Thursday, January 17, 2019

What Does It Mean to Be Human? Reflections from the Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright

So often “faith and science” is not a dialogue, but a science monologue with theologians listening in. 


That’s why this piece from the prominent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright caught my attention. He begins by citing this passage from Revelation 4:
6 In the middle of the throne, and all around the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind. 7 The first creature was like a lion, the second creature was like an ox, the third creature had a human face, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four creatures had six wings, and they were full of eyes all round and inside. Day and night they take no rest, as they say, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who Was and Who Is and Who Is to Come." 9 When the creatures give glory and honour and thanksgiving to the one who is sitting on the throne, the one who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down in front of the one who is sitting on the throne, and worship the one who lives for ever and ever. They throw down their crowns in front of the throne, saying, 11 "0 Lord our God, you deserve to receive glory and honour and power, because you created all things; because of your will they existed and were created." Revelation 4
Wright then begins his reflection with the central question—our nature as human beings.
Scientists and anthropologists have often asked themselves, “What is it that humans can do that computers can't do?” Computers, after all, can play chess better than most of us. They can work out answers to all kinds of questions that would take us a lot longer. Some people have boldly declared that, though at the moment computers can't do quite everything that we can, they will one day overtake us. The writer David Lodge wrote a powerful novel on this theme, entitled Thinks . . . The heroine eventually discovers the answer: humans can weep; and humans can forgive. Those are two very powerful and central human activities. They take place in a quite different dimension from anything a computer can do. But without them, we would be less than human.
I stepped back for a moment—is forgiving and weeping the best answer? In a way, it seemed to me like a trick. Of course, the laptop on which I’m typing can’t produce tears. Let's see what he does next.
A similar question is often posed: 'What can humans do that animals can't do?' Again, some scientists have tried to insist that we humans are simply 'naked apes', a more sophisticated version of apes perhaps, but still within the same continuum. This is a trickier question than the one about computers, but to get straight to the point: in our present passage, the main difference is that humans can say the word 'because'. In particular, they can say it about God himself.
I’ll leave it there for this post and return next week, but not before asking a question, “What does it mean to say ‘Because’”? I take it signify that we are able to draw conclusions, to be able to make connections. As human beings, we're able to transcend, to step back, to say about ourselves “I am a person thinking, weeping, or worshiping." That’s why. 

That seemed like a “because,” and not just any “because,” but one that defines our humanity. 

What do you think?

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