What is a Human Being?

You may have noticed recently that in mainstream media the term “pregnant woman/women” is almost never used. Instead, articles will use the language of “pregnant person/people.” Why do you think that is? Or perhaps you’ve seen TikTok videos of parents proudly parading out their transgender-identified 10 year old girl or boy for the world to see. Author and journalist Abigail Shrier has even written a best-selling book on what she refers to as a “transgender craze” among girls.

Whereas only a few years ago, the question was whether or not same-sex marriage ought to be legal (thereby re-defining the very meaning of marriage itself, at least legally), the transgender movement takes this cultural development considerably further to questions concerning human nature and identity. If Bruce Jenner can simply become Caitlyn Jenner and we’re all supposed to accept and even applaud this transition, then fundamental questions about who we are as human beings inevitably come to the fore. What is a human being? Do all human beings share what we might call a human nature? Is human identity something that we receive from an external source or must each individual human being determine their own identity as a matter of self-expression?

In his recent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, theologian Carl Trueman sets out to unpack how our culture has come to see questions of identity in the way it now has. Specifically, he addresses why it is that a particular statement–“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body”–has, as he says, “come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful.” Having just finished reading it, I highly recommend Trueman’s book (or the newly released popular level version). It will help you understand how it is that our society has reached the point where biological sex–the actual physical reality or embodiment that is our basic experience as human beings–has become virtually disconnected from gender and the way in which many experience their consciousness of being a self. By the word self Trueman means the following: “For me to be a self in the sense I am using the term here involves an understanding of what the purpose of my life is, of what constitutes the good life, of how I understand myself–my self–in relation to others and to the world around me.” Through his analysis of pertinent philosophical and cultural history, he shows how we have reached the state where for many a sense of self–or self-consciousness–involves “a prioritization of the individual’s inner psychology–we might even say ‘feelings’ or ‘intuitions’–for our sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is.” In other words, today a person is who they feel themselves to be, irrespective of biological or other considerations.

As one example of this, a recent episode of “Dr. Phil” featured panelists that included two individuals who identify as a gender other than their biological sex. One is self-described as “non-binary transmasculine.” One of the other panelists was conservative Catholic podcaster Matt Walsh. At one point during the discussion, Walsh asked what seems like a simple straightforward question, “What is a woman?” This is a question that for most of human history was an easy question to answer. Apparently not so now.

This clip encapsulates precisely what is at issue in this conversation around transgenderism, identity, and human nature. And what is quite clear from the conversation is that not only is there serious disagreement over gender and identity, there is also a deeper, more fundamental difference about where we get our sense of identity and about how we know who we are. Or: What is human nature? Does it transcend our inner sense of self or can it be reduced to who we feel we are?

Christians need to seek biblical clarity and wisdom with respect to these questions. At a time when many understand love and compassion to mean an unquestioning acceptance of profoundly shifting norms concerning human sexuality and identity, Christians need to discern ways to love their neighbours without uncritically flowing with the cultural tide. Put more pointedly: If we have a family member, friend, or neighbour who chooses to identify as a gender that does not correspond to their biological sex, then how do we relate to this person with love and wisdom, with both truth and compassion? Knowing how to relate to such an individual means, first, having a foundational understanding of what it means to be a human being. Because love apart from truth will almost inevitably devolve into mere sentimentality. If I conclude that loving someone means accepting and living as though they are who they feel they are, even if who they feel they are has no basis in actual reality, am I truly loving them or am I actually causing that person further harm? When does love become simply an exercise in preserving the goodwill in the relationship? I am not saying that navigating these questions is easy, but if we have to navigate them, do we not want to do so in a way that is honest and that seeks to apply a biblical understanding of personhood even to the closest of our relationships? Put another way: Can we not love someone–and indeed love someone fiercely–even without accepting their every decision and impulse?

Not only that, of course, but Christians cannot separate loving our neighbours from loving God. The two great commandments, given in the Old Testament and reaffirmed by Jesus and the whole New Testament, are profoundly interconnected. Except that we need to understand what it means to love our neighbour via what it means to love God. Loving God is the first great commandment. Loving God means knowing God as he has revealed himself to be. It means our relationship with God ought to determine what it means to love other people. Loving someone, therefore, doesn’t mean loving them exclusively according to their definition of love. Instead, loving someone means desiring for them what God wants for them. And that is something we come to know through a careful and prayerful reading of Scripture. This careful and prayerful reading of Scripture also includes discerning what it means to be human, and what it means to have been made male and female, and then applying this biblical teaching of who we are as human beings with sensitivity, love, and conviction to our culture’s current conversation surrounding sex and gender. So I want to do a bit of that here to the extent that I am able. I want to say a few things based on the the first account in Genesis of God creating humanity. Here is the verse:

So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

Genesis 1:27

So what do we see here about what it means to be a human being? I will mention two things. The first and most obvious point is that we are creatures, which means we are not the result of a mindless and purposeless biological process. Our existence is the result of divine action. God created man. We are not an accidental product of evolution. As creatures, we have a Creator. Or you might say a Designer. In other words, God created human beings with intention and purpose. We are here for a reason. There is nothing random about the way we were made. We are not an “oops!” in the mind of God.

Second, he created us male and female. Whatever else we say about this, at the very least it means that there are only two actual, possible genders. And none of us gets to choose which gender we are. Our gender identity is identical to our biological sex, and this sexual identity is something we are given, not something we choose or that we can change without distorting reality or mutilating our physical bodies.

An important implication, therefore, of the biblical account is that we have an external source of identity and purpose as human beings. We only know what it means to be a human being—and what it means to be a man or a woman—because God tells us. There is a fundamental sense in which we do not get to decide or even change who we are as individual conscious selves.

This is directly contrary to how people in our culture—including even some Christians—often view questions of identity and human nature. Human personhood is very nearly altogether defined by one’s internal sense of self, and is largely, therefore, psychological. Divorced almost entirely from questions of biology, the modern self is malleable to the extreme. Is it any wonder, then, that there are people who choose to physically alter their bodies in dramatic ways so it conforms to their internally determined identity?

Of course, to identify someone as male or female isn’t the same thing as cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity. Nor does it provide immediate wisdom or direction about how to handle personal conversations or relationships that involve these questions of gender and identity. So even if I accept the basic biblical understanding of gender and identity, there is still the matter of how I interact with someone who views these questions differently. If someone I know and love were to reach the conclusion that their internal sense of self does not align with their biological sex, there is still the matter of how I show love and compassion to this person. Because whatever else that person believes about their gender and identity–about who they are as a particular human being–he or she has been made in the image of God. And as we engage in these challenging and complex conversations, as people of faith it is here that we must start.

5 thoughts on “What is a Human Being?

    1. I appreciate Matt Walsh very much. My only criticism is that on his show he sometimes adopts an unnecessarily harsh or unkind tone I’m not sure is appropriate for a person of faith. I would prefer Christians to stand apart from their secular counterparts not only by what they say but by how they say it. That said, Walsh is often quite insightful in his commentary on contemporary issues.

      1. I feel the same way about harsh tones by Christian influencers . I do wish they could use their influence without coming across as rude or sarcastic .

  1. Pingback: What is a Human Being? Part 2 – grace notes

  2. Pingback: What is a Human Being? Part 3 – grace notes

Leave a Reply to pkadams Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s