Skip Content

Archbishop Justin answers the question: What Makes Us Human?

'Miracle of miracles, in Jesus Christ I am offered my life back, real human life,' the Archbishop told listeners on Radio 2's What Makes Us Human? presented by Jeremy Vine (pictured).

Friday 2nd May 2014

Jesus shows us 'authentic living and dying, a life among people, for people, with people', the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said today on BBC Radio 2's What Makes Us Human show, presented by Jeremy Vine.

The audio is available on the Radio 2 website.

Read the full text of Archbishop Justin's essay: 

"I’ve never felt inscrutable, untouchable or superhuman. Like most of us, when I was younger I certainly felt less vulnerable than I do now, and my limitations are daily more obvious to me – and probably, I’m afraid, to those around me, especially those with whom I work.

"But to be authentically human is to be limited. As a culture we attempt to push every limitation. We want to go faster, to acquire more, to achieve better, and to reach further. We seem to think our limitations make us less than human.

"But to be truly human isn’t about pretending. The question of what it means to be human has dominated every society in every generation. The Ancient Greeks told stories about it - and a great story is the one about a god called Prometheus. He decided to give to humans what they’d never had. He took away from them the knowledge of the time of their death, he gave them unrealistic expectations that they could do anything, and he gave them the fire – and therefore the technology to change the conditions under which they live.

"And in the story, a sort of myth of course, he is punished by Zeus for this act of betrayal. But the damage is done; humans act as if they are gods – they are immortal, they act in ignorance of the consequences of their actions, and they all use the technology and we know how that goes on.

"And for modern generations, that sounds like a triumphant story – limitations can be overcome. It can bring pain, but look at where we can get to! But for those people then it was meant as a warning: we’re limited and we can’t do everything by your own means.

"Essential to grasping what it means to be human is to recognise our limitations.

"So let’s look away from imaginary stories to the historical truth in Jesus Christ. I know that not everyone listening will approach Jesus believing what I do. But from whatever angle you approach him, I want to invite you to do this: ‘Behold the man.’ The man Jesus.

"There is no one who has ever lived this well. In no one did humanity shine so bright. And what I point to particularly are his limitations.

"In the scene I’m thinking of ,where someone says ‘Behold the man’ – the person who says it is a ruler, a governor, and he says to Jesus who is a prisoner: ‘Behold the Man.’ He points to him.

"And when the crowds turn their eyes to him, Jesus is under most extreme limitations – his hands are bound, he needs the help of others, he is unable to do anything for himself and he is facing execution.

"But look and see what we see about humanity.

"Sometimes the best humanity is seen under the worst conditions. I expect like me you’ve been moved to tears in a news broadcast when a survivor talks of forgiving those who have wronged someone they loved.

"Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who torture him. What amazing and beautiful humanity.

"And then when he gets taken off to execution carrying his cross, he can’t take the burden and somebody else has to. Of course, in our Stand-On-Your-Own-Two-Feet culture, we seem to believe that if we are truly human we don’t need other people. But this human has need of others. And his words and his example echo through the ages: ‘Love one another.’

"Then this human, who Christians believe is God himself, faces the greatest limitation – his own death. That is the one we try and avoid at any cost.

"But Jesus drinks his life down to the dregs of death. He faces it freely, unflinchingly, faithfully.

"And because he takes on these limitations – his terrible conditions, the people around him, his own death – he ends up with the freest and best human life ever.

"In this human life, because of this particular human life, I believe we can all discover who we truly are, how we can truly be human. Here is authentic living and dying – a life among people, for people, with people.

"And as he freely embraces life with all its limitations he takes from us the limitation that imprisons and stops me being truly human most profoundly – the selfishness I am riddled with that he didn’t have. It’s addressed and taken from me. Because he chose not to live selfishly but gave himself to die selflessly, I am not bound to the consequences of my own wrongdoing and guilt. Because he did all that and he sets me free by his forgiveness and gives me a thousand fresh starts.

"Miracle of miracles – in Jesus Christ I am offered my life back, real human life.

"t’s not limitation that needs overcoming if we are to be fully human, it’s isolation. For I am not myself by myself, but I am myself most truly when I am in community with others – and especially in community with God in whose image we are made.

"And in whom I find I am loved with all my limitations, by Jesus whose love has no limits."


Back · Back to top