What Does it Mean to be Human?

Part of being human is about knowing ourselves, even why we are here. The late beloved Jewish philosopher and theologian, Abraham Heschel, asserted this very thing:

“It’s not enough for me to be able to say ‘I am’; I want to know who I am and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?”

Psychologist Arthur Deikman also wrote, “Human beings need meaning. Without it they suffer… Western Psychotherapy is hard put to meet human beings’ need for meaning, for it attempts to understand clinical phenomena in a framework based on scientific materialism in which meaning is arbitrary and purpose nonexistent.”

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The late psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor,  affirmed, “Man’s search for meaning is a primary force in his life.”

Os Guinness, in The Journey, points to the late professor of philosophy, Dallas Willard, who said, “[Human life] essentially involves meaning. Meaning is not a luxury for us. It is a kind of spiritual oxygen, we might say, that enables our soul to live.”

Even the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche admitted that without a “why” for our lives, we remain fragile. He wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear any how.”

When we have a goal, a reason for our being here, we can endure far more than if we are just living for pleasure. It is our confident purpose for living that allows us to see beyond our painful circumstances to a joy beyond ourselves.

Nevertheless, there is also the opposite – the pursuit of diversion, a desperate respite from trying to figure out life. The late scientist, mathematician, and inventor, Blaise Pascal, wrote that humanity seeks diversion:

“From thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show… It is not that they bring happiness nor anyone imagines that true bliss comes from possessing the money won at gaming or the hare that is hunted.”

Why is it, if finding our purpose for being is so central to our being, that do we avoid it through distractions? Pascal wrote, “If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from it. Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”

Well, isn’t the meaning of life and the comfort that it is supposed to bring discoverable? Not according to the late British skeptic and philosopher David Hume wrote in Treatise of Human Nature: “Most unfortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature [pleasure] herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bend of mind, or by some avocation and lively impression of my senses, which obliterates all these chimeras. I drive, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends… ”

Even the brilliant Hume could not figure life out. Therefore, he resorted to sensual pleasures.

However, if Hume couldn’t figure life out, what hope have we? Perhaps Hume started with the wrong assumption or paradigm. It’s like starting with the wrong button. Every subsequent button will be misplaced until we go back to the beginning, but are we willing to?

Well, what is Hume’s misplaced initial button – the button which had become his guarded and cherished bedrock? Atheist Stephen Knight, host of the Godless Spellchecker podcast, acknowledged that, without God, “Oblivion looms.” He says, “When we reject the imagined supernatural meaning from our existence, what we’re left with is far from a consolation prize. Sure, it’ll be messy at times, sometimes joyous, sometimes miserable, but it’s all we’ll ever know. And it’s ours. We invent comforting lies to distract us from one simple truth: Oblivion looms. So, what are you going to do about it?”

What is the “comforting lie” to which Knight alludes? Heaven, an afterlife! But perhaps the atheist also has his comforting lie – an oblivion where he will not be judged, which allows him to live in the way he wants, at least for now.

Why would anyone prefer oblivion above the possibility of finding God? Atheist and author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, explained his rejection of the Christian faith. He says, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning [and moral absolutes]; consequently assumed that it had none…We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.”

Huxley was right. Meaninglessness is a choice of the wrong initial button and not a lack of intelligence or evidence. But why would anyone make such a choice? Jesus explained, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)

Consequently, meaninglessness and the pursuit of diversion are the costs for rejecting the light – the choice we make.

Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has taught theology, Old Testament, and Apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 24 years and has written several books, including Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way. He is a contributing writer for the Christian Research Journal. Follow him: MannsWord.blogspot.com, or join his Facebook groups, Apologetics for Today, Seekers with Questions about Christianity, Christians with Vexing Issues Seeking Truth and Straight Talk.

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