How are we to understand human existence? Are we one edge of a cosmic event that will never be explained, an event that is simply happening without purpose, that could either go on forever or end in an instant and make no difference, sustained for the moment by some constant physical laws, but ultimately suspended over nothing more than whirl and flux?5
Within this purposeless cosmos, are we like other organisms, perhaps a little smarter, but driven by the same instincts of hunger, reproduction, and territoriality - just clever enough to transmute our desire to survive or our will-to-power into moral systems and cultures? Or, is the cosmos meant for some end? Are we, its human inhabitants, part of its purposive intent, large or small, and, if so, what role have we been assigned?
These are not the only two options, but they do represent two metaphysical poles. Either reality has a given meaning and purpose, or it does not. Many positions may be taken between these two poles, depending upon different degrees of modesty with respect to what our limited hearts and minds are capable of comprehending about a transcendent telos, or upon different mixtures of humanly concocted and transcend-ently determined ends. But this is the metaphysical continuum within which reflection on human nature rests. Views of human nature found in popular culture cover the entire continuum - although with certain preferences to which we frequently return.
Following Mircea Eliade, a culture's myths of origin are a reliable place to look for the culture's answers to the questions Who are we? and For what are we meant? The book of Genesis has been mined by theologians in both Judaism and Christianity for ways to answer these questions. Both Genesis 1, with its pithy claim that men and women were made in the image of God, and Genesis 2-4, with its more leisurely told story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, offer ample material for speculating on who we are and for what we are meant. Christian theologians have speculated several alternatives for what was meant by the "image of God": the capacity for reason, creativity, free-will, power over nature, self-awareness, and our relationality (with God and others). Whichever of these ways of reflecting the image of God is claimed then serves as the axis around which a theologian's view of human nature revolves. If reason is the axis of who we are, then the use of reason is promoted as the preeminent activity for which we exist. If relationality is the axis of who we are, then building community is the supreme work we are to do, the work that fulfills our purpose and identity. Genesis 2 adds to this flattering picture of our being made in the image of God the humbling news that we are also formed of the dust of the ground. Beyond this description of our composite nature - dirt that has been impressed with the image of God and then respirated to life with the breath of God - the first two chapters of Genesis provide direct instructions regarding human responsibilities, and thus what it is that we are for: to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over all non-human creatures, till and keep the garden, name the animals, cling to one's mate, and to not eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In reflecting on the theological anthropology of popular culture, it is worthwhile to ask two sorts of questions. First, assuming we still have a reflex - a kind of image of God reflex - that seeks to imitate whatever transcendent powers we recognize and respect, what powers are we imitating? Second, what myths do we rely on in our efforts to discern what our status in the universe is and for what ends we are meant? What assignments can be found in these myths, what purposes do they promote for us to conform our lives to, what bearings do they provide?
Was this article helpful?