Part 1: The Meaning of Human Dignity
What Does it Mean to be Human?
How do we know who we are? What is at the core of our personhood?
Unlike humans, animals make decisions solely from biological instinct. Let us consider a black bear. It’s late autumn, and your average black bear is starting to forage around for the winter that is storming toward him. His den is cold and empty, the walls bare of art, the floor is without a carpet. This is a bear who is thinking only about one thing, and that is his stomach: insects, berries, roots, fish, or maybe even decaying fellow animals are what capture his attention. The bear is not inventing new ways to make this ancient process go more smoothly. He’s not seeking to beautify his den by painting frescoes on the den walls. He’s not reflecting, as he shambles through the woods, about why everything is so unfair or how he could streamline this process for maximum efficiency. He’s a bear, and glorious in his way because of that, but he’s not you and he’s not me. He’s not human.
Aristotle described human beings as rational animals. Like other animals, humans pursue survival, reproduction, and material welfare. However, human beings also have qualities that separate them from animals, including the capacity to contemplate why they act in certain ways, to evolve how they act, and to desire understanding of what exists beyond themselves and within themselves. According to Aristotle, humans have “rational souls.” In other words, we are rational by nature. In the ancient understanding, reason is not simply the ability to score high on an IQ test or solve a math problem. The Greeks understood reason more broadly as the capacity for self-control, self-reflection, and self-awareness even at a young age. Only people can direct their own behaviour by reflecting on the life they want to live.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, human beings are understood to be created in the image and likeness of God and to be called into a relationship with God through our capacity for self-transcendence. Put simply, we possess the capacity to think beyond our immediate needs and to contemplate what exists beyond us, such as God and the overall meaning of things. As creatures, humans possess a three-part nature: we are body, mind, and soul. Humans have two different characteristics: material, “linked to the world by the body,” and spiritual, “open to transcendence and to the discovery of more penetrating truths thanks to the intellect.”1 Judaism and Christianity understand that to be human means to have the ability to comprehend, approach, and encounter God, who made us in his image and likeness. In contrast to other animals, only humans have a relationship with God, a relationship that is based on our personhood and through which we desire communion with God. For Christians, our individual personhood is a reflection of the three persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Godhead, three in one. Because God is personal, so is the creature made in his image. The Godhead is the prototype of personhood, revealing the need for community between persons for there to be a wholeness to the individual person. We need each other. As with the Holy Trinity, human beings are persons because they exist not as lone individuals but as part of a whole. Indeed, our very origin as human beings depends on the presence of others: a mother, a father. Through the Incarnation, God became human in Jesus Christ; our humanity has been taken up into the divine nature, forever, in the second person of the Trinity. As the Athanasian Creed states, “Not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by assumption of the Manhood into God.”