Christian Perspectives on the Human
"What a piece of work is a man." — Hamlet
"What is Man," the Psalmist asked his God, "that you are mindful of him?" It was a good question and is a pressing one. For nothing else can be properly decided until we know the answer. How else shall we know, to pick just one current and highly emotional question, when and whether it is a good thing to terminate the uterine development of members of the human species whose conception has proved inconvenient? And how, if they are allowed to be born and to live, can we best educate them or govern them unless we know what kind of thing they are, what their nature is, what purposes (if any) they are meant to serve (by whom?), what they are for? Never have we known more about their physical makeup, their psychology, and their history — yet never have we been less confident about the Answer which all that information is meant to inform. Which is certainly a precarious position for the race to find itself in.
The Question is obviously not an easy one. Whatever we may make of Pope’s answer, he certainly recognized the complexity of the subject:
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
Is Man, as a venerable definition has it, a featherless biped? That answer, while certainly accurate, is surely inadequate. Is he a beast, a god, or a demon — or, with the advent of the Couch Potato, should we add vegetable to the list of options? Is he the most erected simian that climbed up out of the primordial ooze or the least erected spirit that fell from Heaven? Is he a monkey with an opposable thumb or a marvel made in the image of God? According to the head Agent in that intriguing movie The Matrix, it is wrong even to classify him as a mammal, for mammals find an equilibrium with their environment. But Man multiplies heedlessly and uses up all the available resources, destroying the environment so that he has to expand to a new territory and repeat the process. Therefore, he should be classed with the only other species that lives in the same manner: the virus. Is he the measure of all things or just a measurement, a number, a statistic? Or is he, in the words of Sir Thomas Browne, ‘that great and true amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live, not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds?’ (Witherspoon & Warnke 339). And how do we find out?
There have been two main approaches to trying to answer the question. The first is represented by Pope:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The second is that of Calvin:
The first approach seems to manifest an admirable humility: Let’s stay away from abstract and exalted theories and just deal with what we know, human experience. Just the facts, Ma’am. But what if God is one of the facts? Though this approach does not necessarily exclude God from existence, it does exclude Him from relevance. And therefore, Pope’s method actually arrogantly begs the question and commits us to a purely secular description, of Man under the sun.’ And we know the conclusion the author of Ecclesiastes reached when he tried the experiment of looking at us that way: "’Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’ saith the Preacher."
The second approach seeks to understand Man as related, not just to the impersonal order of things, but to Someone behind it. If we are indeed, as one major tradition insists, created in the image of God, then we cannot be understood at all except in that context. This method would carry its own kind of arrogance if indeed we thought we could presume to "scan" the infinite — unless, that is, the Divine had taken the initiative and revealed Itself to us, which is precisely what Christians claim has happened in Christ, the place where Calvin’s quests for knowledge of God and of Man come together.
How then ought we to proceed, since each path of inquiry seems already at the outset committed to a certain kind of answer? Perhaps the best procedure is to explore them both together, and then ask which one leads us to the place where we actually find ourselves. Because Man is the only object of study that we know from the inside as well as the outside, that is a question we just might be able to answer.
We are surrounded by profoundly trivial examples of what lies at the end of Pope’s path. If there is one God, Matter, and Science is its prophet, then we should expect to be completely satisfied by "material girls" who want to "just get physical," by soulless yuppies who actually seem to believe that he who dies with the most toys wins. If people find such an approach to life deeply fulfilling, if when lying awake alone in bed at night they feel not the slightest urge to ask, "Is that all there is?", then they have their answer, and I need trouble them no further. But if, though they hardly ever dare be vulnerable enough to admit it, there is something deep within that remains empty for all that Matter can do; if, when they do look at humanity long and hard and honestly from the inside, they are forced to admit that the material and temporal can titillate and entertain, can distract life from pain for awhile but cannot justify its existence, then I would beg leave to suggest an Alternative.
One of the most fertile minds of the early Twentieth Century tried the experiment of looking at Man as an Animal, and discovered that there was no more fearful wildfowl than your human living, that to make this very attempt proves that we are spirits of a different sort. Two of the most fertile minds of the middle of the Century built on that work in rich and incisive ways. They were G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. And now we may clamber on to the shoulders of those giants as we attempt to peer into the new millennium. "Is Man a Myth?" we will ask. Perhaps not, we will discover; but there was a time when a Myth became a Man.