Udo Middelmann, lecturer and author, is President of the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation in Gryon, Switzerland. The foundation is a place to research Schaeffer's thought, and it offers a program of individualized study and cultural engagement during the summers.This article is adapted from the first chapter of Middelmann's highly recommended book Proexistence: The Place of Man in the Circle of Reality (with permission). Published in 1974, this book remains a relevant source of insight and refreshment. The foundation can be contacted at the following address: Chalet Mon Abri CH - 1882 Gryon, Switzerland (email: UDDebCh@aol.com; phone: **41 24 498 1656).
What Is Man?
By Udo Middelmann
In the streets of Europe are thousands and thousands of young Europeans and Americans who spend all year doing nothing but hitchhiking from the colder places in the summer to the warmer places in the winter, living out of each other’s bags and offering you the shirts off their backs (often they turn out to be your own shirt). They move around in search of an identity, in search of something they can link with their own subjective experience which in itself is not big enough to give them meaning. Often the only identity they find is a series of unrelated experiences, and having these unrelated experiences becomes their absolute, their universal. For them reality has slipped away; man has become the roving creature.
The movie The Graduate focuses on Benjamin, a recent college graduate who still does not know who he is. His father asks him repeatedly, “What are you going to do?” Benjamin’s concern about this self-identity is pushed aside as his father encourages him to choose an occupation: “What have you graduated for? Why don’t you work?” The very real question of Benjamin’s identity is done away with, clouded over by the concept of the occupational machine his parents’ generation has set forth.
The individuality that Benjamin feels and his need to find a basis for that individuality are replaced by society and its romantically humming, running wheels. We work, we live, we have a swimming pool and four cars, we have enough wives to take turns. Aren’t all things going well? Benjamin’s “Who am I? What is my purpose?” is replaced by a pattern of society.
Yet some people see the inhumanity of this situation and in brutal honesty move out of it, realizing that the answer to the question of individual identity is not to be found in working five days a week from nine to five.
Many have come to L’Abri out of such a background and such a search. And often after they have found their individual identity, what they look for then is a way to express their identity. As Christians, we should understand that their search is right. Any generation has the right to uncover the hypocrisy of a society which pushes only for an occupational choice, a society which would put people into an occupational mold. For oftentimes the occupational choice is set up in order to cloud over the question, “Who am I?”
The fact is that if there is no individual identity, then any job is totally unimportant. Any job becomes a threat to me if it stifles all search and swallows up my individuality, making me indistinguishable from any other cog in society’s machine. In such a situation, the job refashions the man, and all that is left for him is never to act but only to react. What is the proper response? Maybe the young people who are roving the streets of Europe have the right answer: Let’s run.
Christianity, however, supplies another answer to Benjamin’s “Who am I?” -- an answer that does not leave Benjamin simply with the establishment of his individual identity. It goes further and points out that occupational choice is a matter of a person’s own moral character. In short, we must deal with two questions: (1) Who is man and what is his identity? and (2) How does man, having an identity, relate to work?
Who Is Man?
Man is a curious phenomenon. Man is the only being that is unable not to question his identity, the only being who cannot take his identity for granted.
There are two possible ways to answer the question of identity. Let me put it personally. On the one hand, I can seek my identity in the order of things in the cosmos around me. Here I am only one thing among others. I see only a mass of particulars from which I am unable to distinguish myself. I am faced with sheer quantity, and the mass of particulars becomes a threat.
On the other hand, I can deny that a separate identity is relevant or desirable and seek solace in a unity with all things. But if I do this, I become a zero. For example, if I align myself with a mass political movement, I disappear into the crowd. If I align myself with the things of the universe (as in pantheistic mysticism), I lose all possibility of individuality. If I look for my identity in a pantheistic framework, I find my essential character as a distinguishable individual denied. Looking for my identity in the sum total of all other individual things, identifying myself with everything else, I become, not equal in the sense of parallel, but unified with everything else and no longer “there” as an individual. The result is that in both Hinduism and much of our own culture I soon become replaceable. That is not a satisfactory answer to the question of my identity.
What I need is a response to my own individuality that comes from beyond the particular, beyond the material, beyond the immediate situation. Any definition of the peculiar individuality of man must come from outside the present external order. It must have some degree of objective verifiability which is also open to subjective verification. In other words, it must explain all men and all men’s behavior, not in the abstract but in an intimate, subjective form.
For one thing, man finds himself different from the animal. Animals only react to their environment. They do not store information that has no relationship to the present or the possibility of immediate reaction. An animal filters mental impressions that correspond to its organs and reacts to them. Furthermore, an animal has no creativity in the sense of fantasy or imagination. Man, however, is, as we say in German, weltoffen, open to creative restructuring of his present environment. He seeks his identity from beyond the immediate. Man acts rather than reacts, and he can be creative and act beyond the immediate reality.
Is this feeling of transcendence an illusion? Is it sheer hypocrisy? Is man attributing something greater to himself than what corresponds to objective reality?
The Bible, it seems to me, gives an answer that corresponds to what man feels and affirms. First, it traces his identity to an origin beyond the present order of existence. It claims that God -- a God who is not confined by immediate existence, who is not a part of what is materially there -- has made man in his own image (Gen. 1:26). It claims, therefore, that the primary relationship of man is beyond the immediate physical existence of particulars. His primary relationship is to God.
Second, the Bible says that man was placed on earth as God’s vice-regent, the one who is to take responsibility over the rest of creation by virtue of the fact that he is made in the image of God.
So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. (Gen. 2:19-20)
What we have here is God creating and bringing his creation to man so that man can categorize the environment in which he lives. In Genesis 2:19-20 we have a frame-work within which the particulars of creation are placed in the proper relationship to man. Man is the one who groups his environment into classes rather than being grouped by his environment into a class -- man.
Now how does he perform this classification? It is intriguing that when you look at these two short verses you find that Adam categorized his environment by means of language, of imagination. In a sense, Adam was a scientist. In Hebrew, the name of a person or thing in some way relates to who the person is or what the thing is. Thus the names which Adam gave to the animals indicated what the animals were. Adam dominated, ordered, categorized, shaped the environment in which he lived, gave form to the rest of God’s creation. In doing so, he found no one like himself. And God then gave him Eve.
Adam was the vice-regent of God, being primarily related to God because he was made in God’s image. Being the vice-regent of God, he classified the plants and gave them particular names, making the objects his own by labeling them. This is not something animals can do.
Imagination is another aspect of man which is his alone. By imagination I mean the formation of mental images of objects that are not present to the senses, especially those that were never perceived in their entirety. In other words, imagination is a mental synthesis of new ideas from elements experienced separately. This is a mark of creativity. It is the human capability to go from our own situation into other situations. It is also the basis for fantasy.
Oftentimes people argue that because we can detect repetitive sounds in monkeys and in porpoises (and especially because porpoises have a brain structure similar to the human brain), man is nothing more than a complicated monkey or porpoise. Some research has revealed that porpoises have sounds for food, for danger and for greeting. And in fact, one can train a porpoise to react to the sounds of human language, to English sounds or French sounds and so forth. Wouldn’t it be eventually possible, then, for us to discuss abstract matter, say Hegel’s philosophy, with porpoises?
I doubt it. Being able to train a porpoise to respond to a fourth, fifth, sixth, even a thousandth sound, does not prove that you can speak with a porpoise or that the porpoise is an inventor of language, a creator of linguistic data. It only proves that you can train a porpoise to react within a larger environment, filtering more impressions in relationship to the organs that he has. But the fact that he can be trained to make one sound or a thousand sounds does not mean that the porpoise is creative. He is not learning a language the way a child learns a language.
One way a child learns language is by putting things in its mouth -- because that is very sensitive -- and then attaching gurgles and sounds to the objects. The first two stages go smoothly, but in the third stage comes a clash. His parents insist on one sound and the child insists on another. Of course, in the end the parents win, but the child is being creative in the sounds that he makes. By contrast, porpoises throughout the world have a universal sound pattern. An individual porpoise apparently cannot be creative in the sound that it makes.
What distinguishes man from the animal, then, is the possibility of being creative beyond the immediate environment. Man can enlarge his environment, the porpoise cannot.
And man can enlarge his own environment not only in the things perceived but also in the establishment of relationships between the things perceived and those things which have no objective existence. Fairy tales and fantasies mark man’s creativity. They show that man does not just react to his environment but rather acts beyond it, creating things which did not exist before him.
So, when the Bible says that God placed man in the garden and brought all the animals to him and he named them, we have a statement of man’s peculiar identity. He is related first of all to God because he is made in the Image of God, and that makes him different from all other creation. And next he is the vice-regent of God and able to be creative.
In my daily existence, therefore, the present situation does not need to subject me and stifle me. For the world around me is not the final point of relationship. Life and creativity extend beyond the mere now. It is grounded in that which is beyond even the Greek cosmos (a set situation regulated by a static, platonic heaven which holds in balance all finite particulars of the ordinary world). For even here, there is no possibility for significant change, for going beyond the immediate situation to a future moment or a moment in fantasy, because everything is predetermined and set.
In Christianity, however, and in our own experience, we realize that life is not only in the mere now: Both past and future are real before God. Thus a Christian can have a dynamic view of history, because the future is different from the present and because the future can to some extent be shaped by my creative activity as a significant man. Being a man in part implies the ability to change the future. Man is not subject to his environment, nor does it define him.
Of course there are limits. A man has to eat, he has to walk rather than fly, he has to be at this moment of history rather than that, but he has the creative ability to go beyond his immediate situation.
Take the case of the artist. Michelangelo was limited by the block of marble that he saw in Carrara, but the figure that he sculpted was not what he saw in the quarry. He carved it originally from something in his mind.
The same is true in science. The scientist looks at data, forms a theory, tests it, and, if it fits the situation, goes on to apply it or to see how it relates to something else. He is not just reacting to a present situation. He is able to fashion hypotheses that are not only verifiable but once having been fashioned can then themselves be a part of the reason that the future is different from the past.
Furthermore, from creativity have come what we might call the good elements of the industrial revolution. All our scientific and technological advances, both in what we Germans so nicely call the inexact sciences of sociology and anthropology and the exact sciences of physics and chemistry, proceed on the basis of man’s imaginative and creative ability.
Moreover, only on the basis of this creativity is there a foundation for personal relationships and for enjoying each other. As men we can create rather than react, and this makes possible humanness and community that go beyond mere chemical compatibility.
The Bible rejects any identity that derives from nature or from the immediate environment. The world is not the final integration point, and if we look for it there, we shall only find finite gods and idolatry, as the Greeks did, or dehumanizing jobs and hypocrisy as Benjamin did in The Graduate.