Our Secular World Needs Christian Personhood

Gloria Dei est vivens homo.”  ∼ St. Irenaeus

Saint Irenaeus (130-202) wrote that the glory of God is revealed in living human beings; this idea expresses one of the most central ideas of the primitive Church and the period of the Fathers, that of deification or theosis (becoming god-like). This constant theme within the first Christian millennium was most eloquently expressed by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (ca 298–373) in his writing On the Incarnation, where he says “God became man that man might become God.” More than a statement of piety, it proclaimed the dignity of humanity to be as the Book of Genesis says, “made in the image and likeness of God,” and at the same time expresses the redemption of Christ that allows the image tarnished by sin, to shine bright again.

The Fathers of the Church envisaged than human beings while sharing some of the same qualities of life as the animal and vegetative world (as Aristotle had thought), were unique in God’s creation, for only they could be spoken of as the Imago Dei (Latin), or Εικόνα του Θεού (Icon of God, in Greek). They even took this to a higher level of expression in that they saw the image of the Triune God in humans fully alive, in that they are a composite of body, soul, and spirit.

In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul told them, “I pray to God that your whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here he is acknowledging the triune nature of humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, a dignity that not even the angels can claim. The Fathers understood the body to be our material aspect, which we share with all things of matter in creation. Our soul is our life force and seat of reason, which to greater or lesser degrees we share with the animal kingdom. Our spirit is the nous or spiritual intellect, which far exceeds our rational powers and aesthetic emotions and allows us to apprehend the existence and presence of the Eternal God and the truths of his revelation.

This is the Christian gift to the world’s understanding of ontology, the nature of being as it concerns humanity; that each man and each woman are unique, unrepeatable, and immortal, he has called each of us by name, and stamped us with the very image of triune life. Our life, our dignity, and our future hope are extensions of Divine Providence and this universal will of God for us means that we can never be reduced to an arithmetical calculus of the state, of science, or of philosophy. The twentieth century Russian Orthodox thinker Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1945) expressed this beloved state of humanity by saying that, “every single human soul has more meaning and value than the whole of history.”

Yet, we can see today in Western society that this exalted understanding of human nature is as precarious as faith itself. If it is not believed, contemplated, and practiced, it will soon dissolve and become just another idea in the midst of the greater culture. The secular world of today, dominated by the powers of the human body and soul, but having little or no regard for the spirit, to regulate, challenge, and integrate the other two aspects of our nature, has come to exhibit the same weaknesses of all other human attempts to dominate the world it did not create and which belongs to God. Like thieves in the night, the dominant secular culture has stolen the priceless painting and left behind the frame that secured it and defined its limits, and like thieves, secular thought will never fully comprehend or appreciate what has been stolen.

At the core of our present culture wars is the acceptance or rejection of the Christian idea of personhood. Modern society seeks to be its own master without the ethical prescriptions of Christian faith and in doing so the human person has merely become another cog in the mindless march of history, where once she or he were called by name (baptism), now the names change according to the delusional psyche of a human nature and culture stripped of divine meaning and purpose. If nothing else, history should be a teacher to human beings of what happens when science and technology run ahead of ethics, when the Leviathan government of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his Enlightenment era philosophy becomes the sole agent of granting human freedom and worth, and when human action and reason is void of prayer, humility, and self-sacrifice; history shows us that our ontological thievery takes us to no good ending. To paraphrase the Christian Existentialist thinker Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), the soulless inventions of the modern secular world are much like a broken watch, that is to say, they might look to be in good order, but they really do not serve a greater purpose.

Possibly as was suggested by the philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), that the Christian Church will exist for a time as a remnant, a remnant that will for awhile be unable to influence the laws, morals, and politics of society and culture.  Yet, as Saint Paul proclaimed in the Letter to the Romans, the law of God is written on their hearts; the spirit that God has given us to know, love, and serve him and our brothers and sisters cannot be stifled forever, the truth of Christian personhood will once again respond to the calling of God to rebuild a broken world.

Fr. David Andrew Fisher

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Fr. David Andrew Fisher is priest in residence at St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Philadelphia and is an adjunct faculty member at Rosemont College. He earned his S.T.L and Ph.D. in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

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