What makes us human? Well, we’re different from other animals in the way we handle fire, write, draw, laugh, make faces and wear jewellery. But there’s another experience that marks us out – guilt. That might jar with some. But if a convicted rapist showed no remorse we’d think him less than human. Guilt proves we are responsible for our actions. Some people feel guilt unnecessarily and for that they need therapy. But when we’ve done wrong it’s good that we feel bad about it. Like the rest of the animal world we are driven by instincts. But being human involves other impulses that override those animal passions. There is a moral instinct in human beings.
Some of the first words a child says are: “That’s not fair!” Sharing sweets or playing a game, kids have an innate sense of fairness. Is that taught, caught, or part of our human make-up? When we say something is unjust we are behaving as if there is some law over us all that ought to be obeyed. The longing for justice is marbled into the human heart.
The survival instinct, so evident in the animal kingdom, is there in humanity, too, but with a twist. Human beings struggle not only to survive but to be free. The story of the human family told in the Bible is a saga that begins with enslavement and ends in liberation.
There is also a spiritual instinct. There are very few people who haven’t at some stage in their life prayed. Usually it’s when the bottom falls out of our world that we cry out to God. That said, I once met a man who was seeking God because, as he told me, “I’m getting married soon to a beautiful woman and think life’s wonderful and I just want to know if there’s anyone I’ve got to thank for all this!”
This spiritual side to being human has us wondering about our place in the universe. Sometimes you can hear a piece of music and you become aware of another dimension to life. These mystical moments take you by surprise. Maybe, on a walk or looking up into the night sky, you want to reach out and be at one with the rest of creation.
This spiritual intuition connects with that other basic instinct to find love. What we value most about our humanity is our ability to love and be loved. The Beatles rocked the world with “All You Need Is Love”. The fact there’s such a deficit of love doesn’t dull our impulse to go on looking for it.
And the search for love is coupled with the search for truth. John Lennon wrote a song about it – “Just Gimme Some Truth”. He was pretty cynical.
I’m sick and tired of hearing things
From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth . . .
I’ve had enough of watching scenes
Of schizophrenic, egocentric, paranoiac, prima donnas
All I want is the truth now
Just gimme some truth.
Lennon, like other songwriters, poets and philosophers down the ages, called out for some answers to the ancient quest for the truth about being human.
If God was listening (and I think He was) He gave His own unique answer to the question about what makes us human. Instead of giving us a set of statements He gave us a true human being, a perfect person, Jesus. He was passionate about justice, stood by the sick and up for the poor. He was so fuelled with love that when His enemies drove nails through His hands He found the power to forgive. He knew it was the only way to break the vicious cycle of hatred that has torn the world apart since Cain murdered Abel.
When our children were small, I would sometimes idle away the time by taking a coin and placing it under a piece of paper then shade over it with a pencil until the image of the invisible coin came through on to the page. So the image of true humanity comes through to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. He was so perfectly human that His followers deemed Him divine.
Jesus urged the human family to see ourselves on a journey where God is both our origin and our destiny. Finding a purpose to our life brings fulfilment to our humanity.
There’s a story of a little boy splashing about in the mud. His mum was about to shout when he looked up innocently and asked, “Mum, what’s mud for?” “Making bricks,” she retorted. “What are bricks for?” “Houses.” “What are houses for?” “People.” “And what are people for?”
Finally, to be human is to worship. There’s something deep down that forces us to shout out when we see something truly amazing. Imagine a football Cup final or a Wimbledon final, if at the winning shot all the people in the stands stood motionless and silent. It would be weird and unnatural.
When we see something extraordinary we have to acknowledge its worth. That’s worship. It’s natural. It’s human. When we see something good or noble or beautiful we have to worship it. And that’s the human response whenever we come face to face with the Divine. We’re bound to worship. And we do it with music. It’s only human.
James Jones is the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool This is the seventh article in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show