We need a new story about meaning

Universal human concepts and the unique phrase “us people”

Many argue we are facing a crisis of meaning. Secular stories about value and purpose have failed and we need to arc back to ancient stories about our place in the universe claim those like Ayaan Hirsi Ali – once a staunch atheist and recently a Christian convert. Anna Wierzbicka explains why language is central to this crisis, and how a simple but powerful story could be the key to solving this predicament.


In her recent autobiographical essay “Why I am now a Christian”, the prominent public intellectual of Somali background Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Unherd, November 11, 2023) speaks of “the power of a unifying story”. Once a Muslim, then an atheist, and now a Christian; in her essay, Hirsi Ali applies this phrase to Islam: “The lesson I learned from my years with the Muslim Brotherhood was the power of a unifying story…to…mobilize the Muslim masses”. A unifying story implies a “we” and in the case of the foundational texts of Islam this “we” stands for all Muslims (“we Muslims”).

A unifying story for all humankind would need to imply a “we” standing for the entire human race (“we people”). The Nicene Creed, which, after the Bible, is often seen as the most important and widely shared foundational text of Christianity, implies such a “we”. Perhaps the most revolutionary phrase of the Nicene Creed is “us people”. (“For us people and for our salvation he [Christ] came down from heaven.”) This phrase is, to the best of my knowledge, unprecedented in the documented history of human thought.

The root of this idea is found in the famous line of St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, widely seen by historians as unprecedented in its absolute universalism: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are all Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, according to promise”. (Gal. 3: 28-29) The promise that Paul has here in mind is that of Genesis 22:18, where God says to Abraham: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice”. (KJV)

The phrase “all the nations of the earth” is particularly telling as it testifies to a latent universalism, despite the Hebrew Bible’s focus on the “chosen people” Israel. Yet the phrase “us people”, which we see in the Nicene Creed, does not seem to appear anywhere in the Bible and can be seen as the fruit of Christian reflection over the first three Christian centuries. “Us people” implies not only universalism (as in “all the nations of the earth”), but also human solidarity: the oneness of the human race, perceived not from the outside but from the inside.

The phrase “the oneness of the human race” does not mean here that there is only a single human race, no more. Rather, it implies the following way of thinking: “we people are one” or “all people living on earth are one”. This is a perspective offered by the Nicene Creed, with a clear precedent in another statement of St Paul, in his speech on the Areopagus in Athens, when he proclaimed to the Athenians: “God made from one [blood] every nation of people to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:24-26, RSV minimally modified). So the “oneness” of human kind is like the oneness of a family, and it implies a “we” perspective, spelled out later in the Nicene Creed: “for us people and for our salvation he [Christ] came down from heaven”, “for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate”.

The oneness of the human race implied by the Nicene Creed’s phrase “us people” includes everyone: those with dementia, those with depression, those with disabilities and those with genetic abnormalities. The founder of modern genetics Jérôme Lejeune spoke in this context of the “biological fraternity that unites human beings’ (Aude Dugast, Jérôme Lejeune, Ignatius 2021, p. 146).

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As I write this short text, an official body in my city, Canberra (ACT) is pushing hard for teenagers and people with dementia to be allowed to access ACT’s proposed “voluntary assisted dying (VAD)” laws.

The commentator in the Catholic Weekly (January 2024, p. 17) Patrick McArdle observes: “These types of legislation are being enacted without much objection because, I suspect, as a community we have a diminished care factor: ‘what you choose to do is your business and has nothing to do with me”. As McArdle also notes, manipulation of language plays an important role in this area, as when the word “protections” (sounds good) is replaced with the word “restrictions” (sounds bad); or when euthanasia is described as “health care” (sounds good) and killing someone or enabling them to kill themselves is described as a “safe, effective and accessible process” (sounds good). “In what other circumstances,” McArdle asks, “would we suggest that the ingestion of a lethal substance with the intention of causing death was ‘safe’?”


"in some areas of life, in modern Western societies language itself ceases to serve communication and truth"


As these examples from the current public discourse on euthanasia illustrate, in some areas of life, in modern Western societies language itself ceases to serve communication and truth. At the same time, these examples point to a much larger issue: the civilizational ramifications of what might be called post-Christian spiritual disorientation in the West that observers like historian Tom Holland and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are talking about. Across two millennia, one of the fundaments of Western civilisation was the Hippocratic medicine based on the Hippocratic oath: “I will do no harm to [my patients]” and “neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course”. As we have seen, however, these fundamental ethical and civilisational assumptions are now beginning to unravel.

The continuing impact of Christianity on Western intuitions about values is reflected in the pride of place accorded in modern secular thinking to non-discrimination: all people should be treated in the same way. Historian Tom Holland notes in Dominion (Basic Books 2019) that according to Aristotle, “certain races were suited to be slaves” (p. 388), and “The female is, as it were, an inadequate male” (p.258).

So St Paul, with his bold and defiant formulations “neither Jew nor Greek”, “neither slave nor free”, “neither male nor female” was indeed turning the world upside down (as political philosopher Larry Siedentop puts in in the title of his chapter on Paul in his classic book Inventing the Individual (Penguin 2015). And St Paul’s impact was so great that the idea of human equality has become deeply ingrained in modern Western thinking and is now often simply taken for granted and seen as timeless and coming from nowhere.

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But as the push for access to euthanasia for suicidal teenagers and people with dementia illustrates, the concomitant idea expressed in the Nicene Creed’s phrase “us people” – that is, this idea of human unity and solidarity – seems to be getting increasingly lost in the secular West and many humanists in the West can’t seem to find a good answer to the question: what can this unity and solidarity be anchored in? Increasingly, voices are being raised which ask if humanism is not, ultimately, a kind of speciesism? In this context, Holland comments: “Without the biblical story that God had created humanity in his own image to draw upon, the reverence of humanists for their own species risks seeming mawkish and shallow.” (p. 523)

We might add that in academia, the same secular anthropology which sees human beings as “nothing special” tends to emphasize the great diversity of languages and cultures while denying that all these languages and cultures have a common core and that human groups share any specifiable concepts or ideas. In effect, this denies – against strong linguistic evidence – that all human groups share concepts like “good” and “bad”, “true” and “not true”; and also, that they share the concept “people”. Such claims, inconsistent with empirical cross-linguistic evidence, undermine the sense of human unity (what anthropologist Franz Boas called “the psychic unity of mankind”) and the sense of human distinctiveness.


"for many people in the West, there is no “unifying story” anymore, and no vision of the “oneness of the human race". - this is from the bottom but should be the first to appear.


As many years of cross-linguistic investigations have demonstrated, to the best of our knowledge all languages share a core of 65 simple concepts (semantic primes), Leibniz’s “alphabet of human thoughts”), and also, a number of “semantic molecules”, including concepts like “hands”, “head”, “fire”, “water”, “men”, “women” and “children”, and also the fundamental social concept “we”. (See e.g. Wierzbicka, Semantic Primitives, [Athenäum 1972]; Goddard and Wierzbicka, Words and Meanings [OUP 2014]; Wierzbicka, What Christians Believe [OUP 2019] and “‘Semantic primitives’, fifty years later”, Russian Journal of Linguistics, 2021, 25(2); Goddard and Wierzbicka, “‘We’: conceptual semantics, linguistic typology and social cognition”, Language Sciences, 2021, 83)

According to social commentators like Siedentop, Holland and Hirsi Ali, for many people in the West, there is no “unifying story” anymore, and no vision of the “oneness of the human race”. For many, there is no sense of “we” as embracing all human beings, regardless of their place of habitation, language, age, sex, level of education, level of intelligence or degree of “mental competence”.

As against this, for the Nicene Creed, anchored in Jesus’ words and deeds, all humans are “us people”. This ancient creed, described by the poet Georgiana Fullerton as “the one unchanging creed”, proclaims the oneness of the human race sets it out as part of a coherent whole and offers a powerful unifying story of a human family created by God and destined for God. As such, it presents a meaningful and hopeful vision at a time when many are seeking for the threads of meaning to hold things together. Arguably, in the world in which for so many people so many things appear to be falling apart, the unique phrase “us people” continues to offer something unchanging to hold on to.



As this text goes to print, Alexei Navalny’s testimony reaches the world from beyond the grave. Russia’s most outspoken critic of Putin’s regime and the world’s most indomitable fighter for truth and justice, who in 2021 voluntarily returned to Russia to  certain death (and who died in prison on Friday February 16, 2024) gives this witness:

“I am a  believer and this helps me. There is a book which says clearly what one should do in any situation. This is not always easy to follow, but on the whole, I try. This makes it easier for me to engage in politics”. In this context, Navalny quoted Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew (5:6): “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”.

At Easter 2021 Navalny sent out the following message from prison:  “Christ is Risen. I greet everyone: believers and unbelievers (I was one of them), also aggressive atheists (I was one of them). I embrace everyone, I love everyone.”

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