The Rise of Anthropological Pessimism in the West I

November 21, 2013 Length: 18:28

Fr. John discusses the dignity of man according to the Greek Fathers

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Welcome back to the first episode in part two of this podcast, entitled, “The Rise of Anthropological Pessimism in the West.” As we begin our discussion of the causes of the Great Schism and its important consequences in leading to the decline and then fall of Christendom in modern times, it is important to bring attention to the place of human dignity within Christendom in the early centuries. Human beings were held up as dignified creatures created by God. This was a conviction of all early Christian authorities, and remained a conviction for many centuries to come. It is a conviction that expressed a real optimism about the human person. Anthropology is the study of the human person, the study of what it means to be human. In accounts of the early Church’s anthropology, the word “optimism” has sometimes been used to describe the high evaluation of dignity for the human person.

Let me quote, for instance, as we get started, the words of a scholar and historian of early Christian doctrines named John Kelly. He wrote a widely used textbook called Early Christian Doctrines, and said the following when he introduced the topic of anthropology, or the doctrine of human nature in the early Church. This is what he wrote:

It was in the fourth and fifth centuries that the doctrine of human nature became an issue of prime importance in the Church. During the larger portion of this period, when Greek writers are being passed in review—[he’s speaking about his own research]—we shall find that the estimate formed of man’s plight is relatively optimistic. This was partly due to the Hellenic temperament in the East, but partly also to the fact that the rival philosophy was Manichaeism, with its fatalism and its dogma that matter, including the body, was intrinsically evil. When we turn to the West and approach the Pelagian controversy, the shadows deepen and the picture of man passed on to the Middle Ages by Augustine is somber, even pessimistic.

Kelly refers here in this passage to a couple of heresies, Manichaeism and Pelagianism, which I will in fact take up later in this episode. For the time being, I would just like to bring attention to the word “optimism” there that he uses, he selects, to describe or characterize early reflection in the Greek East about the human person, anthropological reflection on the dignity of man. Such was the case in the early Church. Man was dignified.

The way that theologians and Fathers of the Church reflected on this dignity included a reflection on man’s creation by God. Man had been created intentionally by God. He was not an accident of evolution. That doctrine would come much later in the post-Christian Christendom of the 19th century. He was not an accident, but was the intention of God. God created man.

Furthermore, God created man in the image and likeness of God. The image and the likeness described in Genesis is never really given content, either in the Scriptures and scarcely even in the Fathers themselves, many of whom use different ways of describing the image of God in man, and all of which avoid a definitive content definition of that mysterious term. I will return later, though, to efforts to define the distinction between image and likeness in some of the Greek Fathers such as Basil the Great.

Another important detail related to man being made in the image of God was that, being made in God’s image, man was inherently valuable, inherently dignified. As mysterious as terms like “image” and “likeness” were, nevertheless, the claim made that man is the image of God distinguished traditional Christianity from the preceding beliefs and values of classical paganism, which believed that there are not only many gods and goddesses, but that they are actually in largely human form. This is the well-known feature in classical paganism of anthropomorphism, anthropos being “man” and morph meaning “form,” that the gods and goddesses of the ancient world of classical paganism were made in human form, appeared in human form, were described and reflected on as being in human form, anthropomorphic.

So that we could say that the theology, the understanding of god, for classical paganism, was anthropomorphic; there was an anthropomorphic theology there. How different was traditional Christianity’s understanding of man made in the image of God, not God in the image of man, but man in the image of God. As a matter of fact, we might even be able to use the term “theomorphic anthropology” to distinguish traditional Christianity from the anthropomorphic theology of classical paganism. For Christianity, man is made in the image of God. He is theomorphic, theos being “god,” morph being “in the form of.” He’s theomorphic. That was the anthropology of traditional Christianity.

Another interesting detail, just to reflect on the relationship of traditional Christianity’s anthropology toward not only classical paganism but modern thought, modern philosophy, is that when in modern times traditional Christianity ceases to have an influence on the beliefs and values of Christendom, and therefore man is no longer understood as the image of God—he becomes not imago Dei, which means “image of God” in Latin, but rather in Latin homo sapiens, just a species of life on earth, when that occurs, man’s dignity is largely lost in many different cases. We will see, for instance, examples of the loss of human dignity in a post-Christian Christendom in movements that involve eugenics, modern psychological theory about man, totalitarianism and its impact on the human person in the 20th century, and finally in post-modern times what’s known as consumerism. All of these forces rob the human being in modern, secular times of his dignity.

But for the time being, in early Christendom, the human being was held up and exalted in the theological reflection of the Fathers, especially in the East. They reflected on man’s life in paradise—Basil, Ephraim, and in the West Ambrose, as well as other Fathers, all reflected and wrote works on the creation and the life of man in paradise. They reflected on how there was harmony between man and woman, between the human race there in paradise, through God-ordained marriage, both of them sharing completely in the image and likeness of God. The tree of life described in the book of Genesis was the object of reflection. For many Fathers, that tree of life was a symbol, an expression, of man’s communion with God, enjoying the very life of God in paradise. I can quote here St. John of Damascus, who wrote an account of what the tree of life was or represented for Adam in paradise.

Adam had the indwelling of God as a dwelling-place and wore him as a glorious garment. He was wrapped about with his grace, and like some of the angels he rejoiced in the enjoyment of that one most sweet fruit which is the contemplation of God, and by this he was nourished. Now this is indeed what is fittingly called the tree of life, for the sweetness of divine contemplation communicates a life uninterrupted by death to them that partake of it.

Those are the words of John of Damascus. So man was held up, dignified, and enjoying the very life of God through communion with God and that tree of life and paradise.

But man was, of course, expelled from paradise when he chose to live without God. Instead of life in God, he chose death. This led to the collapse of the human community. Turning from God, both Adam and Eve ultimately turned on one another, blaming each other in divisions. It also meant, of course, separation from the tree of life. That’s the last point made in the third chapter of Genesis, after the so-called Fall, the primordial sin of Adam and Eve, they are expelled from the garden of Eden, expelled from paradise, and the last statement made, such a powerful statement made there, Genesis 3:24, that God expelled them from paradise and cherubim were placed outside the gates of paradise with a flaming sword to prevent man from ever coming back and partaking of the tree of life.

So man waited, then, cast out of paradise and stripped of his dignity, for God to act. That happened when Christ came and re-created man through his own Person. Christ is described in Hebrews as the express image of the Father, and in Christ, mystically, all who are baptized, all who participate in the life of the Church, are restored to their dignity, the original dignity that they enjoyed in paradise. The salvation of man was described frequently by the Greek Fathers of the Church—and usually by the Greek Fathers most accounts this kind of language wasn’t a feature of the Western or Latin Fathers, especially after the time of Augustine—the Fathers of the Eastern Church described salvation in many different ways. There was more than just one image of salvation, but one of the most common and powerful ways was what is known as deification, in Greek, theosis, in Slavonic, apozhenia: deification.

Salvation was understood as deification, and this was possible because Christ, when he came, was God incarnate, and the Incarnation assumed an especially important role in the Fathers’ efforts to describe human dignity. The Incarnation led, of course, to the crucifixion and the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, but in his famous work, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius in the fourth century related how the Incarnation brought a kind of deification to the human race. Athanasius’ work is a very important, very interesting work of anthropology as much as it is of Christology. It’s easily available in English translation by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press as one of their Popular Patristics editions, and in it—it’s not easy reading, but if one spends the time with it—one really encounters in it the dignity of the human person that Christ’s Incarnation brought about.

It’s interesting that Athanasius in this work talks about sin as a kind of anthropological catastrophe. Sin is something that disrupted and disfigured the intention of God for the human race. Let me quote to you a passage here where he talks this way. These are the words of Athanasius.

Because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in a process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the transgression [the Fall or the primordial sin], prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would of course have been unthinkable that God should go back upon his word and that man, having transgressed, should not die, but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.

So this anthropological catastrophe of sin actually resulted in the disappearing of the human race. Of course, there were still people alive, so the human race was still present, but the ultimate reality of the human being was disappearing; the ultimate intention of the human being as one who participates in the life of God was disappearing. In fact, Athanasius, in his book, On the Incarnation, speaks about what he calls—I love this phrase—de-humanization of man. “The de-humanization of man”: what a powerful phrase that is, that man was simply ceasing to be man.

So in Christ man is re-created. The re-creation of man occurs through the Incarnation. Here again I will quote Athanasius; this is what he says.

What, then, was God to do? What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew his image in mankind? So that, through it, man might once more come to know him. And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image himself, our Savior Jesus Christ. Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the image, nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in his own Person, because it was he alone, the Image of the Father—[remember that statement of Hebrews, that Christ is the express image of the Father]—who could re-create man made after the Image.

So this is Athanasius in his famous work, On the Incarnation. It’s in that work, in a very famous end section, Section 54 in the common numbering for the paragraphs or sections of the book, where Athanasius makes probably the most famous statement of all, that God became man that man might become god. This statement was actually made by a number of Fathers of the Church, including Irenaeus before Athanasius’ time, and later Fathers as well, but Athanasius is usually the one who gets credit for it, and it’s in his work On the Incarnation. God became man that man might become god, in other words, that the deification of man might become possible.

Join me next time, when I continue a discussion of the doctrine of deification among the Greek Fathers of the early Church in their efforts to establish the dignity of man before moving on to an account of how that dignity was undermined by the rise of anthropological pessimism in the West.