Monday, April 16, 2007

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

I dislike being quoted in the press because the result is always mangled. Last week I was in a position where I couldn't avoid talking to a reporter, and as is inevitable what was published was partial at the best. This led to a conversation yesterday evening with someone who took exception to what had appeared. While the reporter did not actually misquote me, she took words from the beginning of the interview and words from the end, then put them together with no reference to the modifiers from the middle.

The issue was, of course, that depressing constant of human sexuality. Life and ministry are about a great deal more than sex, but these days a huge amount of what we do and say is interpreted through this grid of the politics of where we stand on the issues of sexuality.

For a number of years leading up to and following on from that critical point in this crisis in August 2003 I had been puzzling over why human sexuality had turned into such a hot potato. It always seemed that there was more at play here than what it had been reduced to, and which was now being as fiercely fought a fight as a Quidditch game between Gryffindor and Slytherin.

I reached the conclusion that actually sexuality was only a symptom, not the real cause of the problem. Treating sexuality as a stand-alone is about as intelligent as treating toothache without trying to find out the underlying cause. This meant reaching behind the battle to see what exactly is at stake.

My conclusion was, and this has been backed up since then by my testing of the hypothesis, that what we are dealing with is the issue of what it means to be human. How we actually "manage" sexuality is only a part of a much larger and more significant whole. Although it is obviously a highly emotional subject, I assert that it is only a small part of the enormous challenge that faces the 21st Century, which is to discover afresh what it really means to be human, and to appropriately define the limits of humanity and the boundaries for human behavior.

One of the reasons I have tried not to engage the sexuality wars as enthusiastically as some have wished is that I believe they are a skirmish in a much more significant debate and conflict. To fight over sex is to distort realities by focusing on only a part of the picture. The result of this is that the whole issue has been highly politicized in all arenas with parties backed into corners from which we lob shells, doing our best, perhaps, to do as much damage as we can to each other, rather than addressing the true extent of what is going on and what the issues really are.

The clue to a whole book is often found in the first chapter, even in the first few paragraphs, and Scripture is no exception. When humanity is introduced to us we are told that God set out to make 'adam' (human) in his own likeness, to have dominion and stewardship of the earth, and that he made them "in his own image, in the image of God he created him (adam); male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27). The rest of Scripture is, in effect, dealing with the implications of these few words.

Judeo-Christian culture has had built into its very being this high understanding of what it means to be human, and the dignity of the stewardship to which we have been called. This presupposition has shaped every aspect of our understanding of humanity, from the way our laws are configured, through science and medicine, to our social interaction and behavior.

But in the last few generations our culture has been abandoning any workable notion of a creator God. In the last 30-40 years the impact of this has filtered into society's perception of what it means to be human, and meanwhile we have been steadily letting go of any sense of the absolute. We are now at a point where increasing numbers are willing to negotiate what it means to be human.

What is being implied more and more is that human beings are creatures who have reached a particular point on an evolutionary continuum and now ready to move on. Behind such notions is the presupposition that we have reached a degree of maturity that permits us to direct the evolution of future generations. To some this may sound bizarre, but there are numbers of serious anthropologists, philosophers, and so forth toying with this notion, while developments in biogenetics, artificial intelligence, cybernetics, nanotechnology, and so forth, mean that such gameplans need to be taken seriously.

The truth is that in so many fields the tools are either in place or will soon be there to enable human beings to alter their physical, psychological, and ontological nature. Reading professional literature as well as thoughtful stuff in journals and news sources, it is clear that there are many who have no qualms about pushing this envelope as far as they can, while those of us who say, "Wait a minute, let's just get some definitions in place as to what it means to be human," are thrust aside as dinosaurs who ought to shut up and get out of the way.

Our confusion about the nature and place of sexuality is part of this much larger picture -- a symptom that what we have accepted as givens are no longer acceptable in this brave new world.

I believe that John Paul II recognized this and sought in his theology of the human body to address these realities, but his thinking, and that of others like Dr. Leon Kass, who has been Chair of the President' Council on Bioethics, is not being as seriously listened to because it requires caution and thoughtfulness on the part of those scrambling to make fresh scientific discoveries.

The reason recent trends in sexuality are part of this picture is because they are, I believe, a component of this renegotiating of what it means to be human. There are those who are suggesting because of their own biases that we are free to re-assess what it means to be sexual beings, and what it is to be made in God's image. Clearly, what Genesis 1 teaches, and this is then echoed throughout Scripture, is that part of this being made is God's image is that we are either male or female, and that men and women have not just a functional but an ontological complementariness. From this then emerges the whole flow of biblical teaching about being human, and sexual ethics.

It is my contention that this vital passage in Genesis 1 has not been given the attention that it deserves, and neither has it been looked at within the wider context of changes and movements in our culture that are calling into question and seeking to remake what it means to be human. There is a lot of work ahead of us if we are to find a way forward, but right now we are into lobbing emotionally laden shells rather than creatively engaging the whole much more worrying issue of which this is only part.

This passage is extremely challenging. It raise to the highest level what it means to be human because we are created in the image of God which means taking incredibly seriously the dignity of every human being -- and that means every man, woman, and child on this planet, no exceptions. But it also demands that we take with the utmost seriousness what all the given-nesses of our lives are about, our gender being a crucial part of this. In truth, serious study of Genesis 1:26-31, and Genesis 2:4-25 will stretch all of us to ask and try to answer some very uncomfortable questions.

I suspect that we will not find a way forward in the culture as a whole, or the church, until we are prepared to deal with the whole picture and not part of it.

1 comment:

John said...

Hi, Its John from Melbourne.
These related essays and references provide an Illuminated understanding of what we are as human beings.


Reference # 5 provides a critique of the self-serving Mommy-Daddy "creator" god of exoteric religion---the religion we HAVE to outgrow in order to grow up.