Becoming Human Again

Reading Time: 4 mins

The only place to begin a discussion of human/creaturely identity is with our relationship to the God whose breath filled dust, brought us to life, sustains us and gives us a hopeful future.

This article is a guest contribution from John Strommen

“Who am I? Why am I here?” 

When Admiral James Stockdale, gubernatorial running mate of Ross Perot, uttered these words at the beginning of a vice-presidential debate in 1991, he was mercilessly mocked. Admittedly, this was a strange opening statement for a debate, and yet Stockdale was simply being transparent about his reticence to be in this position. 

Perhaps his training as a philosopher was coming through somehow, articulating not merely his own situation, but the contemporary human predicament of Western culture. For some time now, the idea of God’s agency (and even existence) along with traditions of organized religion have diminished in credibility in the West. But God and church have provided things like community, moral anchor, and hopefulness for a very long time. What takes its place now? Given humanity's propensity for self-defeating behavior, where will the actualizing of human potential leave us? Atomic energy or AI, anyone? Justifiably disoriented, we must ask:

Who are we as humans?
Why are we here?  

The questions have an urgency because it appears that the same confidence Western humanity acquired about itself in the age of science and reason (during the Enlightenment and modernity) has also revealed serious limits to human capacities. The incredible increase in knowledge human beings experienced in the last 300 years has not yielded increased moral vision or agency, as evidenced by the horrors of the 20th Century, impending environmental disasters, and the Frankenstein-like creations we seem to unleash. And the dramatic expansion of opportunities that freedom, prosperity, and technology has brought to Westerners has strangely been accompanied by an increase in the experience of meaninglessness and despair. Identity and purpose are not so clear as they once were. And so it is that the myth of Sisyphus has become autobiographical for many: we toil each day but wonder to what end? The question, “What are human beings for?” haunts and terrifies us to the point that we try desperately to avoid facing it. [1]

Herein lie clues about who we really, most truly, are. We may think we are unlimited in our potential - as if we were gods - and yet we are, after all, finite creatures created out of nothing. Earthbound though we are, curiously we are quite drawn to that which is not earthbound - not because we are transcendent, but because the transcendent God is “the ground” of all being, [2] not the least of which is human being. The only place to begin a discussion of human/creaturely identity is with our relationship to the God whose breath filled dust, brought us to life, sustains us and gives us a hopeful future.   

And yet, the hubris of the Enlightenment lives on, seemingly unabated. The words of the tempter in the Garden of Eden are prophetic: “when you eat of the fruit, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). And therefore, far less dependent on God. Enlightenment thinkers assumed that God was rational and his creation predictable. Sure enough, with the discovery of its laws of nature, we’ve assumed we have control of even life and death. In this way, science has displaced God for the modern man, and with our new findings, we attempt to be like God. [3] 

By the way, this is no indictment of science, only a distorted anthropology and the assumption of a godlike autonomy. By consigning God to the margins (Deism) or doing away with him altogether (atheism and agnosticism), Western humanity re-imagined a much more anthropocentric (and far less Theocentric) cosmos. In fact, as early as the 19th Century, leading thinkers began to consider belief in God to be a mere stage in our development and a childish one at that. Having moved beyond this cosmic projection of a father figure, [4] we can now - as a species - move on to adulthood wherein “man is the measure of all things.” [5]

With the Enlightenment and the ascendance of reason and science, human beings predictably developed a Prometheus complex, a giddy sense of freedom where we came to believe we can will whatever outcome we desire. But once we have embarked on the quest to be our own God, we are responsible for creating our own sustaining meaning, validating ourselves, and justifying our own existence. [6] In Sartre’s words: “The human being is exactly that which he makes of himself–no more and no less; he is that which he does, condemned to his freedom.” [7] This basic idea that you are who you decide to be is a widely accepted anthropology today. It is then up to each individual to squeeze some sense and meaning out of their existence. But as finite creatures we struggle mightily to create our own identity and meaning. [8] And so, of course, we are brought back to Sisyphus and the question, “What are human beings for?” 

The implications of rearranging the world with myself at the center are far reaching for those around me. Locating the basis for my existence within myself is a condition described by the church fathers with the Latin term incurvatus: literally, “curving in on oneself, and therefore, away from God and neighbor. [9] Not surprisingly, then, for all our scientific and technological advancements, we seem unable to solve the problems of cruelty, oppression, depression, and environmental crises – in short, the demons that haunt our shared human existence. The reason is deceptively simple: to invoke a sports terminology, we’re playing out of position. We are neither wise enough nor good enough on our own to manage our lives, let alone the created world. [10]

But to be human is to be a created being and therefore in relationship with the one who created me. Hence, Luther taught, celebrated and embraced this confession: “I am a creature.” [11] Our identity can only be determined out of a relationship with the God who addresses us by calling us into purposeful and ongoing existence as pure gift. [16] As flower to sun; creature to Creator.

Martin Luther had a word for this: justification. Justification is what it means to be human: a creature who is profoundly gifted by a loving and providential God. Without this sustaining relationship, we are left with a universe that cares nothing for someone as small as me. [13] For creatures, life itself and everything that makes life whole can only be given as a gift from outside ourselves – whether in creation or God’s re-creation in Christ – and received in gratitude and faith. God’s continuous creation is a fountain of life (Ps 36:5) continually flowing into us like the sap from a tree into the branch of life that we are. [14] The resulting fruit is for all of creation. And it is from God.

John Strommen grew up in Richfield, MN, majored in philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, received his M.Div and recently a Masters of Theology from Luther Seminary in St Paul. John was an ELCA parish pastor for 35 years, has been married for 34 years with two adult children, is an accomplished photographer with his own website, and has two books of theology soon to be published.

[1] Wendell Berry, “What Are People For?” in What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), 123ff., quoted in Hall, Context, 131.
[2] The great theologian Paul Tillich considered God to be beyond being itself and prior to it, hence, the “ground of being” term he coined.
[3]  Margaret J Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2006), 30-31.
[4] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. Jose O. de Agular, Abreu (Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1969), 39.
[5] Protagoras’ famous dictum is quite prophetic about modern humanity.
[6] Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), Bayer, 179-182. This human rebellion is both an inflated understanding of self (superbia) and a despairing false assessment of what I am as a creature (desperatio).
[7] Bayer, Luther’s Theology, 97. Marx and Fichte maintain that a human being MUST demonstrate what or who he is as a doer and producer.
[8]  Bayer, 102.
[9]  Bayer, 135-6.
[10]  Douglas John Hall, Lighten our Darkness: Towards an Indigenous Theology of the Cross, (Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2001), 82-99.
[11]  Luther qtd. by Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther's Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 38.
[12]  Bayer, Luther’s Theology, 16.
[13]  Bayer, 102. As Luther said, “Without the article on justification the world is nothing but death and darkness.”
[14] John Kleinig, “The Flow of Life and its Disruption,” Logia, 2016, 11-14.