A New Way to Be Human
by Jacob Sparks
In America, we often find ourselves saying, “I’m only human” after we make small mistakes. This saying exists in order to communicate a supposed basic truth about ourselves: we are finite creatures with a finite capacity for perfection, and therefore we will make mistakes. While this saying can prove relatable and comforting in the face of our imperfection (I know it has to me), the statement rests upon the premise that to be human is to err. This, however, is not a Christian understanding of what it means to be human.
We can find clues as to what being human means in the creation of humanity on the sixth day in the book of Genesis:
Genesis shows that God makes human beings to reflect His image (εἰκόνα, icon) and likeness; Genesis finds this so important as to repeat it twice in span of only two verses. However, as we know, Adam and Eve fell through the deception of the serpent, bringing sin and death into the world and darkening the image of God in mankind. Humanity, graced with God’s image and the grace of the Holy Spirit, began to fall back into non-existence: “Earth you are, and to earth you shall return” (Genesis 3:19, OSB).
The limits of time and space fail me to tell of the numerous ways God revealed Himself and began to work out the redemption of humanity through the law and the prophets; however, I will suffice it to say that all of the law and prophets culminate in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the uncreated Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, OSB).
Knowing exactly what the life of Jesus means for us and our salvation is a mystery that will never be completely unraveled. However, among the earliest Christian teachings on Christ’s life is that Jesus’ earthly life undoes the sin and death brought into the world by Adam and Eve’s wrongdoing. The Apostle Paul states this clearly in Romans:
Paul explicitly connects Jesus with Adam in 1 Corinthians as well: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” (15:22). Whereas Adam is identified simply as “ἄνθρωπος” (that is “a man” or “a human being”), Christ is “ὁ ἄνθρωπος” (that is “The Man” or “The Human Being”, cf. John 19:5). He is the completion and perfection of everything Adam was not, the restoration of humanity’s fallen image. Jesus is the One Who Is “making all things new.” He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End”, indeed, the very source of our Life (Revelation 21:5-6, OSB).
Knowing that Jesus is “The Human Being”, we can begin to properly answer the question of what it means to be “a human being.” To be human is to be a bearer of God’s image, and since Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”, to be like God is to be like Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15). The more we become like Christ, the more human we become (1). In Him we see our destiny: to become by grace what He is by nature, to become gods, to be sons and daughters of the Father by the grace of the Holy Spirit. This includes the ability to be humble, authentic, genuine, vulnerable, and to reflect the love of Christ in every situation we may find ourselves in. St. Gregory the Theologian sums this up better than I am able to (2):
The work of becoming human by becoming like Christ is difficult and will take a lifetime (or more) to learn how to do. We will need to learn how to be patient with ourselves as we are while realizing the persons we were made to be in Christ, being honest with our faults without making excuses or changing the standard of being “perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, OSB). May God grant us the strength and courage to be human beings (3).
1: The title of this article is taken from the band Switchfoot’s song, “New Way To Be Human”, which can be listened to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJktjoHRpoI
2: “Oration 1: Gregory Nazianzen”, New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310201.htm
3: This article contains many ideas from various sources that I read over an extended period of time, so it is difficult to separate them out and cite them distinctly. Death being seen as a darkening of God’s image in mankind and a falling into non-existence is an idea taken from St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s work On the Incarnation. The idea of Christ being the completion and fulfillment of everything Adam failed to be is taken from St. Irenaeus of Lyons’ writings; I first learned of this idea from the hymns of the Church but it was most clearly articled for me by the scholarship of Fr. John Behr. These ideas have mulled over in my head for several months through conversations with my spiritual fathers, which also influenced the writing of this piece.