What does it mean to be human?
Probably the oldest question known to man, one a Stanford political scientist tried to answer. In Our Post-Human Future, Francis Fukuyama cautioned against altering human nature through biotechnology. The reason? “[T]here is something unique about the human race that entitles every member of the species to a higher moral status than the rest of the natural world.”
He suggests I have a higher moral status than my family dog, Zoe, because of a biological “qualitative leap” in my distant ancestors’ development. This random-chance leap is what gives us dignity, a higher moral status above other beings. He calls this uniqueness “Factor X.”
This “factor” isn’t spiritual, religious, theistic. It’s a genetic and biological quality that was inserted into humanity at some point during the evolutionary process from monkey to human.
This, of course, reflects the scientific worldview. Science Story. Contra the Science Story, the Scripture Story explains Factor X very differently:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness . . . ” (Genesis 1:26)
According to vintage Christianity, Factor X is what we call the Imago Dei.
Like others before him, Protestant Reformer John Calvin believed we are unique because we’ve been created in the image of God. Humanity was made to participate in “the divine wisdom, righteousness, power, holiness, and truth” (Institutes of the Christian Religion) because we were crafted after the Creator of the universe.
Vintage Christians believe we don’t have worth and dignity because we possess a certain highly evolved gene or some bio-social trait. We are valuable, we have worth and dignity, because we are Statues of God.
Stop for a moment. Let that sink in. You have been created in God’s image and likeness. Your mom and brother, boss and neighbor, enemy and friend are molded in the likeness of the Creator.
Stunning. Breathtaking. No words.
The vintage Christian faith reminds me we didn’t just happen. We are not a more advanced version in a long line of other bipedal creatures.
I am not a talking monkey!
I am not a creative, productive bundle of cells and sparking neurotransmitters. No. I am an image of God, a statue created in his likeness. So are you.
But what does it mean to say that we are made in God’s image and likeness?
At some level this is deeply mysterious. But Genesis 5:1–3 gives us a clue:
When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.
When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.
Consider the traits parents pass along to their child. They reason, make moral choices, have a conscience, have emotions, create, communicate, and form relationships — just like Mom and Dad. Genesis 5 seems to say what makes us uniquely human in some way reflects our Creator, like a child reflects her parent.
Those tender moments between you and your spouse or times your friends really supported you are in some way like the relational dynamics of Father, Son, Spirit.
The times of rip-roaring laughter around a table at the pub after a well-timed punchline in some way reflects the cleverness and wit of God.
How you creatively express yourself through music or clothes, writing or sculpting, or any number of creative things somehow reflects the Creator himself.
Consider the rage someone feels in the face of injustice or the inner-movement of the soul after hearing a Bach concerto. We feel and experience emotion because God is emotive.
Also, consider our gender. Swiss theologian Karl Barth emphasized that human existence as male and female is not something secondary to the Image, it’s fundamental to being created in God’s likeness. There is a masculine side and a feminine side to humanity because that’s what God is like. Gender and sexuality aren’t human constructs — they reflect God himself.
Fukuyama is right: there is a Factor X that sets us apart from animals and mildew.
That factor is God, which has massive implications for our human story!
It matters for the 12 year old Thai girls that American businessmen use for personal pleasure.
It matters for the men and women who bake in the heat of Washington, D.C. summers.
It matters for the Dalits, the millions of “untouchables” who suffocate under the oppressive wet blanket of India’s caste system and are regarded as less than the roaming street cattle.
It matters for the millions of Romanian orphans who fill entire hospital wards like caged rabbits and enter a life of prostitution and organized crime because they’re illiterate, nonfunctioning societal throwaways.
Every person on the planet matters because everyone bears the image of the very Creator who crafted them from the ground on which they walk.
We are not talking monkeys. We are statues of God.
That’s what it means to be human.
This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the “vintage” Christian faith. I invite you to rediscover in the coming months what it means to be a vintage Christian.