A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 10

WHAT IS MAN?

IDEAS differ as much about man as they do about God. Where did man come from? What is he? What kind of stuff is he made of?

I. THE ORIGIN OF MAN

The Christian answer has always been very simple: God created man. Can we hold that in the face of modern science? Traditional theology built up its picture on the basis of the Genesis story: man was created perfect and complete, fully endowed in mind and spirit, some six thousand years ago. Modern science, on the contrary, thinks of the human race as having come by a slow process of development from lower forms of life, and as having existed anywhere from three hundred thousand to a million years.

When Darwinism first came, men feared that it would do away entirely with the Christian belief as to man. Three objections were raised: it destroyed the authority of the Bible; it denied God as Creator and made man a product of "Nature"; it degraded man to the beasts. The fears have proven false. The discussion has helped to a better understanding alike of what science can do and of what faith involves. (1) The Bible is not revealed science and history. Its authority is in the field of the ethical and spiritual; it shows us what God is and what man should be. (2) To speak of nature does not rule out God; to hold to evolution does not eliminate creation. (3) A faith for today must hold to a God who is in all the life and process of nature as its order, its directing purpose, its sustaining energy, and not merely in some "gap" or special event here or there. What we have is a new picture of how God creates. (4) What man is is decided not by what he came from but by what h has attained. Every single human being was once nothing more than a microscopic germ in the womb. What difference does it make if the race in like fashion came by growth from some such primordial germ?

Just how God worked creatively in making man we cannot tell. The modern conception of emergent evolution, called by some creative evolution, recognizes that in the long process that prepared for man there was a succession of emerging levels, one rising above the other, but each resting upon what went before. The appearance of man was the great event in this long story. "The breach between ethical man and prehuman nature," writes Sir J. Arthur Thomson, the distinguished scientist, "constitutes, without exception, the most important fact which the universe has to show." He thinks that man "'probably arose by a mutation; that is to say, by a discontinuous variation of a considerable magnitude." When the conditions were present, something new and higher appeared; that is creativity. Science cannot explain it and does not seek to, for its task is simply to describe the process. Religion sees as the only adequate ground a living, purposeful, creative God.

This creative work of God is still going on, not only in the heavens above, where astronomy tells us of the birth and death of stars, but here on earth and with man. According to H. F. Osborn, distinguished anthropologist, the high point of man's "natural" development was perhaps reached thirty or forty thousand years ago in western Europe with the Cro-Magnon race which was the equal in psychophysical endowment of the highest races today. But human evolution has not ceased; it is simply going forward on other levels—social, cultural, spiritual.

II. WHAT IS MAN?

No one word can answer the question, What is man? Man is many things. He classifies biologically as a primate, closely related to the anthropoid apes. Bone for bone, muscle for muscle, organ for organ, you can compare him with the ape, or, indeed, with an animal like the horse. He shares with his brother animals many basic impulses and passions. Analyzed chemically, the average adult is composed of ten gallons of water, twenty-four pounds of carbon (coal, if you will), seven pounds of lime, one and four fifths of phosphorus, a half teaspoonful of sugar, with nine times as much salt, some oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, iron enough for one large nail, and a few other chemicals. These are all facts beyond dispute, but the crucial question remains: Is this all there is to man? Is he a chemical compound or a rational spirit? Is he a sum of electrical energies, a particularly complex pattern of protons and electrons, or is he a self, a soul? Is he a mere resultant of mechanical forces, or is he a free agent who can follow high ideals? Is he a "high grade simian, or a son of God"?

On the one side we have the naturalistic answers. They vary, but all agree that man can be explained in terms of the physical. Man is a mere sum of habits resulting from mechanical response to physical stimuli, says J. B. Watson, the behaviorist. Man's personality is the product of the endocrine glands, others say, moved by the discovery of the profound influences of the ductless glands alike upon man's physical and psychical being. Others apply the physical yardstick, like Harlow Shapley, the astronomer, who points out the enormous expanse of the universe and so finds man "in all ways small—inconsequential in every respect except, perhaps, in the chemical complexities of our mental relations." (Even a great astronomer can be naive outside of his own field, as in this bland assumption that thought is a chemical process.) Harry Elmer Barnes, sociologist, finds in human history "nothing but the record of the responses of a bio-chemical entity to terrestrial stimulation." Popularly this is often just the revival of a crude materialism, which becomes a convenient way of getting rid of moral ideals at the same time. That can be illustrated by a passage from a best-seller of a few years since, Twenty-Four Hours, by Louis Bromfield. If we deal "with hard realities instead of the unwholesome putrescences of dead moralities," he writes, then we see man as "a piece of machinery, a bundle of glands and nerves and organs." If you fell in love with a lovely woman like Nancy, "there couldn't be any sentiment or romance because you would know exactly what was the matter with you. You would know that it was merely chemical. Men were simply insects of the most insignificant sort being driven by a tyrannical power along paths that had nothing to do with their own wills."

On the other side stand those who believe that man belongs to two worlds, the physical and the spiritual, the seen and the unseen. That does not mean dualism. It does not mean that the physical is evil. Physical and spiritual are both needed. In creative evolution, each stage, rising out of what went before, does not cast off the lower stage, but masters and uses it, taking it up into something higher. Life uses matter, mind uses matter and life, and spirit uses all three. So man is this strange mixture of body and spirit, of earth and heaven. So Fannie Stearns Davis writes of the child as

"Made like a star to shine,

Made like a bird to fly,

Out of a drop of our blood,

And earth, and fire, and God."

But it is this world of the spirit that gives man his distinctive character. From this world we have come, "from God, who is our home"; and this higher world represents our real life, our true goal.

Here, then, is a double peculiarity of man. (1) He is a creature of vision. That does not mean a visionary creature, for what he sees is real and enduring. The animal knows cold and heat, tempest and calm; man discerns the hidden order and reason that is in it all—and that we call science. Lesser creatures are all determined by instinct and impulse reacting to things about them; man sees goods that are unseen, ideals waiting to be realized, standards to rule his action—and that we call ethics. Man sees God—and that we call religion. (2) But man not merely sees the unseen, he makes it his goal. He is a creature of infinite longing and divine discontent. Other creatures live only in the world of "is," man in the world of "ought." With man evolution comes to a new stage. There is now more than a blind urge, or an unconscious process. Creation comes to consciousness; the creature sees what it means and enters into the task. Reason is here, and God says, "Son of man, stand upon thy feet. Come now and let us reason together." Here is a will that can choose, and men become co-creators, "workers together with God." So begins man's endless search for a city, unseen and yet with sure foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Man lives in a world that is and in one that is to be. "I tell you," writes Shaw in his Man and Superman, "that as long as I can conceive something better than myself, I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it. That is the law of my life." In Augustine's great word: "Thou has made us unto thyself, and our souls are restless till they rest in thee."

There are other things that mark man off. (1) He walks erect, with eyes that look up and out, and hands set free to shape instruments and use them. He is the tool-using animal. (2) He has reason, can form general ideas, can interpret what his senses bring, and so enlarge his knowledge as well as rule his world. (3) He has speech, not merely signs and sounds for particular things. Speech led to writing and so made possible a growing culture, a social heritage without which each generation would have to begin at scratch back in barbarism. (4) He is morally free. No argument of the schools has ever shaken that conviction in man. We not only choose but we know we might have chosen otherwise, and so we feel responsible and hold others responsible in law and in common life. We can halt action, reflect, weigh reasons, and decide. (5) Man is the most plastic of all beings. Of all creatures he is most helpless at birth, least formed, and with the longest infancy. But this helpless infant is a bundle of unmeasured possibilities. The chick can peck at its food and run about the day it steps out of its shell, but the chick can never be aught but a chicken. "You cannot change human nature," men say. On the contrary, says John Dewey, man is the most plastic of all beings. So progress, as Browning says, is

      "Man's distinctive mark alone,

Not God's, and not the beasts: God is, they are,

Man partly is and wholly hopes to be."

"It is the nature of human nature to change itself," says Professor Hocking.

We might sum up by saying: Man is a son of God in the making, whose real nature is to be found, not in what he is, but in what he is to be.

And so we can understand the Christian idea of the sacredness of human personality. It is not a matter of how wise and strong and unselfish a given man may be. All humanity is sacred because man is a person and not a thing, because "person" means possibility and destiny. So man must always be treated as an end, never as a means, a truth that the prophets and Jesus asserted long before Kant announced it to the philosophers. Man belongs to God; he is to know him, is to become like him, to enter into fellowship with him and say, "Our Father." One human life outweighs the world in value. He that makes even the least child to "stumble" might better, after the manner of summary criminal execution in that day, have a stone tied to his neck and be drowned in the sea. Humanity is the end, all else is means; all else is here to serve: State and Church, the power of the mighty, the wisdom of the learned, the skill of the trained, the possessions of the rich.

The revolutionary meaning of such ideas appears when we challenge the society of our day in their name. One after another our institutions deny the Christian conception of man. That is true of Fascism, indeed, of all autocracies and militarisms. For them man is the property and tool of State or nation. The women are to breed children for its armies; the men are to create wealth and fight battles to enhance its glory, or to keep its rulers in power. And instead of men being free to think and choose and rule, they are to think according to a State-controlled press and obey without question or reflection. Our industry falls under like condemnation. The concern of God is not with the few, the clever, the mighty, the privileged, but with men as men. Are his eyes shut to the fact that in a land of possible plenty millions are shut off from land and tools and mine, from a chance to earn their bread? And is the Church free from blame? Are there not leaders who are more concerned about maintaining the institution than about serving men, and teachers who are more anxious about dotting "i's" and crossing "t's," according to theological tradition, than about dealing justly and loving kindness and walking humbly with God?

III. HUMAN NATURE: GOOD OR BAD?

What kind of stuff is man made of? Is human nature good or evil? What are its possibilities? The question is no idle one. It not only concerns religion, but all our social hopes and plans depend upon it. The answer will determine what we can plan in education and government and industry, as well as the possibilities of individual life. Democracy, for example, means faith in man, not the idea that the voice of the people is the voice of God, but that despite all weakness and failure, in the end, with education and free discussion, we can trust the intelligence and good faith of the rank and file. Autocracy, where it is not pure selfishness, involves a mean estimate of the common man. So in industry, if man is a purely selfish and materialistic being, then we may claim that a co-operative commonwealth is impossible and we must have a system of competition appealing to self-interest.

The estimate of human nature has been marked by two extremes, which we may call romanticism and pessimism. The first is the idealization of human nature associated with Rousseau and the romanticism of the eighteenth century. Human nature is good when unspoiled by artificial civilization. The simple savage becomes the ideal. To this idea of natural goodness was added that of the "law of progress," which was supposed to follow from the theory of evolution. The popular conception is well expressed by passage in Andrew Carnegie's Autobiography, where he tells of his first acquaintance with Darwin and Spencer: "I had found the truth of evolution. 'All is well since all grows better/ became my motto, my true source of comfort. Man was not created with an instinct for his own degradation." Instead "man absorbed such mental foods as were favorable to him, retaining what was salutary, rejecting what was deleterious." The World War was the tragic answer to this philosophy of optimism, and because of it Mr. Carnegie's Autobiography was never completed. There followed the even more tragic peace of Versailles and the destructive postwar years. Before us stood the darker side of human nature, the forces of evil with which we had to deal in fighting for justice and peace: ignorance, stupidity, inertia, fear, credulity, prejudice, narrowness, selfishness, lust, cruelty, hate.

As a result we have a strong swing today to the other extreme, that of pessimism. We are asked to be realistic; what is meant is cynicism, pessimism, and despair. Man is stupid and incompetent, a creature of impulse and passion, not of reason and insight, and incurably selfish with no motive but his own interest. Such a theory has profound social, as well as religious, consequences. Holding this position, Fascism decides that democracy is impossible, political freedom a delusion, and dictatorship a necessity. Upon this belief militarism rests, for if reason and conscience are not available, the only recourse is war. And if man be essentially egoistic, then the dominant motive in industry must be individual advantage; hence an economic order based on co-operation and rational planning is out of question, and a competitive capitalism remains the last word, with the possible exception of a communism introduced by violence, maintained by force, and divorced from democracy.

But is not this conception of human nature the orthodox Christian view? To answer this we must consider the traditional idea of the fall and total depravity. The Genesis story of the temptation and fall, like that of the creation, is of profound and lasting significance. It was one of the early attempts to face the fact of evil and reconcile it with the goodness of God. Evil is here, says the writer, but it is man's choosing, not God's making. Into this story, which receives but one other mention in the Bible, later theology read its own ideas. The extreme position is that of Augustine and Calvin. Human nature before the fall, they held, was holy and faultless. Adam's one choice at once transformed him and the whole race, which was "in Adam," so that human nature became utterly evil and corrupt. In Calvin's words: "The whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin." Even of newborn infants he says: "Their whole nature is a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God." So these infants, even before they can know or choose, suffer "for their own defects, bringing their condemnation from their mother's womb," which means that newborn infants, dying, might as sinners be justly sent to hell.

We can appreciate the underlying motives of Augustine and Calvin. They wanted men to see the blackness of sin against the holiness of God, and to realize its terrible results. They wished to emphasize the grace of God and man's utter dependence. But Calvin's actual doctrine was a caricature of reality and a departure from the Christian idea. It pictures man as he might be in a world of sin wholly separated from God and good. But humanity is not thus deserted by God, and there is no human nature like this outside the theologian's closet. What this idea of man leads to is seen when we come to Calvin's doctrine of salvation. If man is this utterly evil thing, lacking all vision of God, all desire for good, all capacity to respond, then he is no longer a moral person, but a mere thing, inert and impotent. Then salvation will have to be a one way affair, every step of which is determined by God and God alone. Hence, necessarily, it is God and God alone that decides who is to be saved and who is to be damned; and those who are chosen are saved by a power which they can neither resist nor escape ("irresistible grace" and "the perseverance of the saints"). Salvation, in effect, becomes a mechanical rather than a moral process. And when we consider what Calvin himself calls "the horrible decree," by which God determines in advance who shall be saved and who damned, we see how sovereign power is exalted above character in God, and how his justice and mercy are impugned. If, now, we turn to the Bible, especially the New Testament, we are struck with the extraordinary way in which it unites severity and hopefulness, realism and idealism. Nowhere do you find so severe a judgment on man, such insight into the depths of human evil, such uncompromising judgment. There is certainly no superficial romanticism here, no happy optimism about a human nature that is essentially good and always growing better. Jesus "knew what was in man" and in his life and death he learned what fickleness, indifference, hatred, fear, and selfish cruelty could do. In his work Paul dealt with the dregs of the Roman world. He knew at first hand the big cities like Corinth and Rome—the Rome that was called "the big sewer," into which all the filth of the empire flowed, the Corinth which supplied the word "corinthianize" as a symbol of profligacy. No Roman satirist ever painted a blacker picture than Paul gives in those first chapters of his letter to the Romans. Writing to the Corinthian church he gives a list of reprobates—thieves, drunkards, extortioners, fornicators, and then adds: "And such were some of you."

But even more extraordinary is the other side, the faith and high expectation which the New Testament shows in relation to man. That does not, of course, appear in abstract statement or theory—the New Testament is not a book of theology here or anywhere else; but it can be seen in the way in which it speaks to men and deals with them. Jesus talks with all kinds of folk: fishermen and peasants, army officers and grafting tax collectors, church leaders and heretical Samaritans, prostitutes, condemned criminals, and children at play. To him these all belong to God; he believes it possible for all these to know God and live with him as children. As for Paul, the high ideal of his chapter on love was presented to these same Corinthians as a standard of life.

We will not understand this Christian conception, this strange paradox of severe condemnation and high demand and expectation, except as we see it against the background of the Christian faith. Christianity sees not just the man that is, but the man that may be, and not man by himself but man in relation to God. It judges so severely precisely because it holds this high ideal; it hopes so greatly because of its faith in God. Man is from God, man is made for God, and anything is possible for man through God. When, therefore, we are admonished to be realistic, and it is suggested that we move, with Reinhold Niebuhr, theologically right and economically left, we may agree provided we include the idealism of Christianity with its realism, and take care that we do not swing so far right with traditional theology as to move beyond both Jesus and Paul.

The old phrase from Genesis about man as made "in the image of God" will help to bring out the Christian point of view. Scholars are divided as to what the Genesis writer meant by these words, but the Christian meaning is not obscure. In a very real sense man is like God, and not all his evil can destroy this. He is person as God is, and not thing or beast. He belongs to the realm of the spirit, of love and truth and goodness; that is his glory if he rises to it; that is his greater condemnation if he falls. But this "image of God" points forward too; in its full sense it belongs to the future. It is not some past innocence of paradise, not some imagined perfection of being before the fall; it is the high end that is to be achieved. We are to be children of our Father in heaven, we are to grow up in him who is our head; "it doth not yet appear what we shall be," but we are to be like him.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  • In what ways has modern science helped us to a better understanding of human nature and how to deal with it?
  • At what points does man resemble the lower animals? At what points does he differ from them?
  • Compare the differing conceptions of human nature lying back of Fascism and democracy; of Calvinism and modern liberal thought in religion; of naturalism and idealism. Consider each position as to defects and elements of truth.
  • What are the important elements in the Christian conception of man? What significance do these have for our thought on social problems and our social theories?

FOR FURTHER READING

  • E. R. E.: Articles, "Soul," "Anthropology," "Evolution"
  • J. Y. Simpson: Man and the Attainment of Immortality
  • J. A. Thomson: What Is Man?
  • H. W. Robinson: The Christian Doctrine of Man
  • W. E. Hocking: The Self, Its Body and Freedom
  • G. H. Palmer: The Problem of Freedom
  • G. T. W. Patrick: What Is the Mind?
  • J. Laird: The Idea of the Soul
  • H. A. Overstreet: A Book About Ourselves
  • J. H. Coffin: The Soul Comes Back
  • W. Brown: Science and Personality