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Being truly human: What makes us different from animals?

To encourage students to consider the spiritual dimension of their lives (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage students to consider the spiritual dimension of their lives (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You may wish to have a clip from one of David Attenborough’s TV series showing on a screen as pupils enter.
  • You will need a leader and two readers.


  1. Leader  Wildlife programmes, such as those presented by David Attenborough, show us some remarkable scenes from the animal world.
  2. Reader 1  Dolphins work as a team as they hunt for food, forcing a shoal of fish to the surface where they are more vulnerable to being caught by them.

    Reader 2  Chimpanzees use primitive tools to extract honey from deep inside a tree trunk and crack open seeds and nuts.

    Reader 1  Swallows fly vast distances across the Sahara Desert in their annual migration from Africa to Europe.

    Reader 2  Insects live in complex social groupings with clearly designated hierarchies of status and function.

    Leader  As we marvel at these aspects of the natural world, it’s tempting to see ourselves as little more than another subspecies sharing the planet. Yet, it can be argued that there are ways in which humans are distinctly different from animals. Here are a few.

    Reader 1  We possess an intelligence that goes beyond the instinctive responses of other animals. We form opinions, make decisions and think about consequences.

    Reader 2  Our intelligence enables us to create sophisticated technology – in communications, forms of travel, engineering and many other aspects of life.

    Reader 1  We can read and write, using these skills for a wide range of purposes, from simple text messages to the plays of Shakespeare.

    Reader 2  We display an awareness of the supernatural, whether in the form of religious beliefs, the world of the imagination or superstitions.
  3. Leader  No other creature on our planet displays these characteristics and skills at anything more than a fairly primitive level. Christians and Jews believe that this is because humans are distinct as we are made ‘in the image of God’ and our purpose is to care for the other species with whom we share this world.
  4. Sunday 19 May is Whit Sunday, also known as Pentecost. It’s the day when Christians celebrate the work of God’s Holy Spirit in his world. He’s the third member of the Trinity, which is the way Christians view the person of God. First, there’s God the Father – the one who gives order and shape to the universe. Second, there’s Jesus – God in a human body, living a human life. Finally, there‘s the Spirit. So what’s the role of the Spirit?

    Christians believe the Spirit is the life of God active in each one of us. It’s what makes us distinct from the rest of the animal world, granting us imagination, thoughtfulness, creativity and supernatural wonder. He’s the one who enables us to achieve all that we heard about earlier.

    Whit Sunday also celebrates a further dimension of his work. When Jesus left his disciples, he promised that those who believed in him would receive a further gift of the Spirit. It was as if all humans are like a half-full bottles and he can fill us up to the brim if we believe in him and follow his teachings.

    What is the consequence of this ‘Spirit filling’? Jesus suggests that it offers even greater levels of possibility: prayer will be effective, ideas will be more imaginative and, above all else, human relationships will be deeper and closer.

Time for reflection

Leader We talk about people as having a glass half-full or half-empty view of life. It’s a way of describing whether they have a positive or negative attitude to things and themselves. As we have heard, Whit Sunday celebrates the suggestion that we can be full right to the top. Maybe that’s what being truly human is all about.

Dear Lord,
thank you for giving each of us a distinct role to play in the life of this planet.
We accept that and commit ourselves to acting responsibly.
Thank you for the gift of your Spirit at work in us.
May we allow you to fill us right to the brim so we can be truly human.


‘Are we human or are we dancer?’ by The Killers

Publication date: May 2013   (Vol.15 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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