Spiritual Reflection: What does it mean to be human?

What is man that you are mindful of him?

The son of man, that you care for him?

Psalm 8

At the start of each month, I come to reflect on fundamentals: what does it mean to be human?

Three aspects emerged at the start of this October, in 2019:

  1. To be human is to be created
  2. To be human is to interdependent
  3. To be human is to be complex

Created

Although my culture in 21st century Britain emphasises autonomy, actually I find that this is not an accurate description of being human. I did not create myself: I was born to my parents, as they were to theirs, and so the chain goes back into history.

As human beings we are created, not autonomous. Michelangelo’s interpretation of being created tells me this is something incredibly energetic and vital:

The creative power behind human being is a God of love and energy, without whom I would not have life – as Adam, in this painting, just lounges lifelessly, awaiting God’s touch.

Interdependent

Just as I am not autonomous in origin, so I am not autonomous in living. I depend on air, water, food, the earth, and especially other people. Collaboration is one of the most powerful forces available to us as human beings. Synergy multiplies our capabilities hundreds and hundreds of times. We were made to live together.

I love the way the angels dance together synergistically in this painting by Botticelli:

To live interdependently is a great challenge: the devils scuttle away at the bottom of Botticelli’s painting, reminding us that mixed motives and the presence of evil in life is never too far away. When we seek to live with others, we must deal with problems and darknesses in ourselves and in others, without losing the vision of those angels at the top of the painting, dancing in perfect harmony.

Complex

To be human is to be a complex of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” captures something of the mystical beauty and complexity of humanity:

“Vitruvian Man”, Leonardo Da Vinci

Probably most of us are more like Van Eyck’s “Adam” below, though: not perfectly symmetrical, not beautiful in every way.

Adam, from The Ghent Altarpiece, Van Eyck

And yet, as the inside of The Ghent Altarpiece reveals, our physical existence is only part of the complexity of what it means to be human:

In Van Eyck’s vision, Adam and Eve (top left and top right) are just part of a much bigger spiritual picture, with God top centre, and the mystical “Lamb of God” and the fountain of life in the middle at the bottom. Humanity assembles from the four corners of the earth to worship and acknowledge their createdness, their dependence on each other and in God, and their physical, emotional and spiritual complexity.

What is man that you are mindful of him?

The son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 8

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