The Human Problem

By H. Boone Porter

The problem in talking about human beings is precisely that there always is a problem. As to other living creatures on this planet, the details of their lives may happen to be largely unknown to us, but they can be observed and studied. The life of the bald eagle, or the common skunk, or the Malay tapir is lived as it is lived, and the facts are there to be discovered. But which facts, which thousand facts, will give one the real picture of human beings?

An undisturbed wild eagle simply is what he or she is. We regard the bald eagle as peculiarly noble, but that is a human interpretation. An erect bearing, stern eye, and hook nose connote aristocracy to us — that is to those who have the outlook of our culture. By all means let us enjoy looking at bald eagles. To other species of eagles, on the other hand, the bald eagle’s striking white head presumably looks odd. To the smaller creatures on which the bald eagle preys, no doubt its appearance is horrid. Of course, when we study the habits of our national bird, we are less approving. They eat dead things which they find, and they take fish away from ospreys that have caught them. We describe them as scavengers, and as thieves or robbers, — terms heavily loaded with emotional overtures. Yet the eagle is simply gathering food in the way that instinct directs, and dutifully takes the food home to its eaglets with no more sense of moral turpitude than an American parent punching a package of frankfurters at the local grocery. 

To us, the skunk is a deplorable beast. Yet it simply uses its odoriferous powers to defend itself, adn does far less damage to the environment than man does. The tapir is an object of humor to zoo-goers, but the animal itself gives no evidence of a sense of humor. 

An eagle is an eagle, a skunk is a skunk, and a tapir is a tapir, but when are humans really human? When is a man truly manly and a woman truly womanly? Most of the time we obviously are not. We must admit that in our entire lives we are not fully so. When you discuss people, you always have to be using adverbs like fully or inadequately, more or less, really or not really, better or worse. 

When we speak of a wild animal as good (or bad) we mean its meat does (or does not) taste good to us, or that its fur is (or is not) valuable to us, or that it does not (or does) take food from our garden. It has nothing to do with moral virtue or vice on the animal’s part. (The case is somewhat different with domesticated animals, especially dogs, because they have been to some extent brought into the human value system.)

With humans on the other hand, everything seems to have some sort of connection to virtue or vice. What men or women do is usually to a greater or less extent morally good or bad. When we talk about one another, such moral judgments are largely what we discuss. It is precisely these moral qualities that are important in human life. The “best” eagles, or skunks, or tapirs might be those of exceptional size, or of unusual longevity, or with especially handsome feathers, fur, or hides. The best men and women, on the other hand, are those of superior moral discernment, those who perceive what ought to be done, and who have the courage and perseverance to do it. 

Human life is blemished and eroded by the gap between what ought to be and what usually is. The effort to close that gap, to make what is become what should be is the peculiarly human challenge; this is the distinctive calling of people. Prophets, moral philosophers, preachers, and teachers have the uniquely human task, the preeminently manly and womanly task, of helping us to see the gap and motivating ust to endeavor to close it. John the Baptist, whom we remember in Advent, is not only “a better man than I am,” but he is more of a man, a more complete human being, one who is closer to the center of the human enterprise. 

Many religions (as well as nations) have used the eagle as an emblem. Our Judeo-Christian tradition also uses the eagle as a symbol of the transcendent. The swiftness, power, and far-seeing eye of the eagle may teach us something about God. A man like John, however, may teach us much more. Last week in this column, it was stated that, at the simplest level, the biblical story of creation asserts some sort of visual resemblance between God and man. Some one like John takes it beyond the simplest level, to that moral dimension which is the stuff of authentic human life. 

The Rev. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our December 7, 1977 issue.

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