Anthropology is the study of human beings, of who we are. There are many theories and approaches to clarify who man is and what his components are. My ideas on this subject derive from a biblical point of view, focusing on what Christianity emphasizes regarding human anthropology.
We are created by the image and likeness of God. This is crucial, and if we listen and consider this seriously, we arrive at an understanding of who we are, and also incomplete idea about who God is. If we are created in the image and likeness of God, then the perfection of that image and likeness is God Himself. If we are good, God is perfect goodness. If we are wise, God is perfect wisdom. If we are just, God is perfect justice. If we are moral, God is perfect morality. If we are pure, God is perfect purity. If we can love, then God is perfect Love. In brief, we can say that the perfection of any positive and good qualities that are possible for us to achieve is in God. Surely, this is not all about who God is. Complete knowledge of God is not achievable for us.
We always question what makes us different from other creatures. In philosophy, there are many theories of anthropology. One of the most famous is Aristotle’s, as he stated that we are social animals. Another is French philosopher René Descartes’s theory focusing on our minds and logic, with his famous words: “I think, therefore I am.” But in religion, especially in monotheistic Abrahamic religions, there is and should be another approach: God is everywhere; he is in science as its wisdom, he is in the universe as its creator, he is in arts as their inspiration, and he is in religion as the perfect goodness.
Religion, besides being about God, is also about goodness. God’s concern is our goodness. The source of goodness and morality is God. In religion God revealed himself; he made and makes this effort in order to make us good. The central issue for us, as human beings, should be what we choose—evil or good—and not how much money we make, what social status we have, or how many things and how many people we control. The issues mentioned above are natural, but all should be controlled by our effort to be good.
I believe that freedom of choice, or free will, is the biggest gift that we received from God—a gift that is also a huge responsibility. In difference to other creatures, we are not “programmed.” While, for example, some animals are programmed to be predators and others prey, we human beings have the choice to be either: We can be beasts and dominate others, or we can be saints and serve them. For a lion killing is not a sin, because it doesn’t have a moral essence; it is not created in God’s image and likeness. But if we kill, that is a sin, because for us there is a moral issue, a choice between good and evil.
The fact that we are not programmed and we are in charge of our destiny is the crucial fact of our consciousness. Being created in God’s image and likeness doesn’t mean that we automatically become that image and likeness, but that we have an opportunity to become that image and likeness. This leads to the most important question that we have to ask ourselves: Do we sincerely want to be God’s image and likeness? In reality, this is the same question put in a different way: “What would Jesus do?”
Throughout history, Christ-like people of goodwill have struggled against the evil of others who seek to gain control. The majority of people stand somewhere between these two groups, and often take the side of evil because of ignorance, fear, or a combination of both. This is why history is so tragic and filled with wars. But history also is filled with the goodness and tremendous heroism of those who were able to stop evil from taking complete control of humanity. Free will or freedom of choice; our ability to choose between good and evil should be our main concern, and that ability is what makes us different from other creatures and what defines us as humans.
There is a widely accepted comparison between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The God in the Old Testament is a ruler, a king, and that is why he often punishes: He punishes Adam and Eve, he causes the flood, he destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. Conversely, the God of the New Testament is a poor man. He doesn’t have any earthly power, he doesn’t make laws, and he forgives. This does not mean that the God of the Old Testament is a different God from the God of the New Testament. Simply put, God revealed himself differently. The Old Testament was the first step in which God revealed Himself incompletely; the New Testament was the second step in which he revealed himself, if not completely, then certainly in the most perfect revelation known to us so far. (Once I heard that testimony from a Buddhist monk. What a powerful confession from a non-Christian clergyman!)
In one word, God in the Old Testament is a ruler, commanding respect and instilling fear; in the New Testament he is a father, communicating love. It follows accordingly that there is a new understanding of who man is in Christianity. Jesus gave us an example of who we are. Besides being God, Jesus at the same time was a man. His words, his behavior, and his deeds are a guide for us. His qualities of justice, humility, purity, and mercy model for us how to be. These are human, not supernatural qualities, and they are achievable for each one of us. The highest condition of these qualities is love, and to love means to be good and to do goodness for no reason other than love, unconditional love. “God is love”: this is the most important revelation in Christianity about God.
There is no word other than love to define who God is. Because of this, we should strive to become loving people, people who have the same kind of love that Jesus had—and that is unconditional love, or agape as we call it in church’s language. Here I will dare to challenge Descartes’s words of “I think, therefore I am” and change them to “I love, therefore I am.” In other words, to make our priority not our intellectual status, but the strength of our love, our hearts and our souls.
In addition to free will and love, there is something else that has been revealed in Christianity, and that is conscience. It is unfortunate that we don’t use this word much; we seem to have forgotten about it. In reality, conscience is an indication of what kind of soul we have, whether we are behaving as true Christians or not. This is why St. Paul says: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness” (Rom. 2:14–15). St. Paul clearly indicates that everyone, no matter who they are, has “the law written in his heart.” The witness and proof of that “writing” is his conscience.
It doesn’t matter whether someone has a chance to know God and the law or not: conscience is natural, and it is given to everyone no matter their religion, race, education, or living conditions. That is why we commonly speak of conscience as “God’s voice,” since his voice is present in every soul whether or not that person believes in him. Despite this, we know that not everyone acts according to their conscience. Some people, because of ego and selfishness, bury their conscience under the heavy weight of personal gains and agendas, and sometimes to the extent that there is no chance to bring their conscience back.
Listening to our conscience and following it is the primary driver of our salvation, and that is why conscience is the most visible indication of who someone is. Man, first of all, is conscience, or he should become conscience. In reality, conscience is connected to love, since it is hard to believe that someone who has Christ’s unconditional love will not act according to his conscience. Nevertheless, conscience is so important that it should be looked upon as a separate substance, and also because conscience applies not only to Christians, but to everyone regardless of whether they are Christian, a follower of another religion, an atheist, a skeptic, an agnostic, or whether they live in the wilderness or in a modern city.
Freedom of choice, love, and conscience: these constitute my understanding of Christian anthropology.
Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor, with concerts in Russia, Armenia, and Europe. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Afterward, he was assigned to serve in the US. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician. A previous version of this article originally appeared on the Orthodoxy Cognate Page.