The recognition of one’s humanity can be an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Life’s fragility, life’s impermanence, life’s intertwinement with imperfection and disappointment—bitter medicines are easier to accept. The Romantic poets called it “the burden of full consciousness.” To look closely at humanity can indeed be a realization of dread and despair.
For poet Philip Larkin, to look closely at humanity was to peer into the absurdity of the human existence. Whatever frenetic, cosmic accident that brought about a species so endowed with consciousness, the sting of mortality, incessant fears of failure, and sieges of shame, doubt, and selfishness was, for Larkin, a bitter irony. In a poem titled “The Building,” he describes the human condition as it is revealed in the rooms of a hospital, where one finds “Humans, caught/On ground curiously neutral, homes and names/Suddenly in abeyance; some are young,/ Some old, but most at that vague age that claims/The end of choice, the last of hope; and all/ Here to confess that something has gone wrong./ It must be error of a serious sort,/ For see how many floors it needs, how tall…”
With or without Larkin’s sense of dread, the confession that “something has gone wrong” is often synonymous with the acknowledgment of humanity. “I’m only human,” is a phrase meant to evoke leniency with shortcoming, while “human” itself in Webster’s dictionary is an adjective for imperfection, weakness, and fragility. Nonetheless, there are some religions that stand diametrically opposed to this idea, seeing humanity with limitless potential, humans as pure, the human spirit as divine. In a vein not unlike Larkin’s agnostic dread, the self-deemed new atheists see the cruel realities of time and chance as reason in and of itself to dismiss the rose-colored lenses of God and religion. Yet quite unlike Larkin’s concluding outlook of meaninglessness and despair, they (inexplicably) suggest a rose-colored view of humanity. Still others emphasize the depravity of humanity to such a leveling degree that no person can stand up under the burden of guilt and disgust.
In deep contrast to such severe or optimistic readings, the Christian view of humanity adds a nuanced dimension to the conversation. Christianity admits that while there is indeed an error of a serious sort, the error is not in “humanness” itself. Rather, something has gone wrong. Thus, in our humanity we find the paradox of a deep and sacred honor at our humanity and a profound and shameful recognition that we cannot access it. Yet our inherent recognition of imperfection is simultaneously an inherent admission that there is indeed such a thing as perfection. The Christian’s advantage, then, is not that they find themselves less fallen and closer to said perfection than others, nor that they find in their religion a means of escaping the world of fragility, brokenness, guilt, and error; the Christian’s advantage is that they are aware of their own broken humanity in a fallen world because they are aware of the perfect human.
“[H]umanity’s mystery,” as one writer expounds, “can be explained only in the mystery of the God who became human. If people want to look into their own mystery—the meaning of their pain, of their work, of their suffering, of their hope—let them put themselves next to Christ. If they accomplish what Christ accomplished—doing the Father’s will, filling themselves with the life that Christ gives the world—they are fulfilling themselves as true human beings. If I find, on comparing myself with Christ, that my life is a contrast, the opposite of his, then my life is a disaster. I cannot explain that mystery except by returning to Christ, who gives authentic features to a person who wants to be genuinely human.”(1)
The author of these words was well acquainted with the mysterious paradox of humanness and the God who became human to call the world to authentic humanity. Oscar Romero was a Salvadoran priest who saw the very worst and the weakest of humanity in the corruption, violence, and suffering of a country at war within itself. A witness to ongoing violations of human rights, Romero spoke out on behalf of the poor and the victimized. In both the abused and the abusers, he saw the image of God, glimpses of Christ, and the dire need for his true humanity. Romero was assassinated in the middle of a church service; fittingly, he was holding up the broken bread of communion, the sign of Christ’s human body, when he died.
In a world with reason to be despairing of humanity, there is still the jarring image of the perfect human, whose only brokenness was at our own hands. Christ is more than someone who came to fix what was wrong. He is the image of all that is right.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.