What does it mean to be human? I am to answer this question in 6 pages based on course readings and class notes and discussions, in a theological reflection on the subject.
There are many metaphors that describe what it means to be human, but the strongest of these (and the one that serves as the foundation for our class) is the notion of “participation.” I have no “being” that is intrinsic to myself, because my continued existence is a gift from God. I receive my existence, my sustenance, and all of my qualities as a gift from God, and so rather than “being”, I am “receiving” humanity. God mediates all of His gifts to us through the Mediator, Jesus Christ – so that even if we had not sinned and lived in a perfect world, Christ would still become incarnate as He mediates humanity to us from God. The Church Fathers interpreted the Tree of Life in the garden to be Christ, because it is through Him that we receive life from God, as a gift. In this way, receiving is participating in what God is doing: He creates life, and we continue to receive that life from Him, living it with Him in relationship. In choosing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam did not receive knowledge from God, but tried to take it. He tried to take not just knowledge of good and evil, but the authority to declare for himself what is good and evil, which is not just taking from God but attempting to refuse what God would freely give. So in our refusal to receive the gifts of God, we have cut ourselves off from the Tree of Life – which is why the wages of sin is death. It cuts us off from the source of Life, because we refuse to receive that Life, and so will ultimately die. Life and being are not intrinsic to us, but are gifts that come from God through Christ, through a relationship between God and us through Christ. Without relationship with God, there is no life.
But there is more to the image of God in us than just receiving being: we also participate as co-creators with God. We are to fill and subdue the earth, not as overlords but as stewards, tending the garden and caring for it. God rules the world through human beings; we are His representatives, the image of Him set here to remind all of Creation who the true ruler is, continuing to create with what God has already created. As we receive from God our Creator, we give to creation in continuing to co-create. From creation we receive our sustenance, which God has caused to grow, so that as the earth receives from God, so it gives to us. And as we receive from the earth, we give back to God; this is the significance of the tithes and offerings that we offer to God in a ritual sense in Church. We receive from God and give to creation; creation receives from God and gives to us; what we receive from creation we give back to God; and in what creation receives from us (co-creation, creating from what God has already created, tending the garden) creation gives glory to God its Creator. We exist in a continual relationsihp of giving and receiving, of participation.
We also participate with each other, as individuals and as communities, as genders and as races. The Image of God in us includes an aspect of sexual polarity: it is only as male and female, together, that we reflect the image of God. Sexual difference is inherently good, and does not damage the unity of all humanity; indeed, that unity is expressed best in the giving and receiving that occurs between the sexes in marriage. Just as God lives eternally in an economy of giving and receiving in the Trinity, so humans were created to live in a constant relationship of giving and receiving, which is expressed in marriage. In this sense, marriage is a part of creation and a reflection of God. Jesus and Paul both put celibacy on a level with marriage, but they did so not to deny the created order, but in anticipation of the world to come, in which we will experience the giving and receiving of participation with God more directly and will no longer require the inferior reflection of it. In this in-between time, we are free to live in the participation of marriage in order to reflect the participation of God, or as celibate in anticipation of the full experience of that participation, but in either case we live as gendered beings in relationship and participation. Marriage is a central form of this, but other relationships also reflect this participation, perhaps most especially and most completely the relationship between parents and children, but to lesser extents the relationships of extended families, communities, tribes and nations. Just as these primary relationships reflect the ultimate participation (in God), they also form the foundation for all social institutions, cultures, and governments. Just as our existence comes from relationship, the way we live is governed by relationships. Our society is defined by how we participate: with God, with creation, and with each other.
Culture is what we do with what God has created. Cultures are thus not intrinsically good or evil, but reflect us as we reflect (or fail to reflect) God. “Culture is the sum social response to being human in the world,” or “our response to the reception of the gifts of time, space, and life.” Religion is at the heart of culture because it attempts to answer the central questions about existence: who are we, what are we, and why are we? Culture – including Religion – is a social construct. There is no single culture that is to be commended above others, as all cultures are flawed in the way that they participate with God; the same cannot be said about religions, however, because religions make claims about who God is and how to participate with Him, and some claims are more true than others. This, however, does not mean that our religious observances are always correct, that they are somehow perfect examples of participation with God, because they are still fallen human attempts at participation that fail to participate fully whenever we as fallen human beings fail to participate fully.
This serves as an example for why we cannot talk about being human without talking about Christ. Not only does Christ mediate to us our life and our humanity, but He does so in a way that restores the relationship of participation that was broken at the Fall. Being human is defined by our relationship to, our participation with, God; in the Fall, that relationship was broken, and subsequently we are actually less human than we were created to be. In taking on humanity, Christ shows the perfection that we are to grow into: as we become more like Christ, we become more human. As we identify with Christ, who is in perfect participation and communion with God, our relationship with God is restored. We are still incapable of participating with God appropriately on our own, which is why union with Christ is central to the Christian life: “united to Him, Christ lives in us.” Because humans were created to participate with God, and stopped doing so, God became a human being in order to fulfill that relationship on our behalf; though we still receive (to some extent) from God, and give (to some extent) to God (well, some of us try to, anyways), Christ does so perfectly on our behalf, as our representative before God. Christ participates with God, and we participate with Christ. Our participation with Christ involves receiving the gift of grace from Him, and giving Him all glory and allegiance, which is evidenced in repentance and Christian witness.
An interesting thing happens with our participation in/union with Christ: He represents us to God, the perfect representing the imperfect in order to restore and mediate our relationship with God. Yet, having left us an example for how to better participate in God’s economy of gift, He left Earth and continues to participate with God on our behalf. Yet our union with Him is still there, made deeply true by the intimate nature of the union of the Holy Spirit with us: we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the ontological reality of our union with Christ, allowing us to participate with Him in a very real and powerful sense. So while Christ is representing all humanity in His perfect participation with God, the Holy Spirit indwells Christ’s followers so that we can participate with the rest of humanity and creation on behalf of Christ! It is not that the Church mediates Christ to humanity and creation, but that the Church participates in Christ’s mediation through the indwelling and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit! Just as in creation we represented God as the bearers of His image, which was a way of describing our participation in Him, so now we represent Christ in creation because we are united to Him and indwelt with the Holy Spirit, just as Christ also represents us as He has taken on human nature. Humanity itself is mediated by Christ: without Christ, there is no image, no participation, and thus no humanity.
If humanity is defined by participation, then it is not about being so much as it is about receiving and giving, about being-in-relation. There is no such thing as being a passive human, then, because participation is active. This gives us a greater foundation for ethics, because ethics are not based on some arbitrary sense of duty, but about who we really are. The questions of religion, as noted above, were: who are we, what are we, and why are we; because the answer to all of those comes in active participation in God, ethics is an essential part of religion. We act ethically because that is what God created human beings to do: when we participate in God by participating in our families, communities, and creation, we are acting ethically.
I’m not sure if he had the same foundational understanding of “participation” as I’ve tried to sketch above, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his book Ethics by saying that when it comes to ethics we should not ask “what is good” or “how can I be good”; instead, we must ask What Christ is doing, and how we can participate in that. If we try to discover “the good”, we are faced with the dilemma of trying to define good, and then of building a hierarchy of “goods” when one “good” conflicts with another; this is not a valid foundation for Christian action or Christian life. Just as our life, our bodies, our qualities and abilities, and our purpose are gifts to us from God, so should our actions be the gift that we give back to Him, all through the mediation of, and for the glory of, Jesus Christ. It is as we become what we are, becoming like Christ and thus becoming more human, that we see the evidence of this process in our actions, which increasingly participate in what Christ is doing and thus are suitable offerings to God: the fruit of truly being human.