Years ago I heard these lessons by Kenny Boles and Rick Atchley on Unity as an Imperative. They are so timely still today. Follow the link to the audio file.
Theological anthropology sounds like a fragile relic of an ancient time that should be under protective glass in a museum. Sister Nonna Harrison, however, brings this discipline to life in God’s Many Splendored Image (Baker, 2008) and gives a great introduction to what early Christians understood about human nature and what it means to be a human person.
This study comes at time when the sciences (neuroscience, biology, psychology, and sociology to name a few) dominate a fated discussion about nature versus nurture. What could a theologian or a historian add here? Harrison shows that the patristic period was filled with fruitful discussion about what it means to be human, and the modern sciences would do well to consider their categories of thought. Moreover, patristic theology offers a refreshing contrast to systematic Reformed categories that dominate Western churches. At times, these sources turn the discussion of human nature into a diatribe about original sin and its origins.
Harrison begins rather surprisingly with the ancient idea of human freedom. To be made in God’s image is to be a representative of the divine and those in God’s image have freedom. Harrison offers a rich engagement with primary materials by Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa as they explained human nature in a culture that had been dominated by slavery. In a similar vein, she city ancient Egyptian fathers like Abba Poemen in offering examples of widespread belief that God had made people with the capacity to be free from evil influences and that they could transform their lives with good deeds.
The key to human living then was to be found in Christ since He himself is the image of the invisible God. By gazing intently into His life and ministry, Christians can embrace a virtuous path filled with keen spiritual perception. Especially helpful is her charts that summarizes the patristic understanding of the soul, its passions, and virtues.
These terms reveal how the ancient Fathers understood the emotional and non-rational dimensions of human nature. Of special note here, Harrison decision to translate the Greek term thumos as assertiveness better captures many of the nuances of this hidden side of life. There is a great need in the world today for virtuous, assertive living characterized by perseverance, courage, and self-restraint.
Unfortunately, Harrison does not engage or seek to differentiate this presentation of the virtuous life from modern ethical theorists or from the growing field of neuroscience which explains human behavior as habitual responses to prompts. This is not to say that God’s Many Splendored Image does not interact with modern sources; in fact, the most fruitful discussions in the book are the explanations of human nature’s inclination to design, investigate and create community. In chapters 7-9, Harrison carries on a rich conversation about humanity’s natural inclinations to create, discover, build, and improve upon the created world. As representatives of the divine image, Harrison argues one cannot help but pursue these ends. They are what we are made for, and Harrison shows the keen insight that the ancient fathers had into the purpose of human design. Additionally, she compares this wisdom with the insights of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) – two men who scientific investigation were driven forward with a sense of divine purpose. Both believed that God had designed the world with a precision that cried out for explanation. The scientists task was to celebrate this design and to point it out to others so that they might perceive what otherwise might be hidden. Harrison also introduces into this discussion Leonid Ouspensky (1902-1987), an Orthodox iconographer whose gifts of perception were applied to painting in order to unveil what is unseen:
“Einstein lived a life of perseverance, humility, service to others, wonder, awareness of mystery, and holy curiosity about the unversed God created. . . Ouspensky too lived a disciplined life of prayer and simplicity . . . this enabled him through his painter’s eyes and hands to disclose to his contemporaries in the twentieth century the radiance of the saints. One found God through his scientific research, the other through his artistic work. Both used skills of human culture to build bridges from the ordinary circumstances of the present life to the kingdom of God” (p. 167).
God’s Many Splendored Image is in many ways more than a book about theological anthropology; it is a gateway into another realm of spiritual perception. Readers can use it to find access to the Orthodox way of thinking, patristic sources, and even the mystery of iconography as well. This comes as a refreshing surprise.
Human beings are more than numbers and chance. We are made in God’s image with dignity and purpose. By careful attention to the Spirit we can live and even thrive to the praise of God’s glory. This is more than a message for a museum – it is living and breathing and life filling. Enjoy this work because there’s more to it than first meets the eye.
Earlier this summer I met Judy and a group of friends at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota. We got along great, and everyone thought it was fascinating that I liked Jonathan Edwards. It became sort of a running joke through our time together. In the end, everyone encouraged me to write a blog post that would explain such a strange thing.
SIDEBAR: You read the previous paragraph correctly I like reading “Sinners-in-the-Hands-of-an-Angry-God” Edwards. Please, don’t think I agree with Edwards (or with Calvin for that matter). I don’t, but I do think Edwards has great insight into sanctification and the Christian life.
So how can I explain to you why I like Jonathan Edwards? I thought I’d try a 4 minute video.