I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.—Rosalind Franklin
In her poem “Back to Being Human” the English poet Ms. Moem invites us to collectively regress “back” to something we have “lost” about ourselves—a thing which purportedly encapsulates all that it means to be who we are meant to be. But as art would have it, the poem itself does not answer or explain what being human means. Instead, it hints at “complexity” and “harmony” while inquiring, “What does that mean to you?”
However, I would contend that part of the reason humanity has lost its humanity is precisely because no one really knows what humanity is. On the one hand, philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum suggests that the very question “what does it mean to be human?” is narcissistic and ought to be discarded. One the other hand, apologist Ravi Zacharias contends that to be human means to be “made in the image of God for the glorious reality of being in permanent fellowship with him.” And then, of course, there is the Solipsist philosophical school which maintains that the external world may in fact not exist at all as the only thing we can truly know to exist is our own mind, a contention French philosopher Rene Descartes famously espoused with his timeless words, “I think, therefore I am”.
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As surprisingly difficult as it may be to dissect the pillars of human existence, Descartes’ contention is rooted in the idea that the very experience of consciousness provides us with a starting point that cannot be doubted because “to doubt implies a doubter” which, as is plainly obvious, presupposes an existence. The existentialists then enter the scene, and with the help of the humanist, construct a new vision of humanity and what it means to be human. But perhaps most compellingly, is the fact that the question “what does it mean to be human?” is itself a product of what it means to be human. That is, it is a question, and as such, it carries within itself part of the answer to itself.
Humans, unlike the animal kingdom, ask questions. And something about the capacity for such profound reflection and curiosity is itself a part of what it means to be human. To date, the only animal to ever ask a question was Alex the parrot who asked “what color?” when looking at himself in a mirror—a question which some psychologists have skeptically interpreted as irrational to the creature itself and which, in the best case scenario, emerged only after decades of psychological experiments.
Thus, it remains clear that one of the central things that separates man from the animal kingdom is the capacity to inquire and investigate—both outflows of possessing consciousness of self, or as American psychologist Rollo May put it in his book “Man’s Search for Himself”—“the birth of the human animal into a person”—a thing that can either be perceived as a blessing or, as the poet Walt Whitman decried, a curse for which he envied the animals whom “do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.”
We will return to this perspective of consciousness and questions in the next article. But for now, it suffices to say that beyond the biblical world, what it means to be human is a puzzle that continues to elude any real answer. Practically speaking, this translates into a contemporary secular age in which the question of our humanity is contended with in sporadic chunks with no real cohesion. Many, as already mentioned in previous articles, have found a degree of contentment in their amusements, duties and ideologies that protects them from having to define these things in a coherent way.
Add to this the privileged status of most western secularists who enjoy a level of prosperity and economic security unmatched in the world and you have the makings of a culture that doesn’t feel the need to constantly engage questions of mortality or humanity. However, this does not mean the question does not plague them. The systems of navigation are only good to the degree that they remain uninterrupted. But once a person’s life is touched by addiction, divorce, betrayal, depression, or economic catastrophe the navigation system is no longer tenable. As it collapses most people find themselves unable to cope with the calamity of life they have never had to confront. Perhaps this is one reason why research has found “a higher prevalence of anxiety in wealthier economies” as well as a higher prevalence of depression despite our “globalization of happiness”.
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So then, as we move forward in our exploration of the secular mind with an aim of reimagining our message and maximizing our evangelistic potential, the next question that must be explored is—how do we engage the secular mind with a meaningful view of humanity in its moments of self-reflection? As usual, it turns out that understanding the ways in which the contemporary mind perceives of and relates to the concept of self and humanity is vital if we wish to connect meaningfully with them.
Without oversimplifying to the point of misrepresentation, allow me to summarize the most common approaches to the nature of man we are bound to encounter in the secular world and contrast them with classic evangelical approach. Those approaches are the nihilist, humanist and postmodern approaches.
Nihilism, Humanism and Postmodernism
The modernist approach to the nature of man cannot be separated from the naturalist/ evolutionary approach which sees man as the result of long ages of cosmic “accidents”. In this naturalist view, mankind is essentially a highly developed primate or as the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking put it, “an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet with a very average star”. There is no metaphysical reason for our existence. We are simply here by accident.
In addition, the universe which we now inhabit will eventually end and we will cease to exist—a proposition BBC contributor Adam Becker plays lightly with as he opens his article, “How will the Universe End and Will Anything Survive?” with the statement, “Don’t panic, but our planet is doomed.” In this eschatological vision, all memory that we were ever here will be erased and were any other life forms to evolve in the future, they would have zero inkling that we were ever here or that our universe—let alone our planet—even existed.
This view of humanity leads to two different outcomes. The nihilist sees this as evidence that nothing matters. There is no meaning to existence whatsoever and the best we can hope to do, is live a life that maximizes pleasure while minimizing pain. This means living a life that is balanced, sensible and civil. In this sense, we can live a life of maximum potential, enjoy our existence as maximally as possible, and then die and be forgotten. In the end, according to the nihilist, nothing mattered and no one mattered. Life is just a big cosmic joke or as Alan Moore put it—“a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud suspended in endless nothing.”
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In fact, in this nihilistic vision it is even difficult to speak of our existence as an accident. Accidents presuppose intentionality but in evolution, there is no intention. This means we are not an accident but are in fact less than an accident—the sum of all that is nothingness. Thus, we are nothing and life is nothing. This does not mean we throw all restraint away for a life without restraint is a life that maximizes pain and minimizes pleasure. Therefore, we strive for civility in order to avoid crafting misery out of our already meaningless and miserable existence—what Arthur C. Clarke referred to as a “relentless crushing of life and spirit”.
The humanist approach differs from the nihilist. The humanist approach is also rooted in the naturalist/evolutionist narrative but it maintains that despite the fact that man has no reason for existence, consciousness now affords us the opportunity to create our own meaning. Hawking aimed at this when, after referring to humanity as advanced monkeys, he concluded by adding: “But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.” Thus, with consciousness as our starting point, we can self-define and self-determine our value and existence. We might be nothing more than further evolved primates, but that furtherance allows us to do calculus, to engineer technological marvels and to write poetry. This, the humanist sees as possessing a kind of beauty that must be explored, unearthed, and celebrated. We do not need a God to give us value, we give ourselves value. That is, despite the meaninglessness, we construct meaning nonetheless. In light of this, the humanist Rosalind Franklin could state
I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.
The postmodernist approach is the last one we will explore though much more can be written here. The postmodernist approach is similar to the humanist approach with one major distinction. While the humanist approach tends to view the construction of meaning as a communal act, the postmodern approach views it as an individual act. That is, I construct my own meaning for my own self for “what’s right for you may not be right for me”—a perspective Jonathan Meritt defines as once “en vogue” though it is rapidly become a “relic”. Regardless, this perspective is an essential denial of absolutes and universals. Any objective narrative that attempts to tie the human story together in grand themes is seen as oppressive, or at least, as the source of all oppression. In this sense, postmodernism is about the multiplicity of a simultaneity of truths.
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As I mentioned above, I do not wish to caricature any of these systems of thought. Nihilism, humanism, and postmodernism are, in fact, significantly more complex than what I have presented here. However, I am not aiming to present the academic expression of these ideas, but rather the approaches adopted by the everyday non-philosophical person wandering the isles of the local supermarket. At this pop-cultural level, the above systems do in fact express themselves in less nuanced forms and often adopt a simplistic application to life. Thus, while no postmodern philosopher would ever accept such a bland relativistic approach in terms of what constitutes epistemology, you will find that very approach forms the ethic of many a pop-postmodernist. The same applies to nihilism and humanism.
Before we dive into how these systems interact with the classic evangelical approach, we must first explore what that approach entails to some degree. From there, we will be better prepared to see how the worldviews clash and what we can do to close those gaps and connect more meaningfully with the secular world around us.
The most popular perspective of the nature of man in Christianity is essentially this—man is depraved, sinful, fallen, and lost. This perspective does not simply reside in Calvinist churches but is quite common in conservative Adventism as well. That is, when it comes to man, Christianity seems to be all bad news. Mankind is filthy, rotten, corrupt to the core. There is nothing good in us, thus contemporary Christian musician Ronnie Freeman could sing, “The only thing that’s good in me is Jesus.”
In this vision of human nature, mankind is, as the reformer John Calvin put it, “a five-foot worm”—a sentiment echoed by Isaac Watts in his hymn “Alas, and Did my Saviour Bleed?” when he wrote, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”. In this popular evangelical view, any attempts at developing self-esteem or self-value are decried as humanistic deceptions. It appears to many that Christianity as a faith, cannot be properly embraced without the acceptance of total human depravity for this depravity is what paves the way for our complete and total dependence on Jesus as our Saviour. Without that depravity, many Christians feel we cannot truly appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Thus, the most influential evangelical view of human nature is just that—one that emphasizes our complete and total filth and fallenness in an attempt to deconstruct any sense of self-trust.
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A cursory reading of this approach automatically reveals the pitfalls and obstacles it creates in relation to the secular view. The classic evangelical view is essentially a metaphysical nihilism that says, “Yes, you are meaningless.” But tempered with the sales pitch: “Jesus can give you meaning!” It is a cynical vision of the nature of man which the postmodernist might agree with according to her dystopian vision of social regress, but which she will nevertheless reject for the way in which it attempts to profit from the human condition in order to bolster its own religious assumptions. Finally, this vision of the human spirit is one which the humanist finds repulsive—a pathological and neurotic pessimism about the very thing that—against all odds—has risen to the height of royalty in a universe that seems to plot our annihilation at every conceivable turn.
Of course, this is not to say that we ought to soften or change our theology merely to placate modern sensibilities or theories. But it does force us to ask—are we missing something? Is there any sense in which scripture provides us with an approach to the nature of man that is a bit more enthusiastic and hopeful and which can, to some degree, interact meaningfully with the self-affirming priorities of the secular mind?
The answer is yes, and it is found in the Imago Dei which in turn opens the door to two perspectives which I refer to as “the limitlessness of man” and “eternal potentiality”. Now that we have set our foundation, we will explore these perspectives in the next article.
 Brock Bastian. “Is Our Western Happiness Fetish Causing Depression?”
 Miriam Kramer. “This poignant quote from Stephen Hawking sums up his life.”
 Adam Becker. “How will the Universe End and Will Anything Survive?”
 Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. “The Light of Other Days” p. 78.
 Ronnie Freeman. “The Only Thing” [The Only Thing lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group]