When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Mankind is Homo Religiosus. He is the Religious Man, the naturally worshipping being. It takes no more than a cursory glance at history to realize that there is nothing more at home within human society than religion. But why is this? The answer is quite simple: as mankind has the gift of sight and an appetite for food, it likewise has an inclination for its origin. It is readily found within cultural histories; it leaves its print upon all facets of literature. Even the ancient Greeks recorded in their legends:
Prometheus took some of this earth, and kneading it up with water, made man in the image of the gods. He gave him an upright stature, so that while all other animals turn their faces downward, and look to the earth, he raises his to heaven, and gazes on the stars.
Such myths fortify the belief that there is something within the nature of mankind that testifies to Divinity. Stranger still, is that Man is somehow aware of the foreign nature he bears. Even the Pagans recognized that the manner of our creations has left us drawn upward. “Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;” writes the father of Italian poetry, “Ye were not made to live like unto brutes, But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.” Humans are the star gazers. There is a restlessness about the human disposition that seems to be due to its nature as creature.
The created Man is much like Hans Christian Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling.” The poor bird could not find any of his likeness among his surroundings and therefore, feeling out of place, he set out to find his kin – the ones in whose image he was born. In our case: until he finds God. This Godward instinct is called the Semen Religionis (Seed of Religion), Sensus Divinitatis (Sense of the Divine), and Sensus Deitatis (Sense of God) depending on the thinker in question. This instinct was well known to St. Augustine. It is this ancient Doctor who wrote that the hearts of Men are “restless” precisely because they were made for God, and therefore find no rest until they are content in Him. St. Paul, in a similar manner, wrote that Man’s body was formed for God just as the stomach was formed for food. (1 Corinthians 6:13) Because of the very composition of the human organism, both “body and rational soul,” he is inclined towards the Divine. “Eternity is written upon the hearts of men” as the Preacher put it (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Truly, “there is a capacity in Man’s soul,” or so writes the “Reverend and Learned” Benjamin Whichcote, “larger than can be answered by an thing of his own, or of any fellow-creature.” It is not surprising then that one can see striving for unification with Deity as a common theme throughout man’s anthropology. This journey back to the source as it were, is a significant validation of the Church’s claims. Christian “Religion” after all, to cite the authority of Bishop Butler, “does not demand new affections, but only claims the direction of those you already have, those affections you daily feel.” Christianity is profoundly human. According to the apologetics of Fr. Henri Bouillard, S.J. – an associate of Henri de Lubac and a proponent of the nouvelle théologie – there is a relationship between Man and the Absolute, and when this relationship is considered, Christianity will prove to be the “historical definition” of that relationship.
The Greco-Roman pantheon is all too familiar among the West. Stories of Roman gods and Greek heroes are inescapable. The very solar system is populated by names given in honor of these deities; the constellations still teach their myths – of Taurus chasing the fair Europa and Orion the mighty hunter stalking his prey – they have become immortalized within a culture that does not belong to them. It would be wrong to say that their popularity is due to the profundity of their stories alone. Homer’s Iliad is a riveting tale, but so is the epic of Gilgamesh or Beowulf. No, there is something else that draws Men to the Greek ethos. Edith Hamilton puts it best:
The Greeks made their gods in their own image… He [Man] was the fulfillment of their search for beauty… Human gods naturally made heaven a pleasantly familiar place… That is the miracle of Greek mythology—a humanized world, men freed from the paralyzing fear of an omnipotent Unknown.
Herein lies their desirability: human deities. A pantheon full of excellent beings who are conveniently like yourself. A god who can see, but is not always seeing. A god who has fear and anxieties, sexual impulses, who hungers, and sleeps. A god whose justice is not absolute but can be reasoned with, amended, or – if all else fails – bribed or swayed by appealing to a yet greater god. People still remember these gods because they know these gods: they are ourselves. The Greek genius constructed gods who could be known; that could be apprehended. And here we see with clarity the same longing within the Greek heart that exists within every son of Adam: to be unified with his god. This is exactly what is accomplished within the Hellenistic scheme. Here there is just such a union; a merging of the natures; a closing of the divide between heaven and earth! God is no longer foreign, but one of us! He is Zeus and Poseidon. He is Hera and Aphrodite. He is me. We know His names and forms, His appetites, and His sins. Finally, once more Man has journeyed back into Eden and cohabitated with his origin. Oh, happy day!
So why not simply stop here with the Greeks and drink wine with Dionysus and let that be the end of it? Sadly for the Greeks, religion must progress. If God is “that which nothing greater can be thought,” then the Greeks thought of nothing greater than themselves. Like Narcissus, they were cursed with a love for their own features. Beautiful though they may have been, it was this endless reflection on their own form that kept them from truly beholding the heavens; their origin. While men have a disposition to look up, Narcissistic Greeks found themselves looking down on a stilled pool, finding a shadow of their own image and calling it ‘god!’ The Greeks accomplished this union of Humanity with Divinity at the expense of true divinity. This was precisely the complaint of Plato. There is a deficiency then, in this merger, and therefore it is not a true union. The natures are impaired, and the experiment fails. The same assurance offered by the idol is its downfall. The pagan can be certain he will find the gods of Olympus on their mountain only because he placed them there to begin with. What they have found is no god, but themselves. Once more, Man is alone in the universe and the longing persists.
Moving forward, there is another extreme which exists prevalently at a more recent date. Some 2,500 years after Homer, Nietzsche proposed his own theories concerning Man’s nature. The Mad German taught that Man was something to surpass. That one must transcend himself as humanity has already transcended the ape and other creatures, and thereby issue in the reign of the Supermen. Turning his longing gaze away from the stars, Man must not look to a God that keeps him as he is, but rather look to the earth and make himself into what he is not yet:
I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive.
I love him who liveth in order to know, and seeketh to know in order that the Superman may hereafter live. Thus seeketh he his own down-going.
I love him who laboureth and inventeth, that he may build the house for the Superman, and prepare for him earth, animal, and plant: for thus seeketh he his own down-going.
The common Man can and must evolve into a greatness he has yet to know. It was this Übermensch, this Superman, who was the desired end of humanity; the truly developed being. This superior being does not find discontentment on earth as there is no dissatisfaction driving him “beyond the stars.” He is his own creator. He is the author of virtue and the designator of value! He is valiant! This Superman is greater than Man. He is above him, and Man must sacrifice himself in order to usher in his reign. He puts to death the Natural Law that binds him, that defines him. He, finally, is free. The strength, power, and sovereignty of the Divine are now in the possession of Mankind; the true self-creating and self-subsisting ones. Nietzsche’s Man has not only killed God but has robbed Him.
Yet, even this anti-theistic philosophy testifies to the same longing of the human heart. Nietzsche’s Man slew God that Humanity might take His place, and in doing so, he found himself participating in the same age-old experiment he detested: deifying Man. In one sense, Nietzsche has created the direct opposite of the Greeks. Whereas they humanized the gods, he made man into a god. In another sense, he has simply told the same story again, only this time humans are the Titans who have sprung from the primordial earth. Still, he accomplishes a kind of union between the Divine and the Human. The Greeks brought their creator down, Nietzsche brought Man up. The longing of the human heart is thus satisfied. Finally, the Man may rest from his pilgrimage to heaven, finding that it was on earth all along. Or is it? Mr. G.K. Chesterton points out:
If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles;” I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular.
Chesterton’s charming humor aptly describes the situation at hand: A thing is not loved for being something it is not. If it were to become that thing it is not, it would cease to be what it is! Chesterton points out that “will-worshippers” like Nietzsche want very badly for mankind to want something – to strive for something – without realizing that it already wants something: “It wants ordinary morality… We have willed the law against which he rebels.” To sacrifice this – as Nietzsche and others have demanded – is to cease to be human altogether. The Superman is really the Contraman.
The Mad German may have replaced God with self, and by doing so ingeniously achieved a kind of union between the two natures, but this time at the expense of true humanity. Man ceases to be what he is at the behest of Nietzsche, therefore Man is lost; once more the endeavor is fruitless. The Nietzschian may be content that he has satisfactorily met every one of Man’s Godward desires only when he has written off Godward desires altogether.
There is only one philosophy which has seamlessly brought together the two opposing factions without dilution – and it has done so in a Person – that both parties might have an advocate to the other in the one. This Person, of course, being the man Jesus Christ; this philosophy being His own, that is: Christianity. Whereas some made the gods likened to men, and another made man like God, in Christ the Divine and Human natures find unity without loss. Only in Him can there be a complete self-giving between the two. The Creed attributed to St. Athanasius gives a fitting, if not tediously precise, description of this radical difference:
For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood. Who, although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ;
For the Christian, there is no change in either substance. That which Christ possesses in the unity with His Father is very God, and that which He assumed from His blessed Mother is very Man. And yet there is no addition nor any subtraction made in either Nature. His Humanity is not swallowed up in His Divinity, nor does His Divinity cease to be what it is. No, the two exist as they ought: in complete harmony. And in doing so, the longing of the human intuition is truly satisfied.
The ancients and the modern theories were not completely wrong, though. They inched their way around the truth as a blind man follows the guidance of a wall. He may come close to the mark, but not quite. This Christian philosophy has something of Nietzsche’s Superman, and something of Zeus. Christ did indeed come down to Man that He might be one of them, and He did indeed elevate Himself that He might deify His progeny. Again, to paraphrase Fr. Henri Bouillard, there is an anticipated relationship between humanity and divinity that can be seen universally. Once that relationship is grasped, it will be evident that Christianity is the definition of human religion. Human experience points to one truth: the anthropos Jesus Christ.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus!
- Sometimes called homo adorans, the Adoring Man. ↑
- Thomas Bulfinch, Greek and Roman Mythology, 10. ↑
- Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, Canto XXVI. ↑
- St. Augustine, Confessions, Book I. ↑
- See the Athanasian Creed ↑
- Samuel Salter, Moral and Religious Aphorisms Collected from the Manuscript Papers of the Reverend and Learned Doctor Whichcote, 847 ↑
- “The olive-wreath, the ivied wand, ‘The sword in myrtles drest,’ Each legend of the shadowy strand Now wakes a vision blest; As little children lisp, and tell of Heaven, So thoughts beyond their thought to those high Bards were given.”–John Keble, The Christian Year, Third Sunday in Lent. ↑
- J. T. Champlin, Bishop Butler’s ethical discourses and essay on virtue, 184 ↑
- Fr. Henri Bouillard, The Logic of the Faith, 25. ↑
- Edith Hamilton, Mythology, IX. ↑
- St. Anselm, Proslogion ↑
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, 18. ↑
- Over-Man, Hyper-Man, and Beyond-Man are also acceptable translations. ↑
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 22. ↑
- The Athanasian Creed, BCP 771 ↑