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How do we define human being?

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 14 August 2009

Stephen Cheleda has done me the honour of introducing an article on the nature of human being by taking my article "On Being Human" as his foil. His article is polite and considered, he even quotes Thomas Aquinas. However I must disagree with its outcome. The first line of his article gives the game away even if he follows it with some eirenic expressions. He referred to my article as being “an opinion based on purely intuitive thought rather than being the result of research following normally accepted logical thought processes”. While admitting that intuition can often be wise and useful he immediately says that it “served our cave dwelling ancestors exceedingly well”. Not a great recommendation.

I do not think that the difference between our arguments about the nature of human being is the difference between uncritical intuition and “normally accepted logical processes”. We may begin with the latter. What he means by this expression is the kind of rationality that grew out of the European Enlightenment that was associated with the rise of natural science. As I and my supporters on these pages have argued, this kind of rationality is specifically equipped to argue about the nature of the natural world. It is “hard” rationality in that contradictions or paradoxes cannot be tolerated. God cannot be three persons in one, Christ cannot have both a divine nature and a human nature. But on a more common level, a loving relationship cannot hold both love and hatred, devotion and resentment. Evils in the world cannot have a shade of good. Hard rationality does not give us a language that can deal with the world human beings inhabit, that world of moral complexity, relational fragmentation, a beauty hidden beneath the ugly. In particular it cannot deal with a crucified God.

Those who strictly adhere to this kind of rationalism must find themselves at odds with the human. No amount of scientific study in psychology, anthropology, social science, and so on, will be able to approach that which is deeply human. They should, but often are not, cut off from the great cultural expressions of our society. How can they understand a poem? Or be deeply moved by an opera? Or understand the complexity and contradiction of characters in the great novels? How can they fall in love and rear a family?


Stephen’s assumption is the Enlightenment one, that the human is framed by this kind of hard rationalism, by the science faculty rather than the humanities. Both, of course have their place, both have something to say about the nature of humanity. But to exclude the humanities and rely on science alone is a recipe for anomy and despair because the narratives that are created out of science do not touch the human soul.

The other aspect of Stephen’s article that I would argue against is his accusation that my arguments are intuitive. By that I think he means emotional.

The study of Christian theology is a study of texts and traditions that have been handed down over thousands of years. They are the result of human experience and a certain kind of theological reflection on that experience. In this they are empirical in a broader sense than that used when describing scientific data. That is, they are not primarily the result of feeling or wishful thinking or religious longing; they are the result of historical event. Certainly the relating of these events are embellished in order to make a theological point but they are grounded in human experience. There are also poems and legends that are not based on history but even these bare the imprint of an understanding of the world as it has been experienced. In other words they are not myth.

So to make a trade between a certain kind of rationality and so called intuitive understandings is to queer the argument right from the start. This is the kind of argument that is accepted by many today and Christians should be very angry that they have been so maligned. It is time the church spoke out about how the argument between rationality and religion has been framed. This argument has relegated theological discussion to the margins of public debate.

For example, although Geraldine Doogue is smart, charming and sincere, the ABC’s Compass is almost unwatchable for Christians with any depth of faith. Our major newspapers rarely publish nuanced and learned theological commentary unless the writer has a public persona. Christians should be angry that scientists have commandeered all claims for truth and have relegated theological discussion to the superstitious and irrational.

The other problem with the attempt to reduce the human to what can be gleaned from the scientific method is that it is so a-historical. No credence is given to the great shift in culture that occurred with the rise of Christianity. The difference between the pagan and the Christian is profound. For paganism, individual human beings had no faces, they were resources, wives were incubators, slaves were non human, soldiers were fodder for battle. It is the move brought about by Christianity and Israel before it that saw the image of God in each human being that produced the kind of society that we all now enjoy.


The fact is that the modern world is based firmly on Christian understandings of what it means to be human. While paganism could only seek to escape from the material world of the body, Christianity, with its proclamation that God had become a man, affirmed the body and gave rise to hospitals and medicine to care for the body. While the gods of paganism were remote and cruel and perfidious the God of Christians died a humiliating death on the cross and destroyed the “theology” of paganism. These are the aspects of Christianity that produced a seismic shift in culture.

The effort to reduce the human to only those things derived from hard rationality threatens to undo that shift and return us to pre Christian paganism but this time with a narrow rationality at its heart. In short, we are in danger of losing the human. If the future is a howling wasteland look no further for its cause.

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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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