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Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

The suggestion that there is such a thing as human nature implies a specific stance with relation to what a human being is. Do humans have something like a nature? If so, in what does human nature consist? These questions can not be answered from a sole description of specific characteristics, which is one of the main reasons there is a continuous debate over this issue. To say something about what a human being essentially (or in nature) is, implies saying something about what humans ought to be. Consequently, there is always a kind of normative self-reference in the way the question "What is human nature?" is answered. It is not simply a question of how humans are to understand this or that case, but an articulation of how humans understand, or ought to understand, themselves.

Theories about human nature state something about the place of humans in nature. They also try to define what specifically makes a human being different from other living things. However, as made clear by theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in Anthropology in Theological Perspective (1985), one has to distinguish between the human being as part of nature, and the nature of the human being. These two issues do not necessarily coincide. The former implies a descriptive approach and investigates different empirical and phenomenological aspects that help people better understand their place in nature. The latter is a more normative issue, related to the destiny of humanity in general, as well as to the individual's future and the meaning of the individual life. Its importance is thus also related to interpretation of the place of human beings in history and culture. Taken separately, these approaches offer a basis for the interpretation of human nature from a more naturalistic or humanistic view. Consequently, the sciences usually offer more material relevant to the understanding of the place of humans in nature than for answering questions about human destiny.

A theory about human nature that also takes into consideration an understanding of the human place in nature usually has to account for some or all of the following issues: What specifically makes the human being as a species different from other species? What does it mean to be a person? Do human beings have free will? How does one understand morality, religion, and culture? How are these elements related to language and to human self-consciousness (subjectivity)? Is religion necessarily connected to humanity? Are humans able to act on reasons and principles that cannot be reduced to causes? What is one to think of death? What is the basis for human dignity? Some of these questions can be seen as attempts to differentiate between issues that, in the past, were discussed with reference to the difference between body and soul.

Human nature in non-Western world religions

The variety of ways to understand human nature is expressed also in different world religions. In Hinduism and Buddhism human nature is partly understood from the perspective of the self as part of all that is, and given the task of becoming the non-self. Like other pantheistic religions, both Hinduism and Buddhism affirm that human beings are related to all that is and, simultaneously, how the self is essentially divine. Beyond the empirical human is the human essence, atman, which is identical with the ultimate reality, Brahman. To overcome individuality and to become part of the encompassing world is the aim of human life. This can be done by transcending the world of the senses. This aim is realized when the self dissolves into the whole after death, but also can be anticipated in different forms of meditational practices.

Whereas Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize how human nature is related to divine nature, the self is generally thought of as distinct from the divine in Semitic religions such as Islam and Judaism. Islam is the religion that most strongly stresses the distinction between God and the world; humanity is seen as dependent upon God and God's will. As in Judaism, God is the creator of humans. The aim of humanity is to realize this dependence and live accordinglyi.e., in gratitude toward God. In Islam, sin is understood as disobedience (ma'siya ) and not as rooted in human nature. This is different from the most dominant traditions in Christianity. An original aspect of Islam is that all humans are understood as to be born Muslim. It is the cultural environment that changes their essentially Muslim nature in to something else

The Bible offers no developed theory about human nature. Genesis 1: 2628 describes human beings as created in the image of God (imago Dei ); this description has given rise to many different interpretations through the history of doctrine. Whoever is made in the image of God is given the task of representing God as the steward of creation, thereby reminding others of God and taking care of God's creation on God's behalf. Hence, human beings are understood in terms of their relation with God; it is this relation that is thought to make humans unique compared to other species. In Psalm 8, humans are placed between the angels and God, indicating their high rank in the order of creation.

Humans are accordingly responsible to God. Simultaneously, they are themselves part of nature; they are made of earth, and without the life-giving breath of God they return to dust. The Bible depicts human life as dependent on the continuous creative activity of God. Humans are not understood in terms of the Greek dichotomy between soul and body, but human life is viewed from different perspectives, such as flesh, body, heartall notions that can also take on different spiritual meanings. There is a positive affirmation of human embodiment in the Hebrew Bible, echoed in the New Testament teachings on the resurrection of the body and the human need for bodily health, as well as spiritual salvation. One could suggest that human nature from a Judeo-Christian point of view is to be an embodied image of God. This position is affirmed in Christianity, where Jesus Christ is seen as the true human being, and thus reveals what humans are meant to be.

When entering into dialogue with Greek modes of thought, Christian theologians had to articulate the relationship of humans with God from points of view offered by existing philosophical knowledge. This challenged theology to develop an understanding of what it meant to be created in the image of God. The dominating point of view through the Middle Ages became that human nature is unique in rational faculties, understanding, consciousness, and spirit. This view, as expressed by Augustine of Hippo, draws on Platonism, which emphasized rationality and the eternity of the human soul. It also included the view developed by Aristotle in ancient Greece and by Thomas Aquinas during the Middle Ages that put humans on the same level as the rest of nature, but with rationality as the species-unique skill. The eighth-century theologian Johannes Damascenus expresses the prevalent understanding of human nature in the Middle ages: The human being is the image of God because it has reason and free will and is able to be its own master.

Philosophical patterns for a theory of human nature

Two main philosophical trends have had a major influence on understandings of human nature. From the ancient Greek philosopher Plato onwards, the human being alone is able to understand and grasp rationally the world as it is in itself, beyond every change. This ability derives from the rational faculties, expressed in the ability to think. Thus, human nature is closely linked to the ability to think, and to act with thinking as a guide.

Plato articulated the paradigm for a rationalist understanding of human nature. He assumed a dichotomy between body and soul. The soul is the site of reason, and as such it is understood as eternal and (partly and potentially) independent of the body. The body, on the other hand, is mortal and will die. The central struggle in a person's life is to gain control over the physical by means of the rational. As a consequence, Plato sees the flourishing of human nature in its ability to control life with rational means.

The importance of this paradigm is most clearly seen in the seventeenth century rationalism of the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who maintains a sharp dichotomy of body and soul. Descartes claims that while the external world (res extensa ) operates by mechanistic principles, this is not the case with humans, who are guided by reason. Animals are without reason and hence to be understood according to mechanistic causation only. This view separates the human being sharply from the rest of nature, and suggests that what is specifically human cannot be investigated by the same principles that were utilized by the emerging modern natural sciences.

Philosophically, theories of human nature before the Enlightenment are either rationalist or empiricist in outlook. The empiricist outlook puts more stress on human experience as a condition that shapes actual fulfillment in human life. Hence, one's participation in nature is given a larger role when it comes to determining who a person is. This approach also put more emphasis on the continuity of humans with the rest of nature, and, combined with the experimental approach to investigation of nature, it contributed greatly to the development of modern science. As a result, human nature is here regarded as part of nature, and not something unique. This view is consonant with a religious position that sees the human soul as a function of a complex physical organism rather than as an independent substance.

Challenges from evolutionary thinking

A process similar to the one that began when Christian theology met Greek philosophy developed with the rise of biological insights during the nineteenth century. Theology had to articulate views on human nature that were able to respond to, oppose, and integrate the insights offered by the research of Charles Darwin and others. Obsolete theological theories about the constancy of human nature were now challenged; humans could no longer be seen as a species directly created by God outside of the evolutionary process. Some theological traditions, however, were reluctant to enter into a positive reception of what biology could mean for understanding humanity as part of natural history. Some continue to believe that the biblical stories tell the actual prehistory of humans. This view cannot, however, be held without ignoring the massive amounts of data resulting from scientific inquiry into the prehistory of humans and nature.

Following the rapid development during the nineteenth century of more biologically informed views on human nature, the first half of the twentieth century gave rise to other ways of thinking about human nature. In Germany a special discipline developed called philosophical anthropology. Still tying to appropriate the insights of biology, representatives of this movement attempted to show how humans must be seen as a species that participates in a spiritual realm and is able to relate to the world in a way not available to other living creatures. Some theologians, notably Pannenberg, tried to direct this trend toward integration or mediation between scientific and humanistic insights. Here, physiological traits of humanity are seen as conditions for a religious attitude.

The ability of human beings to transcend themselves is interpreted as the basic trait that can relate us to and realize our divine destiny. On the other hand, the estrangement from this destiny (i.e., sin), is understood by Pannenberg to be conditioned by our constitutional self-centeredness. The content of human life, human identity, and human will are developed in tension between selfishness and divinity.

Integrating scientific knowledge with theological anthropology

Attempts to explain moral behavior (and also religion) in the light of biological evolution have stirred much discussion in which human action is judged by moral standards that reflect the extent to which actions contribute to evolutionary advancement or progress. Critics claim that proponents of this position "fail to demonstrate why the promotion of biological evolution by itself should be the standard to measure what is morally good" (Ayala, p. 47).

The interaction between science and theology has generally consisted of two tasks: determining the range of the validity of the claims offered by biology and sociobiology; and integrating these insights into a more coherent pattern of interpretation of humanity that also takes into account other realms that shape human life and development, such as culture, sociality, history, and subjectivity. The second task has led to more modest positions on what theology can say about the place of humans in nature, and there has been no unconstrained reception of the evolutionary approach to morality or religion in theological anthropology. Generally, theological anthropology that is in dialogue with the sciences tends to navigate between biological reductionism and cultural constructivism. Here, the sciences are seen as elucidating the conditions for a religious or moral position, rather than actually explaining them solely on the basis of biology.

The debate over morality in relation to human nature also exhibits a basic challenge concerning the relation between science and theology: Should theology offer interpretations of insights from science, or should theology try to balance, correct, or contradict these in relation to its own definition of humanity? An example of this problem can be found in the discussion of altruism. Some scientists consider acts of altruism to be contrary to the mechanisms promoting human evolution, while others sees altruism as a positive device for evolution. Theological anthropology seems bound to contradict the first view, while it can relate affirmatively to the second, claiming that evolution operates on other, not naturally given, principles in humanity. Here, culture is seen as a process that is reducible to natural selection. Religion takes part in this. "It makes human beings open to a greater reality before which each individual has infinite value and is absolutely equal" (Theissen, p. 49). Again, a basic pattern seems to underlie any discussion of human nature: Is it to be determined from the point of view of nature and the sciences only, and in accordance with the principles given there, or is it necessary to also establish other independent sources as a means for determining human nature?

Recently, the discussion about human nature has taken a new turn as new developments in biology, especially genetics, contribute to what can be called an essentialist view of human nature. This implies that what a human being is, or is to become, is determined by his or her genetic dispositions. Thus, there is an identification of human nature with the given genetic conditions. This view puts little emphasis on the social impact on the formation of humans.

An alternative view, social constructivism, emphasizes how humans become what they are as a result of specific cultural conditions communicated within a specific social, social-psychological, and cultural context. Here the actual outcome of biological and other functions is seen as shaped by socially determined conditions. This view is often presented as anti-essentialist, and contains a tacit program for emancipation as gender-based or other socially ascribed roles and demarcations are seen as the result of contingent social developments rather than biological conditions. In psychology, this leads to emphasis on how human relations and culture shape a person's "inner world." Hence, the way human beings relate to and interpret the world is constituted by them as being relational and social. People are more than "containers" of drives and desires that express themselves in the social and cultural world.

From a phenomenological point of view, humans appear as participants in a multitude of realms related to aspects of both nature and culture. Nature and history is deeply interwoven with human life. This multidimensionality also influences the ways humans understand themselves and relate to the world. However, this phenomenon also suggests that to reduce the interpretation of what human nature is to one or a few aspects implies restricting the possibilities for human self-understanding, and thus, in the long run, for human self-fulfillment.

Consequently, one of the issues that theological anthropology must address when integrating elements from scientific understandings of human nature is the possibility for understanding human beings as more than a product of natural evolution. This is partly due to tendencies towards naturalist reductionism, but also in order to safeguard the human ability to transcend the naturally given conditions of life. This self-transcendence is an important element in human personhood, and is closely linked to the affirmation of human freedom.


There is presently no general agreement as to how to relate to and appropriate insights from the natural sciences in the development of philosophical or religious theories of human nature. Such an agreement should not be expected as long as there is no unified opinion about what a human being is. However, it is possible to distinguish three different models for developing the relationship between religious and philosophical theories of human nature and the sciences:

  1. The natural sciences can be seen as the basis for interpreting religious or philosophical doctrines about human nature, with philosophy and theology working in continuation of what the sciences offer.
  2. A more dialectic or mediating approach tries to incorporate different perspectives on the human being within a coherent theoretical (philosophical or theological) framework. Here, informed by natural sciences, one can formulate theological or philosophical insights without giving them alone the task of determining the overall hermeneutic framework for the development of the theory or doctrine.
  3. A non-dialogical approach denies the relevance of natural science for the understanding and development of philosophical and religious theories of human nature. From the point of view of the sciences, this position can be reversed by one who denies the relevance of philosophy or theology for the understanding of humanity, a position that usually implies a very strong empiricism combined with traits of reductionism.

See also Evolution, Human; Human Nature, Physical Aspects; Imago Dei; Psychology; Sociobiology


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jan-olav henriksen

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