January 26, 2011

On Being Human

It was Friday, and my family and I were arriving at Los Angeles (in Chile!) to enjoy a much-needed vacation. Like the previous summers, we wanted to dedicate our vacation to making progress with the construction of our house.
The next day we went to a major building supply wholesaler to buy some construction supplies. We did not know that we had to make an appointment in advance. To our surprise, we were not allowed to enter the building. After many phone calls we managed to set up an appointment for the next day. We were warned that we had to bring safety shoes to enter the premises. We got a pair of shoes for the truck driver who would pick up the boards and other supplies. I was allowed to enter the big depot to pay with a check. However, I could not get off the truck since I did not have safety shoes. I handed the check for my purchases to an employee who wore a helmet, reflective vest, and safety shoes. There I was, sitting in the truck’s cab with the door open, watching the floor as if it were lunar soil, unable to descend. Everything was justified by important reasons. The sign at the entrance of the depot said: “We have 14 days without accidents.” Could that be an overstatement? I wondered. With all the technological progress, can we say that our existence has become more human? Will technology and caution push us to forget the value of a person?
Humanism—Old and New
Needless to say, many companies are moving away from a bottom-down leadership style to one that is more focused on the particular requirements of a given project. We realize that today’s businesses have to be more flexible, including their dealings with their employees.
2011 1503 page14These days we need to attract and develop skilled workers with competitive advantages. This is not limited to intellectual know-how, but rather extends to a wide variety of factors, such as personality, attitude, and values that are becoming crucial for success. To have worked many years in one business is not the key for a promotion. Employers are laying off inadequate staff to recruit better and more qualified ones.
Fernando Montes Matte, rector of the Alberto Hurtado University in Santiago, Chile, made an important presentation during the university’s tenth anniversary celebrations.1 I would like to share some ideas from his presentation that are closely linked to humanism.
From the outset it seems very important to remember that the Spirit of God is at work in all human reality, whether this may be in the religious, civic, aesthetic, literary, or moral arenas. In all these arenas there is a way of understanding faith and humanity.
Nowadays it seems that humanism has run its course (and is out of steam). In fact, the most profound challenge of our time is the vague notion of being human. The Renaissance placed people at the center by highlighting their reason and freedom. It made an object of nature. It was radically elitist because it did not take into account the poor and marginalized. Thus, science, as we know it today, was meant to produce results benefiting humanity. But some of these principles carried to an extreme, such as individualism and rationalism, engendered many of the conflicts that now challenge us, and cast shadows on the tremendous progress achieved.
Martin Heidegger reminds us, in his Letter on Humanism, that “humanism is . . . being careful to ensure that a man is human rather than inhuman.”
During the Renaissance, following Copernicus, human subjectivity became the center of the world. Everything hinged on reason and freedom. Today, after Darwin, humans are considered to be one among many that evolved through chance and necessity.
Pain and Humanism
I think we need to give to humans a horizon, a dignity; unveil his mysteries; comfort her heart and fill the void of loneliness. We have succeeded in increasing productivity; we have improved our infrastructure; we have discovered the genetic code (at least partially); we know the composition of matter; we have improved our health. However, we have not always been able to improve our lives.
Today we buy anonymously over the Internet. A buyer does not know the seller—and often this cyberlife takes away the affectionate greeting between friends or changes the tenderness of a kiss into something virtual.
We need to push hard to discover God’s image in people, especially in a world that tries to make us believe that marginalized individuals can be integrated into society only by supplying their material needs (and thus converting them back into consumers). Consumerism will never tell you who you are. Being human is something that cannot be bought or sold. Life, friendship, and joy, among others, are given or received as gifts.
Our sense of humanity is often falling apart when confronted by actual physical, moral, and spiritual pain. It is important that we are able to develop a human dimension to face sorrow and failures, since all of us, sooner or later, will suffer and feel pain.
We have to be prepared to answer the most important questions when our lives will cease: What is going to remain after all this: dust, ashes, and memories? Is only emptiness waiting for us—or nothing? Can we figure this mystery out?
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, looking at the ruins of the fabled Incan stronghold Machu Picchu, wrote this: “Stone to stone, where was man? Air in the air, and where was man? Did you put stone over stone and at the base rags?” We must not build progress based on rags.
Where Is God in All This?
Julián Marías, commenting on Aristotelian anthropology, asserts that “the very purpose for man is to be more than man.”2 When one reviews the history of humanity, it is important to ask: Who really put humanity in human beings?
Slavery has been abolished only in recent centuries, and—though hard to grasp—is still practiced in some parts of the world. However, we read in the Old Testament that in the time of Moses both free man and slave enjoyed the Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:10).
The Sabbath rest concept clearly suggests that every person is something more than a gear in the economic machinery and that we have the right to ourselves, our bodies, and spirit.
The biblical Sabbath is unique and quite distinct from other ancient Near Eastern sacred days. The idea of a weekly day of rest came to humanity through the Hebrew Bible. The biblical author highlights this common human bond, including also the vulnerable foreigner. In general, in the ancient world an alien had no rights. But the Bible insists that “you must have the same regulations for the alien and the native-born” (Num. 9:14). Other biblical laws (such as the one granting freedom to a slave in compensation for any major physical damage inflicted by the master [Ex. 21:26, 27]) underline this concept even more. Regarding this law, Jewish scholar Bernard J. Bamberger comments: “No code of the antiquity seems to have something, nor even remotely, comparable to this law. Slaves are not always abused, but only sometimes. In some occasions they were treated with kindness. In ancient times it was not unusual that a slave received freedom, but this situation depended entirely on the master’s will. However, punishing brutality toward a slave by releasing him or her and organize the community to prevent such abuses was something totally new.”3
Let us add to all this that there is a biblical provision to protect both the slave who flees and the person who protects a runaway slave. Contrary to this idea, in the famous Babylonian Hammurabi law code, it is indicated that if a person helped a slave to escape or gave him shelter at home and did not hand the person to the authorities, such a person would be sentenced to death. Yet how different sounds Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 when read in this context: “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.”
Bamberger comments again, saying that “these verses inspired American abolitionists, even after the Supreme Court, in Dred Scott, repudiated the biblical law. The Torah assumes that no slave would flee from his/her master seeking refuge among us without a good reason to do so. It not only forbids us to return a slave back to the owner, it insists we should give them an opportunity to try a new life.”4 We can infer that God had intended a social order in which slavery did not exist.
What has happened? God created the world, and we added borders. God created humanity, and we added social classes. Following this thought, the words in Job 31:15 seem very much appropriate: “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?”
I Want to Serve You
I started this article with the purchase of some construction supplies for my house. Let me tell you what happened after we purchased the wood. We needed the pine planks to assemble the trusses for the roof. My neighbor Hernán came to greet me when he heard the noise of the cutting and the nailing. Once a year, only during my vacations, we have the opportunity to see each other. This time I saw my good friend, by now more than 80 years old, looking much older. He explained that he had been through a carotid artery surgery that made him almost lose his voice. He told me also that perhaps he would have to move to Santiago, the capital of Chile, since he and his wife were having a hard time living alone. However, very politely and with enthusiasm he said to me: “You know, if I can do anything for you, just let me know.”
I felt overwhelmed. Here was my friend, frail and in pain, ready not only to greet me, but to serve me. Love is exactly that: telling the other, “It is so good that you are here.” And very soon my thoughts about Hernán became a prayer: “Lord, help me to be more human.”
1 “Alcanzar el desarrollo sin perder el alma,” Revista Universitaria 97:16.
2 Julián Marías, El tema del hombre, 9th ed. (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1996), p. 63.
3 Bernard J. Bamberger, La Biblia. Un enfoque judío moderno, 2nd ed. (Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós, 1967), p. 34.
4 Ibid., p. 35.
Alberto E. Delanöe, a retired missionary and pastor, lives with his wife, Erika, in Los Angeles, Chile. This article was published January 27, 2011.