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On being human

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 25 May 2009

The specialisation and intensification of knowledge in our age has produced a specialisation and intensification of our understanding of what it is to be human.

To the medical specialist we are seen as a problem of the body, a disease, a malformation, a genetic load or the result of accident. To the lawyer we are seen as a person under law who has the potential either to break the law or to behave within it. To the psychologist we are, depending on the school of thought in operation, the sum of traumatic events, the result of family pathology, the working of various complexes or the product of misplaced affections or understandings of the world. To the psychiatrist, increasingly, we are governed by brain function and neurochemistry. I could go on.

None of these views of the human are exclusive, they all include the fact that a person may be a father or mother or may fill other roles in working or social life. But the specialist, necessarily, will focus on his own concern. Indeed it is disconcerting to be asked by one’s cardiologist about political allegiances. One gets the feeling that his mind should be on the job at hand. While there has been some attempt, particularly in the medical profession, to treat the whole person what one really wants from a specialist is his or her expertise in his or her particular area.


The specialisation and intensification of specialists who deal with various aspects of the human have a tendency to blur what being human is. Add to this the constant demand of capitalism to spend more and have more fun, and the human potential movement urging us to become more fulfilled human beings, and we begin to describe a cacophony of voices that tell us who we are. But it must be obvious that none of these voices tell us who we are essentially. We are more than our bodies, more than our legal status, more than our psychic background, more than our brain function and more than our hedonistic pursuits. After all the secular voices that would give us identity have had their say and have been found to only touch the surface of human being the question remains, what or who are we essentially.

If we cannot answer this question in a way that resists reduction we will fail to live out an authentic human life. For the failure to answer this question is at the root of drug abuse, criminality, the failure of marriages and the disintegration of communities. The reason that government cannot ameliorate social dysfunction is because it cannot, by its nature, address the issues of human being. While governments will continue to treat the symptoms in the war on drugs, on domestic violence, and criminality they will never treat the underlying cause. This is particularly true in liberal democracies in which the separation between church and state insulates government from the traditional understandings of the identity of the human person. This means that schools may teach sex education but cannot form students into the adults who will understand the central role sex plays in marriage and family. It means that we can attempt to remove drugs from the streets but cannot train the young into being persons of character that do not desire drugs.

The direction that this article is going must now be apparent. The next thing I am going to say is that the church is the answer to all of this. When one looks at the disarray of churches of all denominations this must seem preposterous. To a large extent the church has lost its way and does not look like a cure for anything. It also seems a preposterous statement when we understand it in terms of a medical cure, go to church and everything will be all right. It is obviously not as simple as that but I still hold to the proposition that it is the church, at its best, which is able to tell us who we are in a way that will give a firm foundation to our lives.

It is unfortunate that the church is associated in many minds with the moral high ground; that the role of the church is to make us good. This raises the spectre of the goody two-shoes Christian who abides by a strict code of rules. But morality only deals with the surface of things, like the various roles and identifications we have in life, morality is based on being, of knowing who we are. It is not the role of Christianity to produce a thin veneer of morality but to produce people who are formed in such a way that they will behave out of who they have become.

That becoming begins with baptism in which we are symbolically (but also really) immersed in the waters of death and are raised as Christ was raised into a new and transformed life. Christian initiation has “being” as its basis. We no longer face the question of being on our own, it is not a question that we can answer. Christians understand that the only authentic being is being “in Christ”. This is the foundation on which the more superficial identities that we take on in life are built. This saves those identities from becoming idolatrous, of being ultimate. We may lose these identities but not lose ourselves.

Being “in Christ” begins with baptism and proceeds to Eucharist in which we take the food and drink that maintains us in this being. There is a community at the heart of each action. The person who is baptised joins the community who find their being in the body of Christ, the church. The Eucharist is celebrated by that community, one cannot be a Christian on one’s own. So being “in Christ” is also “being in community”. The neighbour is essential. The command to love ones neighbour is not a moralism about being nice to others but a promise that the foundation of our being lies in between the self and the other person. This is why Christians have a deep commitment of marriage, because they know that living with another person and bringing children into the world are not personal choices but are determined by the nature of being human.


There is a paradox at the basis of all this. The critics of Christianity wills say that “being in Christ” robs the person of freedom; they simply become a cipher for their master and therefore forgo all genuine being. To this I would say that it is part of the human person to make allies outside of the self. The allies may be roles like those mentioned above. It is part of the economy of the human to seek sources of being outside of oneself. I think that is inescapable. We cannot function, psychically, without some form of identity, even if it is only that given by being a member of a gang.

In the biblical mind it was recognised that all men and women had masters. It is a conceit of the modern age that we can exist without some identification with something outside of us. If this is true, it is not a matter of whether we seek identity outside of ourselves but what we use to create that identity. The Christian position is that only Christ can be both master and the one who engenders the most radical freedom. It is only he whose “yoke is easy and burden light”. All of the other masters that we might choose will demand all we have, it is they who will bring us into slavery, that slavery that is only too apparent today at all levels of society.

Those who choose other masters than Christ are deemed, in the Bible, to be the living dead. They are so because they have built their lives on shaky foundations, on notions of identity and being that will not support their aspirations to live a full and happy life. Because they would have their life they are destined to lose them. This is the grim warning that the church must speak. For it is clear that the living dead are most susceptible to physical death. It is no wonder that in the Bible they are closely identified. It is not just a matter of underachieving, but of being in real danger. It is the young that are in most danger as we read every day in the newspapers, even the most successful are in danger and social programs will be of limited help.

Our malaise lies deeper than government agencies can reach. If you want to “make a difference” as they say these days, certainly continue to support the charities that treat the symptoms that arise from shallow being, but do something even more important, join a church, be baptised, join the community whose being is found in Christ and raise your children in that community.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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