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"What Does it Mean to Be Human?"

Part One: The Search for True Humanity

Throughout history man has been on a quest, a crusade to answer the questions "Who am I?", "Where am I?", and "Why am I here?" While we know that we are human being, we are not at all sure what that means. A survey of philosophical history can afford a striking discovery. Man's persistent attempts to answer these questions produce nothing new. The same solutions keep coming up, time and again, offered and explored from a slightly different perspective. They may be packaged a little differently, refined a bit, and given new terminology, but man cannot seem to come up with any really new and fresh solutions, much less adequate answers to these questions. Consider these examples from history.

Who Am I?

With profound insight, the ancient philosopher Xenophanes suggested that men have created God in their own image. Men have looked at themselves and imagined that God is like them. God has been redefined to fit within the parameters of man's perceptions. Man seeks to define himself by defining God in his image. Depending upon the particular focus of his contemplation, man has offered answers to the question "Who am I?" that revolve around such ideas as a radical dualism of the body and soul, the assumption that man is merely a material being, the notion that we are a part of God, or the presumption that man can become a god. While it is not our present purpose to explore these views, let it suffice to say that such theories pepper the philosophies of the ages.

Where Am I?

Over five centuries before Christ, a philosopher by the name of Anaximander wrote a full scale history of the world, explaining it in terms of evolution. He even postulated that life began in the sea. Although his scenario is certainly crude in comparison to today's elaborate schemes, the point should be clear. Evolution is no modern scientific theory.

Why am I here?

Over four centuries before Christ, Protagoras insisted that "man is the measure of all things." What was his answer to why we are here? We are here for ourselves! He denied the possibility of objective knowledge and promoted absolute relativism. Our generation is evidence that Protagorian philosophy is alive and well in the beginning of the twenty first century. Still others have suggested that man is here on some evolutionary cycle of upward progress. Once again, modern evolution seen to be nothing more than a redressed version of ancient philosophy. It is worth noting that, more often than not, the answers given to the first two questions make the third question irrelevant. What possible purpose could exist for man if there is no design and purpose in the cosmos?

Limited Vision and Sinful Hearts

Why can't man seem to find satisfactory answers to these defining questions? Why does he keep recycling the same old notions? The answer is two-fold. Man has limited vision and a sinful, rebellious heart.

Man is finite and has profoundly limited perspective. For example, I cannot map the world while adrift in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The rest of the world cannot be seen from such a position and there is no stable reference point from which to work. The most consistent and reliable reference would be myself and I am floating with the waves of the sea! To borrow an illustration, it's like a man of water trying to climb out of the water on a ladder of water. What a vivid image! Yet it accurately describes man's futile search for his identity and purpose. How can we adequately explain ourselves and our universe when we ourselves are a part of this cosmos we are attempting to explain. We can never gain a sufficient perspective on our own. For this reason I love God's challenge to Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?" (Job 38:4-5).

Another factor that hinders our assessment of true humanity is the fact that we bear the effects of sin. We make our appraisal of humanity from within the boundaries of the fall. How can we ever know the nature of true humanity when the heart is supremely deceitful and desperately wicked? (Jer. 17:9). This is the danger of contemplation and self-reflection apart from objective revelation. At best, it can only bring man to despair. There are a few people have followed through to the end of such a soul-searching enterprise and came to embrace Christ. But these are rare exceptions and the recipients of God's gracious light. Most stop short, anticipating where such persistent examination will lead. Some who work through to a logical conclusion become awash in relativism or collapse into nihilism (an extreme belief maintaining that all values are baseless so that nothing can be really known or communicated and rejects all distinctions of moral or religious value). In other words, searching man's heart for these answers usually leads to comfortable self-delusion or utter despair and hopeless ruin. Man's heart is sinful, skewed, and untrustworthy. While he was born diseased with sin, he cannot realize it from mere observation because everyone around him was born in the same condition.

Even Christians can become ensnared by ill-advised self-reflection. Those who do it well may almost go insane over the discovery of the blackness of their heart. Only a recognition of the objective grace of God can remedy such depression and despair. But most Christians who practice self-reflection are actually caught up in self-focus. Like C.S. Lewis observed in the Screw Tape Letters, introspection can be a great tool of the enemy. It serves the enemy's purpose if Christians practice self-examination without ever coming to realize things about themselves which are obvious to everyone who knows them well. Apart from objective truth, which can only arise from a source outside of ourselves, our assessments are hopelessly futile, self-serving, insignificant, and worst of all, utterly false! However, these kinds of results are the only ones to be expected when we begin and end with ourselves.


I am aware that I have raised questions and offered no solutions. In short, man needs an objective viewpoint. He needs the perspective of someone outside of himself, someone who stands outside the created universe in which he exists. Only the God who created, sustains, and determines the world in which man lives can answer man's nagging questions about his identity and purpose. While the answer may be simple, it is also often overlooked. In the next issue we will consider what light the Word of God sheds on this most basic of questions: "What does it mean to be human?"

- Stan McGehee Jr

Next month I will continue with part two of this series. We will consider what light the Word of God sheds on this most basic of questions: “What does it mean to be human?”