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6 March 2023

What does it mean to be “human”? And what does it mean to be “humane”?

After the horrors of the Second World War, the world came together in December 1948 to affirm certain fundamental rights and freedoms of all human beings under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which governments had to respect and ensure.

However, the UDHR did not explain why human beings have human rights; it merely asserted that human beings have “inherent dignity”. The term “dignity” was effectively left as a “placeholder” which different value systems or worldviews could insert their own theories as to why human beings have human rights (McCrudden, “Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights”, 676).

This creates a profound problem: How can we agree on what “human rights” are, if we cannot agree on what a “human being” is?

For example, is there a right to abortion? The answer will depend on whether the unborn child in the womb is entitled to human rights. If the answer is “yes”, abortion would be a violation of human rights. If the answer is “no”, restrictions on abortions would be an oppressive restriction on women’s freedoms.

Without a clear understanding about what it means to be “human”, it becomes very difficult to define what amounts to “humane” behaviour or not.

Debates Over Human Nature

On closer examination, we can see that many controversial moral questions of today are essentially debates over human nature.

When discussing issues of gender identity, advocates argue that a biologically male person can be a “woman trapped in a man’s body”, or that a child can have a “girl’s brain in a boy’s body”. This reflects the idea that one’s mind (or, in religious terms, one’s “soul” or “spirit”) is the “true self” or “real me”, whereas the body is something like a shell or cage that the “real me” is stuck inside.

Advocates for same-sex marriage argue that what ultimately matters in marriage is not one’s body parts, but “love and commitment”. On this view, one’s biological sex is irrelevant to marriage, because two men or two women can equally “love and commit” to one another like in a man-woman marriage.

In the context of the abortion debate, science is clear that the unborn child in the womb is biologically a human being. Yet advocates of abortion sometimes argue that, even though the unborn child is human, the child is not a “person” because he or she lacks sufficient consciousness. In other words, the physical body is not enough; the mind must reach a certain level of maturity before a human being becomes a “person”.
The list goes on, and we can see many similar ideas in debates over issues like euthanasia, surrogacy, cloning, artificial intelligence, and so on.

There is a philosophical term for these ideas: metaphysical dualism. Theologians might also recognise these ideas as a modern and secular parallel of an ancient heresy known as “Gnosticism”, which drew a sharp division between spiritual and physical natures, and which the early church decisively rejected by insisting that Christ came in the flesh (cf. 1 Jn 4:2).

Biblical View of Human Nature

The Bible presents a robust view of human nature. It teaches that human beings are made male and female in God’s image (Gen 1:27; cf. Matt 19:4). Human beings are comprised of heart, soul, mind and body (cf. Mark 12:30). We are created for community: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). While sin corrupts human nature, the image of God is not lost (Gen 9:6).

Thus, the holistic flourishing of human beings involves nurture of their emotional, spiritual, mental and physical aspects, as well as social relationships.

Unlike the kinds of dualist or Gnostic views highlighted above, a Christian ethic does not denigrate or ignore the importance of the physical body. Instead, Christianity respects its immense significance.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14). Even as Jesus reconciled all things to God through His death and resurrection, the Reconciler of God and Man first began by reconciling the divine and the human natures in His own body as a child in Mary’s womb. It is a profound affirmation of the humanity of all unborn children.

A biblical sexual ethic does not regard the body as “impure” nor “irrelevant”, and rejects both extremes of abstaining or indulging in sexual activity. Rather, it issues a call to honour one’s body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). Within marriage, the sexual union is holy, uniting a man and a woman as one flesh (cf. 1 Cor 7; Heb 13:4).

Being Human and Humane

In the midst of a culture that is increasingly divided over fundamental ideas about human nature, rights and duties, the Body of Christ has a responsibility to speak the truth in love about what it means to be authentically human and humane.

Firstly, it should be the duty of churches everywhere to teach and model a robust theology of the body, in word and deed. These include biblical principles regarding the sanctity of life and marriage.

Secondly, in public witness and democratic discourse, Christians should present and articulate a sound view of human nature that emphasises the value of the human body to one’s identity and relationships. Even as the Christian faith brings certain unique insights to the discussion, there are also numerous insights which are shared with Jews and Muslims as well as other faiths.

Thirdly, the church as the Body of Christ must always be a place of healing and refuge for the wounded and hurting. Ideas which denigrate the human body come at a heavy cost, and there will be sinners and victims of sin who need safe refuge. These may include post-abortive women, victims of sexual assault and abuse, and people who have suffered the consequences of bad ideas about sexuality or gender.

Darius Lee holds a Masters of International Law and Human Rights from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He practises law at Characterist LLC. He has also published a number of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals on various issues in international and domestic law.