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What are human beings?

Psalm 8 begins and ends with, “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”18 In between these bookends of praise David, the author,  gives reasons for why we should be in awe of God’s majesty. He cites the wonder of creation and the grandeur of the universe.  

The main thrust of this Psalm – the key point – arises in verse 3 and 4, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Insignificant humans?

In the vastness of the universe, what an insignificant speck I appear to be!

BUT NO!  Because at this point in the Psalm David fixes on an even greater wonder – “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

How does David know this?  Because the Bible tells him so!

Genesis 1 spells it out for us:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  (Gen 1:26-27)

We are not insignificant in this vast universe.  We are God’s special creation - made in His image.

Irrational prejudice?

Now the secular world is not convinced about the sanctity of human life.  Many are a bit fuzzy about what they do believe and most people probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.  

It would be wrong to say that only Christians have respect for human life. However, we need to understand that there is a commonly held belief that what defines human persons is what they can and cannot do and that the sanctity of human life is an irrational prejudice rooted in outdated religious tradition. Whether you are valued as a person or not depends on how you are able to function.  We may call this this functionalism.  (Not to be confused with the philosophical, architectural and sociological notions which are known as functionalism!)

Here are three examples:

  1. Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University.  If we say humans are special he accuses us of speciesism. He has argued that, for example, an adult cat is self-aware and its life has more value than a new-born child or a person suffering from dementia because they are not self-aware.  He uses this idea as an argument for infanticide.  So, according to Singer, the function that makes a human (or non-human) a person is being self-aware.19

  2. Some European politician and economists have been chillingly open about the economic necessity of euthanasia.  Jacques Attali, the former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, has said, “As soon as he gets beyond 60-65 years of age, man lives beyond his capacity to produce, and he costs society a lot of money... euthanasia will be one of the essential instruments of our future societies.”20  So the function here is the capacity to produce. In a similar vein, in 2008, Baroness Warnock the veteran Government adviser and medical ethics expert said, “If you're demented, you're wasting people's lives – your family's lives – and you're wasting the resources of the National Health Service….. if somebody wants to die because they're a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.”  Lady Warnock expanded this idea in an article called 'A Duty to Die?' for a Norwegian periodical.21

  3. Richard Dawkins argued (see here) that it would be “immoral” to carry on with a pregnancy if the mother knew that the child she was carrying had Down’s syndrome.  So the function required here is to be “fully able” - no disability.  He also argued, “Unless you are a vegan (most Pro-Lifers are not) you are in no position to object to abortion,” implying that human life is no more precious than non-human life.

They may sound extreme but all three are from people who are highly influential in forming opinions in today’s culture.

Our confused culture

Our society is a funny mix but even today we do see functionalism partly shape our culture’s attitude to human life.

An unborn child’s life is only protected if it could function outside the womb, currently considered to be 24 weeks. In the United Kingdom we routinely end the lives of around 200,000 perfectly healthy unborn children every year.

Many disabled people feel concerned about the increasing number of well- coordinated campaigns aimed at legitimising the killing of terminally ill and disabled people. There have been reports that the elderly in hospitals and care homes are not always given sufficient care and respect.  

The other side of the coin is the existence of some wonderful examples of care through hospitals, hospices and social services. It’s not all bad news.  But our society is confused.

It’s important that, as Christians, we are not confused.  

We need to understand that our value as a human being does not depend on our function.  As John Wyatt puts it, “In Christian thought, the dignity of a human being resides, not in what you can do, but in what you are, by creation….Our dignity is intrinsic, in the way we have been made, in how God remembers us and calls us.”22

The notion that human beings are God’s special creation, made in his image and precious to him is an essential part of Christian belief and from it comes a respect for the sanctity of all human life. God makes and loves each person, so everyone has value: the unborn baby, the new-born baby, the elderly, the healthy, the ill, useful members of society and those in need of care. As Christians we are called to treat all human life with respect.

18 All Bible references are from NRSV




22 John Wyatt – Matters of Life and Death page 60-61