What is Man?
by Melissa Cain Travis
“What is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?
You made him little less than God
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him lord over the works of Your hands;
You put everything under his feet.” – Psalm 8:4-6
By far, my favorite subtopic in Christian apologetics is human ontology. That’s fancy philosopher-speak for the study of the nature of mankind. It asks: What, exactly, IS a human being? Or, as the Psalm above words it, “What is man?”
Is Homo sapiens different from the animal kingdom in degree only? In other words, are we simply animals with more highly evolved cognitive capacities, including rationality? Is our “self” nothing more than our material brain? Or, are we different in kind, meaning, is there something about man that makes him essentially distinct from any other living creature, and thus, of higher value?
According to orthodox Christianity, human beings are a different kind of being altogether. Most importantly, we all have a soul, a self, which can be defined as the immaterial mind–the seat of rationality and moral awareness. Many theologians have said that having an immortal human soul (as opposed to a finite animal soul) is what it means to be made in the imago Dei, the image of God. It is this distinctivethat imparts a supreme value to
humans. This is why Christians have strong convictions on bioethical issues in particular. We believe that humans are equally valuable from the moment of conception to their final breath, and should be protected and treasured at every single moment in between. To be sure, animals have considerable worth as part of God’s good creation, but human health and survival always trumps that of any animal.
Contrast this view with that of the materialist, who denies this sharp discontinuity between humans and all other organisms. By their lights, we are only different in degree, thanks to blind evolutionary processes. Our species is at the top of the food chain thanks to our more sophisticated neural networks. There is, then, no ground upon which to say humans are more precious than any other species. To do so would be to commit “species-ism,” as some atheist bioethicists, such as Peter Singer, have pointed out. Singer, you may be aware, is the Princeton professor who has said that “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons,” and “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” According to Singer, if a baby is born with abnormalities, it should be permissible to perform an after-birth abortion (infanticide) and “start all over.” And you know what? If atheism is true, and humans are only material creatures who are not of higher value and not morally accountable to a higher power, Singer is correct. He is simply being consistent in his worldview…