Friday, 8 September 2006

Theology for beginners (12): Humans

Summary: As humans, we are priests of God’s creation: our role is to give thanks to God, to relate to one another through giving and receiving, and to care for all creatures. As humans we are also deeply flawed, but God directs us towards the life of the future in which our true humanness will be fulfilled.

When the Father sent the Son to become a creature, the Son did not become merely some sort of creature-in-general: he became human. And this tells us that, among all God’s creatures, there is something very special about human beings. What is this special “something”? What is it that makes us humans unique?

We have seen that creatureliness is a gift. All creatures receive their existence as a free gift from God. When a gift is given, the proper response is one of thanks. And among all that God has made, only one creature – the human – can give thanks. This, then, is the simplest way of describing the uniqueness of human beings: to be human is to give thanks. Only humans can verbalise their creatureliness. Only humans can bring their gratitude to verbal expression, so that the creator is thanked and praised for his generous grace.

Human beings are thus the priests of creation. On behalf of the whole created world, humans give thanks to God. On behalf of all other creatures, humans acknowledge God’s goodness in praise. On behalf of all creatures, humans speak the word “God” – a glad and cheerful word that expresses the meaning of all that exists. Humanity, we might say, is the voice of creation: only through human beings does the created world enter into conversation with its maker. In this way, humanity completes and fulfils the creation – this is the dignity which God has conferred on humanity! And so to fail to give thanks to God is to deny and contradict our own humanness.

Since human beings alone can enter into conversation with God, it is also true that humanity is God’s genuine partner. God creates human beings not merely as servants or slaves, but as friends. Within God’s own triune life, God is already an eternally rich conversation. But God freely decides to incorporate an other into this conversation. He creates humans in order to participate in this conversation – to be partners and friends who listen to God’s gracious voice and reply with a voice of gratitude. This is the astonishing dignity which God has conferred on humanity: to be God’s friends, to offer a creaturely reply to the triune voice of God’s life.

The meaning of our humanness, then, is our unique relationship to God the creator. But this unique relationship also has its own echo. For God not only creates us humans to relate to him – he also creates us to relate to each other. God creates humanity as male and female, as persons different from each other yet dependent on each other. Our existence, then, is one of mutual interdependence. As humans, we exist in so far as we relate to one another. And the fullest expression of this relatedness is the sexual union between different human beings – a union in which one gives oneself away to another in trust and dependence, and then receives oneself again from the other as a free gift. It is this union, above all, that expresses our humanness in a vivid echo of our relatedness to God the creator.

To seek complete isolation from other human beings, or to use and exploit others for our own purposes, would thus be to deny our humanness and to contradict our relationship to God. Our relationship to others is meant to be an embodied echo of our relationship to God: from God we receive everything, and then we give everything back to God in free gratitude.

Further still, God’s relationship to us is echoed in our unique relationship to the whole created world. Just as we act as priests of creation when we represent all creatures in our thanks to God, so too we are priests by representing God’s goodness to the whole created world. As humans, we are to be God’s caretakers or “gardeners” of creation. In this way, we are to express and represent God’s generous care for his creatures. To exploit or deface the created world is thus always a denial of God’s grace and an expression of our ingratitude. It is a denial of the most basic truth about ourselves – that we are creatures who have received everything from God.

This, then, is what it means to be human: we stand in a unique relationship to God, to one another, and to all creation. But by now we are starting to feeling a little uncomfortable: for all this only highlights the deep flaws in our humanness. How many of us have really fulfilled these unique relationships? How many of us can say that we are truly and fully human? Are we not, in fact, alienated from God, from each other, and from our creaturely environment? Do we not in fact fail to give thanks, fail to give and receive freely, fail to care for God’s world? With these questions, we have uncovered the deep contradiction, the dark riddle at the centre of our humanness: we are God’s creatures, but we live as though we were not God’s creatures; we are human, but we are not yet truly human.

This riddle brings us, however, to the most important aspect of what it means to be human: our humanness is not something that we already possess! We have not yet arrived at true humanness, but we are en route. To be human is to be directed, to have a goal. To be human is to have a future which summons us. Yes, we are wounded and flawed and even downright rebellious – but the God who gave us life now summons us forwards into the new life of his future, into a future in which our wounds will be healed, our flaws repaired, our rebellion transformed into gratitude.

And this future has in fact broken into history in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Jesus is and always has been the true human – the one in whom humanity is fulfilled and completed and healed. Jesus is and always has been the final goal of humanity – the destiny to which we are all directed. True humanness, then, is found in this particular man. The future that awaits us all is found in this man’s resurrected life. The man Jesus is raised into perfect fellowship with God. He is raised into the living conversation of God’s triunity. He is raised into participation in the life of God.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we have thus glimpsed the true meaning and goal of our humanness – and through the power of the Spirit, we are summoned towards this goal, summoned into the life of God’s future, where God and humanity, giver and receiver, are united at last in perfect fellowship.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960).
  • Grenz, Stanley J. The Social God and the Relational Self (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 183-264.
  • Gunton, Colin. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), pp. 104-120.
  • Jenson, Robert W. On Thinking the Human (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 215-75.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985).
  • Ratzinger, Joseph. In the Beginning… (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 42-58.
  • Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), pp. 33-54.


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