I've been largely absent from the blog lately because I am now a Postulant in the Anglican Province of America, and to that end I started work this semester on an M.A. in Religion. That's on top of my full-time teaching job. Below is a brief oral presentation I gave answering the question, "How are human beings different from other members of the 'animal kingdom'?" It seems to fit with the blog, so I am posting it here.
Human persons are the crown and culmination of God's good creation. We are God-breathed bearers of God's image, created by God to steward and cultivate the world in community with other persons. So we have a place of incredible honor and dignity—but also of great responsibility.
As a starting place and grounding for an understanding of human beings, you can't do better than the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. Try not to get caught up in the differences between the passages—there are some tensions in the two accounts if you come at it from the standpoint of contemporary historical or scientific practice. But those questions probably would have been meaningless or pointless to the Bible's ancient audience. Instead, try to see these as complementary accounts from different perspectives.
Genesis 1 provides a cosmic picture, a survey of the universe from the eye of God. The six days of creation are sprinkled with complementary opposites—evening and morning, day and night, heavens and earth, sea and land, sun and moon. Finally, God says, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness” (in the translation of one Hebrew scholar). “And God created the human in his image / in the image of God He created him / male and female He created them.” Thus the man and woman form the final, culminating complementary opposite.
In contrast with this cosmic picture, the second chapter of Genesis has a more earthy tone, what with its focus on naming critters and tilling the earth. The earthy tone is matched by its earthly, human perspective. Here we find the male human formed first: “The Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life...” Afterwards God fashions vegetation to sustain and occupy him, and then God creates all the animals and so forth. Finally God creates “a woman.”
So what do these two accounts tell us about human beings?
Well, they teach us that the human person is the central focus of God's creation—whether that's as the crowning culmination in chapter 1, or as the first creature after whom the rest of the world is fashioned, as in chapter 2. Psalm 8 echoes this picture: "You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet." We bear God's image, as the first chapter tells us; according to chapter 2, we are God-breathed.
Both accounts also unequivocally emphasize that we are made to live in community with other human beings—and that there's something particularly fitting about the relationship between one man and one woman. Indeed, it's not so much the creation of the human in Genesis 1 but rather the creation of male and female that is the capstone of that creation account—the highest of the many complementary opposites. Similarly, Genesis 2 concludes with the joining together of man and woman in marriage.
And if we look forward to the New Testament, we find that marriage is not just an end in and of itself. It's also a sign and symbol of the ultimate marriage of Christ and his bride, the Church.
In the vocabulary of Christianity, by the way, nothing is ever “merely symbolic” or “just a sign.” To be symbolic is not to be artificial or superficial, and symbols are never arbitrary. It simply means that the symbol is not complete on its own. It points to and makes real a greater reality, a more comprehensive truth. So to call marriage a symbol does not reduce but rather elevates its significance and reality. We ground the meaning of marriage not simply in itself, but also in the way that it points to the eschatological culmination of the new heavens and new earth.
So, to be clear, it's not really accurate to speak of human beings as “individuals”—as autonomous actors, as single creatures ultimately acting independently of others.
Of course, not all are called to marriage. Our life in the community of the Church is more fundamental, as the New Testament makes clear. We Christians are the body of Christ—his hands and feet at work in the world. So we should never believe that any particular human life is less meaningful or somehow less "Christian" in any way if that person does not marry. But we should recognize the great significance for humans of marriage specifically and community in general.
The call to live in community is also a call to responsibility and accountability. There's a sense in Genesis 2 in which we can say that creation is made for the human person—but there's an equally clear sense in which we are made for creation, to steward and cultivate it. We must be careful not to reduce God's good creation to a mere resource for man. The human was put in the garden in order "to till it and watch it"—so he was no blank slate free to decide his own nature. He had a job and a role. And the human was told not to eat of the tree of knowledge, which is a clear-cut limit. Later on, in Ephesians, St. Paul will say that we are God's workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Tertullian, who was a second-century theologian, comments that discontent with limits, dissatisfaction with created nature, led directly to the human fall. We wanted to "become as gods," as the serpent offered in Genesis 3:5. And the modern West, which worships personal freedom, choice, and individual identity, has bought the serpent's offer—hook, line, and sinker.
However, this is a destructive lie. We have a given, created nature. We are not limitless. And as the crown of God's good creation we have an obligation to live in community and a responsibility to care for the earth well.