Psalm 8.4. "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?"
In raising this question, the psalmist participated in one of humanity's oldest pursuits: understanding itself. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists from every age and tradition have pursued this question endlessly, producing myriad perspectives and answers.[i] Yet we might well wonder why this is such a difficult question to answer. Of course we know what a human person is. We are human persons. Indeed, there seems to be nothing with which we are so intimately involved as our knowledge of what it means to be human. We experience "humanity" everyday in ourselves and in our relationships with the people around us. The school yard workplace shopping centre and club tell us that. I might not be able to tell you exactly what an armadillo is, but I know all about what it means to be human.
Despite our intimate familiarity with being human, however, we continue to be plagued with uncertainty about what it means to be human. Modern society is characterized by an ever-growing uncertainty that it is even possible to offer such an answer. The current PC debates about LGBTI gender issues is one such example to my mind.
We are not only uncertain about our ability to answer the question of identity, "Who am I?" but we can also see a growing lack of confidence in our ability even to answer the question of essence, "What am I?" The TV docos are the ‘Everyman’ result of how the modern era has witnessed a remarkable number of new scientific and philosophical disciplines dedicated to understanding the human. Yet none of these offers answers that ultimately satisfying. Should we understand human persons as Homo sapiens, members of the animal kingdom distinguished by certain biological characteristics? Certainly; but, is that adequate? Would not most people affirm that the human person is somehow "more" than the sum of his or her biological characteristics? Even with the advent of the neurosciences and their remarkable ability to analyze the complex factors that comprise a person's cognitive and psychological processes, we still resist the notion that these really capture the essence of what it means to be human. Confidence that we really understand humanity remains elusive. Thus, the more a human person keeps on slipping out of his own grasp and becomes more of a puzzle to himself, the more possible solutions he has available in the form of outlines of what human is. The more possible answers he has, the more he feels he is in a hall of a thousand mirrors and masks, the more unintelligible he is to himself.
Despite our intimate familiarity with being human, it would seem that there are mysterious depths to the human person that constantly evade us. Yet the significant implications that attach to how we answer the anthropological question mean that the query cannot simply be issues such as genetic engineering, human cloning, artificial intelligence, and globalization as well as the challenges of racism, classism, and sexism. Responding to these existential issues adequately, however, is inseparable from who and what we understand ourselves to be. Our answers to the questions "Who am I?" and "What am I?" are intimately connected to the question of "How ought to be in the world?" Any description of human nature always both presumes and entails a prescription for human living. The what/who questions and the how question are inseparable.'
Movies ask these questions. Do we have free will? What is the nature of being? And of course the anthropologists ask these questions too. Indeed any attempt to discuss human "ontology" for example, the body/soul relationship, the nature of "free will," are related to the pressing concerns of living humanly in the world. So abstract discussions have a direct bearing on practical realities.
Our "abstract" understanding of human nature is enfleshed in the everyday decisions that we make as we live out our humanity.
There is nothing abstract about Jesus.
[i] For much of this article I am indebted to Marc Cortez. Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed) (Kindle Locations 35-38). Kindle Edition.