you know, Fr. Ron, I’m a liberal who disagrees strongly with both patriarchy and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

      I do, however, acknowledge the weight of many conservative criticisms of where we are. In particular, birthrates running at below replacement level are, literally, unsustainable. Unless progressives offer solutions that encourage families without returning to the oppressive sexual mores of yesteryear, the ground will be ceded to those who’re nostalgic for a lot more than fecundity.

    • Ron, simply being male as shown on the image is NOT patriarchal. Patriarchal is NOT being the husband either in spite of what many feminists claim. Being the head of the extended family can indeed be patriarchal ….but that is not what is in the picture!

  1. Bravo! Exceptional theology, so much better than much of what passes for it these days.

    I would only add that humanity shares in God’s rule through the use of reason, through which we discern the order of creation and the means of fruitfulness. It is reason that rightly rules and it is in being endowed with reason (and the freedom to use it) that we are the creatures which most share in the image of God.

    Incidentally, Plato, while not quite contending that human beings are in the ‘image and likeness of God’ did argue that the ‘rational part of the soul’ is the most divine because it alone in creation is capable of sharing in the eternal and immutable world of intelligible things (i.e. the order and forms of the universe). This means that he regards good (virtuous, rational) human beings as bearing a greater likeness to the divine than bad human beings, so it’s not quite the same as the biblical idea – though the NT does also talk of us being conformed in holiness and righteousness to the image of Christ.

    • Interesting comment on Plato, and his contrasting view of human merit.

      But I am not sure I am persuaded by the ‘reason’ argument, important though reason is, for two ‘reasons’ (!)

      First, does that mean that those who cannot reason are not fully human? Isn’t this the belief that led to Greek ideas that pre-speech children have no value?

      Second, where does ‘reason’ feature at all in the text of Genesis 1?

      • Reason doesn’t feature explicitly in Genesis 1, it is true, but it is in John 1: in the beginning was the logos – a concept as you know co-opted from Greek (Stoic) philosophy and referring to divine reason (or wisdom).

        Reason is implicit in ruling, as the way that God rules the universe is by his reason (wisdom), and the way human beings rule with him is by sharing in that wise and rational governance. After all, human beings don’t rule because they are the biggest or strongest creatures, but because they are the most intelligent. And ruling is about bringing order and fruitfulness, as you observe, which is an intrinsically rational activity. Rationality is about recognising and responding to order, so your reference to order and ruling in accord with it implies rational activity. Rule without reason is mere caprice.

        Your question about those who cannot reason could be turned back on you: what about those who cannot rule? Are they not fully human? But ruling and reasoning aren’t really separate activities, assuming we mean ruling well and not merely capriciously. The answer to your question is that humankind is the rational creature and it is as rational nature that it bears the divine image, not merely as an individual currently engaged in a particular activity (whether reasoning or ruling). The status and dignity of bearing the divine image is therefore shared by all members of the species at whatever stage of development and not merely by individuals which happen at a given moment to be engaged in rational (or ruling) activity. Otherwise people would cease to bear the divine image (whether reasoning or ruling) merely because they were temporarily unconscious or asleep, which would be absurd. In other words, incapacity, whether temporary or permanent, doesn’t change a person’s nature as a member of the rational species, as possessing rational nature. It is of course better to be more rational (i.e. to be more in line with God’s good ordering of the universe) but this doesn’t affect our fundamental status as God’s rational creatures (who are fitted for ruling by right and not merely by might).

      • If you cannot see my point, that just proves its meaning.

        Perhaps, Ian, you are so steeped in patriarchal theology that you hasve forgotten that humanity is not only a masculine phenomenon (as your da Vinci drawing so clearly expresses). It might – for a more inclusive view of our common humanit – have better been illustrated by a picture of Adama and Eve.

        • So, despite Ian repeatedly replacing ‘man’ with ‘human beings’ (e.g. Gen. 1:26: ‘God said, “Let us make human beings in our image,…’), that’s still just not good enough for you.

          In Vitruvian Man, Da Vinci sought to depict the facial and bodily proportions which Vitruvius described in his ’Ten Books on Architecture’ as being used in classical architecture (1:3, 1:4, 1:6, 1:8 and 1:10).

          So, for the purpose of architectural design, he presents man (collectively, since the Vitruvian proportions do not include waist-hip ratio, which differs in women), the creature designed to be in harmony with his creator, as a model for what is proportionate and therefore beautiful.

          Vitruvius wrote: “Proportion is a correspondence among the measures of the members of an entire work, and of the whole to a certain part selected as standard.”

          So, Vitruvian Man is all about the proportion of the human form, regardless of gender. It has nothing to do “patriarchal theology”.

          And here was I thinking that you were a ‘Thinking Anglican’.

          Also, isn’t it a tad hypocritical (‘do as I say, but not as I do’) to decry patriarchal theology, while retaining the patriarchal title of ‘Father’?

          • Surely patriarchy (which is still with us, alas) is the corruption of God’s divine plan subsequent to the Fall, Genesis 3.16.

          • Penelope you wrongly equate being a husband in Genesis 3:16 with patriarchy when it is not even the same thing, and worse than that the New Testament defines a mutuality of existence for husbands and wives in which they honour each other in different ways.

            My sadness is that you ought to know that already and i suspect you do really.

            You have ended up saying that simply being a husband is being a patriarch and that’s ridiculous.

        • Father:
          Who knows if the Vitruvian man (or any model used) was gay?
          Many believe Leonardo was, even if he was acquitted of the formal charge.
          And the whole point of the VM is physical and mathematical perfection – are the disabled therefore disrespected? Can we see into his healthy or damaged mind?
          Not every “equality” issue is written on the body, and no one image could “include” all.
          I think it’s an excellent article: the “image of God” was the whole base of equality politics, and as the West abandons its faith the reinstatement of ranked, conditional human status, with its corresponding abuse of those denied it, is proceeding apace.

  2. “As many have highlighted, all our debates about sexuality arise from the detaching of sex from parenting.”

    It’s a factor, certainly; but that detachment, in the wake of the Pill’s development, was fueled by society treating the then-tiny numbers of people who fell outside the then-normative model of heterosexual marriage with callous stupidity. If children born outside wedlock, single mothers, and gay people had been treated with kindness, support and tolerance, the sexual revolution would’ve had a much harder time gaining traction.

    Conservatives raise important points about the challenges faced by modern families, particularly the difficulty of raising children, rising divorce rates, and declining birthrates; likewise, with the dark side of the sexual revolution. But if there’s any hope of ushering in change, people have gotta be reassured that the old cruelties will never return.

    • James

      You have twice claimed the existence of “old cruelties”. However your acknowledgment that “…..If children born outside wedlock, single mothers, and gay people had been treated with kindness, support and tolerance, the sexual revolution would’ve had a much harder time gaining traction…..” reveals that there was:
      ….which just reveals that your claim to “old cruelties” is itself cruel to all the people who constantly gave such kindness, support and tolerance and is lacking in facts. Nobody is saying that human beings were never mistaken and were never cruel but you have no basis for project the idea of “old cruelties” on to societies in general.

      • I really don’t follow this train of argument, Clive. Western society often criminalized homosexuality (it was illegal in many American states as recently as 2003), and the was a widespread stigma against sex outside of marriage and being “illegitimate” (that wasn’t the word often used). Yes, there were always people who rejected this, but they were, until the sexual revolution shifted attitudes, in a minority.

        • So in your opinion James all those who offered
          were wasting their time as they were all going to be labelled as part of the “old cruelities”?

          You have engaged in generalised labeling when many people, including Christians, were doing the opposite.

          • Referring to society is not, of course, attributing individual culpability to every person within it. “Society in general” is just what it suggests, a generalization: it doesn’t tar all individuals with the same brush. I’m happy to say that those trailblazers who bucked oppressive and unjust social trends were heroic people whose contributions were invaluable.

            Anything to say on the substance of the comment?

  3. “If children born outside wedlock, single mothers, and gay people had been treated with kindness, support and tolerance, the sexual revolution would’ve had a much harder time gaining traction.”

    James, I think that is a very interesting point. The victimisation of such has led them to coalesce into pressure groups which are now more amplified by electronic media and gain disproportionate influence. I wonder in our modern age if this is now a natural consequence of any socially ostracised group?

  4. Ian, thank you for this. I am wondering if this was partly prompted by the conversation you reported with the lay person at Synod, who did not know that a good theological anthropology was necessary to get to grips with all the issues to do with sexuality and gender. You are leading by example in correcting the deficiency.

    It would be great to have some more outlines and pointers. Moving on to Genesis 2, we have, in addition to development of the relationship between male and female, important insight into our nature as human beings. Are we essentially (immortal) spirits temporally embodied? Or are we essentially rooted in the material world, with our spirit, mind and body inextricably entwined?

    Remembering that old BT advert, “You’ve got an ology”, there are also the links with other ‘ologies’. When we get to Genesis 3, the need for a soteriology becomes apparent, and there is seen a link between post-fall anthropology and post-fall cosmology.

    Also bearing on the matters is teleology, “what are we/things for?” and eschatology, “where are we heading?”

    • I also thought along the same lines set out in you first para, David. Also someone commented in an earlier post on teaching of sexuality: how was his dad expected to know anything about the theology of what it is to be human.
      Ian’s post is much needed, but more so it needs to be heard from the pulpit.

  5. Dear Ian

    You wrote:
    “…..First, it is only God who rests from work; we can only work from rest. ” but I confess to being a bit thick, I don’t understand that.

    For all human beings we cannot work ourselves into the ground and we must have a day of rest. our example is God did and so we should and yet this generation has made Sunday a trading more or less the same as any other and taken away any day-of-rest.

    Surely WE need a rest from work from time to time.

    • Clive,
      Hope you don’t mind this, as I clearly can not answer for Ian.
      Do we not rest in the Sovereignty of God and the finished work of Christ and in our Union with Him, where we have died with Him and been raised with Him, in the past, present and future and with all the entailments (see Ian’s post today 02/08 on “What does it mean to be “in Christ.”) ?
      In practice, for me, it is difficult to keep that in the forefront of my mind, which needs to be frequently renewed by reminders. But that rest does not mean inactivity.
      As Tim Keller has said, God didn’t rest from his work on the Sabbath because he was tired from His work, but because he was satisfied with it, just as He is satisfied with the work of Christ.
      I recall asking an artist/teacher how she decided a painting was finished, no need to add anything? Good question: she agreed when I suggested it was when she was satisfied with it the painting was finished. As the Father is satisfied with His Son, in our Union with Christ He is satisfied with us

  6. Following on from the above here is an excellent podcast to answer
    “Today’s question: “What implications does the promise of new creation have for Christian ethics? Specifically does new creation undermine natural law ethics since we are now to orientate our lives, not towards what is revealed in nature, but towards the new creation established by God in Christ. What implications does this have for issues in which Christians often appeal to natural law arguments – marriage, sexuality, gender issues etc…?”
    More grist to the mill, and well worth 22 mins of time. It can be dowloaded and listened to on the move.
    I’d suggest that it needs to be widely disseminated in the CoE

  7. Hi Ian
    I thought I would have a quick venture into commenting…
    I thought the piece worked well as a sermon, giving a lot of food for thought, but it seems to me that you have sneaked in something more specific than the text can support with your mention of “parenting”. If you simply mean reproduction, fair enough, but the term these days is usually about a particular skill set or set of values relating to the upbringing of children. These are different in different cultures and periods of history. I wonder whether the intended audience is used to having a certain view of parenting, and is therefore being reinforced in that view on the basis of a text which isn’t really about that. Also, the mention of debates on sexuality seems a bit undercut by your broadening of parenting to include Jesus and Paul. After all, in that sense, questions of sexuality seem irrelevant – presumably the fairly large number of gay clergy can plant churches and care for congregations in a very parently way…


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