In our time the question of what it means to be human is under close scrutiny. This is partly because of the development of AI and the extraordinary advances in technology on this front. We now speak of “machine behaviour”, agency, and even the intentions of our own technological creations.
Rowan Williams former Archbishop of Canterbury in his small book (111pages) takes on central themes of this vexed topic. He begins with the question; what is consciousness? – a subject that continues to elude fulsome explanation. He characterizes consciousness as located, relational, and narrative in nature. It has a past and present. It also engages a shared language and resists being reduce to mere matter.
Williams prefers the term “person” to the term “individual”. The idea of individual isolates us makes us the centre of the world – a unique thing. Person is quite different as it presupposes a network of relations and there is a theological assumption at the heart of this claim. Williams writes:
“…Before anything or anyone is in relation with anything or anyone else, it’s in relation to God. … I am already grasped, addressed, engaged with.” (pg.36)
In a chapter on faith and human flourishing Williams explores the paradoxical reality that being religious – under divine direction – is not repressive to our humanity but on the contrary enables us to flourish.
We accept the fact that we are to be dependent not autonomous, receptive not controlling. The final chapter is on silence which calls us to give up having the final word and invites us instead to listen and discover.
This is a fine little book timely and full of important insights – valuable in bringing some clarity to our confusion about what it means to be human.