April 2021 Credo
In our society, being human has been interpreted and explained in various ways, ranging from the effects of marketing advertisements, comedy-drama TV series, to altruistic acts of charity. To add one more perspective, in chemical terms, a human body consists merely of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and another elements constituting less than 1% of the human chemical composition.
How should Christians understand and apply the meaning of being human along with all that we draw from society?
Certain basic theological presuppositions should be emphasized in order to understand the Christian view of being human. These are human createdness, fall, redemption, and consummation.
First, Christian anthropology teaches human createdness, and along with it, human contingency. Being created means being limited in a beautiful way. It was the dream of the first humans that they wanted to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Yet, it is precisely this being like God that hinders the human being from being truly human. Accepting our limitedness, on the other hand, leads us to live a life dependent on each other, thus destroying the false inhuman sense of security.
In his sermon “Perilous Times”, John Owen wrote: “Not to be sensible of a present perilous season, is that security which the Scripture so condemns; … Nothing is more hateful to God than a secure frame in perilous days. … A secure person, in perilous seasons, is assuredly under the power of some predominant lust.” A false sense of security is the opposite of a life dependent on God the Creator.
Createdness teaches the human being not only to be dependent on God, but also to be dependent on one another. A society that stresses on the ‘virtue’ of independence and self-sufficiency is fully incompatible with the biblical story of creation. The first human being needed a suitable helper (cf. Gen. 2:18). Coherently, human beings are created for communion or fellowship.
Second, Christian anthropology teaches the story of the fall. Every sound theology should offer a theological realism instead of a theological idealism. It means that we should accept the fallenness or corruption of our humanity. Humans struggle against the sin of lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, to name but a few. Such vices, or what Evagrius Ponticus called seven (or eight) evil thoughts, transform human beings to become inhuman. It is not suffering that makes us inhuman; rather, it is our responses to our fellow humans, whether in times of suffering or happiness, that define our humanity.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas postulates what being human means, namely being responsible for the other. It is what constitutes human fraternity, whose placement is before ontology, before the question of the essence of being human. This notion of fraternity springs by means of face-to-face encounters. For Levinas, we are human “before being learned and remain so after having forgotten much.” We are not what we learn, what we know, or what we remember. We are what we respond to God and to our neighbors. Despite being critical toward theology, Levinas does acknowledge the problem of guilt. “A face is a trace of itself, given over to my responsibility, but to which I am wanting and faulty. It is as though I were responsible for his mortality, and guilty for surviving.”
This is where Christian anthropology offers its third basic presupposition, namely, to be human is to be forgiven. Our falling short of responsibility for others can make us more human by humbly acknowledging our weaknesses. In the tradition of Christian spirituality, we refer to the practice of confession. For Calvin, confession of sin is a doxology for we give glory to God by acknowledging that He alone is righteous. Confession is made possible because of the grace of God in Christ. Its practice will safeguard the Church and society from the inhumanity of self-righteousness. Being human can only be meaningfully understood in the story of God’s redemption of humankind.
While in the story of human fall, we are compelled to acknowledge the reality of vices in the world, in the story of God’s redemption humans are invited to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), that is, to be virtuous. The Church Fathers adopted the combination of the four classical cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues as the seven virtues, which are opposed to the seven deadly sins. Biblically, we refer to the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22-23. Being human means being led by the Spirit, from whom all divine virtues proceed. God’s redemption in Christ enables us to mortify the desires of the flesh while being vivified by the Spirit.
Finally, Christian anthropology teaches that being human means having a telos, a goal, or an end to one’s life. We are created as eschatological beings. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,” wrote Albert E. Brumley. This is not to say that Christian anthropology encourages escapism; rather, it invites us to live a pilgrim’s journey. We are human when we travel on earth as pilgrims. Being a pilgrim, humans should realize that we merely use the world out of necessity, not to achieve excessive enjoyment from it. Or, in Augustine’s words: “The good use (uti) the world that they may enjoy (frui) God; the wicked, on the contrary, that they may enjoy the world would fain use God.”
Augustine’s distinction between uti and frui can help us to be more human. It directs the human heart to long for the future consummation by God. It teaches us to use this world as though we had no need of it (cf. 1 Cor. 7:31). The greatest enjoyment of the citizens of the Earthly City is the worldly things while that of the citizens of the City of God is God and His Kingdom. There is an order of love: love of creation is subordinate to love of God. To be directed to the true telos in life is to love God above all. That makes us truly human.
Experiencing the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic in the year 2020 has made us think and reflect on what being human truly means. Churches throughout the world were challenged not only to offer theological solutions but also to be involved in practical deeds of love.
Rev Dr Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean at International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta. Graduated from Heidelberg University (Ph.D in musicology, Th.D in systematic theology), he is an ordained pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia.