The Things That Make Us Most Human

Notes on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 20 March 2016. By John Abbate.

Gentle World, oil pastel on wood 2010 – Jane Aukshunas

“It is a harsh world, indescribably cruel. It is a gentle world, unbelievably beautiful. It is a world that can make us bitter, hateful, rabid, destroyers of joy. It is a world that can draw forth tenderness from us as we lean towards one another over broken gates. It is a world of monsters and saints, a mutilated world, but it is the only one we have been given. We should let it shock us not into hatred or anxiety, but into unconditional love.”

—Richard Holloway

The question seems simple enough, but our attempts at an answer can get us into a “complex tangle.” What are the things that make us most human? For Dr Macnab, an important key to understanding this question is contained the existential theology of Paul Tillich, in particular, his notion of life (or faith) an act of the whole person. “Perhaps it is finding the courage to be a full human being,” said Dr Macnab.

Four things that make us most human:

1. A person needs an inspiring, real community of others for the full expression of his or her personality. In Martin Buber’s terms, I needs thou. The first thing that makes us most human is thus the enrichment that comes from the part we play in a caring community.
2. “I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus said. There is power in mystery, in the thought that there is more to life outside our immediate field of view. Open the door. Jesus pointed beyond himself to a new way to be. Being fully human means appreciating the power and the role of mystery in our lives.
3. “Self-awareness and empathy go hand-in-hand,” said Dr Macnab, “but they need life-long practice.” We must actively promote the values that make us all feel and behave better, as we try to make a better world.
4. Former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, wrote of a world of both “indescribable cruelty” and “unbelievable beauty.” Whether vicariously or directly, the cruelty of the world gathers too many proponents. “If you do not come together to celebrate the beautiful, life becomes a blind spot and a burden,” said Dr Macnab. The beauty in this world is Dr Macnab’s fourth and final thing that makes us most human. It is often fleeting, as morning birdsong. Seek it out (in music, for example), and stop for those ephemeral moments that can enrich each day.

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