All of us are special, even those of us who are not. We belong to the animal species Homo sapiens (intelligent man), a thinking animal, capable of abstract thought, and logical analysis. Anthropologists tell us there have been several iterations of the genus Homo that preceded our species, apparently without our mental capability and potential; here are the names of those closest to us in the genus Homo: heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, erectus, floresiensis.1 They are now extinct.
As a species of the animal kingdom, our kind (Homo sapiens) often exhibits an insensitive brutish behavior that unfortunately reflects a destructive aspect of our nature. Nevertheless, the higher aspects of our nature enable us to contribute to the enhancement of civilization and life in community through the arts, philosophy, science, etc. This dissonance in the nature of the species Homo sapiens between the lower and higher aspects of our nature, or perhaps better: between the animalistic and the humanistic aspects of our nature, raises the following question: what is the quintessential characteristic of human nature? That is to say: what is best in the nature of our species?
I suggest that what is best in our nature is a kind of liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of other human beings without regard for personal benefit or personal cost. In a sense it is a self-denying love for other members of our species of whatever ethnic background.
This kind of love is first met in the ancient world in the Jesus tradition. The Israelite tradition of "love your neighbor as yourself" (Deut 15:1-3) is essentially a tribal ethic, since a neighbor was one of your own tribe; that is to say, your fellow Israelite. And love was also extended to the stranger sojourning in the Israelite community (Lev 19:33-34), a custom grounded in the hospitality codes of the ancient near east.
Through the Jesus tradition love for the neighbor passes over into the Christian communities (Rom 13:8-10) where the neighbor is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background but fellow Christians in the community (as in Rom 15:1-2; Gal 5:15-15). James 2:1-13, however, does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings of whatever ethnic background because concern and care is extended to any poor shabbily dressed person who wanders into a Christian assembly. So it is not necessarily at bottom a religious community ethic, but seems grounded in a kind of humanitarian concern for other human beings.
One of the clearer expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love as a quality in human life is found in 1 Cor 13:1-13. In this chapter love is not motivated by religious belief or empowered by divine sanction. Here love has more value than religious acts and knowledge (13:1-2) and other forms of charity (13:3). It puts others before self (13:4-7), and epitomizes what it means to be a mature human being (13:11-12). Hence, love has greater value than even religious faith or hope (13:13). There is no mention in the chapter of God or Christ, but love is apparently an altruistic human response to the human other. For these reasons some scholars of the Jesus tradition do not regard the chapter as composed by Paul but as borrowed from the Greco-Roman tradition.
The clearest expression of an altruistic unconditional love is the challenge of Jesus to "love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44). Matthew and Luke each try to domesticate the saying by suggesting practical actions one can perform that do not involve one actually loving an enemy—that is to say: do favors for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers (Luke 6:27-31; Matt 5:43-44); all of which one can do without actually loving the enemy.
When our behavior displays altruistic love, we are quintessentially human; when our behavior is brutish and uncaring, we are marginally human. Being human is not an accident of birth, but a matter of behavior.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Richard Potts and Christopher Sloan, What does it mean to be Human? (Washington: National Geographic, 2010), 32-33.
One of the biggest influences on my life as a young pastor was neurologist/psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl's landmark book, Man's Search for Meaning. Here's a quote which I think is apropos to your essay:
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
Thanks Gene for reminding us about the book!
Charlie, you state that altruistic love is first met in the Jesus tradition but not in the Tanach. You find tribal ethics and hospitality codes in the Tanach, but no unconditional love for some reason. Is the Tanach the only source of religious writings for ancient Israelites? I need further evidence to support your theory that unconditional love began with Jesus.
Even if I agreed that that concept began with Jesus- how does human sacrifice fit into that equation? That one man can die for another man's sin? That kind of barbarism is not found in Tanach, but it is certainly found in the gospels and NT. Is human sacrifice an expression of unconditional love?
To say that unconditional love is found in the Jesus tradition but not in other traditions comes across as morally superior. It places one tradition in a "better" light, whether it was intended or not- that's how it sounds. How does loving enemies equate to unconditional love?
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
In addition to the Hebrew Bible in the Israelite tradition there are also several other collections: the so-called Jewish Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Pseudepigrapha. My evidence for altruistic love first being attested in the Jesus tradition is my failure to find it attested elsewhere in the ancient world before the Jesus tradition.
In your second paragraph I agree: blood sacrifice as compensation for sins (whether animal or human) is barbarous, and is based on a faulty concept of God.
3rd paragraph: I did not intend to claim that the conglomeration we call Christianity was morally superior. Christianity has many skeletons in its closet. I was only claiming that in the ancient world the earliest that I encountered the concept of altruistic love was in the early Christian tradition. Loving the enemy is altruistic love in that loving an enemy, during a time of war for example, can get your family and friends killed and yourself branded a traitor. One who truly loves an enemy will make any sacrifice to secure the enemy's welfare, as one would sacrifice to secure the welfare of family and close friends.
Re: "Being human is not an accident of birth, but a matter of behavior."
When I think of the idea of being human, I think of the concept of human nature, i.e. what is the nature of humans or what is natural for human? My belief is nature, i.e. the laws of the universe produced humans with all our physical, emotional, mental, and so called spiritual human characteristics. As the laws of the universe have evolved our minds and culture into ever higher complexity and perception, human nature continued to evolved into much different means of coping with our environments than in the past, e.g. 8,000 years ago when humans acted little like humans today. So today we now conceive of what you referred to as quintessentially human even though perhaps only a relatively small number of humans actually attain such lofty characteristics and even then only for momentary events of life.
It is surely gratifying to many that Jesus may be attributed to early introduction to what we now refer to as quintessentially human. Ever increasing occasions of quintessentially human action is also gratifying in whatever society and individuals that exercise it.
Parents, teachers and leaders that have an influence on humans to appreciate and even exercise quientessentially human characteristics are the best treasures of our society-Jesus being perhaps the most treasured or admired. Those individuals and groups/organizations/nations that influence humans to a marginally human culture or even non-human culture are the most despised!
Charlie, most/all your blog readers know in which of these categories you stand!
I agree with you that our species is still evolving--not something I believe that I have ever thought about before. But the process of evolution is a struggle and can go either toward a decline of the species or to its improvement. You mentioned our "so-called spiritual characteristics." Would you care to describe a scale as to when we as a species are most spiritual and when we are marginally spiritual?
Re: ....a scale as to when we as a species are most spiritual and when we are marginally spiritual.
I would not be a thoughtful contributor on human spiritual characteristics as I think they are simply one of the several types of mental characteristics, i.e. a particular type of thoughts and feeling produced by brain chemistry. I mentioned spiritual characteristics in my previous comment since I thought some readers may not include them within the general groups of mental characteristics. I suspect human spiritual characteristics are introduced into human thinking by those who believe they exist distinctly apart from other mental exercises by parents, teachers, religious leaders, etc. I may speculate humans are most spiritual when in the presence of individuals, groups, and events that encourage spiritual thinking/feeling and least spiritual when left alone and experiencing some destructive mental illness with no treatment/assistance.
On another note, the process of evolution generally advances the species ability to cope with the environment in which it exist. Though it may appear that human evolution can go either toward a decline of the species or to it's improvement, the long term arc is toward improvement.
A very thoughtful answer!
Regarding Jim's comment on the long-term arc of evolution being "toward improvement."
If the goal is "creature comforts" I would agree that there has clearly been incredible progress.
If the goal is ridding human beings of self-deception combined with the will to power (original sin, so to speak), then I would like to hear the evidence that there has been progress.
Gene & Charlie,
Re: ...if the goal (of human evolution) is ridding human beings of self-deception (original sin, so to speak), then I would like to hear the evidence that there has been progress".
The laws of the universe pertaining to human (& all living things) evolution seems to have no goal. Goals seem only to pertain to human thinking. As I mentioned previously, evolution results (as opposed to goals) in improving the ability of living things to better cope with the environment in which they exist.
A couple of human characteristics that gives evidence of human improvement to self-deception (original sin) are human intelligence and knowledge. These two human characteristics are clearly among those as having made incredible improvement. My perception of human evolution is tremendous improvement in every facet of life, and this is not to say all/most improvements are accompanied with some set-backs, i.e. electricity, automobiles, air-conditioning, longer life, etc.
Gene, if you perceive otherwise, I would judge your perception to be inaccurate or perhaps only different from mine, as perceptions of improvement surely vary widely.
If I may ask, Jim, could you provide a few examples of where intelligence and knowledge have improved the interpersonal emotional and volitional aspects of human existence, those driven by self-deception, distorted perception, survival fear, the pull of power, shaming needs, and the like?
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