“What does it mean to be a human being?” This is one of those questions I heard in the opening lecture to the required philosophy class in college. It was the kind of thing that made me not like philosophy. I wasn’t interested in hearing historical and contemporary postulations about something that could not really be answered.
Of course, philosophy does not monopolize the market to this question. In some sense, most academic fields have responses. There are anthropological and sociological responses that discuss to how human beings relate to one another – distinctly from how other animals do. There are biological responses – which become political when measured in debates on things like reproductive rights and abortion. And there are theological responses that talk about things like having a soul, being created by divinity, possessing the “breath of God,” and having a purpose.
The fact that I’m a professional theologian suggests that I prefer to wrestle with the religious answers to this question. I believe I have a soul or spirit (I don’t make a distinction, but some theologians do) that will outlive my physical body. I believe that God created me and has a hand in my ongoing development and growth. I believe that God is deeply inside of me, in every breath and every cell – while also being much bigger than I can imagine. And I believe that God calls me to help make the world a better place using the gifts and talents that I have. These ideas ground me, but I’m not sure they make me human. (Honestly, I’m not so convinced that non-human aspects of creation don’t experience some of the same traits I just mentioned.)
I also think that many religions often downplay what it means to be human. There can be such an intense focus on spirit and transcendence and nirvana and perfection and holiness that our humanity can get lost in translation. In Christianity, we are often so focused the idea that Jesus is “fully divine,” that we lose the power of how amazing it is that Jesus is a lot like us: “fully human.”
This week, I was reminded that humanity simply feels like life to me. I was riding my bicycle and said to myself – almost aloud – I feel human again. Cycling makes me feel whole and clear and sane. Having learned to ride a bike later in life (in my teens, forgetting, and again in my late twenties), I’m proud of the fact that I’m actually not falling over. I can feel my mind connect with my body and spirit. I can feel the breeze on my face, and the sun on my arms. I mean it like it came out that day: cycling is one of those things that restores my humanity.
It’s entirely possible that my depressed neural system simply needs an infusion of endorphins everyday. And my cells appreciate the additional oxygen from aerobic breathing. I don’t deny that. But that’s not how I feel it.
I feel like there are things that eat away at my humanity. Everyday. Long meetings, violence on television, sitting in a traffic jam, fighting racism and sexism, fussing at children. Those are just a couple. They operate so slowly and surreptitiously that I don’t even realize how bad I feel until I get on my bike and feel life infused into my pores once again.
My humanity seems to be on some kind of sliding scale from -10 to +10. There are things that move me along the scale. Of course, I need the things that keep me on the positive side. They give me life. They keep me alive. Cycling is one of them. Cooking is another. (I’ve actually given an entire lecture on how baking and biking serve as spiritual disciplines in the context of depression.) I have friends who say the same things about walking or yoga or making pottery.
My hobbies are my lifelines.
They are the things that connect me to God, my self, my spirit, my body and the world outside of me. In especially difficult seasons, they are the only things that curb the lifeless numb feeling – which is like falling off the ten-to-ten scale. Sometimes I get resentful that these things are not optional for me. I don’t do certain things just for fun. I do them because I need them to feel human.
I hope that the second century bishop Irenaeus was correct when he wrote the following words (I adapted them for inclusivity):
The glory of God is humanity fully alive,
and the life of humanity is the vision of God.
If he’s right, the things I do – that I assume we all must do – to be well and to feel and to have life, are not just survival skills in a kit we acquire over time. Rather, the whirl of the tires, looking out for traffic, the tough uphill climbs and the glorious moments of cruising downwards are actually worship.