Chapter 6
What is Man?

Somewhere between two and three thousand years ago, a Hebrew poet addressed his God and said, 'When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the sun and the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained, what is man that though art mindful of him?' It is a good question, and despite its antiquity it is as relevant today as it ever was, even though I suspect that some of the linguistic philosophers might dismiss it as unanswerable and therefore meaningless. perhaps I malign them, but, be that as it may, I prefer the advice of Socrates in the Phaedo; discussing the problems of the immortality of the soul - that is to say, the destiny of a human being - and combining a thoroughly sceptical approach with an emphasis upon the need to choose, he says:

'Problems like that are such that in this life it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find out the answer for certain. Nevertheless it is cowardice, weakness and laziness not to investigate from every possible angle the theories and arguments put forward about it, and not to go on doing so until one drops from fatigue. If one does pursue the matter as one should, one is bound to achieve one of two results; either one finds out the true answer, or if this is impossible, one finds the best available human hypothesis, that is to say, the hardest to falsify.' That hypothesis one can use as a raft on which to ride the stormy seas of life; assuming, that is, that one cannot find any surer vehicle, that is, some divine logos.

But though it is a good question, contemporary man tends to give it a very dusty answer. For the reality of our situation is that, as a result of the Big Bang some thousands of millions of years ago, there are at least a hundred million galaxies littering the enormity of space and probably many more, each containing about 100,000 million stars. The Milky Way is one such galaxy, and our Sun one of its 100,000 million stars, while round it a few specks of planetary matter have been circulating for perhaps 5,000 million years or so; one one of them, because of the accidents of its climate, chemistry and temperature, at a given moment in time an already giant-sized molecule underwent a further mutation, thus becoming even larger and more complex that it was already, and in the process became the first living cell. Further random mutations chanced to occur - for as Professor Monod reminded us all in his book Chance and Necessity (1972), all is pure chance - and we are the end-products of that infinitesimally insignificant biochemical accident; and probably we are. But if that is all that can be said of us, then plainly to arrogate to ourselves any ideas of purpose, value or significance is absurd, as the atheist Existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, with their literature and theatre of the absurd saw clearly enough, and as Monod emphasized when he wrote that man 'has emerged by chance. His duty, like his fate, is written nowhere.....Man as any other animal species is a pure accident of evolution; it might just as well not have appeared.' Thus Macbeth got it right when in terminal despair he cried out.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

But while this may be acceptable as an intellectual hypothesis, no one lives as though it were true; we behave as though Macbeth was talking nonsense. Indeed, the play is a tragedy precisely because we see his outbreak of nihilism against the inexorable working out of God's law of justice, bringing in its wake divine retribution for the crimes he has committed; if life was really a 'tale told by an idiot', then Macbeth's crimes and those of his wife would not be crimes at all but mere incidents in the farce of living, and the murder of Duncan of no greater consequence than the swatting of a fruit fly. But, once again, no one lives as though this were true. For example. a casual acquaintance of mine had an experience during the Second World War which illustrates the point I am trying to make. I met him only once, but discovered that we shared much; we had both suffered the same kind of middle-class education, and like me he had rejected belief in God; growing up between the wars, we had both loathed the idea of war, subscribed to the usual liberal political ideals, which were virtually compulsory for anyone wishing to lay claim to a grain of intelligence at that time, and loved the arts. The major difference between us was that he was a German and, by the time I met him, a Lutheran pastor. I was unable to understand how anyone as cultured, charming and intelligent as he undoubtedly was could possibly have done anything as patently dotty as to
become a Christian, let alone a clergyman, and I asked him how it had come about.

When the war had broken out he had been forced by events to join the Wehrmacht, much as I had joined the army here at home, and like me he had eventually been commissioned. He was posted to the Russian front, where after a time he had been given a job on the staff, and in 1943 or early 1944, when the Russians were advancing and the Germans being driven back, he was told to go from A to B on an errand; I have no idea what it was. As midday he found himself some miles west of the Russian town of Kiev, where a battle was raging, the thunder of the guns rumbling away over the eastern horizon, and there he decided to stop and eat a picnic lunch. He drove his car off the road - a long straight ribbon of road stretching away under a grey sky - and began to eat his sandwiches; as he did so, he noticed a small column of sorry and bedraggled-looking people approaching him from the east accompanied by a small guard of SS men armed with sub-machine guns. He did not pay much attention to them, and only later discovered that they were Jews being taken westwards to an extermination camp before the advancing Russians could reach them. One young woman had fallen fifty yards or so behind the main body, and she had done so because she was exhausted; her exhaustion was understandable, for she was in the last stages of pregnancy and she was carrying an infant in her arms and dragging a child of about eight by the hand as best she could despite the obvious exhaustion of the child. My acquaintance noticed one of the guards waiting behind to encourage her to keep up with the rest, and was horrified to observe that the way he did so was to knock her over the back of the neck with the butt of his sub-machine gun, while shouting oaths at her. The young woman fell face down on the road and began to vomit; when it became evident that despite a barrage of kicks to the stomach she would be unable to get up, the man shot her with a short and economical burst of fire, and left her corpse on the road with the two children screaming and scrambling over it.

My acquaintance was brought up against an immediate conviction, over which he could no more argue than he could argue about the fact that he breathed, that whatever else might be said about what he had just witnessed, it could not be adequately described in terms of the mere elimination of a chance biochemical accident of the earth's random physics and nothing more. Somehow he had to make sense of his primary human awareness of the horror of that incident and the value of the dead woman. His atheism made no sense of either except in terms of sociological conditioning and convenience, and he realized that, if the woman had no ultimate value, to be human is to be absurd; for the essence of being human, as opposed to being, say, a crocodile, a farm yard duck or a liver fluke, is to make value judgements. so he had to sit down and rethink his whole understanding of life; and after a time and some reluctance he came to the conclusion that only if there was some sort of truth in the symbolic statement that 'God so loved the world', could the value of that dead Jewess be established with any kind of sense or certainty, because then she could be seen to be valuable to the ground of all value and loved by the source of all love. It could, of course, be argued, as indeed it is by some sociologists and anthropologists, that value judgements are products of social factors, which is why they vary from society to society. Up to a point this is true, but only up to a point; for if that is all there is to be said of such judgements, and if there is no ultimate criterion by which they themselves may be valued, then it must be acknowledged that they are the products of majority opinion in any given society and no more. Thus, presumably, it was 'right' in Aztec Mexico to sacrifice 20,000 victims to the gods in a single day by opening their chests with an obsidian knife and ripping out their hearts, still beating and hot with blood; right , too, to practise female circumcision in various African countries, and to exterminate the Jews in Nazi Germany.

My German acquaintance, however, concluded that if he was the only man in the world to condemn the murder of that Jewess on the road to Kiev as 'most foul, strange and unnatural', he would be right and the other three thousand million inhabitants of the planet would be wrong. Somewhere along the line I came to the same conclusion; and I am persuaded, too, that most of my atheist friends would do so too, if put to it. For often their theory does not marry very well with their practice, which is frequently profoundly loving, moral and self-sacrificial, where the practice of Christians is sometimes at variance with their beliefs in the opposite direction.

I could have illustrated the point I have tried to make in that story of the young woman's murder on the road to Kiev less dramatically by recalling how I sat with my mother as she died a natural death in her eighties in a nursing home on Putney Hill after a stroke; for, once again, I could hardly have said, as she actually died, 'Right! So that's that! Another biochemical accident of the earth's chancy physics on its totally insignificant way towards a further chemical change. What's on the telly tonight?' Or I could have asked the reader whether he or she could have treated the first person they ever loved and held in their arms in all their naked vulnerability, surrender and uniqueness as no more than a biochemical accident. But I chose to give prominence to the story of the murder on the road to Kiev, partly because it deeply impressed me, and partly because the Christian faith is centred upon another story of a Jew unjustly murdered, this time on a hill near Jerusalem, and it therefore seemed particularly relevant to the subject of this book.

I realize, however, that this is to treat certain human emotions with a seriousness usually reserved for rational thinking on the ground that it is the intellect alone which leads to knowledge, while human emotions merely mislead or distract. But do they? N amount of rational thinking will do much to open my eyes to the splendour of Duccio's Maesta in
Siena or my ears to the glory of the Byrd Five-part Mass, nor will rational thinking teach me as much about my lover, child, or lifelong friend as I will learn from loving them. Love is blind, it has been said, and if it is equated with infatuation it is indeed as blind as a bat; but with greater perception it has also been said that love and love alone sees and accepts a person whole and loves what it sees - virtues, faults and all. Only with someone we love do we dare walk naked and unabashed as we really are with all our physical blemishes unhidden; little pot belly, breasts beginning to resemble spaniel's ears rather than apples or pomegranates, appendix scar and varicose veins; and only those who love us do we dare also to show our laziness, cowardice, kinkiness, vanity or what-have-you with no attempt to hide them. In the company of those we do not love, we don social masks with our clothes, thankfully hiding the truth about ourselves from prying eyes. Some of our emotions should therefore be treated with greater respect than it is currently fashionable to pay them, for they can reveal certain truths as nothing else can, and I make no apology for taking them seriously. They are part of our total experience and not to be despised.

Moreover, I am not at all sure that contemporary scepticism about value judgements in general and the value of a human being in particular is based as solidly on rational foundations as is often supposed. For foremost amongst contemporary objections to the idea of human beings having any ultimate value either as children of God or as supreme in the universe because of our god-like ability to take charge of our own destiny, is the perspective of modern cosmology; for when we consider the heavens, the sun and the moon and the stars revealed by twentieth-century astronomers, we too wonder what we can say of ourselves; we too ponder the question, What is man? 'If you wish to reflect upon our significance in the cosmos,' said Sir Bernard Lovell in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1`975, 'it may be salutary to look towards the constellation of Coma, hold a penny at arm;s length, and remember that you obscure from your vision a cluster of a thousand galaxies, 350 million light years away, and receding from us with a velocity of nearly 5,000 miles per second.' It is little consolation to recall that probably he was referring to an old-fashioned penny before the days of decimalization. We are so infinitely small and ephemeral in the perspectives of the galaxies and the quasars that it is understandable that we should feel ashamed of claims made in the past for our immortal significance and centrality; for this is precisely the kind of emotional reaction which we should indeed distrust. For what has size to do with value?

Undeniably, a human being is exceedingly small when measured on an astronomical scale (and almost unimaginably large against a sub-atomic ruler), but if you compare a human or any other living creature with a few light years of empty space, or with one of the spheres of nuclear heated gas which we call stars, or with a ball of dead rock like the Moon or Mars, which is the most significant, remarkable and rare? And since significance and rarity are characteristics of those things which we deem to be valuable, which is the most valuable? Even if you take only one part of a human being, an eye or that complex chemical sorting house, a liver, let alone a human brain, the same thing applies; they are astonishingly rare and sophisticated object. For instance, in a popular book. The Dragons of Eden (1978), on the evolution of human intelligence, Dr Carl Sagan, Professor of Astronomy in Cornell University, pointed out that : 'the human brain (apart from the cerebellum, which does not seem to be involved in cognitive functions) contains about ten billion switching elements called neurons.... An average neuron in a human brain has between 1,000 and 10,000 synapses or links with adjacent neurons.....If each synapse responds by a single yes-or-no answer to an elementary question, as is true of the switching elements in electronic computers, the maximum number of yes/no answers or bits of information that the brain could contain is 10:10 x 10:3=10:13......This is an unimaginably large number, far greater, for example, than the total number of elementary particles (electrons and protons) in the entire universe.

But if the human brain is, if not necessarily unique, certainly a rare and wonderful phenomenon to come across in the chilly and silent perspectives of cosmic immensity, how much more so is a whole human being, a laughing child, a dreaming lover, a dying Christ?

Since the time when I was confronted by the problem of the destiny and value of man, there has been another development in scientific cosmology which I find interesting, for it goes some way to replacing man at the centre of things as the flower of the whole cosmic evolutionary process rather than a mere accidentally-product of it. As a result of the Big Bang, we are now told, there might have been a number of different universes. As Dr Peacocke of Cambridge has pointed out in his book Creation and the World of Science (1979), if the proton-proton interaction had been slightly different at the time of the beginning of the expansion, then all the protons in the universe, which were the raw material of the heavier atoms in the stars, would have turned into the more inert helium in the early stages of the formation of a radically different universe from that which we know. To quote Bernard Lovell again, 'No galaxies, no stars, no life would have emerged. It would have been a universe unknowable by living creatures. The existence of a remarkable and intimate relationship between man, the fundamental constants of nature and the initial moments of space and time, seems to be an inescapable condition of our presence here.' B. Carter, quoted by Dr Peacocke, has gone further in an essay on 'Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology', which was published in a collection of essays entitled, Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data (1974). He has argued that we live in what he has called an 'anthropic universe', contending that 'the Universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.' What he seems to be saying is that our particular universe, out of an ensemble (his word) of possible universes, is a cognizable universe (his words again), which thus had to produce objects, creatures, able to observe and attempt to understand it at some point in its evolution; for this, indeed, it was made. How widely accepted this idea of an anthropic universe is amongst scientists, I do not know; but whatever else it may or may not do, it draws attention to the astonishing fact that, whether by a series of accidents or by design, 'in man, the stuff of the universe has become cognizing and self-cognizing', as Dr Peacocke has put it; 'far from man's presence in the universe being a curious and inexplicable surd, we find that we are remarkably and intimately related to it on the basis of this contemporary scientific evidence, which is indicative of a far greater degree of man's total involvement with the universe than ever before envisaged.'

However reliable this new hypothesis may be, it is so recent and I suspect so tentative that few people have heard of it. Instead, they still envisage themselves in the perspectives of Monod's vast and purposeless universe, in which the false equation of size with value, smallness with insignificance, has robbed many people both of the will to ask what their existence signifies and of the ability to judge its meaning or even to acknowledge that it has a meaning; for it
has persuaded some people to believe that humanity's many attempts to discover that meaning, whether those attempts have been religious, artistic or philosophical, have been meaningless in themselves, because based on a meaningless question. But once again,
however much some people may deny that either humanity or they themselves have a
meaning, it is something which everyone strives after, both corporately and individually, in one way or another, including, I suspect, those who deny the validity of such a search; they may even derive their own sense of significance from the fact that they are part of a chosen few, who are 'brave' and 'honest' enough to deny that such a search has any value or likelihood of success. For the fact is that, if psychiatry is to be trusted, the concept of meaning is something that few, if any, people can do without for long. Vicktor Frankl in his book, Psychotherapy and Existentialism, went as far as to say in 1970 that most psychological malaise and distress suffered by people in our Western society can be attributed either to a suppressed or to an acknowledged conviction that their lives are meaningless. 'A psychiatrist today is confronted more and more with a new type of patient, a new class of neurosis, and a new sort of suffering, the most remarkable characteristic of which is the fact that it does not represent a disease in the proper sense of the term.' This is due, he goes on to say, 'to the experience of a total lack or loss of an ultimate meaning to one's existence that would make life worthwhile. The consequent void, the state of inner emptiness, is at present one of the major challenges to psychiatry.' Frankl describes how classical Freudian analysis explains human motivation in terms primarily of the search for pleasure and the will to survive, while Adlerian psychologists explain it primarily in terms of the will to power; but he gives it as he opinion that man 'is primarily motivated by the will to meaning....What threatens contemporary man is the alleged meaninglessness of his life...the existentialist vacuum within him.'

Of course there are other reasons for anxiety built into the human condition, death and guilty amongst them, and of these I shall have more to say later; but I cannot imagine that anyone is likely to disagree with Frankl when he says that anxiety over the suspicion that life may be totally meaningless is one of the worst fears that our flesh is heir to. Yet such a suspicion is as essentially human as the desire for love; all human being know it at some time or other during their lives, whereas, as far as can be made out, other animals - giraffes, tape-worms, bed bugs - do not. Traditionally, the suspicion that life is futile and meaningless has been countered by belief in God or the gods; but such belief is no longer available to most people, and the result, as Frankl points out, is that many of them become neurotic. This makes the idea that religion itself is a form or result of neurosis difficult to accept. Of course, some neurotic people become religious, but if Frankl and others are right, it is not so much people who believe that their lives have some sort of religious or philosophical meaning who are neurotic but those who are convinced that they themselves and their existence are meaningless. But if the latter are right, and life is indeed without meaning, then the odd - almost paradoxical - conclusion must be accepted that the evolutionary process has shaped and formed human beings in such a way as to be in danger of becoming neurotic when not suffering from intellectual delusions of their own significance, and psychologically healthy only when labouring under a misapprehension: in other words, mentally sick when in possession of the truth, but happy, fulfilled and mentally healthy when grossly mistaken intellectually.

Of course, none of this proves that either God or the gods exist; there is no proof that we are not accidents of the earth's physics and that our gods are not figments of our imagination; and, of course, no proof that they are. But what it does make clear is that our decision as to
whether God exists or not is not a decision in the realm of comfortable and largely irrelevant philosophical theory, but a decision, about the nature and significance of ourselves. If there is a God, a human being is one kind of thing; if there is no God, he is another kind of thing altogether. Moreover, as Socrates saw, we need a raft on which to ride the seas of life, and the exigencies of living deprive us of the soft option of refusing to make a decision on the apparently plausible grounds that, since there is no conclusive evidence either way, the only sensible course is to keep an open mind on the matter. This sounds reasonable, but is in fact impossible; for an open mind, whilst it remains open, is a mind which has in practice rejected belief in God. I 'lie in' once a week on my day off, and while doing so I keep an open mind as to when I shall get out of bed and dress; and all the time my mind is open I am in bed. Furthermore, one of the exigencies, to which I have alluded, is the human need for some sort of hope based on personal meaning; if you deprive a person of all meaning, all self-understanding, hope withers and dies, and when that happens that person withers and dies soon afterwards.

Evidence that this is so was gathered by an Austrian Jew, Dr Bruno Bettelheim, who later became Professor of Psychology in the University of Chicago; it is set out in his book,
The Informed Heart (1960), in which he describes his time in Dachau and Buchenwald during the last war. A pupil of Freud and a professional psychiatrist, he used his time in the concentration camps to study the effects of extreme adversity in fellow inmates. Those whose self-understanding and esteem were bound up with their position in the family, their professional achievements and their social status, when confined in the camps and thus removed from everything which had hitherto given point to their lives, deteriorated with extraordinary speed. 'Their behaviour', Bettelheim noted,

'showed how little the apolitical German middle class was able to hold its own against National Socialism. No consistent philosophy, either moral, political, or social, protected their integrity or gave them strength for an inner stand against Nazism. They had little or no resources to fall back on when subject to the shock of imprisonment......Prisoners who came to believe the repeated statements of the guards that there was no hope for them, that they would never leave the camp except as a corpse - who came to believe that their environment was one over which they could exercise no influence whatsoever - these prisoners were, in a sense, walking corpses. In the camps they were called 'Moslems' (Muselmanner) because of what was erroneously viewed as a fatalistic surrender to the environment, as Mohammedans are supposed to blindly accept their fate. But these people had not, like real Mohammedans, made an act of decision and submitted to fate out of free will., On the contrary, they were people who were so deprived of affect, self-esteem, and every form of stimulation, so totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, that they had given their environment total power over them....The deterioration of Moslems...began when they stopped acting on their own; and that was the moment when other prisoners recognized what was happening and separated themselves from these 'marked' men, because any further association with them could only lead to one's own destruction. At this point such men still obeyed orders, but only blindly or automatically, no longer selectively or with inner reservation or any hatred at being so abused. They still looked about, or at least moved their eyes around. The looking stopped much later, though even then they still moved their bodies when ordered, but never did anything on their own any more. Typically, this stopping of action began when they no longer lifted their legs as they walked, but only shuffled them. When finally even the looking about on their own stopped, they soon died.'

In contrast to these unfortunate people, those whose inner integrity survived the camps best were those whose hopes were of two kinds, personal and trans-personal. Everyone's life is buoyed up by personal hopes: hopes of passing an examination, of marrying a particular person, of becoming manager of the bank or the Co-op or what-have-you, or just of going to Majorca next year for a holiday; and of course these were the hopes which died most quickly in the concentration camps. But some people's lives were sustained, too, by hopes pinned to something which transcended them as individuals; the Communists believed that whatever might happen to them personally, the ultimate victory of the proletariat and the coming of the classless society could not be defeated by Hitler or anyone else, and in a sense that coming victory was vicariously their victory too, even if they died in the camps before it could be achieved. The Jehovah's Witnesses were buoyed up by their own brand of faith, and so were many Christians, who knew that, even if they themselves died in the camps, the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God was assured. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was typical of many others when, in a Nazi prison, he wrote, 'I believe that God can and intends to let good spring from everything, even from what is most evil . For this he needs human beings who know how to turn all things to good.' In similar vein, the sixty-eight-year-old Carthusian monk, Bernard Lichtenberg, Dean of the Cathedral of St Hedwig in Berlin, who was arrested for openly encouraging his fellow Christians to help the Jews against their Nazi persecutors, said in the last letter he was to write before his death in 1943, 'I consider everything that happens to me, joyful or painful things, elevating or depressing, in the light of eternity....I have enough courage to live for another twenty years, but should I did today, may God's will be done.' And I could give many more examples.

Plainly, the fact that many of those people whose lives were filled with transpersonal hopes, notably the convinced Communists and Christians, did not disintegrate in the concentration camps as quickly as some of those whose only hopes were bound up with their own small ambitions and personal affairs, proves nothing about either God or Karl Marx, but it does go to show that hope and meaning are as necessary to human fulfilment, perhaps even to human survival, as bread, air and water. 'Where there is no vision, the people perish' is a saying which has been put to the test again and again in our own agnostic century, and has been shown to be valid. So, once again, the question arises, 'Have we been evolved in such a way as to survive only when sustained by delusions?' Whatever answer is given to that question, it underlines the fact that the even more fundamental question, 'God or no God?' is indeed a question about our own nature and significance which should not be swept under a carpet of indifference or cynicism by anyone. And it is at this point that the claims made by Christians for the man Jesus cannot be ignored either; for if 'God was in Christ,' as St Paul put it , God is one kind of God, while if Paul was talking nonsense, the deity may be very different, and we human beings will be different too.


Antony Cyprian Bridge