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What is human?


Introductory remarks on the occasion of the presentation of the anthology “What is Human? Theological Encounters with Anthropology”, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2017

By Kirsten Nielsen (translated from Danish by Ray Carlton Jones) June 2017

I would like to begin with my warmest congratulations on the occasion of the publication of the book that we are celebrating today. And let me say at once that it is indeed a pleasure to have a book such as this, in which the reader receives so much guidance in the form of a clear and precise introduction, a well-arranged structure, good presentations of the authors and their contributions, as well as all the relevant indexes.

In the introduction to the book we can read that the articles are the result of an interdisciplinary cooperative effort. This is not a new idea, but it is important to work across the different academic disciplines and to engage with other disciplines, such as, for example, comparative literature, history, and philosophy. As theologians, we study the bible as literature. We pose historical and cultural historical questions to the texts, and we are also concerned with philosophical issues.  Theology is thus, by definition, an interdisciplinary subject.

As theologians we have naturally and constantly occupied ourselves with the view of human nature that the biblical texts and the entire Christian tradition bear witness to, but given that the book has the subtitle “Theological Encounters with Anthropology”, it is also thereby fitting that the purpose of the book is to engage with viewpoints and methods that are employed in the field of anthropology.

The Greek word anthropos means human being. Anthropology is thus the study of what it means to be human.  However, when Jan Dietrich in the book's first contribution deals with the question of what it means to be human, it is not a question of an abstract concept. His approach is that of social anthropology, and in that field it is a question of studying human beings and their behavior in social and cultural contexts. 

Characteristically, Jan Dietrich thus entitles his contribution “Human Relationality and Sociality in Ancient Israel”. In his introduction Jan Dietrich emphasizes the following: “Relationality and sociality are not accidental, but essential, features of man: The human being, particularly in the Old Testament, has always been a creature in relation with other creatures and can only be understood based on this relatedness and its special forms. It is the human being's relatedness to God, to the world, to oneself, to fellow human beings, and to animals and plants that is reflected in the stories and metaphors of the Old Testament” (p.23). The relationship to animals is, however, a subject that Jan Dietrich only deals with in a very marginal way, even though in my view this relationship is an important component of Old Testament anthropology. 

But to return to the inter-human relationships: throughout the article Jan Dietrich makes it clear how human relatedness is shown by something as basic as the words that Hebrew employs to describe the various bodily parts. As can be read on p. 25: “... many of the body terms in the Old Testament are concepts that carry socio-anthropological connotations, and relationality is also shown in corporeality”. The investigation and interpretation of the terms in question reveal that this understanding of corporeality in the Old Testament is correct. Indeed, we use our eyes, ears, and mouths to communicate with others, and by the same token arms, hands, feet, and heads are employed in social relations; but how much of all this is unique to the Old Testament perception of the body and for the Hebrew language? How much of this is culturally bound, and how much of these understandings are universal, in that every human being has a body?

Another important point in Jan Dietrich’s article is the significance of collective remembrance, which is a subject that has been a concern of scholars in recent years. Collective remembrance does not only create “a shared identity”, but it also strengthens communal ties, and it can also act as an admonition to take on social responsibility and to be merciful to the weak (p.32). This is certainly true for the injunction: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (cf. Deut 5:15). The remembrance of the period of slavery in Egypt should encourage the Israelite to take care of those in need. By means of collective remembrance, the individual Israelite is not only able to put herself/himself in the other person's place, but she/he should also be able to act on the basis of her/his own experience, and, therefore, be able to assist those in need.

When I read Svend Andersen's article on The Golden Rule, I was struck by the fact that the different understandings of this rule are also possibly relevant for interpreting the words about the period of slavery in Egypt. Andersen discusses the way in which Martin Luther understands the Golden Rule, and he emphasizes that for Luther it is more a question of role-exchange than it is of gift-giving (p.177). Andersen differentiates, therefore, between “the reciprocity of gift-giving – as described by anthropologists in the wake of Marcel Mauss – and the reciprocity of role exchange” (p.177).

With a point of departure in these considerations, it would, therefore, be interesting be present at a discussion between Jan Dietrich and Svend Andersen on the matters of gift-giving and role-exchange. Does the reference to the time of slavery in Egypt only imply a form of role-exchange, or is it a question of both gift-giving and role-exchange?

And I would also like to be present if Jan Dietrich and Svend Andersen had a discussion with Ole Davidsen on the basis of his article “Blended Reciprocation: Matt 5:38-42 in Narrative Perspective”. Matt 5:38-42 is the passage where Jesus rejects the Lex Talionis (“an eye for an eye”) and instead exhorts his disciples to turn the other cheek.  After a thorough analysis of the text and with the inclusion of insights from anthropology, Davidsen concludes as follows: “Jesus advocates a certain social strategy for those who find themselves facing superior opponents. This consists neither in passive submission nor in an exchange of takings and injuries, but in proactive assertiveness in the form of blended reciprocation. This unconventional behavior is founded on solid anthropological experience. Taking and injuring are bad and are a force of death, since they hamper or destroy life and life possibilities, while giving and serving are good and are a force for life, because they promote and protect life and life possibilities” (p.119-120).

With these considerations in mind, I would like to know if we can discern a connection between the admonition to remember the time of slavery in Egypt, and thereby treat others who are in need with generosity, and the Golden Rule that exhorts us to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matt 7:12), and, furthermore to the injunction to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38-42)?

There is a close connection between the admonition to remember the time of slavery in Egypt and the theme of Line Søgaard Christensen's article. Line Søgaard describes the Israelite as a homo repetitivus; one who should constantly take part in a self-shaping and repeated practice in order to transform his or her own human condition. This practice, as a general phenomenon, is called anthropotechnics (Anthropotechnik) by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk” (p.45). An expression such as homo repetitivus shows that it is not simply a matter of the Israelite view of human nature, but of something universal, which is valid for every human being. But it is important to note that the universal aspect is true for the act of repetition, but not for what must be repeated, namely, the cultural substance.

Line Søgaard characterizes Peter Sloterdijk's concept of anthropotechnics as “a new anthropological approach that entails a system of selfshaping and repeated practice as a way to transform the human condition” (p.46). As an example of this repeated practice, Sloterdijk mentions the athlete's training, where it is a matter of keeping up and perfecting one’s form. And what the Israelite is training for is indeed to be an Israelite, i.e., one who remains firm in her/his own tradition and not least to her/his own God. The individual Israelite should be a homo repetitivus, and here we are confronted with a combination of something universal and something that is culturally conditioned (the specific content of what is to be repeated). 

The articles that are to be found in the section entitled “Anthropology in Christian History and Culture: Systematic and Ethical Perspectives”, also deal with that which is universal and that which is culturally determined. Svend Andersen mentions among other things that the Golden Rule for Marcus G. Singer is an example of “a fundamental moral truth” and “a fundamental demand of justice” (p.182-183). One should be able to claim that a rule such as the Golden Rule could be made a general rule, so that it would be valid for everyone.

The emphasis placed on the notion that ethical demands are valid for everyone leads me to raise the question: what is really meant by the word “human”  in concrete social and cultural contexts? Does this always apply to each individual?

Johannes Nissen, whose article contains “Theological Reflections on Diaconia, Welfare Society, and Human Dignity”, concerns himself with the question of what the increasing tendency in today's Denmark to employ the principle of “something for something” means for the view of human nature. The foundation of the Danish welfare system is, in fact, “something for nothing”! Nissen has no doubt that the new tendency of “something for something” has had consequences, and he emphasizes that the elderly, the destitute, the handicapped, and also the jobless are not accorded full human dignity (p.364).

The same thoughts are set forth in Ulrik Nissen's article, “What is a human body?”, where he points out that the understanding of the body has consequences for “the understanding of pre-natal life and for the bioethical issues arising as the body grows old or weak” (p.326). Do we still consider the fetus and the old person to be valid people?

And what is the case with what Benedikte Hammer Præstholm calls “Gendered Anthropology between Theology and Culture” (p.291)?  How culturally determined are our conceptions of gender?

With all this in mind, I must ask whether or not what is said in the articles on the biblical view of what it means to be human also includes women and children, the old and the ill?

Bernhard Lang, who is “an honorary professor at Aarhus University” has contributed to the book with an article entitled “New Light on the Levites. The Biblical Group that Invented Belief in Life after Death in Heaven”. Bernhard Lang attaches great importance to the role of the Levites as teachers, but his main interest is concerned with a special part of their teaching, namely, “the belief in life after death”. Bernhard Lang’s analysis involves considerations concerning the connection between the fact that the Levites were not “landowners” and their notion that a life after death awaited them – not in Sheol, but in heaven. Normally, it was necessary to own land in order to be a valid member of society, but the Levites were an important exception. And given their special status as a group that didn't own land, they created thereby their own “cultural and religious pattern”.

Lang emphasizes that it is a distinctive feature of the Levites that they gave up ownership of land, and that they did not have a close attachment to the family and their forefathers. In addition, it is important to note that they understood Yahweh to be their “heritage”. Therefore, Lang concludes as follows concerning the Levites: “The land was excluded from their ideology. They did not venerate their ancestors; instead, they worshipped Yahweh, their heavenly patron … Rather than expecting life after death in Sheol … they expected life after death with God in heaven” (p.82-83). And precisely this shift from “ancestor cult and Sheol to worship of God alone and heaven … made an enormous impact on the history of religion.  It gave rise to a standard doctrine of the religion of the Western world – belief in a blissful afterlife in heaven” (p.83).

Bernhard Lang has hereby set forth a provocative thesis that really deserves to be discussed.

In his article “Anthropology or Ethnic Stereotyping in Paul?”, Jacob Mortensen deals with the question of to what extent a universal anthropology is to be found in the writings of Paul. He shows how Paul makes use of the phenomenon of Ethnic Stereotyping when he in Romans describes himself as a true Jew and the heathens as enemies of God (p.148).  Mortensen states that Paul's “perspective – all through Romans – is collective and historical” (p.149). This also means that Paul in no way comes close to “any universal or ontological anthropology” (p.145). And Mortensen sharpens the tone when he concludes: “Paul's description of gentiles is idiosyncratic and stereotypical from a Jewish point of view” (p.145). Jacob Mortensen’s thesis thus clashes with the views of what other scholars in the area of New Testament studies have argued, namely, that Paul set forth a universal or ontological anthropology.

Jacob Mortensen’s close reading of Romans raises once again, therefore, the question of universality. Is it a modern phenomenon to think universally? Do we read universal points of view into some of the biblical texts, which in reality deal with points of view within narrow cultural frameworks?

With these thoughts in mind it is indeed intriguing to read what René Falkenberg has to say about “the old and new human being in Manichaen texts” (p.155-168). Falkenberg’s thesis is that the Manichaen conception of the old and the new human being is to a great degree dependent upon Pauline theology. Falkenberg points out that in Romans 5, Paul speaks about Adam as “the first human being” over against “the second human being (Christ)” (p.157). After noting this, Falkenberg discusses assertions from Colossians and Ephesians concerning the new human being and labels these as reminiscences of “Paul's presentation of creation theology (i.e., his Adam/Christ speculation)” (p.158). In this connection, I would like to ask Jacob Mortensen and René Falkenberg as to whether or not there is in Paul's discussion of Adam over against Christ a form of universal anthropology, where in principle there is the possibility of universal salvation, i.e., whether or not there is the possibility for every human being to become the new human being.

Let me as the last example of an analysis of the biblical view of human nature mention Eve-Marie Becker's article on “the human self” and Paul's use of the word merimna, which can be translated as “anxiety” and “care”.  In her analysis of Paul's view of marriage over against being single, Becker emphasizes that the word merimna for Paul is “a basic pattern of anthropology and ethics”. And while Paul in his letters to the congregation in Corinth most often is concerned with the “communal affairs of the Corinthian community”, in 1 Corinthians 7 it is first and foremost a question of “each person's existential anxiety”, and, note well, that it is a question of men's as well as women's existential anxiety (p.130)!

It is important for Becker to emphasize that Paul did not develop “a comprehensive anthropological or ethical concept. However … Paul not only takes the conditio humana seriously, he also develops ethical discourse in the direction of individual decision-making” (p.131). Thus, “anxiety” and “care” become “individual habits of Pauline anthropology and ethics”. And indeed it would appear that there can be drawn a straight line to modern philosophy's understandings of the individual and her/his ethical responsibility. But on this point Becker is cautious, for she has learned from Harold Bloom that it is better with “a Shakespearean reading of Freud” than with “a Freudian reading of Shakespeare”. Therefore, Eve-Marie Becker also prefers “a Pauline reading of philosophy over a philosophical reading of Paul” (p.131).

And with this formulation Eve-Marie Becker touches upon what I find to be crucial for the book as a whole. For it is all well and good that the authors have incorporated anthropological theories in their studies, but there is in this book first and foremost theological readings in dialogue with anthropology, so that the biblical texts can make their contribution to anthropology's central question: “What is Human?”.

In conclusion, I would like to return to the book's introduction, where the editors note that it is up to the readers to decide whether or not there is “a certain profile of an Aarhus Theology” behind the various authors in their contributions to “What is Human?” (p.18). For my part, I view the collaboration itself between the various theological disciplines, with the point of departure in a question rather than in a thesis, as a fine expression of Aarhus theology. Throughout the entire book there is an openness and inquisitiveness that is valid for the matter in question. And let me add, that it is a joy to see that the contributors have worked with the relevant original languages, Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, and Latin. For one thing we at Aarhus can be proud of is that we maintain a classic tradition of knowledge, while at the same time we are open to new theories and methods.

Therefore: warm congratulations with the publication of “What is Human?”!