Being Human

Being Human: Fulfilling genetic and spiritual potential was published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 2003 and was conceived as a sequel to “What is Truth” (2001)


Eileen Thompson, Sea of Faith in Australia, March 2006

My appetite to read this book was whetted at the Grafton Festival of Philosophy, Science and Theology. Peter Vardy, Vice-Principal of Heythrop College, University of London, spoke on ‘The Challenge of Being Human’. This fed my interest in the phrase in the Nicene Creed, ‘And became fully human’. Being Human examines the implications of life for human beings in the 21st Century.

Vardy begins with the challenge of the ancient Greek philosophers’ question: How shall we live? And for us, how shall we live now in the 21st century?

The first section of the book defends the idea of a common human nature and discusses the consequences of genetic engineering. A brief summary of the history of philosophy as ‘society changed’ leads Vardy to speculate about postmodernism and its meaning for human life. If there is no meaning or truth to be discovered, no absolutes or rocks of society in the constant sea of change, how can people function? How can they live in a world of meaninglessness, with all the implications that has for morality and ethics, i.e., for people living together in community?

He suggests that the uses of genetic engineering for ethics attempts to answer Don Cupitt’s book, The Sea of Faith with its postmodern agenda of truth as a human construct created in particular communities. Answering the old question, ‘How should we live?’ raises the question of the commonality of a single human nature for human beings.

The next question, ‘What is it to be human?’, explores human potentiality within the possibility of genetic engineering to correct physical defects. And what about the physical enhancement of humanity? Challenges indeed!

Part 2 focuses on what it means for a person to become a self, to fulfil his or her potential in the face of widespread diversity and meaninglessness.

I accepted Part 1 as interesting and important information but I admit I was more attracted to Part 2 and the personal issues. The notion of ‘becoming fully human’ leads to the question, ‘Who am I?’ Exploring answers in the personal realm is more difficult than in the physical one. The unmasking of the self soon raises the context of the self in community and the consequent ethics.

Like Socrates, Vardy invites his readers to wake from sleep. He notes the fear of postmodernism imposing values that could destroy local cultures and considers rather the importance of a global hegemony overall.

Following a chapter called ‘Anguish, Despair and Possibility’ there is one headed ‘Moving beyond the Dragon’ where Vardy claims a religious perspective on life always requires a transcendent dimension to human existence and he applies this proposition to the questions in the earlier chapters of this section of the book, such as moving beyond despair to a path for individuals to realize their full potential. Were such answers enough for the whole society? Did the religious perspective really offer hope, wisdom and insight? Could wisdom measure accountability and to what or to whom? These are the sort of questions with which the writer wrestles. Vardy recognizes that the traditional vision of humanity requires a new approach to ethics to acknowledge the claims of the postmodernism of the 21st Century and the genetic engineering challenge.

Looking at the claims of religion that individuals are ultimately accountable for themselves to a higher authority than self or community leads Vardy back to the long Western Philosophy tradition and the expansion of this over time as knowledge was bringing communities together. This leads on to contemporary postmodernism which he points out is already giving way to commitments to justice and valuing the Other in people.

So what is Vardy’s way forward? On top of the possibilities of enhancing individuals with genetic engineering something more is needed for individuals to live a fulfilled human life with a sense of personal responsibility to the world and its people. Reason is not enough. In addressing the human condition he would have Philosophy pursue wisdom in all areas of knowledge and experience.

Vardy knows there is no proof that life is not meaningless or that there is any transcendent Other. He notes that all world religions hold to the idea of a transcendent reality or, as in Buddhism, firm ethical roots based on the idea of a common human nature and the need to live an accountable life. He says:
The spiritual path and the becoming fully human are viewed by all religions as two sides of the one coin. It is in the unpacking of this claim into the formulation of ethical rules by different religions that variation occurs. The common ground, based on the idea of a single nature … may well be where true wisdom is to be found.

What he offers is a way ahead for life on earth bound by common humanity. This takes us back to the introduction to Part 1. The ancient Greek philosophers considered the question ‘How shall we live?’ to be the most important one of all. We are not only no nearer to finding an answer but have forgotten the question.

This, like all of Peter Vardy’s books, is well worth reading to guide us in asking the old everlasting questions of who we are and what are our responsibilities to the world and its people.