Throughout history the question of what distinguishes human beings from the rest of creation, and specifically the other animals, has been a subject of lively debate. We have been variously described as ‘the laughing animal,’ ‘the animal that cooks,’ ‘the featherless biped,’ and ‘the only animal that cannot wiggle its ears,’ but beneath these humorous caricatures lies an issue of great importance to our personal and social identity. How we understand our unique and distinctive character reflects assumptions and carries implications regarding the very source and significance of human life—our role within the natural world, the foundations of human dignity and natural rights, and our fullest destiny in the mystery of the unfolding cosmic order.
Christian reflections on this question are grounded in the creation account of the earliest chapters of Genesis, and reach their fullest expression in the living liturgy of the Christian life in union with the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Christ.
On the sixth day of creation, in culmination and completion of the created order, Adam is brought forth (male and female) in the image and likeness of God. Fashioned from the red dust of the earth, and made a living being through the very breath of God, it is immediately evident that human beings have a unique origin and destiny within the order and hierarchy of the created world. Only with the formation of Adam does God declare that his creation is ‘very good’—a pronouncement generally interpreted as applying to man only as he is in proper relationship with the whole of creation.
Adam is given dominion as the ‘keeper and tiller’ of the garden, ruling and subduing it as a kind of co-creator, implying a capacity to comprehend and govern in accordance with the will of the Creator. And, only Adam can give names to the animals, discerning their distinctive powers and purposes within the unity of creation. Yet as a creature he is needy and dependent, relying upon the provision of the Creator who supplies as food “every plant yielding seed” and “every seed in its fruit.” And, he is incomplete until the creation of woman, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”—implying a fundamental relational need, one that carries with it a spiritual meaning and fruitfulness beyond that of the other creatures. Inseparably body, soul, and spirit, he is mysteriously poised between beast and God, sustained as ‘image’ only by the gift of the in-dwelling presence of his Lord and Creator.
With the Fall comes disorder and death, together with shame and fear, a sense of dread in the presence of God. Adam and Eve sow fig leaves together to cover their nakedness, but God makes for them garments of animal skins, foreshadowing the sacrificial blood of justification. Yet, the unique place of humanity within creation is again affirmed and extended. After the flood it is proclaimed by God that, “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” And, it is made explicit, that unlike all other creatures, human beings may never be used for instrumental ends: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). Moreover, the psalmist declares, “ Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor”(Psalm 8:5). Even as the living likeness is disfigured, the image of God remains within them, as the long journey of redemptive history begins.
It has been said that the mystery of human life can be understood only within the mystery of God. Indeed, it is the central conviction of Christian faith that these realities converge in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God in whom the fullness of human life is revealed, reconciled and brought to consummation. He is the divine power and presence made manifest in human form, the principle of our creation: “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). “He is the image of the invisible God…. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:15,19,20).
In Christ the unity of the human person, body, soul and spirit is restored and lifted to a destiny beyond the original creation. He is the true image of God, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9) and so reveals that the image of God in man is a living image, a relational participation in the very life of God. As we were all in Adam, so may we be in Christ: For as the first man Adam became a living being, Christ, as the last Adam, has become a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45). We, as human beings, uniquely among the creatures, are completed and wholly ourselves only when we have in us the spirit of God. In the beautiful words of Augustine: “Deus intimior, intimo meo,” (God is more intimate to me than I am to myself). Lifted by God’s love, we grow ever more alive through the in-dwelling presence of his transcendent power, as our natural life is transfigured by grace: dominion becomes compassionate stewardship of the natural world, eating becomes thanksgiving, mating becomes marriage, suffering becomes service, and death becomes the doorway to eternal life.
The world into which Christianity came forth was racked with cruelty and superstition. Severe asceticism, hyper-spiritualized Gnosticism, and infant sacrifice all reflected distorted notions of the relationship of body, soul, and spirit, concepts corrosive to the meaning of human life. As Christian faith spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, it transformed human self-understanding, and with it social structures and practices. Most significantly, within the prayerful reflection and lived experience of Christian faith, a deeper spiritual anthropology was distilled –one that magnified the sanctity and dignity of the human person. Christians rescued the unwanted babies abandoned on the trash heaps of Rome; and abortion, a practice that was widespread in the ancient world, was strictly forbidden in the Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings. A family of faith emerged, transcending boundaries of rich and poor, slave and free; and male and female were recognized as “joint heirs to the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).
In the centuries that followed, a more comprehensive theology of the Trinity was forged, allowing a richer appreciation of the distinctive nature and transcendent source of the human person. At the foundation of reality, at the very ground of being, is not a primary physical force or an abstract idea, but the resonant relational love among the eternal, co-existent and uncreated Persons of the Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. While affirming the ancient Shema, ‘God is One,’ it is the essential nature of divine love that it is relationally shared within the being of the one God, eternally generative in its reciprocity of self-donation. This all-encompassing, unconditional and unlimited love, the very principle of creation, reaches its fullest expression within the cosmic order in the generation of human persons, partakers as ‘children of God’ in the very life of God. As we participate ever more deeply in the Spirit of love, revealed to us in the self-giving sacrifice of Christ, we express more fully our distinctive nature as personal beings made in the image of God.
In our own age, these reflections, together with new insights from the natural sciences, have distilled into a thoughtful theology of the body and a fuller appreciation of the uniqueness of human beings. Even a cursory consideration of the distinctive character of the human body and mind supports and extends many of the central claims of Christian anthropology.
In the felicitous phrase of Benedict Ashley, the human person is “embodied intelligent freedom.” Conceived in this way, no single capacity or function defines the essence of human nature. Rather, the full human person, body, soul and spirit, forms an irreducible psychophysical unity of lived experience within the dynamic journey of historical being.
Our particular form of embodiment: upright posture, free swinging arms, and fully formed hands with opposable thumb, the range and cross referencing of our senses, including our highly refined sense of sight—all of these extend our reach and realm, allowing a knowing and accurate encounter with the world and a freedom for creative and constructive action within the world. Our furless face, with thirty fine-tuned muscles of expression and vocal articulation, provide the means of intersubjective relationality, social communication and cooperation, allowing cultural transformation and the transmission of accumulated knowledge. And our cognitive capacities for perception, analysis, interpretation and productive imagination, allow a coherent and comprehensive rationality that penetrates to the principles of cosmic order. All of these qualities and capacities combine to make the human being a creature of a radically distinct nature, not simply a difference of degree, but a difference of kind. Unlike animals with a limited repertoire of perception and response, we are adapted for adaptability, open in flexibility and freedom within the world.
But this embodied intelligence, and the freedom it implies, comes with a danger unique to the human species. Sensitive and self-aware, open and indeterminate, we are acutely conscious of the ethical and spiritual dimensions of our lives. Yet, terrified by death and driven by our natural appetites and ambitions toward an imagined ideal of perfect bodies and perfect minds, we are drawn forward by the seductive promise of technological self-transformation.
Torn between the pull of pride, the private lures and longings of self-will, and the aspirations of the our communal moral ideals, the fundamental question arises, “In whose image are we made?” Pascal recognized the full significance of this question and warned that those who sought God apart from Christ, who went no further than nature, would fall into atheism. The natural world, with its strife and struggle, poses a question that it cannot answer: How can there be both suffering and love? Yet with this question the deepest meaning of the material world is opened to understanding. All of creation, and its ordered ascent to mind and moral awareness, may be recognized as a kind of ‘living language’ in a drama of the deepest spiritual significance. Through the resonant relational knowing of faith, the entire cosmic order of time and space and material being may be seen as an arena for the revelation of Love, for the creation of a creature capable of ascending to an apprehension of its Creator; but more profoundly, for the reaching down, the compassionate condescension of Love himself.
It is a beautiful development of history that the words human and humility share a common root in the Latin ‘humus’ meaning earth or soil. Fashioned from the dust of the earth, given life by the very breath of God, and rescued and restored by the free gift of grace, we are radiant with possibility. Unique among creatures, we behold with wonder the majesty of the Creator, and bow before him in worship and praise— humility, gratitude, and abiding faith; these are the true marks of human distinction.
- In applying the powers of our advancing biomedical technology, could we alter human nature in such a way that we efface the image of God within us?
- Is human spiritual capacity the result of an automatic and autonomous process in our physical development, or the infusion of a genuinely transcendent element in our creation?
- How do spiritual ideas and images align our attitudes and actions within the world?
- How have Christian ideas of the human person reshaped our international policies regarding natural human rights?