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.