Being Human

Reflection #77 (17th September 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

‘Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’.

These words, from the 20th century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, have long resonated with me. As Jeannene mentioned at the start of the service, we made a poster with that quote on it some years ago, and it was on the ‘wayside pulpit’ on the street outside the church building for a long time (we’ve still got the poster somewhere and perhaps we’ll dig it out and put it up again).

‘Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human’. What do you make of that saying, I wonder? Although the saying appeals to me I realise its meaning is really quite ambiguous. There are all sorts of connotations and associations I have with this notion of ‘being human’ and in this short reflection I thought I’d offer up a few of them – along with a few more quotes from wise souls on the subject – in hope of us getting a better grip on what Adams might have been on about.

We could start, perhaps, by grounding our inquiry in the most central principle of Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, that is, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. And it’s not just our Unitarian principle, of course; the preamble of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’

To be human is to have inherent worth and dignity – maybe we can accept that to be true in theory – but in the midst of everyday life and all its challenges it can be hard to keep that noble perspective front and centre in our minds. It is not always that easy to actually live alongside fellow humans, in the real world, where we are liable to rub each other up the wrong way and get up each other’s noses on a regular basis. But it’s when we’re struggling, when there’s conflict, when times are tough – in our homes, in our communities, or in the big geo-political crises that are so painful to witness – that’s when we need to cleave to that principle more than ever. So maybe Adams is hinting that we need to gather together on a regular basis to remind ourselves and each other that, as Desmond Tutu once said, ‘human beings are at the centre of the divine enterprise as creatures of infinite worth and dignity independent of our work, our ability, or our success. We are each created by God, like God, for God.’

This might be at the heart of ‘practicing what it means to be human’: at church, in our small groups especially, we can keep calling ourselves and each other back to awareness of our inherent worth and dignity. Let’s not forget, this is quite a counter-cultural message, in a world that seems hell-bent on convincing us that our worth is dependent on our productivity, our bank balance, our appearance, our ability, or any other accidents of birth that happen to have given us a more or less privileged situation in life. We need to reject and resist this false narrative, deprogram ourselves, and affirm that all of us are indeed ‘creatures of infinite worth and dignity independent of our work, our ability, or our success.’

As an aside, I want to tell you, this narrative has got its claws in me as much as anyone; these last few weeks when I’ve been first on holiday and then laid up with Covid for a fortnight, there’s been this nagging feeling in me that I must hurry back to work, I can’t sit around doing nothing, I must be seen to be doing something productive – even though on a conscious level I really object to that attitude – thankfully many of you have kindly reassured me that I’m not letting the side down, that the to-do list can wait, that people would muck in to cover for me, and health and rest have got to come first. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, at some level, needs that sort of reassurance, needs to be told I’m still alright, still enough, still deserving of love and support, I don’t need to earn it by relentless efforts. To be a human being is enough. By virtue of being a member of the human family I have – and you have – and everybody has – ‘infinite worth and dignity independent of our work, our ability, or our success.’

And that means all of us. Maya Angelou got straight to the point, as she so often did, when she said: ‘No human being can be more human than another human being.’ It’s easy enough to speak of the inherent worth and dignity of all humans, but when you think through the implications, it’s pretty challenging to live by… and that is why we need to ‘practice what it means to be human’; if we accept this central principle we need to work out what it means for the way we actually live our lives, and how we get along with other humans, with all our many flaws and foibles, in community. We often speak of our ‘common humanity’ – and we know in some ways we’re all in the same boat, as we tend to face universal human struggles, though the particular circumstances and challenges we have to deal with vary enormously – but as has been pointed out before this notion of ‘being in the same boat’ isn’t quite right – it might be better to say we’re in the same storm of life, but we’re in very different boats, with some clinging on to rickety life-rafts and others swanning about on luxury yachts. From the moment we’re born we find ourselves thrown into the world, with a particular set of traits from our genes, and a particular shaping and inheritance from the situation in which we are brought up. We find ourselves suddenly on stage, in the middle of this epic human drama that’s been unfolding for millennia, and we are required to take our place in this ongoing story, to improvise as best we can, no matter how ill-equipped we might feel. That’s what we’re all doing. All 8 billion humans that are currently alive (and indeed all of the humans, apparently over 100 billion of us, that have ever lived).

Given that we’re all just making it up as we go along, more-or-less, I’d suggest that another key aspect of ‘practicing what it means to be human’ requires us to cut ourselves, and each other, some slack. Terry Pratchett made this pithy observation, he said: ‘There is no doubt that being human is incredibly difficult and cannot be mastered in one lifetime.’ I think he’s probably right about that, I suspect we probably do only have one lifetime to play with, so we can let ourselves off striving for perfection. And yet… that’s not to say that we can’t make a meaningful mark on the world while we’re here on Earth. Even if you don’t especially believe you’re here for a reason, even if you don’t imagine you have a particular calling, at the very least you have an opportunity in life to make a difference – to touch the lives of others – to offer a little bit of help, or comfort, to those who are within reach. Rollo May said: ‘the essence of being human is that, in the brief moment we exist on this spinning planet, we can love some persons and some things, in spite of the fact that time and death will ultimately claim us all.’

To close, I want to offer some more words of wisdom from Desmond Tutu, to encourage us to stick at it, to keep on coming together as a church community, to practice what it means to be human. He said: ‘We are made for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence. I would not know how to be a human being at all, except I learned this from other human beings.’

So – who knows – maybe what we learn from being together, faithfully showing up for one another week in and week out, in our small congregation – maybe that will generate ripples that spread out into the rest of our lives, and out into the wider world. May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Reflection by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: