Am I human?
Updated: Sep 10, 2019
“To be alive at all is to have scars.”
—John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
Sometimes I wonder if I’m fully human. I seem to be human enough, at first glance. The people around me act as though I am human, no one ever questions my humanity. But what does it really mean that I am human?
Is it to have a body? Check! I’ve got one of those.
Is it the ability to reason? Check! “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.”
Perhaps it is a blend of the two: a cocktail of substance and subconscious that results in personhood. Perhaps. I’m not sure. At the risk of sounding circular, it is almost as if being alive is what makes me alive. This feels rather weak to me, and now I’m back at the beginning—the epitome of a circle.
This season of Lent is what has me questioning my humanity. I am wondering what it means to be alive precisely because we have been talking so much about the inverse of life: death. Jesus’ death is often described as a payment for a debt that we owed to… God, I guess? This particular understanding of Jesus’ death has run its course for me.
It’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus death accomplishes something salvific, it’s just that I think we have reduced it to something wholly judiciary and little and static. Jesus’ death has become something that we know about or believe in, and all I’m wondering if it isn’t instead something we should experience.
In her seminal work, A Theology of Love, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop writes, “[Love] is the totality of the self finding itself in the totality of another.” This is what we hear in John’s Gospel when we are told that it is out of love that God enters into the world (see 3:16). Here’s where that takes us: the incarnation, God taking on flesh, is God figuring out for Godself what it means to love to humanity. For in the incarnation, the totality of Godself is found in the totality of humanity, and in theology we call this “fully God, fully man.” Jesus.
So not only does God’s love for humanity move God to take on flesh, but Christ is eventually found on a cross. This is when the rubber meets the road, as they say. It’s love with dirt under her fingernails. Our knowing of Christ’s death, when approached as God’s exploration of love, becomes less about what doctrines we can derive and more about how we might experientially know God-on-the-cross.
What does it look like to remain intimate with God even while God is being crucified?
All I can tell you is that during this Lent I have sensed a widening invitation to experience Christ’s death in a way that surpasses knowledge, and to find in the cross not only reconciliation, but a way of being in the world. So perhaps what it means to be human is very similar to what it means to be divine: self-giving-love.
Maybe the whole point of the Jesus event was to provide us with a path by which we become fully what God invites us to be. Maybe Jesus’ death, and the invitation to join him there, makes it possible for us to be human at all. Maybe our humanity is experienced most deeply when we experience, alongside Christ, ourselves dying for those in whose totality we find our own totality. Maybe it is our death that makes us truly alive. And maybe it is Christ in us that makes us human after all.