theological anthropology

What Does It Mean to be Human? Reflections on the Exploring Personhood Conference

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Let me be very honest: I planned on attending the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture’s Exploring Personhood conference because it was my job to do so. It’s not that I was dreading the conference. But after working here for more than six years, I knew the formula for one of these conferences. I anticipated a handful of academic lectures and a panel discussion. I’d clock in, do my job, and leave.

Boy I was wrong.

Exploring Personhood not only defied each of my expectations; it was one of my favorite conferences the CFC has ever hosted.

The conference resonated in part due to the conference’s motivating question: What does it mean to be human? I’ve asked this question in my own pastoral ministry. While preaching Genesis, I’ve wrestled with the concept of the imago Dei in Genesis 1:27. What does it mean that God made us “in his image”? What, then, does it really mean to be human?

But what made this conference so unique was how it answered the question — by enlisting an eclectic, interdisciplinary lineup of speakers ranging from biblical scholars and theologians to scientists.

From a Bang to a Behr

The conference began with a bang as Dr. Carmen Imes of Biola University lectured on “The Rise and Fall of the Imago Dei?” In addition to bringing an Old Testament perspective to the question of personhood, Dr. Imes summarized key perspectives on the topic, drew observations, and applied those observations to evangelical and Southern Baptist culture. “Apply,” though, is too gentle of a word. “Prophesy” may be more apt. Dr. Imes’ words were challenging but necessary. A friend is one who sees our blind spots and is willing to tell us about them, and Dr. Imes served us by doing so.

The room was abuzz after Dr. Imes’ talk. And it was clear: This would not be your typical academic conference.

Dr. Amy Peeler of Wheaton College next offered a New Testament perspective on personhood with her lecture “The First and Second Adam and Eve: Gender and Representative Humanity.” She examined the early chapters of Genesis from the Apostle Paul’s perspective, explaining why Paul’s discussions of the Fall usually only refer to either Adam or Eve. In the end, I was stirred to worship as she explained why Mary really does matter, and why Jesus Christ had to be man.

Next, the conference pivoted to hear scientists’ perspectives on the question of personhood. Dr. Jeff Schloss of Westmont College spoke about “Spectacular Outliers?: Bioscience, Human Exceptionalism, and the Telos of Love.” While Dr. Schloss and I would disagree about his affirmation of evolution, I was intrigued by his summary of all the ways humans are scientifically unique in the natural world. “No question; humans are extraordinary,” he explained. And what makes us most extraordinary — and most scientifically unique — is our capacity to love.

The next day, Dr. Justin Barrett of Blueprint 1543 continued the science focus with his lecture, “How to Build a Better Human.” Drawing from his experience in psychology, Dr. Barrett explained all the ways humans are unique — from walking on two feet, to the whites of our eyes, to how we invest in others, to the joint attention we form with infants. Again, scientifically, there’s something unique about human beings.

Fr John Behr of the University of Aberdeen pivoted the conference once more with his lecture, “God’s Project and Our Response.” In it, he argued that to be fully human is to follow Jesus to death — even in laying down our lives. Finally, Dr. John Hammett of Southeastern Seminary concluded the conference with gentle critiques and responses to each of the presenters, giving a decidedly “Southeastern” perspective on the topic of personhood.

The Christian story teaches us what it means to be fully human.

Holistic Hope

All in all, Exploring Personhood offered a holistic perspective on what it means to be human. The presenters modeled how to have hard conversations, disagree graciously, and pursue unity in Christ. In addition, they exemplified how we can learn from those who have different interests and expertises than our own.

But perhaps the best parts of Exploring Personhood took place outside of the scheduled lectures — as attendees mingled with each other, interacted with presenters over meals, and otherwise discussed the topics with each other.

Out of curiosity, I asked attendees what their key takeaways were. Here were some of their answers:

  • Katherine D.: “I came in basically expecting nuanced ontological arguments. My expectations were too narrow; the reality was so much richer.”
  • Elizabeth Z.: “May Christian women believe deep in their hearts that they are just as loved by God as men.”
  • Wesley S.: “I’ve told like 12 people to listen to @carmenjoyimes lecture when it’s released. Thought provoking. Humbling. Convicting.”

Personally, I gained a more robust, holistic understanding of the imago Dei. Now when I teach and preach about the uniqueness of human beings — of what it means that we’re made “in the image of God” — I can refer to theological and scientific insights gleaned from this conference. Most of all, though, I learned that humans’ uniqueness is not just a theological truth, but a biological reality. We really are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

But perhaps Dr. Peeler put it best when she said, “The Christian story teaches us what it means to be fully human.” And on Feb. 10-11, we were able to learn a little more about that beautiful, life-changing story.

Editor’s Note: We’re grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for their generous grant which helped fund this conference. The conference videos were recorded. Watch them here.

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Disclaimer

This project was made possible through the support of grant #61985 from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s)and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

  • theological anthropology
Nathaniel Williams

Editor and Content Manager for the CFC

Nathaniel Williams (M.Div, Southeastern Seminary) oversees the website, podcast and social media for the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, and he serves as the pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church. His work has appeared at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Fathom Mag, the ERLC and BRNow.org. He and his family live in rural North Carolina.

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