Assuming Our Humanity

students‘Why do we have to read poetry?’

‘Read it and you will know why. If you still don’t know, read it again.’

Some of them took the things she said to heart, as she had done once when they were said to her. She was helping them assume their humanity.

‘People have always made poetry,’ she told them. ‘Trust that it will matter to you.’

… Some of them did listen. This seemed to her to be perfectly miraculous.”

How do we assume our humanity – as individuals; as societies? What is it about listening to the heart of another that helps to shape our own? What is it about seeing the world through the eyes of another that stretches our soul beyond its stingy boundaries?

In The Better Angels of our Nature, Stephen Pinker suggests that, despite what we see around us, the trajectory of civilizations have been toward decreasing violence – that humanity has actually become more humane.  He supports his contention with reminders that we no longer consider it socially acceptable to own slaves, or disembowel our enemies, or beat our children. It may still happen, of course, it’s just that it is no longer publicly endorsed – and that is, indeed, a sign of progress, constraining at least some of the injury.

Pinker points to a number of civilizing influences that have made us more humane. One of these is the rise of literacy – and through that, the ability to take the perspective of another. The advent of novels opened the doors of empathy in new ways and for a much broader range of people than was possible, before. Poetry can do that, too, in very intimate ways. Once literacy opened the door, people were able to feel what it is like to live within the life-frame of another, and to care about their situations … assuming their humanity.

As a believer in a God for whom love is the creative power of choice; who touches the world with redeeming grace; who invites us all to come, and shapes us in that coming – as a believer, I find this framing of history’s trajectory a confirmation. For me, faith is inevitably hopeful. Hopeful for me and hopeful for all of creation.

I just hope that we can assume our humanity a bit more quickly, a bit more gracefully. I certainly hope to don a deeper humanity – to try it on, absorb it, become it. I want to play dress-up with good intent – not to deceive, but to learn.

It is unlikely that I can do this on my own. Perhaps you, my friend, can lend me a more graceful costume. Let me dwell within your words and thus find the poetry of life. Perhaps you can hold the mirror for me. Perhaps your story can stretch my soul, as we dance together in imitation of the Trinity’s great embrace.

William Sloane Coffin credits Saint Irenaeus of Lyons with a saying that touches on this idea, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  God, in hope, invites us to assume our humanity; invites us to the dance.

[photo ‘Students‘ by Susan Sermoneta per cc 2.0]

[quotation from Home by Marilynne Robinson, p. 21.]

[Pinker – The Better Angels of our Nature. Coffin –The Courage to Love, p. 15]


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