“What is man that you are mindful of him?” asks the Psalmist. A little lower than the angels yet formed from the dust of the ground. So different than our mammalian counterparts, and yet perhaps so much more similar. Perhaps on one level the similarities seem to outweigh the differences, especially when we consider evolutionary biology and psychology. Yet what seems to make us different makes all the difference. Max Scheler argues that we are “spiritual beings” in some ways free from instincts, or at least free to regulate them in the interest of transcendent experiences, exercising a kind of “voluntary inhibition”.
In The Logic of the Spirit, James Loder contends a vital mark of the human spirit is our relation to death:
We will not let death have the last word. This is a mark of the human spirit that something in us knows we can overcome this thing. Death stops the heartbeat but does not quench the human spirit; its inherent logic tells us that there is a way to transcend and transform death, whether in suicide or in baptism, it is in hope of a better life. Even in the pathetic cry of the abused child, “If I die, then will you love me?” there is transcendence that wants to make use of death to achieve another higher end. “What is a lifetime, and why do I live it?” this cry arises out of the human spirit, sometimes in anguish, sometimes in awe-struck silence, but always a call to someone or some place beyond the self.