[characteristics] of the human animal, each expressing part of the truth, will help us in our enquiry.
1) The ability to laugh and weep.
The human animal is an animal that laughs and weeps. Essential to our humanity is a sense of humor, and also a sense of tragedy. If so, we may well weep over what we are doing to the other animals and to the earth which feeds both them and us!
2) The ability to reason.
The human animal, according to the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus (+207 B.C.), is a logical or rational animal, logikon zôon,1 an animal endowed with self-awareness, an animal that speaks and thinks in an articulate and sequential manner. This is certainly a significant element in the truth about our humanness, but it is far from being the whole truth. I am more than my reasoning brain, very much more. Indeed, the narrow concentration upon rational self-awareness that has dominated the Western philosophical tradition from Descartes onwards—Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”—is one of the factors that has directly contributed to the present ecological crisis.
3) The ability to relate.
The human animal, states Aristotle (+322 B.C.), is a political animal, politikon zoon.2 This comes closer to the heart of the matter, provided that the word “political” is understood—as it is by Aristotle himself—in its original and wider sense: the human animal, that is to say, is by nature communal, created for interpersonal relationship, and so uniquely suited to live in a polis, in a city, in an ordered and organized society.
Made as we are in the image of the Trinity—in the image of a God who is reciprocal love—we express our humanness through mutual coinherence, “dying in each other’s life, living each other’s death,” to quote Charles Williams.3 The basic principle of the city, as Williams reminds us, is “the doctrine that no man lives to himself or indeed from himself’; its life is “unexclusive” and its proper and typical features are “substitution” and “the exchange of pardon.”4 “What is the characteristic of any City? Exchange between citizens.”5
How disastrously has the symbolism of the city altered in the past half-century! What in so much European literature is an image of protection, reassurance, and glory—”I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. … the city is pure gold, clear as glass” (Rev. 21:2, 18)—has now become an image of selfishness, danger, and corruption. One of the gravest aspects of the present degradation of the environment is precisely urban pollution, in all its varying forms. Yet at the same time we are conscious as never before of our interdependence as “political” animals. The slogan “One world or none” is not the less true for having become a commonplace.
4) The ability to look upward.
To speak of the human animal as political is to emphasize the horizontal dimension: our relationship, that is to say, as humans with the other members of our own kind. But, complementing the horizontal dimension, there is also the vertical axis: our relationship with God. It is this fourth characteristic of human personhood to which Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (+c.390) draws attention when he describes the human being not as politikon zôon but as zóon theoumenon, “an animal that is being deified.”6 Made in God’s image, as humans we are capable of sharing in the divine life, of becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
In the Orthodox Christian understanding of human personhood, the line of demarcation between creature and Creator is never abolished; yet, as humans fashioned in the divine image, as living icons of the transcendent God, we have the possibility of becoming like God, of attaining theôsis, “deification” or “divinization.” In this context Christ quotes the words of Psalm 81 :6: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?. . . Those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’; and the scripture cannot be annulled” (John 10:34, 35).
As “an animal that is being deified,” then, our human vocation is self-transcendence and unification. We are called by God’s grace to reach out beyond space into infinity, beyond time into eternity. It is our task to mediate between the created world and the Uncreated. As icons of God, we have the capacity to unite earth and heaven, and thus “to make of the earth something heavenly,” in the words of the Hasidic teacher Rabbi Hanokh.7
This unifying role is exactly illustrated in the etymology of the words for the human person in Greek and Latin. The Greek word anthrôpos is connected with the verb anarthrein, meaning “to look up”; unlike most of the other animals, humans stand upright, with their eyes towards heaven and their gaze directed towards the stars. In Latin, on the other hand, the words homo and humanus are linked to the noun humus, “earth.”8 Such, then, is the human being: an animal that looks up to heaven, an animal endowed with a conscience, with a sense of the numinous, an animal capable of mystical union with the Divine; but at the same time an animal with its feet set firmly on the ground, an animal with a physical body, an animal that eats and drinks, that expresses interpersonal love through sexual union in “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5).
Heavenly yet earthly, spiritual yet material, we human persons are each a microcosm; and, as microcosm, it is our high privilege to act as mediator. Our human task, as Saint John Chrysostom (+407) expresses it, is to be syndesmos and gephyra, the “bond” and “bridge” of God’s creation.9 Uniting earth and heaven, making earth heavenly and heaven earthly, we reveal the spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things, and we disclose and render manifest the divine presence at the heart of all creation. Such was the task assigned to the First Adam in Paradise, and such—after the Fall of the First Adam—is the task eventually fulfilled by the Second Adam, Christ, through His Incarnation, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
5) The ability to give thanks.
How precisely do we human animals exercise this unifying and mediatorial role? The answer is: through thankfulness, doxology, Eucharist, offering. This brings us to a fifth characteristic of the human animal: it is a eucharistic animal, an animal capable of gratitude, endowed with the power to bless God for the creation, an animal that can offer the world back to the Creator in thanksgiving.
Father Alexander Schmemann (1921— 1983) illustrates this aspect of human personhood by referring to the opening part of the evening service of Vespers. In the Orthodox Christian understanding of time, as in that of Judaism, the new day begins, not at midnight or at dawn, but at sunset. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:5): the evening comes before the morning. By the same token, the Church year in Orthodox Christianity begins, not in midwinter on January 1, nor in spring on March 25, but at the start of autumn on September 1; once more, there is a parallel with Judaism. Thus Vespers is not an epilogue or conclusion, but it is the first act of prayer in the new day.
How, then, do we commence our daily cycle of prayer? Vespers starts with the reading or singing of Psalm 103 , which is a hymn of cosmic praise:
Bless the Lord, 0 my soul. Blessed art Thou, O God.
O Lord, my God, Thou art exceeding glorious:
Thou art clothed with majesty and honor.
O Lord, how manifold are Thy works: in wisdom hast Thou made them all.
The earth is full of Thy riches: so is the great and wide sea also…
I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live:
I will praise my God while I have my being.
In this way, writes Father Alexander, the daily vesperal service “begins at the beginning”:
It begins at the beginning, and this means in the “rediscovery,” in adoration and thanksgiving, of the world as God’s creation. The Church takes us, as it were, to that first evening on which man, called by God to life, opened his eyes and saw what God in His love was giving to him, saw all the beauty, all the glory of the temple in which he was standing, and rendered thanks to God. And in this thanksgiving he became himself. .. . If the Church is in Christ, its initial act is always this act of thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.’ 10
Here, then, is a fifth aspect of our human personhood. In thanksgiving we become ourselves. Without gratitude we are not human but subhuman, or rather antihuman. Only in the attitude of offering and blessing do we attain authentic personhood.
Using this fivefold delineation of the human animal, we can now attempt to specify our responsibility as humans towards the world around us. Our human vocation, briefly expressed, is to be priest of the creation. As logical animals, possessing self-awareness and free choice— and at the same time as eucharistic animals who are being deified—it is our supreme privilege, consciously and gratefully, to offer the created world back to God the Creator. This distinctively human function is precisely indicated just before the Epiclesis or Invocation of the Holy Spirit in the Divine Liturgy, when the celebrant elevates the gifts of bread and wine, saying: “Thine own from Thine own we offer to Thee, in all things and for all things.”
Priest and Offerer
“Priest of the creation” and “offerer”: what do these two terms signify?
First, we say in the Liturgy, “Thine own from Thine own.” That which we offer to God is nothing else than what He Himself has given to us. Unless God had first conferred the world upon us as a free gift, we could make no offering at all. The offering is His rather than ours; without Him our hands would be empty. Indeed, in the Divine Liturgy it is Christ Himself who is the true Offerer, the unique High Priest; we, the ordained ministers and the people present at the Eucharist, can only act as priests by virtue of our unity with Him. He alone is Celebrant in the true sense; we are no more than concelebrants with him. Indeed, not only is this true of the primary act of offering that is made in what Charles Williams called “the Operation of the Mass,” but it applies to every act of offering throughout the whole of human life.
Secondly, in the Divine Liturgy we say not “I offer” but “we offer.” As offerers, whether in the Eucharist or in other ways, we do not act alone but in union with our fellow humans. As political animals, our thanksgiving is social and corporate. Whenever we offer, we are acting as persons in relationship: in John Donne’s words, “No man is an Island, entire of itself.” This corporate character of our humanness, as we have already emphasized, is more important today than ever before. Unless we can learn to share the world, we shall destroy the world, and ourselves in it. “One world or none.”
Thirdly, when we offer, we are ourselves part of that which we offer. As cosmic priests, we stand within nature, not above it. In Kathleen Raine’s words:
Seas, trees and voices cry,
“Nature is your nature.”
Fourthly, we are offerers rather than rulers or even stewards. The language of ruling, and also sometimes of stewardship, can easily be misinterpreted to signify arbitrary control and exploitation, as if the creation were our exclusive property rather than a gift that we hold in trust for the Creator.”11 All too often we Christians have tragically misapplied God’s words to the newly created Adam, “Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion. . . over every living thing” (Gen. 1:28). Let us remember that “dominion” does not signify “domination.” And let us remember also that this dominion is given to us specifically because we are made in the divine image. It is therefore a dominion that we exercise in obedience to Christ and in imitation of His own example. Since He said, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), since He exercised His power by “emptying” Himself and accepting death on the Cross (Phil. 2:7, 8), it follows that our dominion within the realm of nature is essentially kenotic, after the divine example, a dominion of humble love, compassion, and self-sacrifice.
Our human vocation, briefly expressed, is to be priest of the creation. It is our supreme privilege, consciously and gratefully, to offer the created world back to God.
Yet, even though we humans are called to co-operate with nature rather than to control it, at the same time God has given us the ability to alter and refashion the world. This brings us to a fifth point. As rational or “logical” animals endowed with self-awareness, we humans do not offer the world back to God simply in the form in which we received it, but through the work of our hands we transform that which we offer. At the Eucharist we offer to God the fruits of the earth, not in their initial state, but reshaped through our human skills; we bring to the altar not grains of wheat but bread, not bunches of grapes but wine. And so it is throughout all human life.
It is true that, here as elsewhere, there is no absolute line of division between us humans and the other animals. Beavers build dams, bees construct honeycombs.
But on the whole the other animals simply live in the world, glorifying God through their instinctive actions, whereas we humans consciously reshape our environment, glorifying God through art and technology.
As humans, then, we modify and refashion the creation. The world is not only a gift but a task. In the words of the Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae (1903—93), “Man puts the seal of his understanding and of his intelligent work onto creation, thereby humanizing it and giving it humanized back to God. He actualizes the world’s potentialities.”12 Formed in the image of God the Creator, we are in J.R.R. Tolkien’s phrase “sub-creators,” appointed not only to preserve but to transfigure.
Through our power of self-awareness, and through this ability to alter and restructure the world, we humans are able to give creation a tongue, rendering it eloquent in praise of God. As the Dalai Lama said at the inter-faith meeting in Assisi, “The universe has no voice, and the universe needs to speak. We are the voice of the universe.” It is through us humans that the heavens declare the glory of God (cf. Ps. 18 : 1), through us that the moon and the stars, the rocks, trees, flowers and animals, give Him praise and worship. 13 In his book Byzantine Aesthetics, Father Gervase Matthew develops this point with particular reference to liturgical worship and iconography, but what he says can be applied more widely to all forms of craftsmanship and agriculture:
Because Man is body he shares in the material world around him, which passes within him through his sense perceptions. Because Man is Mind he belongs to the world of higher reality and pure spirit. Because he is both, he is in Cyril of Alexandria’s phrase “God’s crowned image”; he can mold and manipulate the material and render it articulate. The sound in a Byzantine hymn, the gestures in a liturgy, the bricks in a church, the cubes in a mosaic are matter made articulate in the Divine praise. 14
Bishop Kallistos Ware is the author of the two classic books, The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way.
The preceding article was excerpted from Through the Creation to the Creator, a talk delivered by Bishop Kallistos in 1995 for the third Marco Pallis Memorial Lecture series (U.K.). Copies of the complete text in booklet form may be obtained in North America through Mr. Vincent Rossi at Rose Hill College, P0. Box 3126, Aiken, SC 29802. $8.00 individually (plus $1.50 P&H) or when purchasing 10 or more, $5.50 each (plus 10% P&H).
1. H. von Arnim. “Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta,” vol. iii (Leipzig 1903), p. 95, § 390.
2. Polities 1. i, 9 (1253a).
3. “The Founding of the Company,” in The Region of the Summer Stars (London, 1950), p. 38. Williams puts the phrase in quotation marks, but I do not know whom he is citing here.
4. “The Redeemed City.” in Charles Williams, The Image of the City and Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (London. 1958). pp. 104, 107, 109.
5. “Anthropotokos.” in Williams. op. cit., p. 112.
6. Oration xxxviii, 11.
7. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters (Schocken Books: New York, 1966). p. 317.
8. See Kallistos Ware, “The Unity of the Human Person According to the Greek Fathers,” in Arthur Peacocke and Grant Gillett (eds.), Persons and Personality: A Contemporary Inquiry (Oxford. 1987), p. 202.
10. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (New York, 1973). pp. 60-61.
11. This point is well made by Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios. The Human Presence: Ecological Spirituality and the Age of the Spirit (New York, 1987), chapter 7. “Mastery and Mystery.” This book was originally published by the World Council of Churches under the title The Human Presence: An Orthodox View of Nature (Geneva, 1978).
12. “The World as Gift and Sacrament of God’s Love,” Sobornost, The Journal of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 5:9 (1969). p. 669.
13. Compare St. Leontius of Cyprus, “In Defense of the Icons of the Saints” (PG 93: 1604AB), cited in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (revised edition, New York. 1995), pp. 54-55.
14. Byzantine Aesthetics (London. 1963), pp. 23-24.