What does it mean to be human?


I’m not going to pretend I can fully answer such a question – especially not in a single blog post. And probably not in my entire lifetime. But I do believe we have some great answers to it. And I think it’s important to make an attempt to answer it anyway.

The biggest and most controversial moral issues of our day deal with the most fundamental aspects of our existence: The creation and dignity of human life and the family that brings it about, protects it, and advances it.

So it’s understandable that issues like abortion and marriage are taken so seriously. Any errors we make in understanding these things get exaggerated even more greatly as they ripple into every other issue in our society. So it’s no surprise that so many of us disagree on so much when we can’t even agree on the basics: What does it mean to be human?

If we can’t get that one right, how can we begin to address other issues? When our society has competing and opposing views of what it means to be human, we are bound to disagree on potentially everything else.

And the moral relativism that suggests we can each live in our own “truth” and must simply tolerate each other’s views is no solution at all. It only ignores the real problem.Issues like abortion and marriage – contrary to popular propaganda – are not solely personal issues that affect a single individual. They affect other people’s lives, families, and the health of our society at the most fundamental level.

Not only should a government be involved in upholding moral standards – it has a duty to do so. And ultimately, despite the pleas of many, it is impossible for the government to “stay out of such issues.” Our government’s primary purpose is to protect our right to live and have freedom. It cannot do any of that unless it has first at least partially answered what it means to be human.

Authentic Christianity answers this for us. And, in particular, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body expresses it all more completely than ever before.

Unfortunately, there are many errors believed about the human person in our society today. And they are at the heart of many of our disagreements on moral issues. These errors occur on a spectrum of two extremes.

On one side of the spectrum we have a hedonistic part of our culture that believes the human person is only a body – no spirit or soul.

At the other end of the spectrum we have many “new age” and eastern beliefs (and really the same old ancient Christian heresies) that believe the human person is all spirit – our bodies are not truly “us.”

Unfortunately, even many Christian denominations have begun to adopt such “new age” beliefs. They teach that the human person is a soul trapped in a body. That our bodies are something we must somehow overcome. And one day we will leave it behind for good.

But all of these beliefs fall short of the true human person. Traditional Christian teaching (all the way back to the very first human person) has always held that the human person is an integrated body and soul. This is what constitutes a human person. My body is me. My soul is me. And it will always be so. We can see this very plainly in the creation story in Genesis.

Even more deeply, we often miss the significance of how we were created. We see it much too shallowly as some big mysterious God creating souls for this mystery called Heaven. And we stop there as if the Creator has shown us nothing more. The Theology of the Body goes much further. It begins to answer the questions of why we were created the way we were created? And how are we made in the image and likeness of God? And then ultimately, what does that mean in how we treat our bodies and other human persons?

God speaks to us in many ways. One of the most profound ways is through the language of the human body.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Catholic Church teaches what it does about contraception, abortion, sex, marriage, etc. – The Theology of the Body is the answer.

Christopher West says this on the Theology of the Body:

“According to John Paul II, God created the body as a ‘sign’ of his own divine mystery. This is why he speaks of the body as a ‘theology,’ a study of God.

We can’t see God. As pure Spirit, he’s invisible. Yet Christianity is the religion of God’s self-disclosure. In Christ, ‘God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange’ (CCC, n. 221). Somehow the human body makes this eternal mystery of love visible.

How? Specifically through the beauty of sexual difference and our call to union. God designed the union of the sexes as a ‘created version’ of his own ‘eternal exchange of love.’ And right from the beginning, the union of man and woman foreshadows our eternal destiny of union with Christ. As St. Paul says, the ‘one flesh’ union is ‘a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church’ (Eph 5:31-32).

The Bible uses spousal love more than any other image to help us understand God’s eternal plan for humanity. God wants to ‘marry’ us (see Hos 2:19), to live with us in an ‘eternal exchange of love.’ And he wanted this great ‘marital plan’ to be so plain to us, so obvious to us that he impressed an image of it in our very being by creating us male and female and calling us to communion in ‘one flesh.’”

In other words, our being male and female is not some irrelevant, arbitrary evolution of nature that enables us to procreate. It is a message from the Creator that this natural union is to be the ultimate sign of God’s mystery and our relationship as a Church with Christ.

John Paul II goes on to basically say that while it is true that Man is made in God’s image, that image is most fully seen not in the individual person, but in our communion with each other – Marriage. And out of this mutual, total gift of self (Love) in Marriage, a man and a woman become “one flesh.” And from this union flows the fruits of this Love – the creation of new human life.

It is this union – the family – that best reflects the image and likeness of the Trinitarian God. God is a relationship. The Son gives everything to the Father. The Father gives everything to the Son. And they do so in such a total and perfect way that they are mysteriously one. This is why Jesus can say in the Gospels, “I and the Father are one” and “He who sees me, sees the Father.” It is a perfect love relationship. This is why God is Love – because he is a relationship of total self-gift. And from this union flows the fruit of this love – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit…the third person of the Holy Trinity.

This is why the language of the human body communicates a Theology in itself. This is how Marriage tells us more about God than any other analogy, and why the Sacrament of Marriage is so important. This is why Marriage can only be between a man and a woman. This is why sex must be within Marriage. And this is why a true Marriage must be open to life.

Of course this is only my crude attempt to explain this in one blog post. The real beauty is much better articulated by John Paul II! And it is all based on scripture, creation, and reason. Christopher West and many others have captured it very well in their books too. Trust me…this is a topic worth digging into!

In the past, we have looked at marriage, sex and pro-creation in a legalistic way. We asked how far can I go? What can I get away with? And that’s why the Church had rules in place that kept us in bounds. The Theology of the Body helps us to look at Christian teaching in a more comprehensive way. Instead of rules we can’t break, we learn the Truth about our bodies that will set us free to love more fully.

8 comments Add comment

Fionn mac Cumhaill November 18, 2008 at 11:31 pm

I have often thought about this concept and came with my own answer. I think what it means to be human is most simply stated thus; every day I wake up and try to do two things, love my God with all my heart and love my neighbors, and every day I fail.

All of us do this every day.

vvvvx January 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

their is no go

Blaise Alleyne November 20, 2008 at 9:20 am

Great post.

I think the problem is, though, that a non-Catholic can easily reject the answer to “what does it mean to be human?” by rejecting the premise, that God exists or that God exists as a trinitarian God, etc etc.

I’m very interested in trying to explain some of the basic ideas of the Theology of the Body to people without presupposing a belief in a Christian (well, Catholic) God. Not that you can separate God from theology, that’s a little insane, but rather… I think the Theology of the Body helps to explain how our innermost desires (desires that most non-Catholics will agree to having) really point us toward the Catholic understanding of God.

That’s still not an easy argument to make in a political arena though (to convert everyone to Catholicism, lol…).

Jack du Toit November 21, 2011 at 6:50 pm

I really liked this post, and found myself agreeing with most of it. Even in “secular” philosophy today, most people agree there is a serious dilemma in our society concerning what defines the human person. Most of that stems from the pure relativistic notions handed down from the twentieth century. Catholicism is one of the few religions of this day that gives a clear response to what it means to be human physically, mentally, and spiritually. There is a lot secular culture could learn from such definitions even apart from the religion, and even more so from within it. I would be careful about how you label some of the opposing schools of thought, however. Calling all relativistic viewpoints “hedonistic,” is a little demonizing and not necessarily complete. Existentialism and even logical positivism are dominant ideologies that pervade the public’s rationale as well as scientific dispensations at times, but are dominantly pleasure-based as hedonism entails. Creating an “us vs. them” dichotomy too quickly by using the wrong labels is what can quickly turn an otherwise concrete argument into mud-slinging. Just thought, though. I really did enjoy this post and hope to formulate something very similar to it of my own for some of my philosophy classes this year.

Jack du Toit November 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Sorry, “are NOT dominantly pleasure-based…”

Matthew Warner November 21, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Hey Jack – thanks for the great comments and insights! I was using hedonism as an “extreme”…as I mentioned in the previous sentence. So not calling all relativistic viewpoints hedonistic at all. Hedonism, as it puts the highest good as the pleasure of the body, to me epitomizes the extreme of the “we are only a body” viewpoint. But I certainly understand the sensitivity with not wanting to demonize opposing viewpoints, but rather to open up dialogue that yields fruit and understanding. Very wise! And something I try to do a better job of than I have in the past.

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