What is “human”?

As of yesterday, I’m no longer quite so sure what BioLogos means when it affirms that “God intended humanity.” There are some signs that wriggle-room may have been left for “humanity” to mean something like “some species with self awareness and complex civilisations.” The relevant BL thread has now, characteristically, long since been deserted by the BioLogos staff to be picked over by scavengers, so clarification is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Whatever their own position, though, Ken Miller thinks a roll of the evolutionary dice would have produced “human” dinosaurs or squid, Stuart Conway Morris seems to figure only on A. N. Intelligent-Species filling the “God’s image” niche, and his 2011 BioLogos commentator was certainly open to a very non-hominin kind of rational spiritual being when he wrote “This thought can be unsettling to anyone who imagines our particular body plan is part of the imago Dei, or image of God.”

In other words, it would seem that there are many TEs for whom our bauplan is irrelevant to our particular relationship with God, and if our bauplan, then so too our entire biological makeup. Such an attitude is not uncommon. For example, one old comment on Darrel Falk’s thread (referenced in my first-linked comment above) reads:

What if dolphins, elephants, kangaroos, crows or squids evolved the requisite cognitive abilities before apes. Might God have chosen two of those to be his Adam and Eve?

I don’t see a problem with that.

Other people, however, do see a problem – and not the facile one that “image” means that humans are physically of like appearance to God. God does not have a physical appearance, and theologians have never doubted the fact. Christ took on human form, too (rather than retaining his divine form because it was the same). That of itself does not mean he might not have taken on the form of our hypothetical intelligent squid or slime-mould. But down the history of the Church, many theologians have placed providential significance on the actual form of the human body, such as his standing upright (to rule) or his lack of biological weaponry (to be peaceable).

Often this takes the form of the special dignity accorded to mankind, as in H. sapiens, by the Incarnation. But even before that, Jewish thinking accorded a special importance to the physical (and mental) form given to us by God’s wisdom and foresight. The nineteenth century Rabbi Hirsch, whom I cited regarding freedom as holiness recently, wrote a commentary on the Torah:

Indeed the whole Torah rests primarily on making the body holy. The entire morality of human beings rests on the fact that the human body, with all its urges, forces and organs, was formed commensurately with the godly calling of man and is to be kept holy and dedicated to that godly calling. Nothing digs the grave of the moral calling of man more effectively than the erroneous conception which cleaves asunder the nature of man. Only recognizing godlike dignity in the spirit, it directs the spirit to elevate itself to the heights, and in mind and thought to soar upwards to a higher sphere, but leaves the body to unbridled licence, animal-like, nay lower than animal.

The unity of the human being as an inseparable physico-spiritual whole is a uniquely Jewish concept that became part of Christianity, though often threatened by the attraction of supposedly more spiritual and less physical concepts of man, as held by the gnostics. Ed Feser, in a recent post about death, recognises the importance of this as a Catholic Christian:

…St. Paul puts so much emphasis on the resurrection. This is intelligible only if the body is integral to human nature in a way the Platonic-Cartesian view cannot account for. Death is your enemy and resurrection your hope because you are radically incomplete without your body — so incomplete that there is a sense in which you are gone after death and return only with the resurrection.

There seems a tendency in the “any form will do” idea to separate out certain abstract qualities, like intelligence or moral awareness, from that indivisible human unity. They are seen as the real content of the “intention” of God, the rest of us being optional. Once they are produced by evolution then they either constitute, or else are graced with, God’s image.

This definition of man in terms of particular attributes, most often reason, is a direct product of the Enlightenment and Cartesian dualism. I saw it in medicine in the assertion, supported even by some Christian medics, that abortion is not a moral issue until fetuses “become people”, implying that the emergence of conscious intelligence or sociability is co-terminous with the emergence of humanness. Hence new terms were grafted on to embryology, which had always taught that biologically, human life begins at conception; terms such as “pre-embryo”, or the even more dehumanizing “pre-implantation zygotic material.” I find a resonance in this with the idea that God’s planning isn’t involved with trivia like which phylum we came from, but just with the important thing: a generic kind of reason interchangeable between men, dolphins and, presumably, angels too (do they evolve, I wonder?)

But is there only one kind of intelligence or morality? Paul taught that marriage was given us as a type of the eternal relationship between Christ and his Church. And marriage is fundamentally to do with the concept of family and the nurture of children.

All fatherhood, Paul also said, has its pattern in God’s Fatherhood. So primate culture relates directly to the deepest spiritual realities. But those spiritual realities have very little traction in the life of the squid, for example, whose intelligent members would, presumably, still inevitably produce tens of thousand of eggs and leave them to develop as larvae on their own. One could multiply such examples, but the underlying truth is this: to be human, in God’s image, is about the totality of what we were created to be, not a subset of qualities which evolution turns up more or less regularly.

Hirsch’s dichotomy between an overstated “spirit” and a bestial physicality may not be universal, but is common enough. It formed part of the proto-gnostic ideas Paul opposed in Corinth, where sexual immorality was seen as fine because it was suitable to that corrupt physical body, from which the divinely-given spirit was insulated. It was seen too, in my lifetime, in the cult the Children of God, whose excursions into debauchery were justified as “ripping off the devil’s system.”

In more pious form the dualism persists in popular Christianity in the purely platonic idea that death frees the soul from this worthless physical body to fly to heaven for eternity. But according to the Bible, and the example of Jesus himself, the saints will spend eternity embodied. The Christian hope is resurrection, not transmigration. It would seem at least likely that God would have some preferences about the form of body and mind most suited to life in the eternal realm.

The Robert Bishop essay referenced by Deborah Haarsma (see my earlier post) has many strengths, but a few odd moments. For example:

If, as the DoC teaches, God intends for creation to become itself, something distinctly different from God, then we would expect to find it has capacities for development and growth. Indeed, biblically creation is God’s project moving towards its calling instead of being a static work completed in the past. Psalms 104 and 139:13, among others, indicate that God’s acts of creation didn’t cease with the “seventh day” of Genesis 2. Evolutionary mechanisms are consistent with this biblical expectation and represent a means by which God fulfills His intention for creation to participate in becoming what it’s called to be in Christ.

Bishop based this divine intention for creation to “become itself” on God’s commands of the form, “Let the earth bring forth…” in Genesis 1. It is, in fact, quite a logical leap from “Let things grow from the earth” (the writer’s most obvious underlying idea) to the expectation that evolution is a theological necessity, or the hint that there is some creaturely self-motivation in the process. Psalm 139’s “You knitted together in my mother’s womb,” is scarcely the language of participation, albeit it decribes the ongoing nature of God’s activity. Neither is Psalm 104’s completely theocentric view:

When you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath, they return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit, they are created,and you renew the face of the earth.

But even if we accept the somewhat lax use of the texts used here to puff evolution, the beginning and end remain pretty clear: “God fulfills his intention … becoming what it’s called to be in Christ.” The process of efficient causes in between is, theologically, a somewhat irrelevant detail. There is nothing in that to suggest that God would intend humanity with anything less than complete detailed foresight and planning, nor that our becoming should be vary biologically from his intention. Nothing less would be commensurate with God’s wisdom and sovereignty, nor fulfill his intentions in other than the vaguest way.

If he had wanted spiritual squid, he would have specified spiritual squid when he commanded the waters to bring them forth. Instead (in a unique phrase) he said, “Let us make man [adam] in own image, in our likeness.”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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