Thursday 7 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.


PresterJosh said...


To be human is to be confronted with a telos outside oneself.

michael jensen said...

As KB says: 'This man IS man'...

bls said...

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.

Well, no. Sexual union is one expression of such relatedness.

If not, you must then be saying that single people - and monastics - are a bit less than human?

Anonymous said...

You continue to spoil us, Ben! In this post I particularly liked: your rooting the human "conversation" with God in the perichoretic conversation of the immanent Trinity (you are admirably consistent with Rahner's Rule); your emphasis on the divine-human "friendship" (I can hear Stanley Hauerwas applauding!); and your Christological and eschatological (teleological) take on the imago dei (though, for whatever reason, you do not actually use the term).

Just a couple of points/queries.

First, you say that "among all that God has made, only one creature - the human - can give thanks." I am glad that you then immediately qualify this statement by adding that "only humans can verbalise their creatureliness" (my italics). Or is it fanciful of me, an example of the pathetic fallacy, to suggest that all creatures praise their Creator in their own way - indeed with their own song: the birds with their chirping, the seas with their rhythmic tides, the stars with their whirring through space?

Second, it would be interesting to see where you would go with humanity as co-humanity, if you take the archetype to be the male-female relationship. I sincerely hope you wouldn't go down the Barthian route - his anthropology here is one of his most egregious errors. It would be particularly interesting in the light (or darkness?) of the current discussion on human sexuality - sorry (why use a euphemism?), homosexuality. You know, the side-splitting "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" "joke". Not that I would expect you to tackle this one in "Theology for beginners"!

But as a by-the-way, do you know the work of the young Oxford Dominican Gareth Moore, who, alas, died in 2002, who was right up there with James Alison as a Vatican gadfly, particularly his A Question of Truth (2003)? In his discussion of the image of God in the passage and context of Genesis 1:26-28, Moore says this:

"The text does seem to say that both men and women, male and female, are created in the image of God. But it does not say that their being in the image of God consists of their being sexually differentiated, or that it consists in the sexual complementarity of male and female. On the contrary, there is every reason for thinking that this is not what the text intends to say. For if it is in their being sexually differentiated that their being in the image of God consists, we would expect human sexual differentiation to be a reflection of sexual differentiation within God. But nowhere in Scripture is it stated or implied that sexual differentiation is an element of the divine nature itself . . . "

More controversially - indeed against the exegetical stream - Moore goes on to suggest, after citing Genesis 5:1-3 and Genesis 9:5-6, that "It is clearly individual human beings that are meant here, and this gives strong support to the interpretation of Genesis 1 that makes the individual, not the couple, the bearer of the divine image."

Agree or disagree, Moore certainly merits a place in the mix.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Barth and the image of God as differentiation, male and female, male or female, Geoffrey Bromiley, former colleague of mine and translator and interpreter of Barth, suggested to me at the time that I wrote On Being Human (Eerdmans, 1982), that the phrase, 'ordered ontology' best represented what Barth meant by the differentiation within the triunity of God. This ontological differentiation in divine being, he argued, is that to which the divine image in human being refers. Thus, male and female, male or female, is first an ontological differentiation and only consequently a sexual differentiation in 'being human.' Sexual cohabitation between male and female is then a possibility, not a necessity to being male or female in the image of God. Barth's problem, if I may say so, is not in his theological exegesis of Genesis 1: 26-27, but in his assignment of 'precedence' to this 'odered ontology' of being human. "A precedes B, and B follows A. Order means succession. It means preceding and following. It means super- and sub-ordination. But when we say this we utter the very dangerous words which are unavoidable if we are to describe what is at issue in the being and fellowship of man and woman." Barth, C.D., III/4, pp. 169-70. I think that Barth would have been better off to have left this section out, as it does not necessarily follow from his concept of male and female in the image of God. Barth is spot on, I believe when he says that sexual differentiation as male and female, male or female is the only differentation that occurs between human, not race nor ethnicity. Church Dogmatics, III/1, pp. 186f; 195f; III/2, p. 289].

Anonymous said...

Hi Ray.

Thanks for that. Well said: Bromily is right in what Barth affirmed - a relational human ontology, humanity as co-humanity; and you are right about what Barth denied - that this relational ontology is a non-hierarchical ontology (without "super- and sub-ordination", as you say). Even if one insists, with Genesis 2, on a kind of "order" in the human, as an image of the Trinity, that order (the Father as the fons et origo, with the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit) would be one of co-equality. But then I also think you can push the analogia of the trinitarian relations too far when discussing the human as male and female - particularly when it comes to the question of obedience!

byron smith said...

Though Barth himself pushed this analogia in CD IV/1, 202.

byron smith said...

Ben, I'd also love to hear your reply to bls's query re sexuality as the fullest expression of relatedness, esp since marriage is itself a sign of our relatedness to Christ, and at the resurrection there will be no more marriage or giving in marriage.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all these searching comments -- and I apologise that lately I haven't enough time to reply to many comments.

I really appreciate Ray's clarification and critique of Barth, and I agree with this: Barth was certainly wrong to speak of "precedence" (not to mention "subordination"!). And, in response to BLS's sharp query, I'd agree with Ray's remark that "sexual cohabitation between male and female is a possibility, not a necessity to being ... the image of God".

Perhaps I didn't express it carefully enough when I spoke of sexual union as the "fullest expression" of human interrelatedness -- but in any case, I didn't mean to suggest that full humanness is impossible without sexual union! I was only trying to say that sexual union offers the clearest and most striking picture of that interrelatedness which characterises all human existence.

Perhaps here, for once, I could quote Barth's assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum. After speaking of the relationship of mutual (sexual) encounter between human beings, she remarks that the life of a single person can also be understood as the life "of a human being who is 'not alone' because of living in encounter, that is, of living with fellow human beings". And so this person "can become an indication of the limitation of all earthly forms of order, and of their fulfillment in the kingdom of God" (The Question of Woman, p. 94). This note of "fulfillment" perhaps also responds to Byron's point that "there will be no more marriage or giving in marriage" at the resurrection.

(Sorry if these responses are rather vague and indirect -- I'm only thinking aloud, and the questions that have been raised here are quite challenging!)

Anonymous said...

This is such a great series! Ben, now that you've done quite a few of them, would you mind putting them together so that I could click on a link and they would all come up in sequence? There's some that I'd like to re-read and show to friends.

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.