What Does It Mean to Be Human?

trautwein-cc-feat-imgThis past summer, our family launched a second grandson off into the universe, cheering loudly as he marched forward to receive his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Grandson number three is heading to our neck of the woods this fall as a first-year student at Westmont College. Number four is a high-school senior, and the youngest four in our octet are moving their way into high school, middle school, and first grade.

This has been a season of facing the inexorable progress of time, as well as a season of celebrating goals reached, skills mastered, and awards achieved.

At the other end of the life spectrum, we are watching closely as the last of our four parents, my mother, slowly descends into the hazy uncertainty of severe dementia, losing pieces of herself day by day.

My summer reading list this year included an extraordinarily fine work by Scottish professor and theologian John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Reading his thoughtful words brought me to tears more than once; he gently pushed me to rethink some things as I accompany my mom on this last, difficult journey—and as I celebrate my grandsons’ accomplishments.

The challenge of Swinton’s writing—indeed of his life’s work—is this strong conviction: There is more to being human than the ability to think and reason. His words made me wonder if the old Cartesian bromide—“I think, therefore I am”—is telling it true. Is there more to us than our minds, our memories, our ability to think and problem-solve and connect with others?

I wonder if the old Cartesian bromide—“I think, therefore I am”—is telling it true.

I am a huge proponent of education in general. My father was a professor and administrator in the junior college system of California for more than thirty-five years, my husband and I and all of our children have advanced degrees in a variety of fields. I’m grateful that our denomination is so closely tied to both a university and a seminary.

But there is more to us than our ability to learn. There is more to our story than what we can remember about it. There is more to our God-connection than our awareness of it. There is more.

Working through Swinton’s book this summer helped me to remember a good gift of God in my life that happened several years ago. At that time, I had the privilege of studying with a group of charismatic Catholics here in central California. One of our lecture sessions dealt with the life and thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. At about that time, my mother was coming undone, as the synapses in her brain refused to make sensible connections.

A picture from that theology lecture began to take shape in my heart as I thought about her that week—it was Teilhard’s picture of the Cosmic Christ. I began to see my small mama, lost in confusion and fear, as a precious and loved child of God, safe and secure in the sacred heart of Christ. The Christ who is larger and more magnificent than even the most well-educated mind can possibly comprehend, the Christ who was present before creation and whose word spoke—and continues to speak—each of us into being. The Christ whose memory is endless, whose love is eternal, whose promised presence with us extends beyond our ability to understand or even to experience.

College degrees are wonderful, even life-changing things. Minds that work well are a gift and a privilege. But degree or not, working brain or not, we are held in the heart of God, and dearly loved, exactly as we are. We are loved, valued, and redeemed whether or not we have a high IQ, whether or not we go to college, whether or not our memories exist only in the hearts of others.

Ultimately, my mother, and each of my grandchildren, are safe and remembered in the heart of Jesus the Christ. That is a truth that can be celebrated in any season.


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  • Beautiful reminder, Diana. God sustaining lay remembers us eternally despite anything and everything that happens to us. Thanks for your wise and wonderful thoughts.

  • Another loved child of God is also present in our congregation every week. I often think of him, since he is nearly the same age as my son. What a blessing he is and witness to the love and care of his parents who must monitor his every need.

    • Amen to all of this, Carolyn. I actually thought about him when I wrote this and about the beautiful work of Jean Vanier over the last few decades. He started the ministry to developmentally ‘disabled’ adults that Henri Nouwen served with the last few years of his life and has done some writing and some beautiful film interviews over at The Work of the People, one of my favorite newish websites in the larger Christian community.

  • Of course there is more to us than mind and thinking; Descartes’ statement does not discount that, but speaks to us in the midst of a much larger philosophical and theological presentation, and shouldn’t be taken out of that context. But if we want to go with a slogan, how about “Amore, ergo sum.”

    • Perhaps his famous phrase shouldn’t be taken out of context, but it has been in our culture, I think. I, for one, have always subconsciously assumed that it is our minds which most fully reflect the imago dei — and I don’t think I’m alone in that. I was not trying to discount Descartes’s entire oeuvre, just wrestle with that over-used sentiment a little. I like your suggestion enormously! Thank you.

  • Thank you Diana for this very nice article to begin my day today! My mother-in-law passed, at 93, a few weeks ago. She lived with us in our home for the last two years, and although her mind and thinking were unclear, she never lost her smile and her will to carry on and move forward. She was a Christ follower, and died in the arms of Christ, peacefully! Peace to all the lovely day.

    • You are welcome, Michael. And you have my condolences and prayers this morning as you and your wife continue to both grieve her loss and celebrate her release to Jesus. I am so very grateful that my own mother’s journey through this disease is lit by her smile and her sweet spirit. That does not always happen — it did not happen in my mother-in-law’s case. My mom is still very social, and enjoys short outings. My MIL withdrew to silence the last couple of years and never really wanted to leave her room. BOTH of these much-loved women, however, were (and are) safe in the heart of Christ. I am grateful.

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