By Tony Crescio
What is a human being? I know, this sounds like a silly question, but take a moment and try to answer it. If we take the prevailing knowledge of the day, we will get answers that are just as confused as the ones I receive from the students whom I present this question to. A simple Google search for “human being” produces the dictionary definition of any individual of the genus Homo, especially of the species Homo sapiens. Now, this definition of a human being may have value, but, pace Carl Linnaeus, our identification according to the binomial nomenclature system far from captures what it means to be a human being. So, we might search again, under say, “human person.” Now, the fact that we have to search for “human person” as opposed to “human being” is problematic in itself, for it creates a not so hidden false dichotomy that a human person is somehow different than a human being, which has been exploited by numerous theologians and ethicists to excuse various crimes against human dignity, but I digress. A search for “human person” will produce a wide variety of results including: a human being, whether an adult or a child; an individual human being who likes or prefers something specified; or a specialty specific definition. For example, a sociological definition that says: an individual human being, especially with reference to his or her social relationships and behavioral patterns as conditioned by the culture; or a philosophical definition like: a self-conscious or rational being. We could go on, but I think you get my point.
When it comes to understanding what makes us human, the responses are likely to be as diverse as the individuals to whom the question is addressed and herein lies the problem. We have allowed our understanding of the human person to become a matter of opinion, and consequently, have lost a sense of the mystery and beauty of the human person which has led to countless attacks against human dignity, a list which continues to grow daily. And why not? If there is nothing special about human beings, then we can treat them as any other object in the created world. And so we do.
Standing in sharp contrast to our societal understanding of the human person is the reality created by God. For while each human being is uniquely mysterious, there is an element of our nature that sets us apart from all else, we are imago Dei, bearers of the image of our God (cf. Genesis 1:27). As such each and every single one of us is more than something, open to objectification and exploitive use, but each of us is someone (cf. CCC 357). Immediately someone may criticize this understanding of the human person as just another rendition of the formulations exemplified above, simply resting on the authority of faith as opposed to one of the sciences, but this is not what is going on here. For, as opposed to the definitions applied to the members of the human family by the various scientific disciplines, this understanding is doing something much different. It is an understanding not of what is readily apparent, but an understanding based upon mystery and beauty.
Consider the difficulty that the scientific disciplines display when asked to define a human being, there is no consensus. Why? We bear the image of a God who is mystery! The bearing of this mysterious image is precisely what makes us human and I submit, it is this same thing which makes each and every single one of us undeniably beautiful. The Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa, put it this way: “You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of true light…” (Commentary on the Song of Songs, 804A-808B).
Now, lest we be misunderstood, the Christian perspective of human dignity is not based upon some overinflated understanding of self. For the very same teaching implies the following: our value and dignity is not self-imposed, self-declared, or even self-sustainable. Rather, it is dependent upon the God Whose image we bear.
Modern secular society has mistakenly fought tooth and nail to eliminate any understanding of the human being that makes us dependent upon anything outside of ourselves. We have done so out of the false fear that if we are to base our beauty and worth upon a God Who is apart from us, we would somehow diminish ourselves. In the end, our failure to recognize the beauty of the human being is a failure to recognize the non-competitiveness of our God. We have forgotten that the glory of God is not in exercising tyranny over us, but as St. Irenaeus said: “The glory of God, is the human person fully alive.”
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.