What does it mean to be human?

Once we cease to believe in God, it is not only the divine that we lose. We also lose the human. From a Christian perspective this of course makes sense, because human beings are made in the image of God, therefore to remove God from our human consciousness (if we could) is to demean, distort and degrade our humanity.

This thought occurred to me last week in the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre as I watched the wonderful X+Y, the story of an autistic boy who turns out to be a maths genius.

For me it was a profound film, moving and helpful. (Don't miss it – I doubt there will be a better film this year.) It was is not so much the plot (which I won't spoil for you) or the brilliant acting, or the imaginative story telling, but rather the reflections on what it means to be human that hit home for me. We are not robots, we are not mere gene machines, we are not even just animals. We are human. The Christian view of humanity offers the best understanding of what that means. But that should not be surprising, given that the maker should know his creation best.

To Be Human is to be Capable of Love

The autistic boy is not good at emotional empathy. He has to deal with the death of his father, and his retreat into himself and into mathematical formulas, with the subsequent impact on his mother, is tragic to behold. At one point he begins to experience what is for him the 'strange' feeling of liking a girl. As he struggles with what this means he looks up on the Internet a mathematical formula for 'love'. It causes a wry smile and yet you can see the logic behind it. If human beings are just chemicals then why should we not be reduced to mathematical formulae? But we are not. What's love got to do with it? What's love but a second hand emotion – caused by misfiring chemicals? But love is more than empathy, sexual desire or the evolutionary need to propagate our seed. Love is at the essence of humanity, because God is Love.

To Be Human is to be Responsible

Let me share with you a rather depressing Twitter conversion I (@theweeflea) had with someone we shall just call 'M'.

M – "You have Hitler's genes. Raised in same environment. Live through same experiences. You end up as evil as Hitler. Fair comment?"

@theweeflea "no. Too simplistic. Life is even more complex than that and cannot be reduced to a formula."

M – "I think it's elegantly simplistic. You think you'd overcome the odds that Hitler faced by exercising free will differently?

@theweeflea – "Poor Hitler – it was just genes and background. He had no responsibility whatsoever...he could not help it! Simplistic and evil"

M – "Your genes and environment shape you. Since we don't choose either, personal responsibility does not lie with us."

@theweeflea – "so there is no personal responsibility? You do realise where that leads...?"

M – "It doesn't mean we should empty our prisons, if that's what you are insinuating. It means we can't label anyone 'evil' anymore."

@theweeflea – "So there is no evil, people are not responsible for what they do...this is where atheist illogicality leads."

This genetic (and environmentalist) determinism is actually quite frightening – just as frightening as the religious maniac who declares that "God/the Devil made me do it." It takes away all human responsibility and means that all of us are just genetically and culturally programmed. The rapist, Nazi and murderer can just say – "It wasn't me – my genes were only obeying orders"! On the other hand the Christian teaching on which our whole moral and legal system is based, recognises genetic factors (we are after all born in sin), and the importance of environment (train up a child in the way he should go...) but also holds that it is a fundamental part of being human that we are morally responsible for what we do. That is what makes us human. There will not be a judgement day for cows, monkeys or lions, but there is for us.

To Be Human is to be Moral

This is inextricably tied in with the responsibility. Another Twitter conversation this week both stunned and enlightened me (as a 40-minute preacher, learning to converse in 140 characters has been somewhat challenging). In a discussion about the atonement, sin and judgment my fellow twitee declared "Morals are concerned with conduct and behaviour. So technically a thought cannot be immoral. No action has been taken, no one is affected or hurt." He thought this was a killer point. How could any thought be immoral or wrong? It's just a thought. When he was asked about whether someone who thought that child rape was a good thing was being immoral, he refused to answer and instead launched into a series of accusations (something which tends to happen when people are faced with the inevitable logic of their own position). But I was stunned. Can you see why? If morals are only concerned with conduct and behaviour, then thoughts and words are irrelevant. But we all know they are not. As Jesus said, out of the heart comes evil deeds. What we think determines how we behave and what we say is vital (the tongue is a poisonous evil) because words are powerfully creative or destructive.

As our society rejects the Christian teaching about humanity, it is rejecting human responsibility, human morality and human love. And it does not know how to deal with the problems when the fruits of that rejection come home to roost. It is not just that we are spiritually autistic – we are spiritually dead. Sin goes far deeper than societal crime. It cuts into the very heart of our being. And here is where the biblical solution fits in. Love is not a formula, it is a person. If human nature is Y, then the X factor is Christ. Only the Love, which gave His Son, can deal with the disfunctionality, brokenness and chaos of human sin. It is only in Christ that we can discover what it really means to be human. Christianity is the ultimate humanism. "This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (1 John 4:10-12).