The Human Person: An Introduction to Christian Anthropology

by Msgr Peter Elliott

The term ‘anthropology’ usually refers to the scientific study of persons, their behaviour, customs and lifestyles in various societies and cultures. However, in philosophy and theology ‘anthropology’ has a deeper meaning …

The term ‘anthropology’ usually refers to the scientific study of persons, their
behaviour, customs and lifestyles in various societies and cultures. However, in
philosophy and theology ‘anthropology’ has a deeper meaning – an understanding
of the nature of the human person.

The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes 12, goes back to the scriptural source of Revelation for a Christian understanding of the nature of the human person. This is expressed in Hebrew thought forms, in the Genesis creation accounts. In the first account, the human person was created “in the image and likeness” of God as male or female (Genesis 1: 27). In the second account, the male is created from the dust of the earth when God breathed the divine life into him (Genesis 2:7). In the second account, the human being as person is not complete until both male and female exist (Genesis 2: 20-25). Placed in an earthly paradise, the first persons are free to make choices and even to fail, as they did, but they remain images of the living God.

The coming of Jesus Christ provides the fuller revelation of the meaning of persons as images of the Creator. The Second Vatican Council taught that Jesus Christ reveals our human nature to us as the “New Man” (Gaudium et Spes, 22) By becoming one of us, God reveals our unique dignity in the order of creation. Human nature is the only appropriate subject for union with divine nature, in the Person of Christ. Each of us is an appropriate subject to be united to God through grace. Our ‘imaging’ of God is expressed above all in our capacity for self-giving love, divine love. Human nature cannot be understood fully without reference to God ? a basic principle of Christian humanism.

God created the human person as the only being existing for its own sake. The Christian understanding of the dignity of human nature thus proposes that we are the crown of the material creation. It is even possible that the whole universe was created for us. Other descriptions of human nature that make no reference to God reduce humanity to a component in the universe, an animal subject to the forces of the universe.

However, when asked what is the real difference between a Christian anthropology and an atheist or agnostic understanding of the person, a Christian would probably point to belief in the soul. Returning to the Genesis principle of the person created in the image of God, we see this ‘imaging’ above all in the divine life, the ruah, or breath God breathed into the man, Adam (Genesis 2: 7). This is the basic scriptural understanding of ‘soul’. Only the human being has received the divine breath.

The soul helps us to respond to the basic question: ‘What am I’? The soul is the immortal spirit united to or ‘in’ each living human body. But we cannot say simply, ‘I am a soul’. It is more accurate to say, ‘I am an embodied soul’, or ‘I am an “ensouled” body?. The essential unity of body and soul constitutes the person in this world of matter, time and space (Gaudium et Spes, 14). The technical term for this body-soul unity, where the soul is the controlling dynamism animating the body, is hylomorphism.

Classical Greek philosophy, and later philosophies, influenced by Rene Descartes (1596-1660), made a sharp distinction between soul and body, to the point of separating the body from the soul. The body was regarded as a machine animated by a soul. A person was ‘a ghost in a machine’. This led to the soul or spirit being easily identified with the mind, which was held to be much more important than its material frame. Descartes? principle of personhood was thus expressed as: ‘I think therefore I am’.

A more realistic view, the perennial philosophy maintained by St Thomas Aquinas (c1225-1274), would reverse this: ‘I am, therefore I think.’ Being precedes action. Essence precedes existence. This better maintains the hylomorphic principle of the unity of body and soul ? and the importance of the body, which is the Hebrew perspective in the Scriptures.

Yet the human mind opens doors to the soul. We can begin by discerning our rational functions. The intellect and will make us radically different to animals, who follow instinct. We possess a unique capacity to reflect. Reflection indicates not only higher intelligence, but the abiding reality of the soul. I can think about my thoughts. I can be aware of myself as a person. I can be aware of other persons. In my intellect can evaluate my decisions. I can regret past actions and determine new courses of action. A higher animal can learn to evaluate past actions, avoiding situations etc. but only through trial and error and a limited memory. Yet even the highest primates have no capacity to reflect on themselves ? or to do what this essay attempts, to reflect on personhood. The ape is not a philosopher.

Another door into the soul is our capacity to appreciate abstract realities. Our intellect recognizes that truth, goodness and beauty are of great value. True or false, right or wrong, good or bad, are categories of concern to most people (Gaudium et Spes, 15). Our innate seeking after truth perhaps takes its highest form in the moral quest, when we seek ‘the good’, and wish to avoid evil, or at least when we know that we should be making moral choices. This moral sense or capacity is natural to being a person, hence described as the Natural Law. Human persons are moral beings. To be a person is not only to be interested in moral questions, but to be able to make moral decisions. The capacity to choose is free will. (Gaudium et Spes, 17) The capacity to evaluate and make moral judgements that guide these choices is the human conscience. (Gaudium et Spes 16)

Yet the human conscience is not fool proof. Every person carries within himself or herself an inherited weakness, described by the Second Vatican Council as an inner-division, the effects of original sin (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 13). We are imperfect, with a tendency to do what is wrong. This means that we are involved in a constant moral struggle. With St Paul we can say that while we know the good we should do, we often choose what we know we ought not to do (cf. Romans 7: 14-25). Christian anthropology remains incomplete until it includes this reality of sin and guilt in our lives. The human person should never be idealised, less so when we still live in the shadow of events that cut the last century in two: genocide, wars, tyrannies, revolutions, slaughter unprecedented in all history.

Nevertheless, the Catholic understanding of the human person remains optimistic. Contrary to what some journalists claim, Catholics do not hold to a pessimistic doctrine of human nature. We do not believe in the ‘total depravity’ or innate corruption of the person, linked to a doctrine of human helplessness or the ‘bondage of the will’. This is the belief of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Bishop Cornelius Jansen, fundamentalist Christians and some pessimistic modern philosophers. Catholics believe that free will has not been destroyed and corrupted by original sin. A human being still has the capacity to live as the image of the loving Creator. The inherited effects of original sin have certainly weakened human nature and we all need divine grace, but we still retain innate dignity, moral worth and freedom to choose.

The massive, indeed decisive, contribution of Catholic culture to the world of art, music, architecture etc., also reveals a positive understanding the human person. The so-called Renaissance was essentially a celebration of Christian humanism, based on several centuries of late ‘medieval’ development. Reflecting on this patrimony should encourage us to see aesthetics as another way into appreciating our unique nature as ‘ensouled’ bodies.

The quest for beauty, or striving to make something beautiful, is far more than a pleasure-pain reflex. I may like a certain food because the taste gives me pleasure. I like some music because it makes me relax. I take pride in what I make with my own hands. But there is also something higher at work here, a capacity to seek the Beautiful, a tendency or desire to reach out to the divine, whether in art, literature or music or by appreciating the natural beauty of the created world and universe around us.

The human being’s quest for order, design or symmetry, whether in building a house or planning a garden, also goes far beyond the instinctive repetition of design seen in some insects (such as bees) or animals. We have a sense of participating in a greater Design. We sense a partnership with the ultimate Planner, that we share in the work of creation. This was the mandate given to us in the second Genesis creation account. This reaches a particularly high point when humans understand that their capacity to transmit human life through child bearing is procreation not ?reproduction?, the mandate given in the first Genesis creation account (Genesis 1:28). Our imaging of God is to be responsible co-creators on this planet.

A further way of discerning the reality of the soul is recognising our abiding identity as persons. We may term this our ‘personality’, but that word usually refers to characteristics that distinguish us from other people. ‘She is vivacious’He is morose’? Beneath this ‘personality’, is something more stable, less variable than acquired characteristics, foibles or charms. I have the same identity that I had when I was a child, a young person, etc. ‘I’ am always ‘here’, no matter what changes occur in limbs and organs, especially the brain. A deranged or senile person is ‘not herself’. I am also aware of myself as a thinking and acting person interacting with others. A complex but rich insight into the nature of the person as a free creative agent may be found in the book The Acting Person, by Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father’s Christian humanism is explained clearly in George Weigel, Witness to Hope, The Biography of John Paul II.

Reflecting on ourselves, should in no way diminish our regard for the human body. The living body is valued, reverenced and respected in the Catholic tradition. The soul and body is a person. Moral principles emerge from this understanding of ourselves as living bodies. What I do with my body cannot be separated from my mind or my soul. Good intentions do not justify wrong actions. Nor is my bodily life meant to be abused by taking unnecessary risks, by endangering my health through excessive eating, alcohol or drugs, or by the misuse of the gift of sexuality. At the opposite extreme, the body is not meant to be abused by excessive fasting and ascetical practices.

Pope John Paul II has further developed the ultimate meaning of the body-soul unity by way of a distinctive theology of the body. The human body bears within it a nuptial meaning. Derived from a Latin term for ‘marriage’, the term nuptial suggests that each person is made for love, for self-giving love. This is the basis of an ethic of self-gift. I am truly moral when I give myself to others in a selfless relationship. This theology of the body has particular value in reshaping our understanding of marriage, sexuality, vocation, service of others (see excerpts from the Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, provided in the next chapter). This capacity for self-giving love is distinctively human. It is the way we ‘image’ the self-giving Creator God, for each us is, by divine creation, a gift.

Even my ‘dead body’ will treated with care and respect in the rites of Christian funerals, for it is the ‘mortal remains’ of the body as a living temple of the Holy Spirit. Through that body, I was united to God in the bodily signs and actions of sacraments. Once again our reverence for the body goes back not only to Hebrew thought, but to the Incarnation. My body matters because God took my human flesh in the Person of Jesus, and lived and died and rose again in that frail human flesh. The Incarnation also endows the human body with greater dignity.

From this flows that profound reverence for human life and the ‘right to life’ that is a major principle of Catholic ethics, evidenced in Church teaching and practice on issues such as abortion and euthanasia. No human being can play God with innocent human life. Deliberately to terminate the life of innocent persons is an act of murder. This ethic of life is developed in the encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, meaning ‘the Gospel of Life’.

These ethical issues raise questions about the person in the Third Millennium. In a post-Communist world, the struggle of contending powers or ideologies is changing rapidly. Always at issue is the basic meaning of the value and nature of the human person. The Marxist vision of ‘economic man’ has collapsed, or been transformed into another false anthropology – the person as a consumer in a globalized free market. But could this thrust the human person back into the bondage of the totalitarian ideologies of the last century? The old ideologies reduced the person to a unit in a greater racial reality (Nazism) or in the almighty party-state (Communism). Now a selfish individualism emerges, an individualism that tramples on the rights of others and exults in the survival of the fittest and richest. This secularist individualism would reshape the person through genetic engineering and killing the weak and unfit. It finds no place for God and cannot comprehend religion.

In the face of this challenge, the Catholic understanding of the human person is not individualistic, rather, the person is seen as essentially a social being, created to live with and for others, created for self-giving love. The Gospel of Christ, the virtues, beatitudes and commandments, shape persons who are called to find true fulfilment in self-giving love, in the service of others, first in the family and then in the wider society. In community, Christians are always called to respect the common good.

At the same time, Catholic insistence on the immortal nature and destiny of each human person includes a struggle for his or her rights and duties in society, for justice. This struggle for the ‘truth of the person’ sets the Church on a collision course with the aggressive individualism that dominates much modern culture, expressed in ideologies based on self-liberation or the absolute right to do as one wishes. There is no point in concealing this conflict from students in our schools. They need to be prepared for it, and invited to choose where they will eventually stand in a struggle that has eternal consequences.

The final dimension of human personhood may be termed ‘ultimate self-transcendence’. We live towards death. This is the mystery we confront (Gaudium et Spes, 18) But what happens to a person after the body decays in death? The Christian hope of eternal life rests not only on our belief in the immortality of the soul but on the bodily Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Resurrection also reveals that persons are only complete as living bodies. The risen Lord Jesus shows us what we will be like when all time ends, when this material universe reaches its fulfilment. The human person is destined to be raised up, to enjoy an embodied eternal existence in union with God. We do not lose our personhood through death, rather we enter that dimension where we shall enjoy God for ever in mutual self-giving love.

Yet there is no inevitability here. Our personhood is still respected in terms of our capacity to choose and decide our destiny. We are not forced towards glory. What we do and say in this life matters greatly. Our choices here and now shape our way beyond death, whether towards an eternal embodied life with God or towards a complete separation from God.

Faced with this call to eternal life, we should yearn for the divine, aware that this world is not where we finally belong. Yet for now we remain part of it, and our moral struggle continues amidst the hopes and sufferings of daily existence. Therefore the human person remains the mystery and paradox. Each of us is made of the dust of stars, yet alive with the ‘bright promise of immortality’.