Can’t we dispense with the human?*

What purpose could it serve, to appeal to a category long associated with ideas of uniqueness and superiority? Have we learned nothing from twentieth-century European philosophers who, sobered by catastrophic wars and other forms of social suffering, rejected the very idea of a humanist subject? From successive waves of feminists who have revealed that this supposedly universal category is actually masculine and patriarchal? From anthropologists and post-colonialists who lay bare all the ways the human has been deployed to identify non-Europeans as less than? From black studies scholars who explain how the human came to be a racist category, a concealed claim on behalf of whiteness? From posthumanists who declare it a fool’s errand to distinguish humanity from other animals and forms of matter?

I recently cowrote a grant proposal called “Being Human” and contributed to the creation of a new Center for Religion and the Human. I have written a book on Renaissance humanism. I regularly teach a course on human nature. I was originally inspired to study religion because it seemed the most comprehensive and complicated way to address questions about what it means to be human. Still, my opening questions are real questions. What are we doing—what can we hope to learn—when we name “the human” a critical term in religious studies?

*   *   *

“What is man that thou art mindful of him,” the psalmist asks in the King James version of the Bible, “And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:5-6). The question of the human is no less central in Robert Alter’s translation, more faithful to the Hebrew original: “What is man that You should note him, and the human creature, that You pay him heed?”

Placed at the exact center of the biblical poem, the balanced synonymity of the two halves of the line emphasize humanity’s place in the cosmic hierarchy. This short psalm, beginning and ending with the same line, elegantly recapitulates the story of creation in Genesis while declaring humanity’s dominion over everything else in the world:

For the lead player, on the gittith, a David psalm.

Lord, our Master,
                             how majestic Your name in all the earth!
                                                  whose splendor was told over the heavens.
From the mouth of babes and sucklings
                             You founded strength
on account of Your foes  
                             to put an end to enemy and avenger.
When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
                             the moon and the stars You fixed firm,
“What is man that You should note him,
                             and the human creature, that You pay him heed,
and You make him little less than the gods,
                             with glory and grandeur You crown him?
You make him rule over the work of Your hands.
                             All things You set under his feet.
Sheep and oxen all together,
                             and also the beasts of the field,
birds of the heavens and fish of the sea,
                             what moves on the paths of the seas.”
Lord our Master,
                             how majestic your name in all the earth!

                                                                               (Alter translation)

Crowned with glory and grandeur, a little less than the gods but with all things set under his feet, the subject of this psalm lives in the ancient Mediterranean while presenting himself also as a progenitor of modernity’s swaggering man.

This claim that humans were made to “rule over the work of Your hands” understandably alarms those who worry about religion’s capacity to mystify human power. Indeed, Psalm 8 echoes the language of Genesis 1:28, where God tells humans to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Throughout Christian history, this Israelite vision of human dominion has been invoked to justify the conquest of non-Europeans, the bondage of animals, and the plunder of nature around the world. And we can detect its enduring influence still today, in secularized versions of the claim that humans rightly, or necessarily, or inevitably, dominate the world in which they live. From this perspective, the perspective of those who link the biblical account of creation to a long history of violence and conquest, the psalmist’s question (“what is man?”) is merely rhetorical. According to this interpretation, Psalm 8 praises God for creating people who are lords of creation and affirms that the human is a man who rightly claims mastery.

And yet this Psalm has also puzzled Christian interpreters—including those directly responsible for Christianity’s exclusivist claims to power and truth. Martin Luther, for example, thought the psalmist’s central query was real rather than rhetorical. What is man that thou art mindful of him? In her essential article about how humanity came to be a racist category, Sylvia Wynter identifies Luther’s era as a turning point. When Renaissance humanists “degodded” man, Wynter argues, the human became a biocentric category. Absent God, she observes, “Race becomes the answer that the secularizing West would now give to the Heideggerian question as to the who, and the what we are.”

Wynter condemns this, calling it an oppressive biocentrism. Following Frantz Fanon she argues it can be rectified by introducing invention into existence. Others, including my colleague J. Kameron Carter, have written on this possibility, of a modern phenomenology founded on the insights of black and postcolonial studies.

But as an early modernist who specializes in Renaissance and Reformation Christianity, I want instead to explore Wynter’s implicit premise, that the presence of a god humbles humanity and thereby provides a less destructive version of the category. It is with this in mind that I consider two of Martin Luther’s commentaries on Psalm 8.

In his earliest lectures on the Psalms (the Dictata super Psalterium, delivered from 1513 to 1515), Luther declares that the subject is humanity in general, as well as each person in particular, and Christ. Glossing the line Alter translates as “what is man . . . and the human creature,” Luther explains that the first reference is to “men or human nature” while the second is to the Son of Man, i.e., Christ (following the Vulgate’s use of filius hominis to translate the Hebrew reference to creatureliness or mortality). Nevertheless, he is puzzled by the double reference. “The author,” he observes, “seems to be changing his way of speaking and to be passing over from Christ, from one [human] nature to another.” The bracketed reference to human is in Luther’s own hand, a note he added to the printed version of his lectures, highlighting his interest in the ambiguity. Christ’s nature is human. And also not. There is more than one (human) nature, even though the multiple natures are, as Luther reminds himself and his readers, “nevertheless one and the same.” In this early commentary, the tension is sustained rather than alleviated, as Luther attends to Psalm 8’s balanced interest in human and divine, lofty and lowly.

Twenty years later, in 1537, Luther’s ruminations give way to certainty. Psalm 8 is all about power, he asserts. This is why Christ is truly human, so that he can rule over men. The psalmist depicts humans as “earthly, perishable, mortal men, living in lands scattered hither and yon on earth” who are “at the same time . . . citizens of heaven.” Human and divine are not balanced in this poem. Instead, human nature is a divine instrument, used to ordain divine strength (“He does not want to use the angelic nature to ordain this strength. Instead, he uses human nature, which the devil has devoured and over which he is lord”). Luther locates this capacity for dominion in “the Word, and the preaching of the Gospel.”

Luther did not degod humanity in the same way Wynter argues Renaissance humanists did. But neither does his invocation of God fit Wynter’s assumption of how humanity might have been understood before Renaissance humanism put man at the center of the world. God was not a given for Luther, or a force with singular effects—just as the divine, or supernatural, or singular or plural gods, has not had, and has not been, the source of a singular or consistent worldview in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, or other religions with spirits or demons or ghosts or archangels or bodhisattvas or any other deity. My suggestion here is that thinking about humanity can be especially nuanced and subtle in sources that appeal to transcendent ideals. The distinctive value of sources that appeal to transcendent ideals seems especially clear when that ideal is personified: when people are thinking about themselves in relation to a being they envision as simultaneously similar to and different from themselves—in relations to a being who is, in other words, part of their own world while also denizen of another.

I do not think, as Wynter implies, that having a god keeps humans in check, but instead that putting a god or gods in the mix might help us to think the human better. This is not because deities or spirits necessarily remind humans of their inferiority. In fact, a fairly straightforward reading of Psalm 8 confirms that invoking the divine is one way humans divinize themselves. But even in just this one short Psalm, there is no single account of god and no single definition of humanity. So, too, in the Christian sources I know best—sources that associate god with a god-man savior. These sources, like Luther’s, make clear that god-human is not a simple idea.

Martin Luther demonstrates this complexity by having two readings of the same biblical poem. In one case, the puzzle of the god-man prompts him to ruminate on the relationship between power and humility. On another occasion, he emphasizes divine power. And here, in these canonical commentaries on a scriptural source, we have the blurriness and complexity of religion’s relationship to claims about humanity on full display—a blurriness and complexity that the category of the human requires us to engage.

What is, indeed, this being, that we should be mindful of them?

*I owe the clarity of this question to Hannah Garvey.