Theological Anthropology, FTW

So, it turns out that human beings aren’t simply–to use Stephen Hawking’s term–“chemical scum” after all. A recent article in The Washington Post by Harvard University’s Howard A. Smith argues that human beings are, in fact, “cosmically special.”  According to the article,

The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life. The strengths of the four forces that operate in the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions (the latter two dominate only at the level of atoms) — for example, have values critically suited for life, and were they even a few percent different, we would not be here. The most extreme example is the big bang creation: Even an infinitesimal change to its explosive expansion value would preclude life. The frequent response from physicists offers a speculative solution: an infinite number of universes — we are just living in the one with the right value. But modern philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and pioneering quantum physicists such as John Wheeler have argued instead that intelligent beings must somehow be the directed goal of such a curiously fine-tuned cosmos.

Christians (and Jews and Muslims, for that matter) have long asserted the uniqueness of human life, but in the wake of the European Enlightenment this idea has fallen on hard times. Human beings, some have argued, are simply a collection of elements that happened to achieve intelligence and self-awareness. Thus once again faith and science appeared to be at odds with one another. Now perhaps this conflict is becoming confluence.

I became interested in theological anthropology–a specifically Christian understanding of human existence– through my interest in theology and disability. In particular, it became apparent to me that people with intellectual disabilities, and especially profound disabilities, were commonly regarded as somehow lacking an essential quality that constituted humanity. Such a perspective is deeply at odds with some of the best insights of the Christian tradition. I think this is where I would go farther than the scientific insights presently take us. It is not just the intelligence of human beings that makes us special. There is an innate quality given to us by God that differentiates us. Most Christians would likely agree with this, but many denominations–particularly Protestant ones–lack sufficient theological resources to address this matter effectively. Along these lines, I highly recommend Hans Reinders’ book, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2008).

Some of you reading this post will have scientific backgrounds that will allow you to explore the topic of this post far more deeply than I have. Please do so. Please bring this topic more broadly into the arena of public discourse. Please tell me where my understanding is simplistic, naive, or otherwise off base. Let’s hash it out and allow the arguments to stand and fall on their own merits. If Smith’s claims are somehow spurious, we should know this. But if they aren’t, let’s take these claims seriously and think about how they relate to Christian theological notions about the nature of human beings.

I don’t need scientists to tell me that human beings occupy a special place in the cosmos, but I’ll take it. In this day in which human bodies are routinely objectified through pornography; over 20 million people are currently trapped in human trafficking; African Americans have to express loudly and publicly that their lives matter; people with Down syndrome are being systematically eliminated in utero; cases of euthanasia are increasing in Western Europe in the United States… . Shall I go on? It is as imperative as it has ever been that we understand and teach that, yes, there is something special, something unique about human life.

We are not just a collection of chemicals. We are not another commodity. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Our faith has always taught us this. If scientists teach it as well, so much the better.


7 thoughts on “Theological Anthropology, FTW

  1. A fundamental ethical failing we make as human beings is to think that we are somehow superior because we see ourselves as special. Being somehow endowed with certain qualities that make us “special” lends itself to the abuse of any non-human or human who does not fit our rather narcissistic idea of our “specialness.” We are special at being particularly destructive and cruel, at being selfish to the extent that we defile, torture, destroy and decimate all that God creates in the name of our specialness. If we were truly great – we would be as Christ. One of the great lessons of my life has been that those who are truly extraordinary – those worthy of being human – are those whose humility, compassion and conviction that they were imbued with a profound responsibility to all life on this Earth — this is the measure of whether humans are truly great or not. I see this fundamental argument about whether we are unique or not misses the issue entirely. The fact that there are people who have to band together to tell other humans that black lives matter – or that people with disabilities are people too – this is symptomatic of this completely self-centered argument we are having. We torture animals in labs and destroy whole species because we think we have a right to — in order to make ourselves prosper. I would say regardless of what science tells us until we all commit unerringly to Christ’s example – we will see a constant fight where the destruction of others — all human and non-human that God created continues. Let us not forget that God created extraordinary life that is not human as well. Until we love all of God’s creation – we will continue to run into racism, mysogyny, speceism and other forms of cruelty and destruction.

  2. Thanks, again, Dr. Watson, for your thoughts on the issue of “disability” and theological anthropology. Perhaps the one person within the Christian tradition who has substantively witnessed to the contribution of the disabled (often profoundly disabled) is Jean Vanier and the people of L’Arche. Without people with disabilities, the human community is less human and therefore loses the image of God. Intellect and intellectual acumen are not the identifying mark of God’s image, or even God’s likeness, in a human being. All life, every life, is gift. Thanks.

  3. Smith is reiterating an older argument based on the anthropic principle that is frequently accepted by physicists but often debated as well, especially its interpretation. Another argument that can add to the case is the strong emergence of consciousness which has inspired much thought around its “hard problem”. The evolution of consciousness and its existence as a non-derivative/non-reducible strong emergent property illustrates the uniqueness of the human person is much if not more than anything in philosophy and neuroscience. Further, if it can be proven (work needs to be done), that consciousness is the measurement the collapses the wave function in quantum mechanics then we really have something unique about the human person

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