Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Becoming (More) Human

Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian was born on September 10, 1928, and died in May of this year at the age of 90. He was the author of some 30 books, including Becoming Human, his bestseller.  
Vanier, the Founder of L’Arche
According to britannica.com, Jean Vanier (pronounced van-YAY) was born in Switzerland but spent most of his early childhood in Canada. At the age of 14, though, he went to England where he entered the Britannia Royal Naval College and then served in the Royal Navy throughout World War II.
In 1950 Vanier resigned his naval commission and went to France, where in 1962 he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of Paris. Then after teaching briefly at the University of Toronto, he went back to France.
Influenced by a local Catholic priest, in 1964 Vanier invited two men with “profound disabilities” to live with him. That was the beginning of the first home dubbed L’Arche (French for the Ark) and the precursor of the now nearly 150 such homes on five continents.  
That first home, about 50 miles northeast of Paris, and the subsequent ones have all been, and are, communities where “people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities” live together “in faith and friendship.”
In addition to Vanier himself, the most widely known person to live in a L’Arche home was Henri Nouwen, the noted Dutch Catholic priest, professor, and theologian who lived in Daybreak L’Arche (in the suburbs of Toronto) from 1986 until his death in 1996.
Vanier, the Author
In 1998, Vanier gave the Massey Lectures, and those five lectures became the five chapters of Becoming Human, published that same year. When the 10th-anniversary edition was published in 2008 with a new introduction by Vanier (who was then 80), over 70,000 copies had been sold.
The titles of the chapters of Becoming Human are “Loneliness,” “Belonging,” “From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing,” “The Path to Freedom,” and “Forgiveness.” (You can find my two pages of excerpts from Becoming Human here.)
In this, his best-known book, Vanier doesn’t say much about L’Arche, but he uses many of the developmentally challenged people he had known at L’Arche as illustrations of the various points he makes.
Among his nearly 30 other books are Community and Growth (1979), From Brokenness to Community (1992) and Befriending the Stranger (2005). With eminent Protestant ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, he also co-authored Living Gently in a Violent World (2008).
Vanier was highly ecumenical in the broadest sense. At the same time, he was a devout (Catholic) Christian. One of his books is I Meet Jesus (Eng. ed., 1987), a quick read with illustrations on every other page.
Vanier, the Man Who “Made Us All More Human”
Soon after Vanier’s death in May, pastor and author Bethany McKinney Fox posted a noteworthy Christianity Today article titled “Jean Vanier Made Us All More Human.” Her point is that Vanier “showed the church how disability, vulnerability, and weakness bring us closer to one another and closer to Jesus”—and how that makes us more human.
On the second page of the Introduction to his 1998 book, Vanier declared that “life together” in L’Arche “has helped me become more human.”
In “To Become Human,” a sub-section of his third chapter, Vanier asserts, “As the human heart opens up and becomes compassionate, we discover our fundamental unity, our common humanity” (p. 97). That is the key to becoming more human.
In 2015, Vanier was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, and here is the link to a related 4-minute video where he talks informally about the question “What does it mean to be fully human?” It is well worth the time to watch.


  1. The first comment received this morning was from Thinking Friend Greg Hadley in Japan. He wrote,

    "Thank you for sending this. I watched the video and was quietly moved." 

    1. Thanks for your response, Greg. I'm pleased that you found the video moving.

  2. Let me start by seconding Greg Hadley's comment. This introduction and meditation was refreshing, after the horrific takedown I read last night concerning my fellow Baptist, Jerry Falwell, Jr. If you have a strong stomach, you can read here on Politico website: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/09/09/jerry-falwell-liberty-university-loans-227914

  3. Comments from Thinking Friend Ed Kang in New York:

    "Leroy, I read and enjoy every blog you post. This is a story of wonderful and outstanding man, whose life really shines as hope of humankind. Thank you."

  4. Comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas:

    "Thank you as always! I enjoy your writing so much, this one notwithstanding. This is introduction to Vanier to me. Was blessed by the video link you included this morning."

  5. My first psychology questioned whether people with severe disabilities were truly human. Especially Down syndrome. But he also questioned the time when one becomes human. At least not before 2, probably not before 5. My Child Psych prof had a much higher view of humanity. I was talking with a neighbor who is a neonatal nurse last weekend. Viability outside the womb is now 20 weeks gestation (although usually followed by a life of disability), and reconstructive surgery in utero has been here for a while. But Virginia now views life as beginning some time after birth. Europe now euthanizes people. What is human? Who is worth saving, or allowed to live?

    1. This comment raises significant questions, and I plan to deal with them (in a limited degree) in the article I am planning for Oct. 10.

      But clearly, much of Vanier's life was given to his strong conviction that people with severe disabilities are human--and that those who are "healthy" become more human by treating those with disabilities with respect and compassion.

  6. June's and my daughter Karen is married to Rob, whose parents are Jean and Cécile Daoust, French Canadians who live in British Columbia. Jean and Cécile have long been admirers of Jean Vanier, and in May (not long after Vanier's death) they send me a copy of "Becoming Human." I waited until last month to read it, just before writing about him and his book in this article.

    I much appreciate the kind gift from Jean and Cécile.