World Religions What Does it Mean to Be Human?

World Religions What Does it Mean to Be Human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Over the course of the past several weeks we have explored a variety of competing ways of being human. Where do you stand in this debate? Why? Your answer should:

Take a clear, well defined answer to the question,

Demonstrate an understanding of the history and current state of the question.

Defend your position and answer counter-arguments.

What kind of arguments are relevant?

Hermeneutic arguments based on the interpretation of texts and other cultural artifacts which you find authoritative, provided you use historical critical method.

Narrative arguments which show that the story you prefer is large enough to contain and contextualize competing stories.

Social scientific arguments which assess the historic impact of the traditions in question.

Philosophical elements which make credible assumptions and use logical inference.

Theological arguments which use philosophical methods to explain and render credible the results of historical critical interpretation of texts and other artifacts which you find acceptable.

What is not acceptable?

Arguments from authority (e.g. “This is what the Bible/ Quran/Bhagavadgita/ Sutra x says; This is what I was brought up to believe.

Purely affective arguments (e.g. “This is what fees right.)

Unsupported assertions.

Primal Ways

Thesis: The phenomenal world is an organized meaningful cosmos of which humanity is an integral part As human society develops horticulture this harmony is understood as increasingly dynamic in character and humanity is increasingly understood a participant in the creative process.

Arguments: No formal arguments at this stage; mostly images and stories such as the Keres origin myth.

Sacral Monarchic Ways

Thesis: The universe comes into being through sacrifice (think Tezcatlipoca or Purusha) and is sustained by warfare and sacrifice. Humans become divine by means of conquest and by conducting sacrifices such as the rajasuya which deify them.

Arguments: No formal arguments at this point, mostly images and stories, though there are modern and postmodern variants of this worldview (e.g. Nietzsche, traditionalism) which argue that the universe is essentially a war of all against all which we inevitable lose, a claim which can be evaluated based on empirical evidence and logical argument.

The Way of Wisdom

Thesis: The phenomenal world is largely an illusion. What is really real is Being, the Good, Brahman, or the web of Interdependent Origination. By cultivating wisdom through dialectics and or contemplative practice we become detached from impermanent phenomena and become (by way of just action) connatural with the creative power behind the universe (Being/Brahman) or (by way of compassion) with the web of interdependent origination.

Dialectical arguments such as those advanced by Plato, Aristotle, Vedanta, many Buddhist sutras; contemplative practice leading to direct, experiential, nonconceptual knowledge.

The Way of Harmony

Thesis: The universe is naturally harmonious, but has fallen into discord. Humanity is called to restore that harmony and ripen being. We do this through force and law (Legalism), universal love (Mohism), study, ritual, and contemplation (Confucianism) or yielding to the Tao (Taoism), or by some combination of these.

Arguments: Most Chinese sages made informal arguments based on examples of how their teaching encouraged health, inner peace, and more harmonious social relationships.

The Way of Justice

Thesis: The fundamental problem of human life is oppression and injustice. We know God first and foremost in the just act.

Jewish variant: Knowing God through deliberation around what the Law means in constantly changing social contexts.

Christian variant: Knowing God by persevering in the struggle for justice through and beyond death; loving with God’s own love.

Muslim variant: Commanding right and forbidding wrong

Arguments: The stories of Israel, Jesus, the Muslim Liberation supplemented by philosophical reflection.


Thesis: Here the story of Jesus is told not so that we will emulate him and be transformed but rather as evidence that God has paid the price for our sins and offers us salvation as a free give, provided we join ourselves to Christ in faith. We are then called to live out our faith in the world. As Max Weber pointed out, especially in the case of Calvinism, which taught that God predestined some to salvation and others to damnation without respect to any foreknowledge of merit, this became a powerful catalyst to capitalist development and industrialization, as people looked for evidence of their election in their degree of usefulness to society.

Argument: While there are arguments to be made for the Calvinist reading of the scriptures, a great deal of the power of Calvinism historically came from its association with emerging capitalism and the industrial revolution.

Technocratic Secularism

Technocratic secularism carries this trend further. As the scientific revolution progressed humanity became less and less convinced that God was “necessary” to explain the universe and more and more confident of its own ability to push back the limits of finitude. The result is a range of perspectives from the relatively sober and even pessmistic New Atheists who see humanity as a (temporary) island of meaning in an ordered by ultimately meaningless universe to advocates of the Omega Point Theory who believe that humanity will eventually be capable of re-engineering the universe and “building God.”

Here, of course, the arguments in question are scientific. But just as it is important to avoid naive literalism in interpreting religious texts, we also need to avoid naive scientism. We may not need the idea of God to explain the emergence of complex organization, life, and intelligence, but science, strictly speaking, does not even try to explain why there is something rather than nothing.

Humanistic Secularism

Humanistic secularism, finally, aims to push back the limits of contingency by creating a political subject which can make humanity the master of its own destiny. For liberalism the property owning or rationally autonomous individual is this subject. For democracy it is the people as body of citizens and for populism the people as ethnos or nation. For communism, finally, it is the working class.

Here the relevant arguments are philosophical and social scientific.


It has recently become fashionable to regard all of these “grand narratives” as merely attempts by one or another social groups to advance its interests.

“Postmoderism” dedicates itself to deconstructing these grand narratives. But then it does so in the name of an idea –Justice– which cannot itself be deconstructed.

Your Mission

This is a complex field with many players and many arguments. I don’t expect you to decide now once and for all where you stand, or to come with fully developed and polished arguments. But surely you have some leanings, and surely this course has helped you understand better where you fit in the debate. Give it at try.

The Way of Justice and Liberation: Judaism

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