What is Man? - Jürgen Moltmann


"'Who am I?' Only man asks such questions, and indeed clearly has to ask them about himself and his being. This is his question." Mensch, Jürgen Moltmann

The question here is regarding the meaning of 'Man'. Why is this important? It is important because everyone asks it "in hundreds of forms". Some asks it philosophically, concerning the possibility of an universal meaning to the word. Some asks it personally concerning the meaning of their life, or in the form of an identity crisis. Either way, it all amounts to the same truth as Moltmann described: this is our question.

For the Christian, this question is of uttermost importance. The Christian proclaimed the message of the gospel being one of saving grace. What he means is that he has received and experienced the good news regarding not only the problem of life, but his problem of life. This problem of his is called sin in the biblical language, but in our current discussion, it is called the paradox of man's own questioning.

Thus it is a prerequisite for the Christian to understand this question. Without reflecting on this question, his usage of the word 'sin' is almost empty and content-less. It is through his realisation of his own self-questioning, that he discovers his sinful nature, and it is through this reflective process that he discovers the presence of God, who was never absent.

What about for the non-believer, and he who is skeptical about religion? What about for the agnostic and the philosopher who finds the religious viewpoint naive or uncertain? I hope Moltmann will offer some light in general, regarding the identity crisis of man.

First, let me draw out Moltmann's presuppositions.

I) He fundamentally assumes that there is such thing as the meaning of 'man'. Therefore, he did not question the validity of the question. He attempts to engage existentially with the question without suspicion. This attitude underlies his investigation of man.

II) He is undertaking a dialogue between man's experience, and his abstract thought. Thus the philosophical statements he asserts are sometimes lenses through which he looked at experience; while sometimes they are conclusion drawn from experience. There is no definite primacy assigned to experience or his a priori thoughts.

III) He sees a complementary role between religious and humanistic inquiry on the question: "Christian anthropology does not make biological, cultural, and religious anthropology superfluous, but nor can it be reduced to them."

IV) He assumes that the dilemma of man, namely, his lack of understanding of himself, is a real dilemma and that a real solution is required:

"However this difference which man experiences in himself is described, it is just as important for him to come to reliable answers, and to make himself trustworthy for others, as it is for him to remain conscious of the mystery that he is to other people, and that others are to him, and to respect this mysetry."

In other words, one does not simply 'dissolve' the dilemma, but must attempt to seek a concrete solution to the dilemma. However, as shown in the above quote, for Moltmann this does not mean that the solution will do away with the problem. There appear a degree of practical concern in his consideration. Although the solution cannot do away with the mystery, i.e. it is important for man to continue to be aware of the mystery, the solution allows him to make himself trustworthy for others and to the world. There is a huge practical concern regarding the implication of man's inner dilemma in Moltmann's thinking.

Thus his methodology is basically that he wishes to construct a broad overview of anthropology, what it informs us about the meaning of man, and consequently shed light on how these knowledge connects with the religious understanding, or more specifically, the Christian understanding of man.

What are the existential motivation for this inquiry? Why do we care about investigating carefully this question? Why is it important even? At the heart is this motivation: "He (i.e. man)...discovers a difference between himself and the objects in the world around him with which he deals." The existential motivation for the question of man, is that man inherently find himself to be different from everything around him. He finds himself different from the animals, plants, and nature. He also finds himself different from other men. He looks different, he thinks differently and have a different view on things.

"So the question who man is lies in wait for man in quite ordinary experiencs, in particular situations of good fortune and of distress, and in the deepest reflection of his conscious self."

This awareness of this question is at the same time curious and troubling to the modern man. As Moltmann pointed out, the question of man is a dilemma for him. "He is himself the questioner and at the same time the one questioned; he questions himself." Now this observation encompasses the whole modern western philosophical framework, where we must pay attention. Without understanding this, we are to be hopelessly out of context in our evaluation of our own thinking, and the thinking of our whole generation. So a brief remark is necessray to elaborate on this point.

Notice that the question can only arise if one thinks in subject-object relation terms. By this I mean if the content of one's thinking is primarily described by making the distinctions between the subject and object in the thought. Thus for example, "I believe that David Cameron is the prime minister of the UK", the subject is represented by the symbol 'I', and 'David Cameron', 'Prime minister' and 'UK' are all objects in the thought. The sentence essentially is then a construction of a specific relationship between these objects, and how the subject has perceived this particular relationship.

Now, what about if man is observing himself as an object? This question arises naturally, if one is curious about the possibility of constructing a sentence where the subject is also the object. Thus the dilemma of man naturally arises in the modern western thought system., where subject-object relation plays the primary role. In order to elucidate the identity crisis among many people, we must be aware that one needs to see his default thinking framework, before one can be properly positioned to address the identity crisis.

Returning to Moltmann's main argument, he brought out further the nature of this dilemma:


"Evening on Karl Johan Street", Edvard Munch, 1892

"As he tries to get behind ithings in order to understand them and to make use of them, he finally wants to get behind himself too, in order to understand himself. But because it is himself behind whom he want to get, he keeps on slipping out of his own grasp, and becomes more of a puzzle to himself..."


At the heart of the problem, is that we can never get behind ourselves to understand ourselves, the same way we can get behind nature and understand her laws and behaviour. Nor can we understand ourselves, the same way we can get behind others and understand them as a human person. The fundamental problem is that we are stuck, in the subject-object framework, to conceive what it means to have knowledge of oneself, and how to obtain it.

Now I am going to suspend the discussion about the validity of the subject-obejct framework of thinking. An eastern approach to philosophy will regard this as the fundamental flaw, and therefore propose that we must abandon such framework of thinking (i.e. subject-object distinction). For now, I wish to persist to say that this framework is a fairly natural one for most people. And even if we do not see this consciously, this is often the case when one discovers the structure of his or her own thoughts.

But what seems to be important to note here, is the inevitable necessity of an external source of knowledge, whereby man can discover knowledge of oneself.


Pui Him Ip, 2011-12 Apprentice
Pui loves....Glenn Gould..







Pui Him Ip, Apprentice Blog, 27/05/2012