Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Doodle: What Is Man? Dostoyevsky Answers

Doodle: What Is Man? Dostoyevsky Answers

Chances are, reading the title of this doodle, you could complete the question: “what is man,” as Psalm 8:4 continues, “that you mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” But what follows in that psalm isn’t so much an answer as an expression of astonishment. Sure we read that even though man is of a different kind to the “heavenly beings,” and that God “crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:5). There’s also mention of “dominion” (Psalm 8:6-8), echoing Genesis 1. Only for all that, the question remains: what, exactly, is man; or a person?

Personally, I’m quite partial to the New City Catechism’s answer to this question: “God created us male and female in his own image to know him, love him, live with him, and glorify him. And it is right that we who were created by God should live to his glory” (Q4). Though this again asks “how and why” God created us, not so much what he created, meaning we’re not much closer to answering the question set out by the title of this doodle.

There is, of course, no shortage of answers to that question, both within and without the Bible. If we return to Psalm 8 we learn that it’s taken up by at least one New Testament writer. Thus whatever it means to be human, it’s inseparable from the person and work of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:5-18)—and that is a topic much too large for the time-being. We could turn up more passages. I’ve already alluded to the creation accounts. But there’s another, less than favourable, definition of man that I’ve never forgotten since first reading it, from the pen of the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In his novella, Notes from Underground, the narrator or ‘underground man’ says that man is “a creature that has two legs and no sense of gratitude.” It isn’t pretty or flattering. But in experience it strikes worryingly close to home—to the heart. Tied to it, is the narrator’s observation that many people insist that we descended from apes, yet consider an ounce of our own fat more valuable than hundreds of souls. Only this is a phenomenon for our dogmatic materialists and atheists to explain. I’m more concerned with Dostoyevsky’s observation that one might say ingratitude epitomises mankind.

It’s been observed that what we don’t have is often more on our minds than what we do have—not unlike Marilynne Robinson’s observation in Gilead that “the phrase ‘nursing a grudge,’” isn’t coincidental, “because many people are tender of their resentments as of the thing nearest their hearts.” That’s to say, discontentment goes largely unchecked, reinforced by our often prolific sense of entitlement. So the narrator of Notes from Underground touches on more truth than man being a creature with two legs. Regrettably, any real “sense of gratitude” is brief or fleeting, sometimes feigned and even forced.

Reflecting on Dostoyevsky’s definition this week shed a new light on the repeated exhortations in the Bible to be grateful. Only, the sheer amount of those commands isn’t even the most remarkable thing to see here. Because when you search for exhortations to be thankful, words like “always” and “everything” are often nearby. Most famously, perhaps, is Philippians 4:6. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Describing being “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), Paul says we should “always” give thanks to God for everything (Ephesians 5:20; similarly Colossians 3:16-17). We could go on (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Now, I’m not going to pretend this is easy. But perhaps the reason we deem this kind of perpetual thankfulness and gratitude impossible is because we don’t cultivate it in the rest of life. We don’t train our gratitude by praising God for his many good gifts (James 1:17). We take far too much for granted, eventually embodying Dostoyevsky’s definition of man. It’s worth noting that the psalm we started with is topped and tailed with the refrain, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1, 9). Therefore I don’t think it’s wrong to say that—whatever we are—our lives should abound in gratitude to our God.

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