On June 5, 2017 I published a blog entitled: "On Becoming and Being Human."1 The essay closed with this statement, "Being human is not an accident of birth, but a matter of behavior." We modern humans are called Homo sapiens (intelligent man). There was a time when Homo sapiens existed at the same time as others of its genus. They are now extinct. Our nearest "relatives" in the genus Homo were: heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, erectus, and floresiensis. If I am correct, there is a spectrum, or range, to human behavior, ranging from what is less human to more human. Since archaic Homo sapiens was inferior as a species when compared to modern Homo sapiens, the obvious conclusion is that there is always room for improvement in the humanity of the species. I will describe the lesser human as reflecting the archaic traits of the primitive still surviving in our species. The spectrum raises the question, how do we fully humanize the lesser human? The question seems reasonable, since there are those living among us who have behaved less human than humanity at its ideal best.
Modern society has developed institutional "treatments" for lesser human behavior in our species. For example, the penal system supposedly aims at the rehabilitation of inmates, those whose criminal behavior has necessitated their incarceration away from Homo sapiens' society at large. The goal of incarceration is to return them to society fully capable of following society's rules—in other words to "humanize" them, since their behavior previously was less than what we think of as ideally human. Society also recognizes that children need to be educated; that is, they should learn how to function and behave in human society. The public-school system in America is dedicated to the purpose of producing well-rounded human beings who will assume their places in society as responsible citizens. Both these institutions in modern society have the full support of Christian Churches as being necessary to society's wellbeing. In other words, the modern Christian Church, as a societal institution, has a vested interest in the humanization of society in the sense I have described it above. What the institutional church does in its religious educational programs is as much for the purpose of humanizing its members as it is for the purpose of religionizing them, since the ideal church member is also expected to be a responsible member of human society.
It might be surprising to learn that the idea of humanizing society had not occurred to Christians before the fourth century. The early Christians thought of themselves as already belonging to the "household of God" (Eph 2:12) rather than belonging to the present world, for that world was passing away (1 Cor 7:31). The time remaining to them had grown very short (1 Cor 7:29). They stood, they believed, at the very end of time, and hence the usual conventions of first-century society were no longer applicable (1 Cor 7:1-38). The end of the world was coming in their own lifetime (1 Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 10:11). Hence, they were not concerned with the betterment of human society. In fact, the Apostle Paul thought that even the created universe would need to be transformed to "be freed from its shackles of mortality" in order to "enter upon the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:19-25, Revised English Bible).
The New Testament writers used a collective adjective to describe aspects of being human. A human being (a person) was an anthrōpos, and the adjective used to describe our species was anthrōpinos, "human" (1 Cor 2:13, 4:3, 10:13, Rom 6:19, James 3:7, Acts 17:25, 1 Pet 2:13). They never wrote, however, about humanizing an anthropos. In fact, their ancient texts do not even contain a word for "humanizing." The ancient Greeks, however, did have such a word. The word "to humanize" (exanthrōpizō) is used, for example, by Plutarch in a slightly different way than I have used it above. Plutarch described a humanizing of the divine: that is "degrading things divine to a human level."2 On the other hand, I am describing degrees in the quality of human behavior and am arguing for the need to humanize the lesser human as revealed by their negative behavior.
The earliest Christians, on the other hand, were primarily interested in divinizing the human. Here is how the author of 2 Peter puts it:
[God's] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3-4 NRSV).
The Revised English Bible translates the italicized phrase above this way "and may come to share in the very being of God."
Only the most conservative of religious groups have retained the intense end-time expectation. The more moderate have adjusted to life in this world and explain the delay in the end as the author of Second Peter does: the end is delayed because of the "forbearance of the Lord, not wishing that any should perish" (2 Pet 3:3-10). Folks, this little blue and white planet so far as anyone knows is the only place in the universe that can sustain life, we had better get serious in caring for it and helping the lesser humans among us to achieve their full potential as human beings. This planet is all we have. And in my view a planet in the hand is worth two heavens in the mind.
Missouri State University
1Hedrick, "From the Jesus Tradition: On Becoming and Being Human," Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Cascade: Eugene, OR, 2019), 57-58; see also, "On Being Human in the Contemporary World," ibid., 55-56.
2"Isis and Osiris" in F. C. Babbit, Plutarch's Moralia (Loeb Classical Library, 1962), 5.55-56 (360). Plutarch (AD 46 to after 119) was a philosopher and priest of Apollo at the God's cult center in Delphi, Greece.