The forum was typical of our age but unusual in the history of humankind. For most of history, philosophers and theologians, not scientists, have asked this question. But this question—What does it mean to be human?—does not puzzle only scientists and philosophers. It's one we all ask ourselves in one form or another.
Sometimes the question is couched in the language of the human potential movement: "How can I be all that I can be?" Sometimes it's a moral question: "How can I act like a decent human being in this situation?" Sometimes it centers on meaning: "What is life all about, and what is the place of a human being in it?" or, "Am I just a carbon-based biped, an evolutionary accident?" or, "What is the purpose of our short life on this planet?"
These are old questions. The psalmist, centuries before the coming of Christ, framed the question like this, asking God: "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (8:4, NRSV). With the coming of Jesus Christ, we might say, God finally gave an answer.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, fittingly called the "church father" of the 20th century, put it this way: "As the man Jesus is himself the revealing Word of God, he is the source of our knowledge of the nature of man as created by God."
The logic of this simple statement is compelling: If men and women can know who they are only on the basis of the Word of God, then it is only by looking at the One who indeed is himself the Word of God, Jesus Christ, that we can know our identity and nature. Barth put it succinctly: All study and knowledge of human beings is "grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus."
In John 14:9, Jesus says, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." We would not be doing any violence to the scriptural teaching should we add a parallel thought: "Anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the true human being."
When God speaks to us about himself and about us, he doesn't just utter words or leave a message. He speaks by becoming one of us.
Therefore—and only therefore—we know who we are because we have been created in his image, in the image of the one who became one of us and into whose image we ought to be conformed until the day when we see him face to face.
Growing up in my homeland, Finland, my dad would tell me enthusiastically about new engines, for either cars or airplanes, when they were in planning and initial construction. To describe them, he often used the word prototype: the original blueprint or model after which the engines would be made in the production process. He said the closer to the prototype, the better the engines.