What does it mean to be human?

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1234567, 810, 11, 12131415.

Lost and Found by Greg Olsen, used with permission
Each subculture has an implicit understanding of what it means to be human. While it's vital in Christian ministry and ethics to be aware of and sensitive to these subjective cultural understandings, our primary focus must be the objective reality of what it means to be human, revealed by God to us in the humanity of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Anderson comments:
The core assertion of a Christian theology [and anthropology] is that the controlling social paradigm by which humanity is defined sets squarely within the objective relations that exist between God and humans, through the humanity of Jesus Christ as divine Son of God. This actuality of real humanity lies at the core of the witness of the Christian tradition concerning the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Christ, thus identifying him as the one who represented the fulfillment of the social reality of Israel as the people of God.... 
For Christian theology the event of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is understood as a social paradigm that defines and determines human nature and destiny. A Christian anthropology does not begin with the "humanity of man" in seeking to find relationship with God. Rather a Christian anthropology begins with the "humanity of God," as observed in the historical person, Jesus Christ, and with the social structure of the new human community within which he himself is known" (pp163-4, emphasis added).
This understanding has significant implications for Christian ministry and ethics in a time when various cultures are radically redefining what it means to be human. While we must be sensitive to what those cultures believe, we must also be reminded of the objective reality of human being as defined by Jesus. As we study the Bible's testimony to that reality, we see in Jesus that humans bear the image of God not as solitary individuals but as beings-in-community. In Jesus we find that "real humanity is fellow humanity" (p165).

Looking to the humanity of Jesus, we also find an essential and complimentary relationship between human genders---what Anderson refers to as "cohumanity," which "integrates biological sexual differentiation into the essential differentiation of the meeting and communion of persons" (p166). These are key concepts in a Christ-centered understanding of human sexuality (including gender distinctions), marriage and family---all "hot topics" being widely debated in our day.

As cultures define and redefine human being and human sexuality, our challenge as Christians is to look to the humanity of Jesus for direction, for in his humanity we find the objective reality of what it means to be truly human. In Jesus we see that real humanity is "a particular form of humanity." Jesus was a male Jew, not a nebulous "everyman." In his humanity, "racial, sexual and cultural distinctives are not obliterated. Instead real humanity is experienced in and through these distinctives" (p168).

This real humanity is exemplified in the earthly ministry of Jesus---in the way he interacted in love with other humans as individual, valued persons often quite different from him:
In drawing persons around him, Jesus re-created humanity in the form of a community of shared life and common identity. Even [his] narrower circle, defined by the specific calling of the twelve, was structurally open to the unclean leper, the tormented demoniac, the self-righteous Pharisee, and the women of ambiguous reputation. In contact with Jesus, humanity is liberated from the blind and capricious powers of nature and disease, as well as from the cruel and inhuman practices of the social and religious tyranny of the strong over the weak. In the real humanity of Jesus we see the humanization as well as the socialization of humanity. 
In his person and his actions Jesus embodied both grace and truth (John 1:17). His moral presence was both convicting and empowering. He drew to his side the fugitive from the law as well as the furtive Pharisee, without shaming either.... He let people be like who they were and offered to help them become who they could be... He did not ask for conformity but for commitment. His style was love, his pattern devotion (pp168-9). 
As seen in Jesus, true humanity is not an individualized humanity standing alone and aloof apart from others, but a shared humanity (co-humanity) grounded in a commitment to love others. By the power of the Spirit, which has been poured out on "all flesh" (Acts 2:17 KJV), that love leads people to authentic repentance that seeks the restoration of their humanity, which means the restoration of right relationships both with other humans and with God. For Jesus, the love that transforms is not a romanticized, individualistic concept, but a way of being and acting in community with others. Love for Jesus is about social humanity, not individual humanity.

In our day, as we embrace and live into this Christ-centered perspective on humanity, we often will find ourselves up against cultural forces that stress an individual (autonomous) humanity that places great value on "doing my own thing," pursuing a self-defined identity apart from any common identity which emphasizes social good. In contrast, a theological anthropology tells us that "the norm for determining what is the good is consistent with the 'humanization of humanity' through Christ (p173, and see Ephesians 2:14-15). What is good and bad, right and wrong, is determined by looking to what "upholds the dignity, integrity and essential value of the other person in the concreteness of every social relation (Eph 4-5)" (p173). It is this ethical criterion that Paul refers to as the obligation and thus the command of love (Romans 13:8, 10). Anderson comments further:
The kingdom of God values love as the core of discipleship... In his letter to the Ephesian Christians, Paul drew out the implications of the gospel of Christ in such a way that the basic structures of that society were to be "humanized" through the activation of the Spirit and law of Christ (p175).
As we seek to join Jesus in his ongoing ministry in our world, let us keep these concepts clearly in mind so that we, with Jesus, connect with and love all kinds of people in all kinds of cultural settings.