Who is Man?

In recent centuries the main challenge to the Church, it seems, has come from either philosophical or psychological argumentation.  This has been a rather aggressive challenge, which gradually extended beyond the mind of an individual and into political regimes, with some devastating consequences.  Initially it began with what appeared a slow move from the absolute to the self or particular, where philosophers, who still believed in God, a creator, in some sense, began to build up the self.  The focus turned more and more to the self, the ego, as man, like in the garden, desired to be a God himself.  Man slowly became the centre of all, and God became more and more abstract and distant, a far cry from the loving Father we encounter in the New Testament.  Consequently, today, the Church faces a different and far greater challenge, as many, especially in the Western World, do not know who they are, and do not believe in God, because they have an inaccurate concept of God.  Lives are very busy and people are distracted, and therefore there is no time for a pause, or reflection.  It was reflection in the first instance which led to philosophy, as man pondered on life’s key questions.  Who am I?  What happens after I die? 

Man’s dignity and consequently the value of life have been diminished, so that life becomes a relative moral issue for secular governments to decide on, and this has led to many evils being rationally justified by governments.  Man is seen to be the result of a random explosion which took place billions of years ago, with no real cause or source.  Man is therefore just an intelligent animal for many, who does not have a conscience but learns moral actions through experiences, and therefore through a stroke of incredible luck, man has managed to evolve more efficiently than other less fortunate creatures.  This ultimately has meant that man does not know who he is, and therefore this life is all there is for many, effecting how people act and think.  Life becomes a survival of the fittest, and this is indeed a very great problem.  It affects the weak and vulnerable most whose “value” is determined by how much they contribute to society.  The great tragedy is that man, regardless of who he is, has a dignity which far exceeds that of any other created being, but man reduces himself to a the status of an animal.  Man is made in “the image and likeness of God” (Gn 1,26), and has a vocation to participate in the life of his creator, where there is a loving relationship between the three divine persons.  This means that “by his innermost nature man is a social being”[1].  It is in relation to God and other human persons that his potential can be fulfilled.  God created man in His love, and desires man to spend eternity with him.  God, in His providential love, provides for man and asks man to not worry and to trust: “for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matt 6,32).  Having been created in God’s image, in terms of his faculties of the soul, namely intellect and will, and his capacity to love, how alike God, the individual becomes, is really up to how the individual responds to the grace from God.  Given his fallen nature, man cannot will the good on his own, but he can sin freely on his own, and therefore move away from God.  To move towards God, and become freer, man requires God’s grace, but he can freely decide whether or not to cooperate with this grace. 

God has created the Universe for man, and man can arrive at knowledge of God through the use of his intellect, by encountering the effects of the Creator.    God has given man dominion over created things, but they must not become an end in themselves or they drive him away from the Creator.  His free will allows him to move closer to God, or he can choose another path, which can lead to man often exalting himself “as the absolute measure of all things or debasing himself to the point of despair.  The result is doubt and anxiety.”[2]  De Lubac outlines how God’s first gift to man, was the gift of being, the gift of existence, the gift of himself.[3]  Man is therefore a contingent being and totally dependent on God for his existence.  Before this first gift man did not exist.  There is a difference between man’s existence and his essence.  Man has also received another gift, a second gift, and this is the gift of “supernatural finality.”[4]  It is a totally free gift and is not bound to the first gift of being.  There is a difference then between man’s natural being and his supernatural finality, or between his creatureliness and his Divine Sonship, which he has inherited through the merits of Jesus Christ.  Bonaventure says creation is twofold: one in the being of nature, and the other in the being of grace.”[5]  We were firstly God’s servants and now we can be His sons.  De Lubac says that if “the first grace is contingent then the second grace is super-contingent.”[6]  There is a vast difference between nature and supernatural, a distance as great as between being and non-being.  Man cannot acquire this supernatural finality through his own powers, but must rely on the grace of God to achieve his end.  Man however must cooperate with this grace, which he has the faculty of a free will to choose or not.  Within man there is the desire for the divine goodness, a longing for the good, which is innate and not reliant on how man lives his life.  It is a longing that surges from the depths of man’s soul, “it is a longing born of a lack.”[7]  St Thomas says that “no rational creature can have a motion of the will ordered toward this beatitude, unless it is moved by a supernatural agent.”[8]  There is therefore the need of grace to desire the good, and consequently to become a saint, but not to exist.  The “spirit of man is one thing and the spirit of God another.”[9]   

St Irenaeus tells us that it is impossible for man to know God’s greatness but we can come to know His love.[10]  Man finds his happiness in God, not in created things, which although can give him some instant pleasure, leave him empty and dry.  In creating man, God desired that man would participate in the divine goodness, and therefore Gregory of Nyssa tells us, that man “had to be fashioned in such a way as to fit him to share in this goodness.”[11]  Man therefore required something in his nature which corresponded to the divine nature, and so man was endowed with reason, wisdom and the good things of God, so his desire could be directed towards God.  The search continues for God, and man often moves from creature to creature trying to satisfy this longing.  “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God”[12], and as St Augustine famously said “you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”[13]  St Thomas refers to God as the complete good, and says that “man cannot rest happy with created goods for he can only be happy with complete good.”[14]  God does not however force himself on man, He leaves man free to respond, but Augustine adds that the rational being “cannot be its own good, the source of its own happiness, but if its changeable state is turned to the unchangeable good, it finds happiness.”[15]  It is only in the final vision of God in Heaven, the vision of the divine essence, that man finds his happiness, the search and desire is over at that stage.  It is however, this desire to see God, which results in suffering, and this is the great pain of the damned.  “A good and just God would hardly frustrate me unless I turn away by choice.”[16]            

In man’s current state, and in the current state of the world, it is difficult to see the soul’s likeness to God, and it can be difficult to maintain hope.  Although “man’s life is fleeting, subject to passion, mortal, liable in soul and body to every kind of suffering,”[17] and although there is much moral and physical evil in the world, Christ came to help man, and has conquered sin and death.  Man, although split within himself, and “all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness”[18], the Church can respond and has the solution.  “Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”[19]  Christ is the perfect man, and he has restored the divine likeness destroyed by the sin of our first parents.  “The Christian man, conformed to the likeness of that Son, Who is the firstborn of many brothers, received “the first-fruits of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:23) by which he becomes capable of discharging the new law of love.”[20]  Through the Spirit the whole of man is renewed.  The supernatural gifts bestowed on man shine out in the darkness, and give people hope, as they encounter divine love.  The Church must portray “man’s true situation” and “his defects” must be explained, while at the same time “his dignity and destiny are justly acknowledged.”[21]  Man has indeed a great future, and has much reason to hope. 


[1]    Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 12   

[2]    Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 12   

[3]    Henri Cardinal De Lubac, S.J., The Mystery of the Supernatural, p.55   

[4]    IBID p. 58   

[5]    IBID p.59   

[6]    IBID p.59   

[7]    IBID p.64   

[8]    IBID p.68   

[9]    IBID p.69   

[10]  Irenaeus, “Adversus Haereses”, p. 489   

[11]  Gregory of Nyssa, “AN Address on Religious Instruction”, p. 278   

[12]  Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 27   

[13]  Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1   

[14]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II.2.8.   

[15]  Augustine, Epistle 140.23.56   

[16]  Henri Cardinal De Lubac, S.J., The Mystery of the Supernatural, p.54

[17]  Gregory of Nyssa, “AN Address on Religious Instruction”,  p.279   

[18]  Gaudium et Spes No. 13   

[19]  IBID No. 22  

[20]  IBID No. 22  

[21]  IBID. 12   

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