Philosophers, poets, and theologians through the centuries have pondered the question, “What is man” arriving at a variety of conclusions. Understanding the true nature of man is central to developing our personal worldview. Whether you have consciously considered the question or not, your own answer to that question has shaped your politics and a personal view of your fellow man.
The ancient Greeks believed man was at best a secondary concern in a creation filled with chaos and contests between the gods as they fought one another for control of the order to their own benefit. Fate was the supreme thing and it frequently assigned terrible predicaments to mankind.
The first centuries of Christianity saw the rise of man as the center of the universe. This was a historical achievement at the time which had significant ramifications. Most significant was the new value for human life. If mankind was so important that God gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16) to redeem humanity then there was significance assigned to each human life regardless of their status, race, or sex.
Adherence to this belief was often less robust than the high-minded philosophies and theologies that developed in the early years of Christianity. Nevertheless, achievements were made.
In ancient Rome unwanted children, usually girls or deformed males, were frequently thrown into the dump where they would either die or be rescued by infertile couples. The tradition of unwanted children being anonymously left at a convent or monastery to be raised as orphans developed in the early years of Christianity as an alternative to this practice. Human life was significant and should be preserved by all means possible.
Ironically, revolutionary discoveries in science such as a recognition that the planets did not actually revolve around man or even around the earth (but around the sun) began to shift these theologies and philosophies. The rise of humanism soon displaced man as the center of God’s universe and eventually put man in the place of God. If the known world and universe did not revolve around mankind, man was also not subject to either fate or the divine will. He could become the master of his own destiny.
Humanism helped trigger the scientific advances and philosophical developments that led to the modern age. It also established man as a far more proactive agent in the earth. He did not have to be the victim or pawn of any unseen external force which he did not know or understand. He could become an authoritative figure in making the world a better place. All of the codes and boundaries associated with a God-centric view of life were also disempowered. Right and wrong were reevaluated. “Because the Bible tells me so,” was no longer a valid response for defining right and wrong, moral or immoral.
Darwin and the theory of natural selection went even further. There was nothing noble about man. He was a descendant of other species. To put it another way, he was just another of the many species on the earth. In the great scheme of millions of years, there was little that separated man from an ape or bacteria. His ability to communicate and collaborate with others within his own civilization set him apart as the strongest and fittest of the species but that was all.
As this view of mankind developed through the next century man was reduced to simply a composite of chemicals, biological and psychological instincts, and base needs. It was upon this standard that many of the social movements of the 20th century were established.
Because we were all biologically the same and there was no divine order then women should not be treated less than men or one race as inferior to another. (There were other sophisticated and popular fields of thought and science that believed these scientific theories and discoveries actually proved particular races were superior to others but that is another story.) Similarly, we should treat animals with greater kindness. We are all part of the great circle of life – just another animal.
The great sociological and political questions of the 20th century, when we dig down to their roots, are really asking the question, “What is man?” Is man the product of his environment, in which case adjustments and improvements in the environment could improve that type of humankind we are all becoming?
Conversely, if he is the product of his genetics and biology then manipulations of these could change the quality of life for man. The historian Yuval Noah Harriri recently imagined a very near future in which the rich (at first) and eventually the poor will have access to genetic, chemical, and physical technologies that lengthen our life span to near immortality. In his best seller book, Homo Deus (Human God) Harriri imagines a near future where man has conquered death and the greatest challenge to humanity will be finding happiness.
The various streams of political philosophy and activism today are fueled by these differing views of mankind. When we dig down to the roots of liberal and conservative arguments over policies needed to improve and sustain our world, we find opposing views of what it means to be human. These views often overlap with one another and historical perspectives but they are built upon a specific perspective and answer to the question, “What is man?”
Look for these philosophical underpinnings during this election season.
A Biblical Perspective for What Is Man
To find the answer to the question “what is man,” we need to merely look at the original design.
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7
There is more taking place here than we might realize at first glance. Man is formed from the dust, similar to the creatures and creation he is surrounded by. That is why so much of our biology and genetics share similarities with other species of the earth. We were all formed from the dust of the earth. The distinguishing factor for man, however, is that he also holds the breath of God’s life in him. This set him apart from the rest of creation which he was both included and also appointed as steward to oversee (Gen 2:28).
Man has two parts of his design. One part is from the earth. One part is from God’s own Spirit. One part is like the animals. One part is like God.
Because there are two parts to his design man has a choice in how he operates. He can choose to be a creature of base instincts, drives, and mechanisms for survival or he can choose a higher pathway born out of the heart of God. He can live like an animal or like a being made in the image of God.
Psychologists and sociologists often explain human behavior by way of drives and instincts. An animal can be observed the say way. It is only when man stops being driven by such instincts that his experience and takes on a different level of meaning – a level higher than an animal.
Recently my wife and I were at a gas station not far from our house. This was once the newest gas station in the area, clean, orderly, and well lit. It has since decayed. Lights are out. The floors are dirty. The racks are disorganized.
As we stood in line a lady entered the door behind us. She was talking on the phone while she waited in line to pay for her purchase. Her phone conversation was loud, angry, and loaded with obscenities. The man in front of us was holding up the line as he scratched off his lottery tickets.
We said nothing, paid for our purchase and got back in our vehicle to drive down the road. Not recognizing my wife noticed the environment as strongly as I did, I made the casual suggestion, “I don’t think we should make purchases inside this store anymore. We should just pay at the pump.” My wife agreed. “I never do,” she replied. Then she added, “What makes people act that way? They are almost like animals.”
In fact, they are like animals. They can converse, cooperate and coin money – but there is little separating the behavior of many human beings in our society today from the behavior of an animal. The only thing that truly separates us from the animals is when we take hold of the higher nature, design, and call of God upon our being. Animals look to survive. They are driven by fear and dominance. They do not design moral codes. They are more concerned with what they can get away with.
What is man? Man is a spiritual being encased in an earthly shell and given the option to choose which nature his behavior and responses will be derived from. The sacrifice of Christ cleared the way for us to live and be empowered as spiritual beings, no longer separated from the life of God. The default standard is the gravitational pull to live out of fear and instincts we share with the animals and beasts of the earth.
What is man? He is a being that has the option to live from a higher dimension than that of the dust of the earth. He is a being, made in the image of God, that has the capacity to sacrifice the immediacy of the moment for the long-term benefits of what is good and right and true according to the will of God. He is a being who was actually given the capacity to discover the will of God. This higher path is not in line with our default nature. It is a pathway filled with resistance and self-sacrifice but it is the narrow path that Jesus referred to (Matthew 7). It is the only path that leads to fulfillment and wholeness of life.