Friday, January 27, 2006

What is "Man"?

I didn’t intend to write this post, but a confluence of events prompts me to lay out some thoughts, with hopes that I get some clarification from some generous reader.

Here’s my question: Can we do away with the word “man” as a generic, short-hand term for the human person (not necessarily male) without doing violence to the English language? I confess that, despite my desire to think otherwise, I don’t know how we might do so. The word “man” is glorious in its multifacetedness; it collects into one word a variety of meanings.

“Man” indicates the individual person in his or her capacity as representative of the breed: “What is man that thou are mindful of him?” for example, manages to carry the sense of the individual who is speaking, while at the same time making the speaker an instantiation of the whole of humanity. Thus, one could accurately translate that verse as “What is man that Thou are mindful of us (or them)?” (Notice, please, how I do not believe that one must necessarily use “he” or “his” or “him” as personal pronouns for the referent “man.”) And in reverse order, it carries the overtone of personality and individuality in the reference to the genus and species homo sapiens.

At the same time, there is a warmth and sense of personhood to the word. It is not abstract or bloodless or markedly generic – by which I mean that it allows one to imagine an individual or individuals of various colors, genders, and sizes, while not losing the sense of the “gestalt” or wholeness of the referent.

Other words do not serve in the same way – at least to my eye and ear. Each seems to take a “side” – to designate either the individual or the group. “Person,” for example, seems to denote the individual over against the corporate. It makes no sense to say “What is (a) person that you are mindful of us?” without way too much relaxation of the rules of English grammar. “Person” serves admirably in a variety of senses (especially those that carry the psychological and sociological, I think). But it does not carry the sense of interconnectedness or the commonality of the human race. On the other hand, “humanity” loses the sense of the individual person within it. In contrast to “person,” one might actually say “What is humanity that you are mindful of it/us/them?” But the query loses the crier’s sense of “What am I that you are mindful of me?” And “human being” seems lifeless and scientific: “What is a human being that you are mindful of it?” The “it” seems the natural pronoun to follow, and that is distinctly not what the Psalmist wants to say!

This issue was clarified for me as I read Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est. (It was released two days ago, and I’m eager to read it. I will blog some reactions when I have finished reading and taken some time to digest it. I expect to be very impressed – but more later.) At paragraph 5, the Pontiff writes, “[I]t is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature.”

Now, to be honest, I had just jotted a nasty note about the Pope’s English editor: “Why raise the issue of sexism by using this dark-age term for humanity?” But when I got to the revelatory sentence, it came clear: While at other points, “man” could have been replaced with another term, here no other term would quite convey what the Pope means to say. It is not just the person, the individual, the personality of one person that reaches its created nature in love; it is the human race, once “capitulated” in Adam and Eve and later “recapitulated” in Jesus Christ and now manifested in each individual lover, which realizes the meaning of creation, imago dei.

The one who loves and is loved achieves something larger than himself or herself. The one who loves becomes “truly human.” But “human” functions in my sentence more as an adjective than as a personal noun. What the encyclical says is that in love, a person becomes “man” – that nexus of the personal and unique with the generic and universal. In a versatile, suggestive little three-letter word, the Pontiff was able to say both “the individual” and “the human race.” And as Strunk and White taught us, brevity is preferable to verbosity (not, lamentably, the standard for this blogger!).

To be sure, the Pope did not write the encyclical in English, and the word-choice is likely not his. (He has remarkable facility in several languages, but I’m positive that the Vatican would assign a translator.) But that doesn’t alter anything that I have said. I don’t know whether the Latin original (at least, I suspect the original was in Latin, not German) displays a similar light touch. And I’m not fluent in German, so I don’t know whether “mann” or some other word might carry the evangelical ambiguity of “man” in English. I hope so, however, because I think the point is important.

I am no troglodyte when it comes to usage (although I am no fan of neologisms and I despair of the loss of many good rules of grammar). I recognize and applaud the need for language to evolve to reflect changes in culture. And I have embraced and tried to reform in light of the claims of sisters that they have been systematically excluded or denigrated by the use of “masculine” pronouns and metaphors in all segments of society. Consequently, I bridle when preachers are always talking about “this guy” or “he” this and that. And I acknowledge the contributions to the faith of those (primarily women) who have opened the scriptures to the ways in which the diversity of experience and gender and race is a facet of the Gospel itself.

But I am a conservative, too. For example, I take great umbrage at those “language arts” people who claim that grammar, spelling, and punctuation don’t matter – so long as the writer/speaker gets the point across. (And, by the way, when will the rule of serial commas be enforced?) To be in a culture is to bend oneself to the aspects of culture that make that culture distinct. Thus, in the culture of the Church, there is no way for a Christian to do away with or even to modify the confession and name of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And I think that at this point in our development, some women and men may have to bear the cross of accepting the use of “man” as what I have above called the “nexus” of the unique and the generic. I am unable to come up with any other way.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

In Swedish the word "människa" is female. So we don't have this problem ;=)

What is a Människa,
that thou art mindful of her?
and the son of man,
that thou visitest him?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Goran, because I was going to make that very point!

Anonymous said...

Dwight, you are my brother in Christ, and you are who you are. I cherish you. But I disagree with you that this particular "Man" is so lovely that it is inviolable. It needs to be changed.

I am one of those women who can tell you with honesty that all through my life, even as a small child, I have known instinctively that this "Man" fundemantally excludes me. That understanding has never wavered, and I have learned to trust its veracity.

I believe you cannot truly grasp the importanct of this because of your gender. Even though you are who you are, I still challenge you to listen to what I'm telling you, and try to accept that it does, indeed, need to change.

Anonymous said...

But I am one of those women who has always understood that this use of the word "man" includes me - once it was explained to me when I was a small child. And I do realize how politically incorrect it is for me to believe this - especially in the church. I know that it is not the PC thing to do to refer to humans as man - or to refer to God as a male figure, but in our attempts to be gender neutral, we most often butcher the beauty of language, I think. And is not beauty central to worship? We trip over ourselves with caution and and up with dorky sounding church-language.

This is not to say that I don't understand the reasons for this - I do. But I can get past it - and even as a woman, it is no obstacle for me. But I realize that it is an obstacle for many women, so I do my part to be sensitive to it.

So - should men in the church take offence that the church is referred to as the "Bride of Christ" - and not the Groom, too? Should we start calling the church the "Spouse of Christ"?


*Christopher said...


I can get with you when it comes to the beauty of language. I've been arguing that we Piskies not touch our 1979 Prayer Book and do a Renewing Worship. I'd love to see us draw from Sarum and 1549 again or remember that liturgical language is poetic prose.