What It Means to be Human: The Debate Continues

What It Means to be Human: The Debate Continues

Klaus Detlev Schulz is Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

In an essay titled “Man’s Place in Nature,” Max Scheler (1874-1928), a modern philosopher on anthropology, expressed his own exasperation on the state of research on anthropology:

“If we ask an educated person in the Western world what he means by the word ‘man,’ three irreconcilable ways of thinking are apt to come into conflict in his mind … [W]e have a scientific, a philosophical, and a theological anthropology in complete separation from each other. We do not have a unified idea of man. The increasing multiplicity of the special sciences that deal with man, valuable as they are, tend to hide his nature more than they reveal it … we may say that at no time in his history has man been so much of a problem to himself as he is now.”[1]

We can share Max Scheler‘s concern. Attempts to define who we are as humans have been with us forever, but since Enlightenment the discussions have intensified and become more and more complicated. We can point out two areas to illustrate the point. First, there is the field of neuroscience which argues that human actions and reactions such as aggression are only responses to something far deeper that is steered and programmed in the human brain. This new kind of determinism challenges the contemporary and most prevalent opinion on man, and on which Western culture is largely built, that is, to raise human potential through psychology and ideas. Thus, traditional anthropology’s appeal to reason or free will is deemed powerless “to comprehend or control the deep and often unconscious drives and emotions which shape lives and behavior.”[2] A recent program on German television debated the issue between both parties with the appropriate title, “Who rules in the home?” (Wer herrscht im Haus?) indicating the dilemma: is man able to make choices or is his behavior simply a reflex? The reality seems to be that we are not as free as we think, but we can also choose between two options. A second area that comes to mind is cyborg anthropology. It is of recent provenance but relevant to our everyday life since most of us have become cyborgs using technology such as cell phones to project our own self beyond our physical existence into the world for all to see and hear. How this interaction with technology and our creation of virtual reality impacts us, our culture and society is of interest to some anthropologists.[3]

Anthropology feeds off insights from experts in a particular field, but we should be aware that what they have to offer is really only a glimpse of a larger picture, a pars pro toto; no one depiction can claim to offer it all. When it comes to defining man, it is as if we are looking through a prism that disperses light in all directions. Thus, Scheler’s unease over a loss of a unified idea or foundation is a serious one. For the differences are not merely academic, they affect society on how human life is valued and treated. Christians are caught up in this debate and it seems that they have only two alternatives to pick from: Either they accept that their knowledge of humans is also fragmented which easily leads to resignation and despondency, or they argue for a narrative that in some ways encapsulates most, if not the whole story of man, and that is worth sharing with others.

In a world grappling to make sense of human existence and struggling with inexplicable realities befalling human life, the second option seems to be the best. Christian Apologists generally lead the way of creating a platform and bidding others, doubters and skeptics of the Christian narrative, to come in. To that end, the philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) is often referenced[4] who in his Pensées (thoughts) formulated two contradictory existential realities which shocked the complacent and smug bourgeois society of France: all human beings exhibit qualities of both greatness and wretchedness. In a brief statement, he offers an important insight into human existence:

“It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very advantageous to show him both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both.”[5]

It is not difficult to follow Pascal’s diagnosis from mere empirical observation about humans who both as a group and as individuals respectively have shown over history the capacity for wretchedness and for greatness: wars, murder, forced sterilizations, genocides, despair, hatred highlight the former, whereas art, technological accomplishments and great feats of love may speak for the latter. And in terms of underscoring these two realities, philosophers have usually gone for one over the other. Some like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) have idealized human greatness and potential, particularly the autonomous self and his use of reason, whereas others like Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche have depicted human beings as nothing but brutal beasts battling for their survival over one another. In his brief description, “What is Enlightenment? (30th September, 1784), Kant calls each and every human to step out of his immaturity typified by dependency on outside authority:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” [6]

With the rise of humanism, many before Kant affirmed man’s unique, almost angelic status, by pointing above all to his great powers like reason and free will. Examples include Giovanni Pico della Mirandola[7] and the aforementioned Blaise Pascal.[8] However, both were reluctant to dismiss God altogether. Kant on the other hand no longer connects the human being with his creator. Rather, the individual appears as sole Supreme Being in the universe, not in relation to others or to God but an end in and of himself. [9] Kant’s presentation has mapped the course for modern humanity: a tenuous or non-existing relationship with God and a total trust in man’s autonomous rational capabilities and achievements. Two and a half centuries later, his thoughts find a contemporary translation in Richard Dawkins’ “Letter to his daughter Juliet”[10] in which the evolutionary biologist and avowed atheist strongly discourages his ten-year-old Juliet from following anything handed down to her through authority, revelation or tradition but instead, she should listen to her own reason. The New Age movement stands in a long line of those who place everything on the “individual self,” and so does the project of the Transhumanism which is to “search for a way around every obstacle and limitation to human life and happiness.” [11]

The alternative interpretation of human life intimated by Pascal’s idea of every human’s tendency towards wretchedness, is represented by Charles Darwin himself who in his Descent of Man in 1871 concludes from the fact that humankind descended from lower animals—“a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits”—that he lost confidence in human reasoning.[12] That skepticism about human existence found among its suitors none other than Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) whose inhumanism project denigrates man and calls for a total abandonment of what humans are, and then making room for the “Übermensch” (the superman) who is bound to nothing and no one, just to his own will and powers:

“Alas, the faith in the dignity and uniqueness of man … is a thing of the past—he has become an animal … he who was, according to his old faith, a child of God … Now he is slipping faster and faster away from the center into—what? Into nothingness?”[13]

We return to Pascal. What is attractive about his observation on the two paradoxes of human existence, as greatness and wretchedness, is that it offers the Christian apologist an entry point to discuss a universal verifiable truth drawn from common human experience. But how is one to explain their phenomenon? Since, as Scheler points out, no common foundation exists, we must anticipate different explanations depending on what authorities people use to create their plausibility structures. At this point, Pascal’s suggestion should be observed. He proposes the Christian story as the best explanation for the phenomenon of human greatness and wretchedness—not sciences or philosophy. Only the special, revealed Christian narrative of man’s creation to greatness and his fall into wretchedness makes sense of this paradox.[14]

Martin Luther’s “Disputation on Man” as a representation of the full story

Pascal’s point—that the Christian narrative presents the best explanation who humans are and what they do—can be accredited especially to Martin Luther’s Disputation on Man,[15] (1536) who takes philosophy to task on the grounds that its scope in explaining man is far too limited.[16] For this reason Luther once remarked that philosophy must be given a “bath” and “baptism.”[17] In his Disputation, Luther argues that philosophy “describes man only as a mortal and in relation to this life” (Thesis 3) and gathers information that is gained from observation and experience (a posteriori) through the use of reason. Theology instead draws in additional factors from preceding things (a priori) that transcend or go beyond that which is observable and rationally verified. That is to say, theology draws on information about man that tells a story of who he is from special revelation. To Luther, philosophy refuses to accept these a priori facts of man and therefore intentionally shortens its version on who man is. “Therefore,” he concludes, “if philosophy or reason itself is compared with theology, it will appear that we know almost nothing about man” (Thesis 11).

Luther does not shun philosophy’s insight entirely. He goes along with Aristotle’s definition of man as animale rationale and also praises reason for its accomplishments on earth. It is because of reason that humans are different than animals and through its use humans exercise their dominion over creation (Theses 1-8). Luther also deploys the Greek philosopher’s four causes to describe who man is.[18] But of these four causes, the causa materialis, causa formalis, causa finalis and causa efficiens, two definitely elude philosophy’s exercise: “For philosophy does not know the efficient cause for certain, nor likewise the final cause” (Thesis 13). Based on inner worldly observation, philosophy relates the final cause only to the “peace of this life” and not to eternity, and the efficient cause not to God himself. Luther instead proposes a teleological and an eschatological perspective on man’s ultimate destiny.

“And as earth and heaven were in the beginning for the form completed after six days, that is, its material, so man is in this life for his future form, when the image of God has been remolded and perfected” (Theses 37 and 38).

Here Luther has taken into account the loss of the ικόν (the image) of the spiritual and physical integrity and perfection that man once had, and posits a restoration of it in the future time, received through faith in Christ and then fully restored at the time of our resurrection (2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 John 3:1-3).

That “a priori” story of man which eludes philosophy and its rational capacity, describes man’s pre-fall condition as perfect (Thesis 20-21), man’s ultimate greatness.[19] The situation after the fall, however, Luther defines negatively (Thesis 22).[20] And as much as one would want to think of creation after the fall in positive terms, the fact of man’s wretchedness stands: “that the whole man and every man, whether he be king, lord, servant, wise, just, and richly endowed with good things of this life, nevertheless is and remains guilty of sin and death, under the power of Satan” (Thesis 25). The recognition of creation as being tainted after the fall escapes philosophy’s insights:

“Therefore those who say that natural things have remained untainted after the fall philosophize impiously in opposition to theology” (Thesis 26).

And even if philosophy admits the fact of the fall, it nonetheless offers the false solution by invoking man’s natural powers to do what is in him in order “to merit the grace of God and life” (Thesis 27). Instead, theology offers for man the following solution: “He can be freed and given eternal life only through the Son of God, Jesus Christ (if he believes in him)” (Thesis 23). It is all about Paul’s emphasis on salvation as the act of justification by grace through faith alone (Thesis 32.33).

In his Disputation, Luther presents us with a narrative anthropology that draws in the following stations in almost creedal overtones: man who is created in the image of God, is estranged from God, is called to restoration in Jesus Christ, and through justification and sanctification brought back on the path towards the final goal; which, in short, is summarized with the doctrine of justification and restoration of righteousness in Christ through faith.


We are given above a description or story of man which is as comprehensive as can be based on revelatory truths. This Christian story qualifies the question of “what it means to be human” by saying that dignity is not one of self-reflection or self-attainment. When the Psalmist asks the question: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4 ESV) he sets the tone for how humans should regard themselves: Dignity or one’s humanity is not based on drawing comparisons to other life on earth, but rather by the relationship humans have with God. Humans should know that this dignity was received from their creator, which then was threatened by sin, yet restored in Christ and then to be completed in the eschaton. Indeed, empirical observations throw up a huge number of presentations on who man is, but these all cannot provide a comprehensive account of who man is. And yet, those who do not rely on the a priori biblical account refuse to accept their limitations (including Nietzsche who described these so well) as is perhaps most evident today in the area of gender, sex, and morality.[21] The cultural and societal apotheosis of man’s autonomy, defined by rights and freedom, seems to provide a carte blanche endorsement for humans to pursue in limitless fashion their own dreams and desires. That quest carries also an element of wretchedness, a devaluing of life to nothingness, to mere matter not much different from other life forms. For this reason, God’s existence and the Christological qualification on who is man are foundational premises for anthropology.

Admittedly, this biblical anthropology will be treated as only one small story in the public discourse, and it will find only limited attention. And yet for Christians the debate must continue. It would be fitting to close with Pascal’s cautionary words to his society in his Pensees which though spoken a while back also ring true for our situation today:

“On this point, therefore, we condemn those who live without thought of the ultimate end of life, who let themselves be guided by their own inclinations and their own pleasures without reflection and without concern, and, as if they could annihilate eternity by turning away their thought from it, think only of making themselves happy for the moment.”[22]


1 Max Scheler, Man’s Place in Nature. Translated by Hans Meyerhoff (New York: The Noonday Press, 1962), 5.
2 R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead, eds. God and Human Dignity. (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K., William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006),13.
3 A leading anthropologist in that area is Amber Case. See her article, Cyborg Anthropologist. We can all be superhuman (December 5, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/05/tech/cyborg-anthropology-amber-case/
4 Robert Velarde, “Greatness and wretchedness: The Usefulness of Pascal’s Anthropological argument in apologetics,” Christian Research Journal 27, no. 2 (2004).
5 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, in Pascal. Great Books of the Western World. Vol 33 (Chicago-London-Toronto: Encyclopedia Brittannica Inc., William Benton Publisher, 1952), 243. Fragment 418.
6 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” Konigsberg, Prussia, 30th September, 1784, in Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
7 In his Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) proclaims that man does not have a ready‐made form and is responsible for shaping himself, yet he does so under God, the mightiest architect and supreme maker. Oration on the Dignity of Man. Translated by A. Robert Caponigri (Chicago: Regnery Company, 1956), 5-.
8 Already sixty years before Kant, Blaise Pascal affirmed the capacity for rational agency in humans though not yet liberating man entirely from God (Pensees, fragment 389), Ibid., 239.
9 Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation. Fourth Ed. (Boston, et al.: McGraw Hill, 2002), 462-463.
10 Richard Dawkins, “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing” in A Devil’s Chaplain (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 242-248.
11 Nick Bostrom, “A History of Transhumanist Thought,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 14. Issue 1 (April 2005), 1; reprinted (in its present slightly edited form) in Academic Writing Across the Disciplines, eds. Michael Rectenwald & Lisa Carl (New York: Pearson Longman, 2011).
12 Darwin once wrote to a friend: “with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which have been developed from the mind of the lower animal, are of any value or are at all trustworthy.” Michael Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 107. Soulen and Woodhead, 89.
13 Soulen and Woodhead, 8. Others like Albert Camus (1913-1960), Edgar Ellen Poe (1809-1849) or Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), too, were beset with despair over humanity and themselves suffered tragic deaths. Earlier already, the English deist and philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) depicted that human existence is nothing but a war between individuals, and others like Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) or Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) underscored that genetically there is an integral aggressive drive in humans that is part of their struggle for survival and which leads to war and destruction.
14 For example, fragments 435.441. Ibid, 250-251.
15 Martin Luther, “The Disputation Concerning Man” in Career of the reformer IV, American edition, Luther’s Works 34, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 34:139ff.
16 We note that philosophy is an umbrella term for all sciences which base their findings on the use of reason and empirical sciences.
17 Albrecht Peters, Der Mensch (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1979), 31.
18 In his books, Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle holds that there are four kinds of answers to ‘why’ questions: a material cause, a formal cause, an efficient or moving cause, and a final cause. See, for example, Falcon, Andrea. “Aristotle on Causality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008.
19 “Theology to be sure from the fullness of its wisdom defines man as whole and perfect: namely, that man is a creature of God consisting of body and a living soul, made in the beginning after the image of God, without sin, so that he should procreate and rule over created things, and never die” (Theses 20-21).
20 “But after the fall of Adam, certainly, he was subject to the power of the devil, sin and death, a twofold evil for his powers, unconquerable and eternal” (Thesis 22).
21 David von Drehle, “How Gay Marriage Won,” Time, April 8, 2013, pp. 18-24. Therein 22.
22 Pensees, fragment 195. Ibid., 210.

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