What does it mean to be human?

 As a biologist, veterinarian and life long animal lover, I always find the animal world fascinating. This week the PBS program NOVA aired an episode titled “Ape Genius” that explored some of the similarities and differences between apes and humans. In National Geographic’s March issue the lead article is “Animal Minds” which explores the topic more broadly.  I encourage you to spend some time with these links, it is a fascinating topic.

Animals can think and reason. Chimps, birds, and otters can use tools. Chimps, elephants and dolphins are self aware. Animals can be deceptive or altruistic.  Dogs appear to respond  with empathy to the injuries of others. Elephants have life long companions and grieve when the relationship ends. Animal communities can have a basic form of culture. Killer whale pods each have their own dialect and the similarity between dialects depends on genetic relatedness and how much time the pods spend together.

The research on these topics is enormous (accessible on the Internet) and some of it quite stunning. Several interesting questions are raised by this research. How much of what animals do is instinct? How much is learned behavior? How much is intentional? How much of what humans do is instinct? How much of what we do is truly intentional? What is consciousness?  Are there degrees of consciousness? Can consciousness exist in a form we don’t recognize? One of the classic questions in ethology is “What is it like to be a bat?”. What would it be like to experience the world via echolocation? Can you even imagine it?

Some of this research blurs  the distinctions we thought there were between humans and other animals. Language, culture, self awareness, knowledge of right and wrong are all ways we have distinguished ourselves from other animals. But now we must consider if these distinctions are differences in kind or differences in degree.

Christians have answered the question of what it means to be human be saying we are created in God’s image. The language of “image” or “likeness” is found in three Hebrew Bible passages, Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-3; 9:6. (Follow this link to Oremus to read the passages.) Historically for Christians our humanity was mostly defined by how we are not like animals. To be like God  means we are unlike animals.

Our ability to reason has long been considered an important difference between humans and animals.  God was understood to be a rational but non material being. We have non material souls. The image of the non material God was believe to be located in our non material soul. Our soul was believed to be where our rationality was located which reflected the divine reason. 

In a related concept, we resemble God when we as rational beings exercise dominion over non rational animals. As God rules over humans, so humans rule over animals.

Our ability to be aware of things beyond ourselves is another way we bear the image of God. We are self aware beings. We can know that we exist and that other people exist. Our self awareness also helps us recognise good and evil. God is a God of justice and we reflect that in our recognition of what is right and just. Because we can recognize beings different from us, we can also know that God exists.

Not only does God exist, but we are made to be in relationship with God. Our ability to have a deep and meaningful relationships with God and with each other is another way we bear God’s image.

So what are we to make of all this? Is there a conflict between what Christians (and others)  have traditionally believed makes us human and what science has discovered about animals? Is there no significant difference between humans and animals? Scientists are not finished investigating either humans or animals. But I think theologically we can draw some conclusions about what it means to be human that do not depend on us being biologically different from animals.

For me, it is always helpful to consider what the original hearers of a Biblical text might have understood a phrase to mean. So what might the phrase, “image of God” have meant to the first audiences?  In Egypt, an image did not depict what a god looked like, but rather showed particular qualities or attributes of the god.  A statue, an image, was one of the places the god was present and manifest. In Egypt and Mesopotamia kings were believed to be the image of god. Kings were the representative of the gods and ruled on their behalf. Pharaoh, for example was believed to be an earthly manifestation of god.

The “image of God” phrase in Genesis may set people apart from the rest of creation, but it does not set people apart from each other. It can be read as a statement about the worth and value of all people before God. All of humanity is connected to God, not just the king.  And it  gives responsibility to all people. Remember in the Bible, the Israelites are initially a people with no earthly king. God is their only ruler. Kings and oppressive social hierarchy was not the way Israel was to live.

“Dominion” is a word that evokes royal responsibility and power. But for Israel (and for us today), the role model is not earthly kings, but God. What does the reign of God look like? To discuss that makes this already long post, much longer. But I will say, look to the Hebrew Bible prophets. And Christians, look to Jesus. In both we find a call to love. A love that is not oppressing but life giving. It is a love that gives, not takes. And it is a love that calls us to a very different way of living and caring for the world.To be human, to be created in the image of God, is not about differences and distinctions. It is about how we live in relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation.

I am interested to know, what do you think?

5 thoughts on “What does it mean to be human?

  1. Your ideas are really good, and it seems that you are sort of stunned by the discrepancy between the notion that people are image of god and the evolutionary notion that humans stem from animals due to evolution. Well, I can understand it, most probably you were raised as believer, I was raised as atheist, so I think this is where the difference comes from. I do not have the questions you have, but I believe I can suggest you an answer to this question.

    It is a matter of hierarchy. Humans as a group when developed a bit away from the animals might start using the word animal as pejorative one against some other members of their group, and thus trying to make difference between themselves and the others who did not behave alike. This is also valid for the differentiation among groups, saying that animals are lower creatures than humans.

    If you will follow this notion of hierarchy, you may find it functioning perfectly well in today’s human life. You can see it everywhere, just recall status symbols; just recall specific addressing with all the titles and names of functions by top people, so differentiating themselves from the “plebs” below. Any kind of racism stems from xenophobia and is based on the notion of hierarchy. Have a look at the setup of any society, say Americans or people in UK, in Germany, and you will find extreme differentiation among group inside these societies. If you look at all the humans all over the world you will find also grouping of these societies, and hierarchy among them.

    9/11 might be seen as an example of an attempt to show that some nation that is perceived as top nation, at the top of the human extra-group hierarchy can be “sort of lowered and equalized” to the lower position of another group in the human extra-group hierarchy. The explanation is as follows: when I can do you any harm and you are unable to protect yourself then you are not so great, I have lowered your position by attacking you successfully. Then I feel better, because you do not appear any more as GOD, you are vulnerable and “I“can cause you this harm.

    So using wording that god made humans to his picture is nothing else than an attempt of humans to make clear that hey are higher in the hierarchy then the creatures called animals. But is that really so? And if so, in what sense exactly? We should look at this a bit more differentially.

    You may also want to read some of my other ideas that you may find on my blog.

  2. Borek, Thank you for your comments. I wrote this post because I think many people are “stunned”, as you put it, when they realize the amazing similarities between ourselves and other animals. If one’s understanding of what it means to be human is based on human/animal differences then a lot of modern science can be viewed as threatening to one’s faith. (Of course one does not need to be religious to feel uneasy or threatened by the idea that the differences between humans and other animals is not as great as we formerly believed them to be.)

    Your point about hierarchy is well taken. Part of what I wanted to say about this subject is that a hierarchical world view is not a particularly helpful – even though it is very common. It seems to me as a Christian,that one of the major themes of the Bible is a non hierarchical worldview. I don’t mean to say that there are no distinctions. It seems we need to catagorize things to understand them. So we can talk about veterinarians, or writers, or US citizens, or Christians and so on. The problem occurs when we think hierarchically and say that veterinarians are “better” than say postal workers. The differences between us give us variety and a more interesting world. I don’t think they are meant to be used hierarchically. It is, I think, difficult for most of us to think non hierarchically, and particularly so when we think about the animal world.

  3. I’m extremely pleased to find this website. I wanted to thank you for your time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely liked every bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff in your web site.

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