These opening remarks were delivered at the Portsmouth Institute’s 2017 Summer Conference, “Being Human: Christian Perspectives on the Human Person,” on June 9, 2017. Click here to learn more about the Summer Conference.
By Christopher Fisher | Writing in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II said that “the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature.” You could say that same thing about any number of movements in our contemporary culture, from transgender ideology and same-sex marriage to trans-humanism and physician-assisted suicide.
So if these movements represent anthropological errors, what is true anthropology? Put simply, what is a human being?
Man is, scientifically speaking, the only extant members of Hominina tribe, belonging to the genus Homo, and the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.
But that tells us relatively little about what a human being actually is. To go beyond his scientific classification, we understand that the human being is an animal uniquely created with the potential for rational thought; for creativity; for love; for imagination; for worship of the divine; for elevation to the ecstatic.
But humans are paradoxical; Blaise Pascal writing in the 17th century astutely articulates the Christian vision of man’s paradoxical nature: by virtue of his creation in the image of God, man is capable of greatness; but because of his fall, he has the potential for extreme wretchedness. We see every day and seemingly more and more how man is capable of great harm to himself and to his fellow man.
When I teach Pascal to my students they intuitively know this. Not only about the world around them, but about themselves. We each have a split identity: man as he ought to be, and man as he is.
It’s this Christian understanding of man that led John Paul II to argue in Centesimus Annus that “Christian anthropology therefore is really a chapter of theology.”
We were faced with this theological reality in a very practical way when we were designing promotional materials for this conference. I was deciding between two panels from Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling on the Sistine Chapel. The first I considered was The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The painting, if you haven’t seen it, depicts on the left side of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil Adam and Eve, reaching out to take the fruit from the Serpent. It’s a depiction of the very moment before the fall of humanity. Adam and Eve look majestic, leisurely, like they’re in paradise. And on the right side of the tree, we see Adam and Eve– now deformed and wretched– running from the Garden like shamed bandits caught in the act.
But we decided to go with another panel from the Sistine Chapel for our materials, one we are certainly all familiar with: the Creation of Adam. This is a more hopeful image of Christian anthropology. Man is created by God. What is most human about him is in fact not human at all, but superhuman; that the divine Himself reached out and created mankind in his image, and as Genesis says, “it was good.”
We humans are capable of, even prone to wretchedness, this is true. And we designed the apple in the conference promotional materials to remind us of that fact. But as Sister Bethany Madonna will demonstrate to us, the human person is capable of immense greatness, because no creature other than man is created in the image of God. And to achieve our greatness, we must each take up the Church’s call for saintliness.
If Christianity is true, which we here believe it is, then any conversation about politics, economics, art, theology, philosophy, bioethics, technology, and so forth, must take into account the Christian understanding of man. That is the task of our conference this weekend.