Humans have been fascinated by themselves since the earliest times in the history of our race. From the crude stick figures painted on the walls of caves in prehistoric times through to the sophisticated image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, or the mathematical musings around the Fibonacci sequence in the beauty and balance of the human form, there has been a never-ending search for the perfect paradigm for humanity.
Despite the claims of progress made by more modern generations, far from having a clearer view of a ‘norm’ against which our humanness should be measured, we have regressed and have all but abandoned the very notion that such a thing exists. Ours is the generation of free choice and free expression. An age in which, if anyone dares to challenge our beliefs, appearance or lifestyle choices, they are deemed outrageous. So much so that, for those who still believe there are bounds of normality that must defend as well as define our humanity, they no longer dare to raise their heads above the parapet to make their views known.
The same has become increasingly true for Christians. Because our world and life view is not constructed from within, but provided from without in Holy Scripture, it is inevitable that we are ridiculed and even vilified for daring to challenge the received wisdom of today’s world. In the face of such hostility it is very tempting to retreat into the realms of private faith and closed communities of church life. But, in so doing, we not only betray the gospel, we also betray the generation to which we belong.
How, then, can we find meaningful ways to engage our peers – not least on this particular issue of what it means to be human?
An obvious place to begin is by talking about it. One of the most popular British radio stations runs an almost daily slot at peak listening time under the title ‘Being Human’. It offers a 5-minute opportunity for all kinds of people – many of them celebrities, respected public figures or academics – to lay out their views. The fact that the station has been able to sustain this feature for so long speaks for itself in the level of interest it generates from the audience nationwide. However, it is also somewhat self-defeating. Not only do many of the views expressed conflict sharply with the views propounded by other contributors, the biggest problem is that the audience has no opportunity to observe these notions of ‘humanness’ lived out in practice. So each version of the ‘doctrine of humanity’ on offer gets lost in the overcrowded market place of ideas.
One might say that the Christian view of humanity must inevitably suffer the same fate. Except that this is not the case. We say this for two reasons. The first is that the Bible’s teaching on humanity has always been bound up with the life of the church. It has never been merely private and personal, but always the preserve of the church as God’s new humanity worked out in community – and all of this lived out before the watching world.
Jesus crystallises this in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – his best-known public discourse on what it means to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom in the midst of a fallen world. There he declares that, as his redeemed humanity, living in new community, we are to be ‘the salt of the earth and the light of the world’ (Mt 5.13-16). In that sense their [our] presence is to be felt and seen before it is heard. Indeed it will only be through our shared life making an impact on the lives of those among whom we live that our neighbours will start asking what makes us different.
This certainly was the case in the development of church’s history as it was intertwined with the history of the Roman world in which it found itself. (Though the same had also been true all throughout Old Testament times: witness the impact of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Daniel and countless others on the Gentile communities among whom they lived.) The order and the beauty of Christian society – expressed both in family and church – stood in striking contrast to the pagan alternatives around them. More than this, their kindness, love and concern were not confined selfishly to their own little groupings. They treated their unbelieving neighbours with the same unfeigned grace. They displayed an attractiveness in their humanity that spoke more loudly and clearly than a thousand theoretical words.
Behind this extraordinary impact that the church has made repeatedly throughout its history and across the world there is a richer and deeper reality. What has been displayed in the life of God’s people throughout history has one thing in common. It is a corporate as well as personal display of the perfect humanity embodied in Jesus as the Prototypical Man. His humanness is perfect in all its aspects and dimensions. (Though, interestingly, what stood out most was not physical attributes or attractiveness, but the varied and vital components of what it means to be truly human.) The watching world looks at the church and glimpses Jesus.
In an almost paradoxical sense the hostile times in which the church finds itself in the present age may well provide an opportunity for this to be displayed more clearly than in times of peace. Throughout its history the real test for the church and the true humanity of God’s people in likeness to his Son has come when they are facing opposition and are under duress. The way we react will be every bit as important as the words with which we react – because it will ‘live out’ the life of Jesus as our prototype in a way that must command respect.
The beauty and order of Jesus as the prototype of all humanity shine out most clearly and attractively when seen against the backdrop of fallen humanity at its worst.