Home » Sermons » Old Testament » Genesis » Crucial Words in the Christian Vocabulary: [Wo]man


Crucial Words in the Christian Vocabulary: [Wo]man


Genesis 1:24-31   Colossians 1:15-20     Luke 8:1-3


Are you an angel, a devil or an animal? As a matter of fact different writers have argued that humankind is at bottom an angel in disguise or a devil in disguise or an animal that thinks it’s more than an animal. Two decades ago Mr Desmond Morris’s book, Trousered Apes, told everyone what Morris thought: we humans are animals who dress up and think that dressing up elevates us.

What about you or me as individuals? Are we merely an insignificant cog in a powerful machine? Chinese and Korean communists would say yes. Or are we merely a twitch, as short-lived and unremarkable as any twitch? Jean Paul Sartre, existentialist philosopher, would say yes. Or am I as a male a nuisance; worse than a nuisance, an oppressor whose presence ought always to be monitored? Feminists, at least many of them, would say yes.

Then what am I? What are you? Who is a human being? The question is crucial, for unless we answer it correctly our misunderstanding of what we are will impoverish our own humanness and threaten the world of the non-human as well.

In answering the question, “What is it to be human?,” let’s imagine an extra-terrestrial being, like “ET” of yesteryear, visiting us. What would an extra-terrestrial being discover about us? What should it discover?


I: — It would surely notice immediately that we human beings are rooted in the world of nature.   We belong to the realm of plants and animals. According to the old story in Genesis we were created on the same “day” as the animals. Animals need plants to survive. We need plants to survive. The Hebrew poet reminds us that we come from the dust of the earth. Humus is the Latin word for “earth.” We humans ought to remain humble (even though we don’t;) humans ought to remain humble because however high falutin’ we think ourselves to be, we come from humus, earth, and our remains shall return to it. We are never angelic; that is, we humans are never pure spirit, never unembodied spirit. We never escape our earth-ness. We are intimately bound up with nature. And of course the most modern ecologist agrees. Ecologists tell us that either we humans are going to rediscover and re-own our inescapable oneness with nature or we are going to perish at the hands of the nature we have poisoned.

If ever we think we have left the realm of nature behind all we have to do is wait until part of our body doesn’t work properly. And if the breakdown in body-part is accompanied by pain, we can think of little else. Pain alters personality; pain is a challenge to character. Protracted pain threatens sanity. And even if there’s no pain, a very small amount of extra tissue growing in one’s brain will unhinge personality and undo stability frighteningly.

In saying that we humans never escape our earth-ness we aren’t saying there’s nothing more to us than there is to the plant or the animal. We aren’t denying the unique features of our humanness: art, music, poetry, imagination, abstract thought. They are wonderful indeed, and they are part of what distinguishes us from the animal world. Yet they all occur in us humans whose fragility is linked to the fragility of nature. William Shakespeare could write matchless plays inasmuch as the plant and animal world sustained him, there was non-toxic air to breathe, and his body hadn’t broken down to the point where his mental functioning was impaired.

In the interest of helping human beings we do massive medical research on animals. We don’t use animals just because they are plentiful and cheap; we use animals because there are the most significant physical similarities between them and us. If there weren’t then medical research with animals wouldn’t profit humans at all.

We must be sure to note that our earth-ness doesn’t diminish our humanness; it doesn’t degrade us. Instead it exalts the realm of nature. It doesn’t rob us of our honour; instead it recognizes that honour which God intends nature to have. Our affinity with nature doesn’t demean nature; instead it dignifies everything God deems necessary for us who are apple of his eye and alone made in his image.

Most people look upon reptiles, for instance, as ugly. We might fondle our dog but we’d never kiss an alligator. Still, if alligators could talk they’d say, “Shepherd, you may not be fond of me. But you had better understand that you need me while I don’t need you. Remember that, Shepherd: you need me, but I don’t need you. So if you are wise at all you won’t trifle with us alligators and with the whole realm of nature that supports us and you.

The first thing ET has to notice about us is that we are inescapably rooted in nature.


II: — The second truth about us humans is equally obvious: every one of us is either a male or a female, a man or a woman. “And God said,” reads the ancient text in Genesis 1, “Let us make man (’adam, mankind) in our image; male and female created he them (plural).” Two matters leap out at us here. One, the distinction between male and female God has built into the creation; two, we are human only in the context of our gender opposite. Both of these matters require comment.

There are many matters that divide people today, such as differences in wealth, in education, in social opportunity. None of these distinctions, however, is God-ordained. None is built right into the creation. All such distinctions can be overcome in principle, and many of us would say that we should do all we can to overcome them. Differences in financial resources, for instance, are glaring and gruesome. At the same time, we have graduated income tax and social subsidies in order to redistribute wealth and re-equilibrate the divisions among us fostered by disparities in wealth. In the same way we have tax-supported public education to give those who would otherwise have no educational privilege the opportunity of adequate schooling. There remains, however, one distinction in the creation that we ought not to try to overcome: the distinction between man and woman. God has pronounced our gender polarity “good” and we are not to try to transcend it in a “unisex” mentality. For this reason, for instance, scripture forbids cross dressing. Now I notice that many of the women in this congregation, my wife included, wear slacks or trousers to church. Good. There’s nothing wrong with that, for the women who wear slacks are manifestly not trying to pass themselves off as men; there’s no attempt to hide one’s gender or misrepresent oneself sexually or deceive anyone in any way. There’s no attempt to deny that one is a woman and therein deny the gender specificity that God has pronounced “good;” no attempt to obliterate the one and only distinction in the creation that God has said should never be obliterated.

The second comment to be made here: each of us is gender-specific – a male or a female – in the context of the gender opposite. To say that I’m a male is to say that I’m a male with respect to a female. To be sure, the animals are male or female too. But with the animals the male/female distinction serves only the purpose of procreation. With humans, however, the male/female distinction first serves the truth that we are made in the image of God.

This is not to say that God is either male or female, or both male and female. God is not gender specific at all. Still, when we are told that we are made in God’s image two things have to be noted. One, the individual human being is made in God’s image. The individual man, the individual woman, is made in God’s image. Two, the individual man is man only in the context of woman, and the individual woman only in the context of man.   While a dog is dog, male or female, irrespective of gender-opposite (in other words, a male dog all by itself is 100% dog), a male human all by himself can’t be 100% human, can’t be human at all. Humans are individually made in the image of God even as no individual can be individual only. Each of us, man or woman, needs our gender-opposite to be properly human.

I have said we need our gender-opposite. I haven’t said we need to be married; I haven’t said we need to be sexually active. Jesus wasn’t married, wasn’t sexually active, but was human. Indeed, so far from being deficiently or defectively human he is the instance of God’s intention for our humanness. At the same time, we should be sure to note that while Jesus wasn’t married and wasn’t sexually active he moved among women every day, moved among them with no awkwardness, and moved among them in ways that horrified the people of his day. He called at the home of Mary and Martha, unmarried women. This wasn’t done in his day. He allowed a menhorragic woman to touch him. This wasn’t done. He spoke in public with a woman of the shadiest reputation (five times married) when men didn’t even speak to their wives in public. He had several women in his larger group of disciples (Luke tells us), when some of these women were single and some were already married. It was women who were last at the cross (at least they didn’t abandon him) and first at the grave on Easter morning. Obviously they loved him. They relished his company and he relished theirs. They enriched him and he enriched them. At bottom, apart from them he wouldn’t have been human and apart from him they wouldn’t have been either. (This, by the way, is a truth that the shriller feminists fail to grasp.)

There was nothing inappropriate in these encounters. At the same time there was everything necessary in these encounters. The truth is God ordains, requires even, a mutual, complementary engagement and delight for all men and women, including those who aren’t married and never will be.

To be human is to be gender-specific and gender-complemented.


III: — Our extra-terrestrial visitor notices a third thing about us. We are individuals who live in societies. Both the individual and the society must be protected. When you asked an ancient Israelite his name he always gave you his name together with the name of his tribe. (Jesus belongs to the tribe of Judah .) Why? Because he knew that he is who he is only in the context of his community.

But the converse is true as well. A community differs from a crowd in that a community cherishes and protects individuals while a crowd submerges individuals. Our world is burdened with societies that trample individuals. The USSR did so for 75 years and could revert to doing so at any time. Germany did so in a Reich that lasted only 12 years but intended to last 1000. Not to mention China (the single largest nation in the world), North Korea , Indonesia (now we are identifying right-wing disdain for the individual), many countries in Africa, and of course so very many countries in Latin America that we shan’t attempt to list them. After the “disappeared” people of Argentina had remained “disappeared” for several years, the government of Argentina shamelessly announced what everyone had surmised already: the disappeared were dead. They were dead, the government announced, inasmuch as the government had killed them.

Christians must always recognize the balance between individual and society, individual and community. We must always recognize the need for the balance and the exquisite delicacy to the balance. We must always recognize why individual and community are essential to each other. After all, without the preservation of the individual the community becomes a crowd (also known as a mob.) On the other hand without the preservation of the community the individual person becomes a thing. The balance is exquisitely fine and exquisitely challenging to maintain.

One place in our society where this necessary balance is visible, together with its attendant sensitivities, is the school. Parents expect the school (which is a mini-society) to educate their youngsters for personal edification and employment, promote character formation in them, and all of this to the end of producing solid citizens. But every educator knows that no school can uphold standards of intellectual rigour and decency and deportment and civility and ethical integrity; no school can uphold these if the individual parent doesn’t or the community doesn’t. On the other hand, no conscientious parent can uphold what a school consistently undermines.

Individual and society always interpenetrate each other and regulate each other. Jesus belongs to the tribe of Judah .


IV: — Our extra terrestrial visitor might notice one last feature of us human beings, even though it isn’t last in importance. Then again, our “ET”’ visitor might not notice it since it isn’t obvious as our gender specificity is obvious. This feature is that we are made for fellowship with God. While we are discussing it last this morning it’s actually first. It’s not the case that our engagement with God is an add-on, a decoration, a frill, an after-thought. Rather it is the profoundest truth about us. To be a human being is to be God’s cheerful, grateful obedient covenant partner.

Christians know that human existence is always relational. When we speak of a thing like a tree or a termite we know that where trees and termites are concerned to exist is simply to be. But where humans are concerned to exist is to be-in-relation. We have already seen this with respect to gender specificity: to exist at all is to exist either as male or female; and to exist as male or female is to be-in-relation to female or male.

It’s the same with respect to God. While God doesn’t need humankind in order to be God, God has willed himself not to be God apart from humankind. God has willed himself to be God only in intimate, undeflectible covenant solidarity with humankind. And as for us, we can be human at all only as we are human in relation to him. To say that this is truth, this is reality, is not to say that everyone is aware of the truth or welcomes the truth or one day will own the truth. But it is to say that truth remains truth, reality remains reality, just because God has willed himself to be God only in relation to us and has willed us to be human in relation to him. Doesn’t Jesus say that it is his meat and drink to do the will of his Father?

If we disdain our appointment as God’s glad, grateful covenant partners we shall ravage nature, foolishly thinking that our attitude to God’s creation and our sustenance doesn’t matter.

If we disdain our appointment as God’s glad, grateful covenant partners then we, as men and women, are stuck with a hostile standoff where all we can do is torment one another. We shall then have men exploiting and brutalizing women. (This aspect of the standoff is centuries old.) Or we shall have women sneering contemptuously at men. (This aspect of the standoff is centuries old too but has come to the surface only recently.)

If we disdain our appointment as God’s glad, grateful covenant partners we shall rant and rave about our individual rights, caring nothing for anyone else. Or we shall undiscerningly support those social collectivities that promise much, deliver little, and always manage to brutalize and bury individuals.

Our appointment as God’s glad, grateful covenant partners is our call to communion with him. This dimension of the human isn’t the least and the last of many; this is the foundation of all others and their preservative as well.

We must be sure notice something too readily overlooked: it is only our appointment as God’s covenant partners that confers and conserves our dignity and worth. Even when God’s invitation goes unheeded; that is, even when there is lacking the response of faith and obedience, nevertheless the fact of God’s invitation continues to confer a dignity and worth that can’t be eliminated and can’t be forfeited. There is no other source of human dignity and worth.

When Maureen’s mother was institutionalized in a nursing home Maureen visited her faithfully, never complaining about it, thankful that such provision was available. One afternoon, having been exposed to the nursing home scene yet again, Maureen stumbled home and said to me, “There is no such thing as innate human dignity or innate human worth. Apart from God’s having appointed us to covenant partnership with him there isn’t any dignity or worth at all.” She was right.   There is no evident, observable dignity in people who are mindless, toothless, toiletless.

Then what are we?   Angel? Devil? Animal? Twitch? Cog? Feminist fodder? We are none of these. We are those creatures with whom God wanted fellowship and whom he wanted never to be without before he created so much as one atom. In fact all that he’s created he has created for the sake of us who are made in his image, who are the apple of his eye, and whom he loves, Good Friday’s cross tells us, more than he loves himself. Why wouldn’t we love him now and want only to love him forever?


                                                                                              Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                   

March 2004