In the third part of my short series on Covid and Biblical Principles, we are looking at what it means to be human. (If you missed them, parts one and two were on safety and truth). This is something fundamental to the discussion, and yet it is often assumed or ignored. I think this issue in particular is one where the Christian faith has a lot to say.
One of the things that has struck me over the last few months is that, for many people in our society, our understanding of what it means to be human has changed. Let’s delve into the basics of what the Bible says about being human.
The Bible and Being Human
Made in the Image of God
So God created mankind in his own image,Genesis 1:27
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
This is the most foundational verse about humanity in the Bible. This verse has shaped Western civilisation more than you can imagine. (Read Tom Holland’s book Dominion if you need to be persuaded). For now, let’s think about what it means to be made in the “image of God”. Theologians have been debating this for thousands of years! Part of the reason I think this short verse has had such an impact on our society is that there is no one simple explanation of what it means.
At the very least it means that in order to understand who we are as human beings, we need to understand something of who God is. We only begin to understand ourselves when we understand God. This is how John Calvin began his famous theological work Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves
If we only know ourselves, our knowledge is incomplete. If we want to know ourselves truly, we need to know the God who made us. So let’s spend a moment thinking about him.
Who is God?
One of the interesting things about Genesis 1 is that God speaks of himself in the plural. For example, in the verse just before the one I quoted: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). What does this mean? Does God have some kind of multiple personality disorder, or is it more like the royal ‘we’? It’s neither of those. Over the last 2000 years, theologians have understood from the Bible that God is Trinity. That is, there is one God, who exists in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We can’t spend hours going into all the Biblical evidence and so on here. If you’d like to read a bit more on that, you can see my post introducing the Trinity on Understand the Bible.
The important point I want to make here is simply this: the Trinity means that God is fundamentally, from eternity, a community of other-person centred love. You could say that God is fundamentally relational. Relationships are not something which are foreign to him, but intrinsic to his nature.
Now if we bring that back to human beings, we see how big a difference that makes to us.
We are fundamentally relational
Because God is relational, and because we are made in God’s image, we too are made to be relational. Relationships are in our DNA, so to speak. Our relationships define us. Think about it: a baby, from the very moment it is born, has various relationships. It has a mother and father; grandparents; maybe brothers and sisters, cousins, a wider family. We are only beginning to understand how important those initial relationships are to its development.
But there are also other relationships we have even from birth: a relationship with our wider community (e.g. churches, baby and toddler groups), health services, and so on. As the saying goes, ‘no man is an island’ – and that’s true of the very youngest to the very oldest. We need each other. Human civilisation is built on relationships, that’s the way it was meant to be. The Beatles had it right: “I get by with a little help from my friends”.
If our relationships are stripped away, you take away what it means to be human beings. It may be appropriate to do this in some circumstances, e.g. prison inmates cannot see their friends and family as they wish for obvious reasons. But we need relationships to thrive and survive, normal human life should be full of healthy relationships.
If you’d like to read a more in-depth look at this, have a read of this article written by former principal of my theological college, Mike Ovey: The Human Identity Crisis: Can we do without the Trinity?
We are made to love
Closely related to the previous point, we are made to love. The second greatest commandment is “love your neighbour as yourself”. This is more than simply having relationships with others in a distant sense: we are supposed to actively love others. As John says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
Sometimes love means refraining, as in the Ten Commandments: “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”. Love means NOT doing things to other people. But it also has corresponding obligations: don’t murder someone – instead, treat them with love, as you would like someone to treat you. Instead of bearing false witness, stand up for the truth. And so on. Love involves both the positive and negative aspects of action – doing as well as not doing.
We have dignity
Like I said, the idea that we human beings are in the image of God has changed Western civilisation beyond recognition. Think about some of the ideas we hold most dear, e.g. democracy. I love democracy: it’s the idea that Richard Branson’s cleaner has as much say about the leadership of our country than Richard Branson does. This is a profoundly Christian idea, which flows from the idea of us all being made in the image of God: we are all equal, we are all given infinite dignity by our Creator.
I think William Shakespeare expressed something of this in Hamlet:
So what does it look like to have human dignity? I’ve already talked about this in my previous post on freedom so I won’t repeat myself too much. There I said that our dignity as human beings means that we should be given freedom – we are not to be caged up like animals. Our dignity also entails responsibility: we are creatures who have been given responsibility to make decisions, to do good rather than evil, to love our neighbour.
If our freedom is taken away, if our choices are taken away, then so is our dignity as human beings made in the image of God.
The final thing before we move onto how all this relates to covid is the way that our faces matter. Western countries have tended not to wear face coverings in the way they do in Islamic or Eastern countries. This is because of the influence of Christianity. Our faces have significance – we are not faceless drones or to be ashamed of our appearance, but made special and beautiful in God’s sight.
The Bible doesn’t really talk about face coverings or masks. Moses did wear a veil over his face occasionally (you can read about that in Exodus 34). This was because his face was “radiant” because he had spoken with the Lord (Exodus 34:30). The good news is that Christians have been given privileged access to God. Where once we could not see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20), now we can contemplate the Lord’s glory with unveiled faces (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In fact, God hiding his face is a sign of his displeasure – so we see the Psalmist in Psalm 102 crying out: “Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!”
How are we doing with covid?
Let’s take these principles and think about how they’re working out with covid.
I’ve already written about freedom before, so I won’t go over old ground. As a society we have endured two lockdowns (so far), where it has been illegal to leave your house except for certain circumstances. But outside of those lockdowns we have also been under various legal restrictions which have restricted who we can see and when. Where I am currently living, it is basically illegal to go into someone else’s house to pay them a social visit.
Not only that, but the government has seen fit to use a Behavioural Insights Team to try to coerce us into obeying them. Rather than being presented with the facts and given the dignity to make our own decisions, the government have made an intentional decision to ‘twist our arm’. In other words, manipulation.
One of the worst things to happen over the last nine months is that our relationships have been curtailed. We have been unable to see each other in the way we used to. I’ve seen some absolutely horrible footage over the last few months: e.g. at a funeral, someone was prevented from putting a comforting arm around someone else. There was a woman who was arrested for trying to take her grandmother out of care.
But it’s not just the big things, it’s also our everyday lives: we have been kept away from even casual friendships. Things which we used to be able to do – e.g. pop out for a coffee with a friend – are now impossible. As we saw, life is all about relationships. We literally need each other to survive. Keeping us from each other is dehumanising.
There are times when this is appropriate (e.g. prison). Is it appropriate during a pandemic? I don’t believe so – not to force people to stay away from their friends and family. Keeping us from our nearest and dearest is leading to some serious ill effects. For example, the Guardian reported recently that Covid poses the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war. When you dehumanise people, you break them.
You simply can’t isolate people from their friends, family and support networks and then expect them to cope with a pandemic.
Covid is a serious disease, but dehumanising people is worse. We need each other, especially at a time like this. Lockdowns may stop the spread of a disease to some extent (although I believe their effect is very small indeed, which is why we seem to keep needing them). But forcing human beings not to be human has far worse consequences.
Masks and social distancing
One of the interesting things about masks is that they are not simply neutral items of clothing. As soon as you put one on, you feel different. I’ve had to stop wearing one now because of health issues, but when I wore one to go to the shops it had a noticeable effect. It made me want to keep quiet and not talk, for one.
Whenever you see someone wearing a mask, it’s a constant reminder that they are a potential bearer of infection. This is a far cry from seeing each other as people to be loved! As the second greatest commandment says, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. One of my biggest worries about covid is that we will end up as a society staying away from each other. This is not how we were designed as humans! It’s deeply damaging and destructive.
But aren’t the restrictions necessary?
There may be people who reading who agree with the points I’ve made, but still think: but aren’t the restrictions necessary? No-one likes masks and social distancing, no-one likes having to stay home. But we do these things to protect others. Isn’t that a good enough reason?
I don’t believe so, for the following reasons:
Firstly, I believe that dehumanising us is never right. Remember that lockdowns first originated in China, which was then copied by Western societies (as “Professor Lockdown” Neil Ferguson recently pointed out). China is not a country known for its good human rights record! China does not have a history of seeing people as God’s image bearers. Even if lockdowns work (and I’m not sure they do), I don’t believe it’s right to treat people in this way.
Secondly, I believe that dehumanising us makes things worse. As I said, when you cut people off from their families, friends, and support networks, it makes them much less able to cope with life. This is why we’ve seen the issue of mental health grow like never before. But I also believe that keeping us away from our relationships may have negative physical health consequences. Spending time with people is not just good for our mental health, it’s good for our physical health too. When we are isolated, it causes problems.
Thirdly, I am not convinced the restrictions are even helping. So much of the restrictions depends on the existence of asymptomatic transmission – that is, you could be transmitting the virus even if you don’t feel ill. This is certainly not proven science – the BMJ wrote about it just before Christmas. The point they were making is that things are unclear. Certainly not clear enough to justify asking everyone to undergo these extreme measures, beyond sensible precautions (e.g. staying home if you are ill). More worryingly, there is evidence that face masks and the like are actually causing more problems.
We don’t have time to go into it all now – I mentioned a few other issues in my previous post on truth.
I hope that this post has been helpful in at least setting out some of the issues, even if you disagree!