Curiosity and wonder over what it means to be human, as well as humanity’s frailty in a technological future, is the backdrop not only for a gripping Hollywood film script, but for religion-and-science exploration at large. Here and now, it is not enough that reflection on religion-and-science focuses solely on religion and science, either separately or together. It must be about the human identity, about the struggle to arrive at the meaning of being human today. The struggle to arrive at human meaning is the grappling with our own human creativity, particularly in its technological expression. That struggle is at the heart of our being today; it grows out of our very nature as we try to discern the future of our culture.
A note about terminology is in order. We commonly talk about “human being,” but this can be confusing. The word “being” is both a noun and a verb form. It can refer to us as creatures, members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. So, we can say, “She is a human being.” It also refers to the activity of being human. So, we can say, “Human being is a challenge to us,” which means the same as “Being human is a challenge to us.”
Both “being human” and the “human being” – are a process, a becoming. Human beings could just as well be referred to as “human becomings.” We are “becomings.” We are caught up in the process of human becoming, and we are struggling to understand what it means to become human.
We are writing a personal narrative, a memoir
What kind of venture is this, which describes its theme as “becoming human”? We can grasp its meaning in terms of “memoir.” We are all writing our own memoir.
What is memoir? Vivian Gornick offers an explanation. Memoir is not fiction, neither poetry nor novel nor a piece for the theater. It must be creative, to be sure, but it is not fiction. Memoir is not journalism or science. It does not presume to be so detached in its objectivity that it simply reports some truth “out there,” with no personal involvement for the writer. Memoir is not just the facts. Nor is memoir autobiography, in which it is perfectly acceptable, as Gornick says, to fall “into the pit of confessionalism or therapy on the page or naked self-absorption.”
In contrast, the memoir describes a situation – my situation, our situation – and tells a story that makes sense of the situation. One facet of our situation is our genes and culture. Humans as creators and technological crisis, these are all coordinates that map our situation. Journalism and science can place the situation at center stage and put the sense of meaning of that situation aside. Fiction on the other hand can take liberties – poetic license we call it – in describing both situation and its possible meaning. Autobiography, for instance, can focus entirely on what happened to me and how I reacted to it.
Memoir must take a different tack. What makes a compelling memoir is a credible description of its author’s situation, as well as a clear sense of the self who struggles in that situation. Further, it is the forging of an interpretation that can respond to the “So What?” question of the self in the situation – an interpretation that grapples with the meaning of the self’s entanglement in its situation. When we speak of memoir, we are dealing with what Gornick also calls personal narrative.
What do religion and science have to do with memoir and personal narrative? They have everything to do with it, because science is a fundamental element of our situation today, and religion is challenged to tell a story that will make sense of that situation. There is more to our situation than science, but there is very little in our situation today that does not have a thread of connection to science and its consequences. Each one of us is challenged to tell the story that offers the sense of our situation. Not all of us will bring religion into this story, but many of us will. In this respect the religious effort is part of the larger human effort to discern meaning. Whether religious or not, we are comrades, brothers and sisters together writing our personal narrative in the attempt to make sense of our situation.
“Memoir” reminds us that the sense we are looking for is not abstract, far removed or “other” from us; it is the meaning of ourselves that we are after. Each of us and all of us together are engaged in this personal narrative. When we struggle for our own meaning, it is then that a new awareness of our situation dawns on us. This new awareness becomes our principal statement about our situation. We are discovering – it is being revealed to us – that our experience in the world is moving us toward new understandings and interpretations of who we are. We are in the process of discovering that we are indeed caught up in a process of becoming that requires fresh ideas, fresh images of ourselves. The images of us as creators and as created co-creators are emerging in this process of self discovery.
Both created and creator?
I have emphasized our emerging sense that we are creators, by our very nature and experience. However, we are as much created as creator. The scientific story tells us that the processes of nature have created us, by means of evolution. We did not give ourselves our physical-chemical-biological composition, nor did we give ourselves brains and the culture that they make possible and necessary. When we turn to our religious traditions, we will see that they speak of our being created by God. These natural processes that have engendered us are declared to be the instrumentality of a divine creator.
Since we are created as we are, the conclusion to be drawn is that we are created creators. There is linkage, however, between the source of our being created and our own creativity. I try to capture the fullness of this linkage by using the term, “created co-creator.” To the degree that evolving nature has created us, our own creating is taken up into that nature, so that we are nature’s own creators, co-creators with the evolutionary process that has engendered us. If we view ourselves as created by God, as the religious traditions tell us, we are God’s creators, God’s co-creators. Over the years, as I have spoken of the created co-creator, that little particle “co” has evoked a flood of discussion, some of it quite critical and even negative.
We find ourselves in a strange situation. We are aggressive, forward looking, intent on making plans and carrying them out. But we are finding that in our aggressiveness, we are on the receiving end of a process that we did not plan or even foresee. We sense that we are undergoing transformations that do not fit with our accepted self-images, our received interpretations of what it means to be human. This is truly our situation – in which we are becoming human in ways that we cannot ourselves easily comprehend or take the measure of. And once this awareness dawns on us, we recognize that this process of becoming did not begin just yesterday – it has been years, decades, even millennia, in the works. We did not know it, because we had to discover it. Once we begin to discover it, we have to forge the ideas that can interpret it for us and tell what its meaning is. We are attempting to tell a story that makes sense of our situation and journey. This is the stuff of memoir.
Who is the memoirist?
The author of this narrative is you, me, all of us. What is being said, what is being narrated, is the journey of awareness that we are becoming different beings, new beings who cannot be contained by older ideas of who we are. We require new images and ideas that are up to the task of telling us who we are becoming.
A memoir requires a clear sense of the self, of the “we” whose voice inhabits the personal narrative. We who are caught up in this journey of becoming are not abstract ciphers; we are not faceless members of some massive horde. What must we say about ourselves, we who are memoirists of human becoming? Here I lay down a few basic points.
We first of all recognize that we are somewhat off-balance and unsure. We are ourselves undergoing transformations whose end we cannot see: we are caught up in a process of discovery. Our journey of becoming is not a trip to the grocery store with a pre-arranged list of items to guide us from one aisle to the next, nor it is like a business meeting that we chart ahead of time with an agenda in one hand and Robert’s Rules of Order in the other. A better image is that of a driver in a car racing along the interstate highway at 70 miles an hour with a map in one hand, to find the destination, and a service manual in the other, to diagnose and repair defects in the car at the same time. This is our vulnerability, and it is intrinsic to our nature as co-creators.
Vulnerability and ambivalence
We write our narrative out of our vulnerability in this situation – little wonder that we are also anxious writers. We are ambivalent. On the one hand, we are eager to reach our destination, but we are not happy at the prospect of our own ignorance as to where that destination lies and what the conditions of the highway are. It is not always pleasurable for us to undergo transformations that we cannot control or even predict. Our own personal ambivalence is reflected in the larger community and society, because we do not all respond in the same way to the prospect of transformation.
For some of us, the scientific accounts have rendered the religious views unbelievable; scientific understanding has displaced the religious – at least on the surface. Others, contrariwise, are so uncomfortable with the naturalistic accounts of science that they opt for religious interpretations at the expense of science – also at least on the surface. This ambivalence, in my view, is on both sides, rather than outright opposition. This is because the secularists hold on to high valuation of human being that has its roots in our religious traditions, while those who oppose evolutionary interpretations of human being continue to go for medical treatment whose cornerstone is evolutionary biology.
We are also ambivalent about the idea of “human becoming,” because we often prefer stable, unchanging states. We often would like to think of human nature as something fixed and reliable. Some believers in the Bible would rather read Genesis 1 as if the theory of evolution had never been formulated. At the same time, a secular thinker like Francis Fukuyama in his thoughtful book, Our Posthuman Future, argues that biotechnology is dangerous because it threatens to alter human nature. This is illustrative of our vulnerability in that we are undergoing transformations whose end we cannot see and are often caught up in the process of discovery.
For instance, many people would rather not struggle with new values of life that are engendered by current options in reproductive technology, because they prefer to think of sexuality and procreation as if those technologies had never emerged.
We should not try to hide from ourselves or from the outside world that we the memoirists are off balance, ambivalent, vulnerable, anxious, and caught in the crossfire of differing opinions and values within ourselves. Recognizing this about ourselves is essential for the substance of our personal narrative and for its credibility. In fact, this is what our memoir is about – how we respond to our situation of vulnerability and ambivalence as well as how we interpret its meaning.
Finally, we recognize that even though we seek the largest meaning possible for our personal narrative, we access that larger meaning through fragments. Saint Paul recognized this when he said that we see through a glass darkly. God as the voice out of the whirlwind told Job very clearly that his understanding was fragmentary.
Jews, Christians and Muslims among us will want to bring God into the memoir. These three religions find their common point of contact in Abraham, whose place as a father of faith is grounded in his willingness to devote his life to a journey whose outcome he could not know. He knew God as the one who called him to travel. In Christian traditions, Martin Luther and the eastern theologians stand out as theologians of fragments. Luther understood that all talk about God was through a glass darkly. He spoke of the hidden God, whose nature is known only through the fragment of Jesus Christ and his cross. The eastern theologians, epitomized in Dionysius the Areopagite, recognized that finally it is not possible to speak about God – this is known as apophatic theology. When we do speak about God it is against a background of unspeakableness. Even theologians in the tradition who seemed to speak a great deal about God, such as Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas, went to great lengths to remind us that our talk about God is not straight forward and direct, but rather analogical. How could it be otherwise, since God is infinite and our minds are finite?
Science gives us helpful images for this point. Think of our knowledge of the universe and its evolution. We are infinitesimally small creatures on a small planet revolving around one of a billion billion stars. The universe is now so vast that it is not possible to communicate its breadth. We came on the scene at least 12 billion years after the universe got its start, and by most estimates the universe is not even half way through its evolution. Yet we seek the knowledge of this universe, both its present state and its origins and its ending. The image comes to mind of a corpuscle in my bloodstream, or a cell in my body, seeking to understand me, from my conception to my death and everything in between.
We have only fragments for the basis of our knowledge, but the fragments are real. The writer of the memoir knows that the fragment we have is our own life, our own situation, our own journey. The memoirist knows that the only chance of real and trustworthy knowledge requires honest attentiveness to the fragment that is us and that our only chance of discovering the truth is by being faithful to the fragment we have been given – our experience of the journey that is becoming human.
Our journey of becoming human lies through this unexhaustiveness of nature. Job called it the whirlwind, Luther spoke of theology of the cross, Kierkegaard insisted that only indirect discourse is appropriate on this journey. Our personal narrative, our memoir, begins with recognizing that our situation is a fragment, convinced that attention to that fragment and the search for its meaning is not only our best hope, it is the substance of becoming human.
Dr. Philip Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center from 1988 to 2003 and is former Editor-in-Chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.