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Nikos A. Nissiotis

"Secular and Christian Images of Human Person"

Theologia 33, Athens 1962, p. 947- 989; Theologia 34, Athens 1963, p. 90-122.

I. Anthropology and Cosmology: the inseparable link between man, nature and history

3. The Uniqueness of Man in Cosmos and in solidarity with Nature

Christian faith, therefore, cannot accept a concept or image of man which on the one hand does not recognize his uniqueness in Creation and on the other does not profess his solidarity with the created world, Nature, as well as with historical reality. This is not due to man's superiority, because he possesses reason or conceptual thought, or because he is the highest amongst the species of an evolutionary process, but because of the fundamental Christological approach to the mystery of Creation, Christ being the recapitulation of all created things and at the same time the Savior in a cosmic dimension. It is only on this basis that we can discuss today anthropology and reexamine its attitude to the uniqueness of man in Creation.

The careful examination of this issue is necessary before we establish a point of contact with any kind of secular images of man. It is also very important because of the ongoing debate amongst Christian theologians and process philosophers on this issue, because it looks as if the uniqueness of man professed in traditional theological terms creates an uneasiness amongst secular anthropologists and Christian process philosophers because it risks separating man from his natural environment. This traditional approach becomes in their eyes responsible for serious deviations in Christianity due to its anthropological transcendentalism creating a gap between man and nature, and depriving man of a full appreciation of the ecological problem (1).

This applies especially to process philosophers within Christian tradition who has the intention of acting as correctives against an excessive and unjustifiable anthropocentricism in Christian theology and praxis. For them, Christianity has to recover its full appreciation of matter, vegetable and animal life in Nature, by eliminating all unnecessary and defective transcendental concepts of God and man originating from idealistic philosophy which introduce a dualistic anthropology, resulting in a false understanding of the absolute superiority of man over Nature. In Christianity, for them, nature, as the physical world, is historicized, it is included when we say God acts in history, and therefore «natural processes are part of history» (2). Like, man, all creatures in Nature have their freedom of choice and God cannot predetermine how they would develop in their evolutionary process, conforming in this way their thought to the indeterminism of modern science and modern concepts of biological growth of organisms. «Things and animals have some being and value in themselves», and therefore «man is riot only the creature who can interpret existence. He is the one who exemplifies the nature of reality and far from being the exception in creation he is t lie flower of a plant that is one with nature»(3).

The important issue in this attitude of process philosophy is whether there is intrinsic value beyond man, and if so how to prevent Christianity from falling into the unjustified position that all subhuman beings and material objects are there only for serving man, because of his wrongly understood unique and central position in nature. In this view, feeling is the base of the subjective side of all things. All entities from electron to man embody feelings and therefore are of value and share in the freedom of development of the whole creation. This attitude represents an antithesis to materialism and mechanism and it defends the position that the universe and its parts are more like a life of an organism than a contrivance or a blunt insensitive material to be used and exploited by man. Certainly, the life of man is a better model of existence than the physicist's construct of the atom, but this appropriate acknowledgment of man's important position does not mean that he is the only creature which has intrinsic value; and that he can live in his superiority and uniqueness without taking any account of their abuse or of non-human nature (4).

The consequence of this attitude is that non-human nature has a value and can overcome western dualistic rationalistic thought after Descartes and become more conformed to the Old Testament tradition of the value of the natural world and the New Testament pattern of relationship between God, man, and nature which excludes all kinds of devaluation of nature by reason of the anthropocentricity of the Bible. We badly need, following this attitude of process philosophers, an «ethic of nature, which will be the result of our attitude to nature's worth».

It is evident what is the very positive contribution of such an attitude to the relationship between anthropology and cosmology. Man cannot be conceived apart from Nature. What is more important and interesting, however, is the place of theology in the context of this philosophy of nature, because, God should be also and consistently conceived in a far more dynamic relationship with material and animal creation than traditional Christian theology has professed under the influence of theistic rationalistic philosophies.

God, as the «maker of heaven and earth» is not acting like a man manufacturing our object, with which he has no relationship whatsoever after he has sold it (a carpenter and his table). Created matter plants and animals cannot exist without God's continuous sustaining activity; the one God extends to man's cells and molecules and not only to his spiritual being. If God as Creator remains apart continually in the process of sustaining all that exists, through what A. N. Whitehead has called «God's primordial nature». This is how creative activity is experienced by the entities of existence. God is not the passive offstage observer but the experiencer of all created value. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowing... This is what A. N. White-head calls «the consequent nature of God». It is the way God grows as the universe evolves, because His experience expands with his participation in all creation. The values that are realized in experience are saved in God's experience (5).

This dynamic, almost pantheistic, approach to theology, this growing and becoming of God along with his creation, is necessary if we want to increase our respect of nature or attribute any value to any part of the creation, because we have to do it not for the sake of created animals and things but as a due thanksgiving and offering to God, who is not only a God who creates and gives but also who receives. Love implies this exchange of gifts and there is no love which either only gives or only receives. A defective Christian faith is also the one which is unable to inspire deep respect and high appreciation of nature as existing in God and of God as evolving in it as a process of creative act identical with His being. It is the most dangerous isolation of man if he in the basis of his superiority over nature in the name of God avoids or neglects conceiving himself in a continuum of created reality not radically separated from it. According always to process philosophy what seems to us the cruelties of nature — the savagery, the mindless destruction of storm and volcano, the diseases — are the accidents on a trial-and-error process, accidents which in the long course of time God moves to correct by exerting His less than compelling influence.

Of course, by this attitude the intrinsic value of nature is emphasized, the obligation of man to respect natural reality is defended, the absolute uniqueness of man on the basis of God's creation is relativized and finally natural evil is explained dialectically with God sharing in it (6). But Christian theologians might express their doubts about the theological premises — or better conclusions — of such a philosophy of nature. Thomas Derr, for instance, remarks on this precise point: «the problem of evil is solved, then, but at the cost, of course, of God's capacity to overcome it — at the cost of the divine omnipotence» (7). He thinks that the principal difference between process thought and Christianity is the former's concept of a limited God, one who is not any more omnipotent. It solves easily the problem of natural evil, by limiting God's capacity to act, ignoring at the same time the sinful nature of man and the need of salvation. We have to do here with a weakened God who is unable to inspire submission of man to His will. He is not a God to worship either. He is a God of becoming with and for the sake of the world (8). It becomes also doubtful for T. Derr whether such theological premises for evaluating nature allow any real involvement of man in combating social evil responsibly in the face of a living personal God.

This debate reveals some important issues regarding our main theme.

a. We have to admit that traditional Christian anthropology has overdone the uniqueness of man and caused a gap between human and a kind of «subhuman» creation.

b. It is to a certain extent possible that this attitude has devaluated nature and led to its unwise exploitation. It is true that anthropocentricity existed in ancient oriental wisdom, in classical Greek philosophy, in Judaism, but their attitude had not the same impact in separating man from nature.

c. The question is whether man and subhuman creatures have to have almost equal rights in order to have equal values (“intrinsic”), without insisting on keeping different degrees between them, whether dualism between man and nature can do justice to the creation of God as a whole and finally and most important, whether God should be directly involved in the process of nature's development and growth by losing His transcendence vis-à-vis His creation for the sake of preserving the unbroken continuum of God, man and nature and overcoming a wrong Christian concept and praxis about the uniqueness of man.

It seems to me that this debate is an indication that Christian anthropology bears a certain responsibility because it has developed an one sided, anthropomonistic system of thought, disregarding vital elements of biblical tradition concerning the inseparable link between man and nature, and the place of man as mediator between God and nature. It is also true that theistic tendencies in theology introduced, with the support of rationalistic Cartesian principles and the mechanistic concept of a self-governed universe, an unbridgeable gap between God and his Creation and left nature in the hands of man as material for achieving his welfare, prosperity and technical progress, devaluating thus animal and vegetable life as well as matter, which is for Christians part of God's creation revealing His continuous concern for it without discrimination.

It is true that in the patristic writings, this anthropomonistic concept of man is entirely absent. Both in the West and the East, patristic thought converges in the Christological foundation of the unity of creation. Metropolitan Paulos Gregorios Verghese reminds us of this basic patristic cosmology in view of the debate with process philosophers. Creation betrays an inner coherence, interdependence and complementarity. «Harmony», «sympnoia» (breathing together) «sympatheia» (suffering or struggling together in love and complementarity) are terms pointing to the inevitable link between God, man and nature as the one single and common Creation. The ascending path of evolution in Creation with man created by a special creative intervention binds all things together with man. Gregory of Nyssa believes in human interdependence with nature and «he thinks it important to see humanity in an integral relationship to the universe of things, plants and animals... while man does not derive the whole of his nature from the universe» (9).

If man is a mediator between God and Creation and in this sense also a microcosm of the relation between spirit and all material things as soul and body, then also matter, i.e. the rocks, the sea, the mud, the inferior materials and not only the beautiful flowers and the stars praised by a humanistic romanticism, have an intrinsic value. This value is not due to the fact that it is used by man, or that man is related to it. Matter is what it is because it is the fundamental element for life maintaining the coherence between Creator, man and Creation. It is this coherence that validates man and matter equally within the One Creation. The specific and most important event in man's creation, conceived through the incarnation, is that the Spirit penetrates matter and matter becomes what it has been from the foundation of the world, the unique matrix of life. The uniqueness of man as the image of God cannot be conceived without his material being. The physiological aspect of man's being and existence forbids us to speak of spirit and soul without the presupposition and basis of matter (10).

In the Eastern theological tradition matter occupies this central place in creation on the basis of the Logos theology. Certainly, this concept of matter presupposes also the regenerating energy of the Spirit of God. Matter has a value only because it is penetrated by the Sprit in a personal way reminding us of the origin of the creation of the whole cosmos. Soul and body, spirit and matter are therefore equally subjects of transformation. Their value can only be jointly defended as one and whole organism of life always on the way to their recreation and transfiguration. It is this reality of the relation of Spirit and matter which makes Eastern Orthodoxy conceives of the cosmos together with man's transfiguration in Christ by the operation of the Spirit. In the Orthodox liturgical worship and its symbolic representation of the elevated cosmos in Christ one can detect this cosmic dimension clearly. Alongside and together with the memorial of Christ's incarnation, cross and resurrection, as one and inseparable event, the worshipping Church gathered in the power of the Pentecostal event is celebrating around the Eucharist and through the material gifts of bread and wine the elevation of the whole cosmos together with man; and this makes salvation and transfiguration possible. Rightly, one can speak not of church worship, but of «cosmic liturgy» referring to the Eastern understanding of worship and of man as microcosmic (11). After the use of water for Baptism, the hymnology of the Epiphany liturgy, for instance, in the Eastern tradition is a hymn and praise of the elevated matter of creation as a whole. The river Jordan is the matrix of salvation and iconography represents it as filling the whole canopy of the created cosmos, Christ being implanted into its water like a pillar as the pivot of the whole creation. Baptism and Eucharist are the sacraments of salvation but also the signs and antitype-symbols of the union between man, nature and history as Cosmos. More precisely, using the words of Paul Evdokimov: «The word by which the eucharist was instituted, 'this is my body' designates the living body, the whole Christ conferring on every communicant a quickening consanguinity and corporality. In the same way, 'the word was made flesh' means that God assumed human nature in its entirety and in it, the whole cosmos. And the 'resurrection of the flesh' in the Creed confesses the reconstitution of the whole man, soul and body, and thus all flesh shall see the salvation of God 'all flesh' meaning the pleroma of nature» (12).

This liturgical elevation of the cosmos signifies that all of our enterprises with the created things of nature is a sharing in this ongoing recreation and transformation of cosmos. Science is performing a God-given function. In the eyes of a Christian a scientist is consciously, if he is a believer, and unconsciously, if not, offering a para-eucharistic act by his work in the service of humanity; the God-given material is given back to Him fulfilling its purpose as part of the created cosmos in process of transfiguration. A scientist represents a secular priestly function and offers a continuous reasonable sacrifice and praise to the Creator of the cosmos and on behalf of man as microcosmic mediator between Him and all created subhuman beings and things. It is on this basis that anthropology is inseparably linked with cosmology. It is in this way that a Christian can appreciate appropriately matter and nature with their very important implications for our dialogue between Christian and scientific images of man.

Unfortunately, this right approach to the value of nature and matter remained a liturgical symbolism and vision. Both in the West and in the East there was no immediate effect on the understanding in this positive way of subhuman material creation. Though the explanation of the precise reasons which have caused the inefficiency of this authentic biblical-Christological approach to nature is not entirely possible, we can attempt to investigate some of the probable causes (13).

First, the blunt materialism connected with atheism might be regarded as the origin of the Christian's hesitation to evaluate matter. The automatic genesis of life, the exploitation of the evolutionary theories of species, the wrong conclusions of the incorruptibility of matter have led theology to defend the «spiritual» foundations of creation in an exaggerated way at the expense of its material nature. Together with this attitude one should investigate the role played by rationalistic philosophy and by one-sided, partial interpretation of Plato and Aristotle as dualistic philosophers.

Second, an overemphasis on the value of the monastic ideal, contemplative life and meditation have dominated Christians expecting the second coming of Christ. A false eschatology has greatly affected the facticity and historicity of faith and accentuated the liturgical vision of the end of time in full glory against the material nature of the cosmos in corruption and sin. The monks rightly point to this final end of history and validate the manifold ascesis, which in the East especially has been wrongly connected with an unjustified position of the pneumatic-spiritual against the material nature of the cosmos.

Third, a kind of anti-fleshly mind, connected with the ascesis as the central moral principle of Christian life, nourished by the fear of falling into mortal sexual sins has greatly contributed to devaluating matter as connected with the inferior if not sinful part of creation. The threat of «pansexualism» in modern times has further strengthened this position and inspired a spiritualistic ethics as a noble struggle against the low, “dirty” and animal trends which violently assault the human body and require satisfaction.

Perhaps, along these lines one can look for some of the causes of the failure to draw the implications of the Christological interpretation of nature regarding the value of matter. Anyway, we have to admit that there cannot be a dialogue with secular images of man if this separation of anthropology and cosmology in Christian theology is not repudiated. Christian faith has all the presuppositions to enable it to remain a dynamic factor of progress as well as a realistic partner of dialogue within a secularized world, because of its Christological cosmology. It is not an abstract and rationalistic natural theology which inspires the intrinsic value of created subhuman beings and matter, but the faith that all things are created and recapitulated in Christ. And this makes all the difference with all other possible theories about nature and matter of a traditional natural theology.

This Christological approach to nature does not allow any kind of false interpretation of man's God-given right to the domination of nature. It is not a right of stewardship that man is given either. Man cannot be named simply «steward» of nature in order to avoid the idea of domination. «Steward» is also too ambiguous and presumptuous. Nor is it sufficient to say that man is a «guest» in nature so that he will not behave as an owner or master of it. None of these expressions, which up to a certain extent try to place man in a new responsible way at the center of creation setting limitations of his power, are the appropriate terms to be used in this connection, because, though they try to save man from his excessive egocentricity over against nature, these terms might introduce another type of distance and another kind of self-alienation from nature and in cosmos. «Steward» and «guest» can become indications of another kind of emancipation of man within the cosmos reserving for him the right to manipulate or to exploit nature. In this sense there is no hope of appreciating man's full and responsible involvement and of taking appropriate action against ecological threat.

What is necessary to be proclaimed on the basis of a consistent Christology of nature is the co-naturality of man, his inner, deep and inevitable co-existence, or better, I dare to say, identity with matter. It is only in this way that we have to overcome in theology all kinds of dualistic trends introducing an inappropriate separation and superiority of man over nature under the pretext of man's uniqueness in creation based on a partial biblical notion of anthropocentricity. The process philosophers and theologians can help us to focus this centrality of man according to a Christian theology of nature against anthropomonistic trends, reminding Christian anthropology of its inevitable and imperative association with a consistent biblical Christology of nature.

It becomes more and more evident, today, that every unreflected act of man in using and abusing nature becomes a latent motif of slow but sure suicide of human life on this earth. Pollution of nature or unlimited absorption of energy predicts with accuracy man's disappearance from this earth. The environmental problem and the energy condition prescribe the frame for human survival in the near future (14). Human egoistic superiority over nature equals human self annihilation. Between aesthetic humanistic romanticism and materialistic utilitarianism a new Christian consciousness of identity of man with nature in the one Creation of God in Christ must develop. This can be done only if anthropology is inseparably conceived along with cosmology.

It is only in this way that an authentic Christian image of man can enter into dialogue with secular anthropologies to support them in their effort to reflect on the quality of life and the value of the human person in an age of technology and false, one-sided economic growth. It is only in this way that the Christian visions about man and nature in a Christological sense can become dynamic factors in the historical process and not remain simple symbolic references or mystical liturgical experience. Above all and finally it is only in this way that Christian anthropology can appreciate nature historicized, i.e. as Cosmos bearing the marks of world history, in which man is not the sole Creator but also and principally one of the dynamic agents and participants in Creation, as Cosmos and nature have also a history of their own apart from human presence, not only before the creation of man in the remote future. But they have now with man a history parallel to human history, which has an intrinsic value in itself.

It is this kind of cosmic historicity of subhumans and material nature which is decisive in conceiving human personality in relationship to the facticity of historical process as a whole. Only in this case one can appreciate and evaluate science and technology and their effects in the formation of human personality. Especially, it is only out of this world's historicity that a Christian image of man should be carefully constructed, correcting traditional one-sided principles of Christian anthropology isolated from the actual historical process and expressed in esoteric language.

Science, psychology and social and political struggle for a worldwide human community of freedom and justice are indispensable parts of a consistent Christian anthropology which takes seriously into consideration the history of nature represented and studied by scientific research and its historical predicament as it is grasped in the struggle for liberation and transformation of the structures of injustice on a worldwide scale. Anthropology and Cosmology in complementary and reciprocal relationship of interdependence signify that a Christian image of the human person cannot be conceived out of a neutral self-sufficient transcendental position. On the other side all ideological concepts of humanity derived from science, psychology, society or politics should raise unavoidably the ontological question of human being and of the quality of human life, in an age of crisis caused by a false autonomy either of Christian anthropology or scientific cosmology.


1. On this issue: «Anticipation», WCC., Geneva, March 1974.

2. Ibid. p. 21.

3. Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, ibid. p. 33.

4. Ibid. p. 33.

5. Ibid. p. 34.

6. A. N. Whitehead is the principal teacher of this kind of theology, submitted to his dynamic concept of creation as a continuous recreating-itself process. He continually reverses the order between heaven and earth, giving priority to nature's ongoing inner movement of development. He writes amongst other things in this context: «What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. God is, in this sense, the great companion, the fellow-sufferer who understands». (Process and Reality, New York (Macmillan) 1929 p. 532).

7. «Anticipation», ibid. p. 22.

8. The critique of T. Derron process theology is expanded in his book: Ecology and Human Liberation, Geneva (WCC) 1973.

9. Paulos Gregorios, The Human Presence. An Orthodox View of Nature, W.G.C. (Geneva) 1978, p. 64.

10. Gregory Palamas writes: «Based on the biblical physiology I should not speak of soul alone or of body alone, but of both together, what is meant by the phrase 'according to the image of God'» (P.G. 1361C).

11. As Hans-Urs von Balthasaris doing in his book: «Liturgie Cosmique». Paris (Aubier-Montaigne) 1947 and Lars Thurnberg: «Microcosm and Mediator. The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor». Lund (Gleerup) 1965.

12. P. Evdokimov: «Nature», in: Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18. No. 1 (March 1965), p. 9 (quoted by Paulos Gregorios, op. cit., p. 88).

13. Similar positive theological attitudes to nature and creation are to be found in the West, expressed in less symbolic-liturgical language than in the East but converging in the same basic appreciation of matter and nature. For instance M. O. Chenu in his book Nature, Man and Society writes: «The discovery of nature: we are not now concerned merely with the feeling for nature which poets of the time evinced here and there in fashionable allegorical constructions... Rather our concern is with the realization which laid upon these men of the twelfth century...(when): they reflected that they were themselves caught up within the framework of nature, were themselves also bits of this cosmos they were ready to master» (Nature, Man and Society in the Twelth Century. Selected, edited and translated by J. Taylor and L. Little, Chicago and London (Chicago Univ. Press) 1957, p. 4-5).

14. See on this issue: Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy, a new World View. New York (The Viking Press) 1980.

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