I Am Human, I Think

This is part two in a series looking at the question, what does it mean to be human. Yesterday I explored the question itself and how complicated it is to ask today in our 21st Century, Western context; particularly for the church. Today, I want to consider an entry point back into the conversation.  

"A cow is always simply a cow. It does not ask, ‘What is a cow? Who am I?’ Only man asks such questions, and indeed clearly has to ask them about himself and his being. This is his question. His question follows him in hundreds of forms…" - Jürgen Moltmann (20th C, Western Theologian)

I'd like to begin by suggesting that what it means to be human might involve our very ability to ask the question itself. By that I mean, our capacity for self-reflection. 

Really, can any other creature attest to such a lengthy obsession with understanding its own existence? Putting aside the potential of AI and assuming we're not all living in a simulation; the current answer is no. Or at least, probably not in the same way.*

So, building off that, my theory is that it is the presence of the question that matters almost more than the answer itself. 

Maybe that sounds like a cop out; but think about it like this: if many of our proposals about what it means to be human are resting on obsolete or shifting categories, it may be our ongoing ability to ask the question in the midst of these changes that makes us truly human. As Moltmann said, a cow does not care about such things. In theory, we could deconstruct the entire construct of a cow to the point of it no longer meaning anything, but the cow doesn't give it a second thought. 

And before you completely zone out seeing this as nothing more than theoretical nonsense; consider this - if we no longer see a cow as anything more than a product that we can create and consume, how will that affect our ethical treatment of such a creature? 

This is why the question matters.

Properly understood, then, anthropology is not just a theoretical pursuit for some abstract human “nature” that dwells only in philosophy text books. Indeed any attempt to discuss human “ontology”... sounds only distantly related to the pressing concerns of living humanly in the world. Yet we must understand that these “theoretical” discussions have a direct bearing on practical realities. - Marc Cortez

Whether we are fully aware of it or not, our self-understanding gives us a framework for the day-to-day decision making we employ in almost every area of our lives. Our ability to reflect on our actions is what sets us apart as humans. It is also what gives our lives meaning and purpose. 

Now, I am by no means making the case that to be human requires an ability to be self-reflective; however, I am suggesting that the potential for asking such self-referential questions - even at a rudimentary level - seems at least a plausible starting place. An entry point into the conversation. 

To return to yesterday's rowboat analogy, we have now - in our awareness of the importance of the question - a glass bottom through which to see in the right direction. It is with this as our starting place that we will be able to lay the groundwork for having an effective theological conversation around what it means to be human in the 21st century. 

Tomorrow I will spend some time talking about the importance of this for the church and then next week we will seek to engage in the conversation one day at a time. 

Thanks for reading! 

* The links offered here demonstrate the humility required to engage in this conversation. As I mentioned yesterday, our categories are shifting and we do not know where they will be in even a few years. I make no claim to understand everything I link to, but I am attempting to make references to places where our assumptions are being challenged.