categoryBeing Human

What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

P.M. Forni on Whining and Spreading Misery

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What concerns me here, instead, is the continuous or recurring complaining that is an unwarranted spreading of misery. It is the kind that bespeaks helplessness rather than assertiveness, it more interested in assigning blame than in finding solutions, and is rooted in the feeling that life is unfair. Now, disappointments, disheartening setbacks, and dreams that fail to become reality are an inevitable part of being alive. Every day you spend on earth, however, also gives you an abundance of reasons to be grateful. It is up to you to choose between giving in to dissatisfaction and resentment and embracing contentment and joy. My suggestion is that you make every effort to start walking toward joy today, not only for your own good but for the good of those closest to you as well.

James Waller on Human Nature and Pessimism

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My own pessimism comes more from understanding human nature and the relative ease with which ordinary people can come to commit extraordinary evil. Until we fully understand and appreciate that, we’re kind of at a loss to try and stop it. It seems to me that some of our discussion still revolves around the idea that perpetrators of genocide are very much on the fringe, and that there aren’t a lot of these people. But when we recognize how relatively easy it is for ordinary people to become involved in this, that just takes the discussion to a different place… It’s easier for me to sleep at night if I think that perpetrators of genocide and mass killing are lunatics or insane or only found in cultures like Germany. I don’t blame people for jumping to those explanations. But for me it begins with the issue of numbers. We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, but very seldom do we step back and ask the question: How many people does it take to kill 6 million people? We know that 800,000 Rwandans died in 100 days, but again, how many people does it take to kill 800,000 people? If you want to say that the only people who do this are lunatics or insecure, then I just don’t know if you can round up that many people like that in a given society to commit the scale of atrocity that we see in genocide. You simply can’t rely on the fringes of society to do that. A lot of ordinary people are going to have to be recruited into that effort as well.

James Waller on the Thin Veneer of Civilization

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In Rwanda and the Balkans, neighbors often killed neighbors. How did they turn on people they’d known all their lives? And in the Holocaust you had incidences of this, too — I’m thinking of Jan Gross’ book, entitled “Neighbors,” about a small village in Poland named Jedwabne where the Catholic half of the village killed the Jewish half simply because they were given permission to do so. You realize how thin this veneer of civilization is that we put up. We say we live as neighbors and in a community, but when something happens structurally that says now you have permission to persecute, to take from, to even kill people that you’ve lived with for years, the relative ease with which people can do that is incredible.

Jonah Goldberg on Human Responsibility

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Noting that we’re all human beings can be worthwhile, but it can also be a verbal white flag for abject moral surrender. Put another way: All the great political and moral conflicts have been between human beings. To date, civilization’s greatest battles — rhetorical or otherwise — have not been with Styrofoam, dog hair, gerbils, or toe jam. Nazis are human beings. Murderers and pedophiles are human beings. To say that humanity somehow exonerates rather than confers accountability is to say that humanity is in fact meaningless. Joe Blow killed a child? Well, he’s just a human being — cut him some slack. Sure, Jack the Ripper was a rough chap, but he was a carbon-based life form.

Madeleine L’Engle on Longing for Home

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We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes…

Os Guinness on the Weight of Prophetic Witness

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Prisoner 174517 was thirsty. Seeing a fat icicle hanging just outside his hut in the Auschwitz extermination camp, he reached out of the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. But before he could get the icicle to his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground. “Warum?” the prisoner burst out instinctively — “Why?” “Hier ist kein warum,” the guard answered with brutal finality — “Here there is no why.” ¶ That for Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish scientist and writer, was the essence of the death camps — places not only of unchallengable, arbitrary authority but of absolute evil that defied all explanation. In the face of such wickedness, explanations born of psychology, sociology, and economics were pathetic in their inadequacy. One could only shoulder the weight of such an experience and bear witness to the world. “Never again” was too confident an assertion. You never know was the needed refrain.

Cary Tennis on Alcoholism and Redemption

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It’s that experience of utter hopelessness, or moments of clarity, or hitting bottom, at which some sufferers typically call out to a higher power for help and others seek the aid of psychiatrists, healers and scientists. The common paradox in all these experiences is that personal powerlessness is twinned with personal responsibility: You suddenly realize that while no one can cure you, neither can you cure yourself on your own. You need God, or friends, or an institution, or a belief system, or something — anything — not yourself. And thus begins, in myriad forms, the archetypal untangling of epistemological knots that results, ultimately, in an unaddicted ego that knows it is both profoundly free and profoundly interdependent. And that’s the basis of a healthy society. For that reason, many recovered addicts view with suspicion systems of government aid that seem to prolong dependency and/or to shield sufferers from the fundamental hopelessness of their situation. Thus we would expect Bush, not just as a political conservative, but as somebody who’s experienced deep hopelessness, aloneness in the universe and the need for God, to view welfare and other government attempts to eliminate suffering as simply, and wrongly, shielding people from their true problems, the recognition of which alone could catalyze deep change.

Christiane Amanpour on Bearing Witness to Horror

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I have spent the past decade in just about every conceivable war zone. I have made my living bearing witness to the most horrific events of the end of the 20th century. Because CNN is seen all over the world, I’ve become globally identified as a harbinger of war and disaster. Wherever I go, people say jokingly — or maybe not so jokingly — that they shudder when they see me: “Oh, my God. Amanpour is coming. Is something bad going to happen to us?” U.S. soldiers, with whom I now have more than a passing acquaintance, joke that they track my movements to predict where they will be deployed. And I have calculated that I have spent more time at the front than most normal military units. … And then there’s the nightmare of what we see: in Rwanda, piles of bodies being lifted by bulldozers after a genocide and dumped into mass graves — and the toughest of soldiers, supervising this, in tears. In Bosnia, little children being shot in the head. In Somalia and Ethiopia, the walking skeletons heralding those terrible famines. I remember once doing a live shot from a so-called famine camp in Somalia, in which I showed a man, told his story, and explained how ill he was. I suddenly realized that he was dying at that very moment. And I didn’t know what to do — I didn’t know how to move the camera away, how not to sully what was happening in real life. These images and these sounds will never leave me.

Richard Rodriquez on Race and History

Go This lack of a sense of history has allowed us a kind of romance with race and ethnicity that is fanciful. I did a documentary some years ago about America and teenagers and the past and all these kids who were announcing themselves as wanting to recover their history, as though it was some reassurance, when everything I've ever read about American history is an embarrassment. It's filled with tragedies of all kinds. The notion that we would study history in order to feel better about ourselves is just ludicrous. But we have this romantic sense because we know it so little, our past really seems noble. I don't look to Aztec Mexico for any reassurance about my identity. I'm aware that Aztec Mexico was a decadent society; its bloodlust was so extreme that its ultimate sexual energy was its pursuit of death. There's nothing in that history for me that leads me to the romantic calendars that you see in Mexican restaurants with the Aztec, almost naked with the feathers coming out of his head, and the Aztec princess at his knees. Nothing of that is convincing to me. History is a terrible, terrible burden which we need to confront, but I don't think the search for authenticity begins there.

Stephen Jay Gould on Being Human

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If we accept this common argument of natural historians, and insist that the “essence” of humanity can be defined only by the overt variation among the more than 6 billion human beings on earth, then how can we characterize ourselves at all in a world of evolutionary continuity? If we descended smoothly from the apelike common ancestor of humans and chimps, then how can humanity achieve any clear definition? Doesn’t all life form a single glop of continuity, extending all the way back to primordial bacteria?

Stephen Jay Gould on the Essence of Being Human

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Nature provides no moral messages for our complex and confusing lives. But this evolutionary argument for construing the “essence” of humanity as the sum total of our variation within the discrete boundaries of our species does provide an important insight into what might be called the biological meaning of human equality. If all living humans form one distinct historical entity, not a set of stages in a continuum leading backward into our evolutionary ancestry, then we cannot order our variation into any ranking of worth based on “higher” or “lower” stages. A person becomes a full human being by genealogical membership within our evolutionarily discrete species, and not by possessing “essential” traits that we may happen to judge as more valuable than others: the strength of Mark McGwire or the brains of Albert Einstein. In this sense, we must regard the birthright of humanity as being truly inalienable in the most literal way. A person born into this biological entity cannot sell his or her membership for a mess of pottage or for all the world’s gold and power. Every human being contributes equally to the full variation that defines our essence. In this sense, the most mentally limited person remains as fully and completely human as McGwire or Einstein. This truly biological view of human essences can only elevate the familiar words of Tiny Tim to more than a saccharine pronouncement at the end of kiddie Christmas specials: “God Bless Us, Every One!”

The Proper Study of Mankind

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Oxford professor, philosopher, and historian of ideas, the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) was also one of the finest English essayists in the 20th century. This retrospective collection of 17 of his best essays surveys his entire career as a thinker, including his work in political philosophy and the philosophy of history, his thoughts on the Enlightenment, Vico, and Machiavelli, and his passion for Russian literature. Reprinted are such seminal essays as "Two Concepts Liberty" and "The Hedgehog and the Fox," as well as his reflections on Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Edited by scholars Hardy and Hausheer, who also provides an introduction, and with a foreword by Noel Annan, this book also includes a helpful bibliography. A fitting epitaph for a man passionately and eloquently devoted to ideas. ~ Library Journal

Plantinga’s Philosophical Rennaisance

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In a recent issue of Philosophy Now, Daniel Hill describes how the work of Alvin Plantinga has revolutionized the discipline of Philosophy of Religion. His cursory sketch of the subject and his observations on Plantinga’s unique and peerless contributions are an interesting introduction to the field and its leading spokesperson. Several of Plantinga’s articles [link expired] are available online. For a fuller synopsis of his life and work, consider reading The Analytic Theist.

Charlotte Allen on the Human Condition

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[W]e can take comfort from the things that have survived for 2,000 years and are likely still to be around when another thousand have passed: wine and song; dogs and ball games; parties and horoscopes; sandals and earrings; the Greek and Latin classics; lovely young ladies and obnoxious aunts; courage and hope and fear of death; the love of parents for their children.

George Stephanopoulos on Government

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Because I believe in original sin, because I know that I’m capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids, because I know that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion, I believe we need government. A government that forces us to care about the common good even when we don’t feel like it, a government that helps channel our better instincts and check our bad ones. I don’t think government is good, just necessary.

Jeffrey Satinover on Religious Certitude

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I suppose that God Himself is doing just fine, but His earthly defenders are on the ropes, and it’s our own fault. Religion deservedly comes in for more criticism in its failures than does science, because genuine religion claims for itself the ability to know what’s true, whereas genuine science claims for itself only the ability to quantify the probability of a thing being wrong. (Bad science and bad religion simply swap roles, the former proclaiming Truth, the latter worshiping Doubt.) Religion’s bête noire is the fact that a genuine truth arrogantly asserted — that is, without so much as a moment’s consideration that it might be false — is a most pernicious kind of falsehood, far worse in its effects on the humane than a flat mistake. It’s a matter of modesty. It never uses the term, but science itself is a method to insure modesty of claims (however arrogant its practitioners). Religion, on the other hand, speaks constantly of the virtues, and then, on the whole, displays them with no greater consistency than does any other human institution.

Bettijane Levine & Eli Wiesel on Evil

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After years spent studying the world’s great philosophers and writers, of poring over the Bible, Talmud, Torah and other ancient texts, of discussions with inspired social and religious leaders, [Eli] Wiesel
still has no answer to the question of what makes people good or evil. “I can give all the usual answers — education, home, parents, peer pressure. But these are just factors. The mystery of why people become
good or evil is still just that — a mystery.” But he has thought of one “rational approach” to ensuring more goodness in humanity. It is respect. “If I respect The Other for whatever The Other is, and The Other respects me for whatever I am, then there can be understanding and even great friendship between all people.”

The Study of Human Nature: A Reader

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This unique anthology provides an introduction to a wide variety of views on human nature. Drawing from diverse cultures over three millennia, Leslie Stevenson has chosen selections ranging from ancient religious texts up to contemporary theories based on evolutionary science. The second edition of The Study of Human Nature offers substantial selections illustrating the perspectives discussed in Ten Theories of Human Nature, — the Bible, Hinduism, Confucianism, Plato, Kant, Marx, Freud, Sartre, B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, and Konrad Lorenz’s ethnological diagnosis of human aggression. The Islamic tradition and 17th-18th century philosophers Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, and Rousseau are also represented. Selections from Rousseau, J.S. Mill, and Nancy Holmstrom raise feminist issues, and Henry Bracken’s paper deals with racial issues. Examples from E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology and his critics are also included, together with Chomsky and recent examples from evolutionary psychology. ~ Product Description

Human Persons as a Test Case for Integrative Methodologies

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No one can reasonably deny that the recent Intelligent Design movement has gathered considerable momentum in the last five years. And in spite of one’s overall assessment of that movement, it remains clear that its clarion call to critique contemporary philosophical naturalism is one that must be received warmly by Christian intellectuals. In this regard, William Dembski has reminded us that the Intelligent Design movement has a four–pronged approach for defeating naturalism: (1) A scientific/philosophical critique of naturalism; (2) A positive scientific research program (intelligent design) for investigating the effects of intelligent causes; (3) rethinking every field of inquiry infected by naturalism and reconceptualizing it in terms of design; (4) development of a theology of nature by relating the intelligence inferred by intelligent design to the God of Scripture.1

Thomas Cahill on an End to the Everlasting Hills

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Is not the desire of the everlasting hills that they be saved from their everlastingness, that something new happen, that the everlasting cycle of human cruelty, of man’s inhumanity to man, be brought to an end?

Carl Sagan on Our Pale Blue Dot

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The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. ¶ Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privilege position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. ¶ The earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. ¶ It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Naturalism, Christianity, and the Human Person

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What is the nature of the human person? A mere conglomeration of matter that consists of different levels of brain state or a being that is also endowed with a soul? In this final part of the series on Naturalism, Dr. J. P. Moreland exposes the philosophical inadequacies of physicalism and explains why the Christian message is more convincing.

David James Duncan [as Peter] on Suffering and Evil

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Window down, transmission in neutral, he was gliding along, exhausted, under stars and sinking moon, driving at swimming speed, otter speed, watching the same moon-silvered riffles and silent glides she’d navigated moments before. And when he pictured again the way she’d watched him — one small, rounded ear up, listening to his babble, the other ear down, listening to the world beneath the asphalt, crushed and alive, two worlds at once — it touched something in him, unlocked something, and he felt himself fall through a kind of false bottom, felt he was driving now, down, into a vast, dark pool. A pool of sorrows, it seemed at first. And not just his own, not just crushed otters and lost Tashas. The stuff of small and large losses, and of recent and ancient ones — poxed kakiutl and napalmed Asians, leveled cities and leveled minds, lost tribes and understandings, broken bridges between worlds — it was all somehow suspended here. Immense sadness on all sides, yet immense depth — there was room down here for all of it. And in his exhaustion he didn’t panic, didn’t try to escape, didn’t close his mind around any one hurt. He just kept easing the Olds down through it all, thrashing on a gurney, Natasha laughing in a cloudburst, the one good paw scrabbling at the road. No matter how much he saw, more kept coming. Sorrows were endless; he’d always known this. But so, he discovers as he kept sinking and sinking, was the spaciousness of this great black pool.

David James Duncan on Sehnsucht

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To describe in words makes the kingdom sound stark and empty, like the scrub desert of eastern Washington or something. But this is only because words can’t explain the feeling that everything had. The fullness of things only made you notice this feeling more. The air, for instance smelled something like sea air, but whereas sea air makes you hungry, kingdom air made you full, and it wasn’t a fullness like when you’re stuffed from overeating: it was more like foodless fullness you get at the end of a really good movie. Like when the Captured Girl is about to be killed because she won’t tell The Secret, and she takes a last look at the hills with tears in her huge brown eyes, and here comes The Hero you thought was dead, riding down out of nowhere with his sword flashing or gun blazing, making hamburger out of Evil while the music surges through you and the goose bumps shoot up and down you. That sort of fullness. Like I said, I can’t explain it.

David James Duncan on Drunks

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I’d never seen anybody drink except the bums down in Portland. But once you saw the bums you never forgot. They had eyes like mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup all stirred together; the skin of their faces was like Soap Mahoney’s hands; their teeth were bashed in or caramel-colored, if they had any, and their mouths dribbled tobacco or blood at the corners; they wore pieces of dead people’s old suits, wore greasy overcoats that flapped like mangled wings, wore sores instead of socks on their ankles; and after they’d drink a while they’d just sit or lie down right on the sidewalk, letting real people walk over them while they argued with people who weren’t even there. Once, while we were walking over some, Peter said to Everett that the bums had to listen to a whole sermon just to get a bowl of free soup at the Harbor Light Mission. Everett spat and said no wonder they stayed drunk. Then mama scared the hell out of us, and out of some bum too, by hauling off and slapping Everet so hard he almost fell down on a fat old Indian passed out against the wall there. Yet it was Everett who instantly said, “I’m sorry.” Because he knew, we all knew, that she didn’t hit him for any weird religious reason, or for spitting on sidewalks, or even out of nervousness at having to step around bums. She hit him because her father was a drunk. A mean one too. Died before any of us ever met him, but Mama still has dreams about him. And even dead he was the reason why drinking terrified her.