What Is Man?

Job 13:13-28; 14:1-6
Hebrews 2:5-18

J.K. Galbraith, that great post Keynsian economist of the American 'left' (if there really is such a thing) said that the pronouncements of dictators echo philosophers of a previous age who would be appalled at how their initial, often highly speculative - or at any rate, well tempered - observations have been grotesquely distorted. The example that comes most readily to mind is the distortion by Hitler of Darwin's theory of evolution which led, in turn to Stalin's flat denial of Darwin in favour of Lamarck; and we might also think of the way in which ideal, if naive, theories of social justice have been manipulated to support Communist dictators such as Stalin.

But texts of political theory have not been the only area of manipulation. In our own day we can see that: Biblical Judaism has developed a Zionist, territorial imperative; Islam has distorted the Koran to justify the exercise of male power over women; and in our own religion, we have developed a theology of anthropophobia which often verges on the Gnostic heresy of dualism.

It is in that context that I want to look at the searing cry which runs throughout the book of Job: "What is man", or, to use contemporary parlance, what is humanity?

I want to start with a statement that is so obvious but which is almost entirely overlooked by many churches of the Christian tradition: namely, God is love. If we accept that we are creatures of the Creator, made by God out of love, for God's own 'purposes', then the idea that we were created to be damned seems somewhat inconsistent with God's 'purposes'. Why would a God of love, who is 'self sufficient', want to make anything so terrible that it should require an edict of divine destruction?

Secondly, it follows from this that whatever our fundamental nature, it must be good; it must be capable of fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. Why would God create us for a purpose we are incapable of realising? What kind of perverse creator would make us to fail? What kind of 'satisfaction' would there be in that?

Thirdly, and this takes us to the heart of the matter, if we are creatures of the Creator, created in love, why would we be marked to fail, as 'fallen' in the language of Eden or as automatic bearers of 'original sin'? Why would God, to take it at its simplest level, assign intrinsic sin to a child just born? What kind of God is it that would condemn such a child to eternal damnation because it died before it was baptised? Or why would most of us be condemned to eternal damnation because God, in some grotesque game of chance, 'decided' that only a certain 'Elect', regardless of how we respond to his self-communication, will be enfolded back into perfect love, while the rest of us will be eternally damned? And then there is the wider question of the fate of non Christians.

These may seem to be somewhat esoteric questions in an age of rampant secularism[*] but they are relevant precisely because it was this theology of damnation and helplessness which is primarily responsible for the birth of a secularism which at least started out more high minded and generous than the doctrines to which it reacted, although of course, that high-mindedness itself gave way to human weakness.

So, having berated the theology of intrinsic evil, I need to help us to understand the difference between this and the phenomenon of human weakness.

This takes us back to the kind of distant voice that Galbraith was talking about, because the Christian tradition of fallen-ness can be traced back through Saint Augustine to Plato. Plato believed that earthly objects, including people, were imperfect representations of what he called the perfect "Archetype"; nothing earthly was perfect. This idea was picked up by Saint Augustine who combined it with his own Biblical insight which saw us all as descendants of sinful Adam, transmitting that "original" sin through the procreative process which, in any case, profoundly disgusted him. This perception was then further refined by some Reformation teachers who separated our earthly behaviour from our prospects of salvation. They did not simply adopt ST. Paul's classic position that we can only do good with God's Grace but, rather, took this idea further by saying that God's Grace acts on us in a way that does not use us as divine agents for doing good. There is no sense in this Reformist paradigm of Theresa of Avila's idea that "God has no body now but yours."

to understand the difference between this kind of fatal flaw and an inherent weakness, we might want to think of the first position as a piece of crystal that has a fault in it. We are all made by God as beautiful pieces of crystal but each of us has an irremediable fault; such a fault that God can only correct it by his own action, once we are dead; and we cannot make any link between leading a holy life and having this intrinsic fault corrected in us. And so, most of us will be smashed when we die but a few of us will be fixed.

Inherent weakness, on the other hand, starts from a different perspective. We are all created by God to create, to contribute, to behave as social animals. God gives us different palates of colours, different brushes, different gifts, and we take these and paint a picture of ourselves. Sometimes what we paint is individual but most of the time we are working on canvasses with other people: with family, the village, and wider society. We are creatures given tools and gifts which we may choose to use in different ways. The whole purpose of creation is that we may choose to love God; but our inherent weakness is that we forget that the tools, the paint, and our facility to use them, are God's gifts to his creatures. We think that we can please ourselves; and we often proceed to believe, in a strange correlation with the ultra Reformist position, that whatever we do with these gifts and materials we are somehow immune from our relationship with God.

The central point about Job is that he knows this. His witness to God has been active rather than theoretical, and when he loses everything, as the result of God's allowing the Devil to test him, he goes on refusing to accept the proposals of his three supposed friends, and the impetuous Elihu, that moral theories are over-arching. He believes that what counts is his individual action and his personal dealings with a personal God. again, reverting to our history of theology, in a strange distortion of the Reformation, the moralists came to set rigid standards of behaviour while, in theory at least, leaving Biblical interpretation to individuals. This is why the Christian West went through a rapid period of change from 1500 to 1800 which transformed it from a Biblical into a moralist church which, in turn, in another ironic twist, made it possible for humanism to emerge as a philosophy which was strictly moralistic but without the need for any form of belief in the divine.

Ultimately, then, the phenomenon which has severely weakened Christianity the most is its departure from its core mission of bringing the good news to all mankind, personified in the Incarnation of Jesus, that we were made to enjoy a personal relationship with our Creator; instead we have become obsessed with and, by the secular world, quite properly associated with, the crude exercise of moralistic power.

So the simple answer to the question, "What is man?" is that man is not man's creature but God's creature. In a final twist of theological process, the Reformers were correct about the importance of the direct link between us and our God but they became distracted by the power of imposing moral order and respectability. God became bourgeois, tamed, an abstract principle; and then, nothing.

"What is man?" asks Job; and God answers: "He is mine."


Can. Father, Bless us
And all we do

  1. Heavenly Father, source of love and light: illumine our lives with your love so that we may see you in all the world.
  2. Heavenly Father, source of power and life: enrich us with vision and creative zeal so that we may work together in your grace.
  3. Heavenly Father, source of art and science, give us the courage to be vulnerable and generous in our self expression.
  4. Heavenly Father, source of Incarnation and Resurrection: give us the courage to take risks under your divine protection.
  5. Heavenly Father, source of the Spirit within us and the church among us: give us the love to celebrate you in Word and Sacrament.
  6. Heavenly Father, source of prophesy and virtue: give us the courage to follow in the footsteps of your prophets, martyrs and saint.
  7. Heavenly Father, source of tenderness and compassion: give us the gentleness to imitate the life and witness of Our Lady.
  8. Heavenly Father, source of solidarity and sacrifice: give us the generosity to behave to each other as your children.

[*] The broad outline of this argument is taken from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, Harvard, 2007.