An Ultimate Question: Who IS a Human Being?
Who AM I … perhaps one of the most puzzling questions pondered and debated through the ages. From the verb “to be,” we call this an ontological question. It’s safe to say that we are the only species on the planet to ask this, to have the ability to think about our existence and identity. Despite what many modern psychologists and neurologists are telling us, humans are not driven solely by our survival instincts or completely pre-determined by our DNA. It is utterly false to conclude that freedom and consciousness are an illusion. We instinctively know we are free, conscious, and self-aware creatures.
The answers given to this question often fall into one of two categories. We identify ourselves by what we do in large parts of our lives, whether pursuing our deep interests or our vocation. “I’m into cars.” “I’m a bookkeeper,” “I used to be a teacher, but now I’m retired,” “I’m a college drop-out, so now I just have to work at this loser job.” “I’m a musician, but I’m also a party animal.”
Or, we answer it in adjectives and comparisons with others. “I’m young, pretty, and very smart.” “I’m much dumber than my siblings – they’re really successful.” “I’m strong and self-sufficient, and I refuse to let anyone else push me around.” “I’m a winner – those jerks are losers.”
Many self-styled self-help gurus encourage us to say positive affirmations to ourselves or others. “I’m worth it,” “I’m getting better every day!” “I always find a way to win.” As an addictions counselor, I hear some version of this a lot: “I know I’m a good mom, even though I’m addicted to chemicals and have made a lot of bad choices. . . and lost custody of my children.” That kind of positive self-talk is understandable but quite seductive. We often try to convince ourselves of being someone we imagine is an ideal and successful person. This often flies in the face of an abundance of evidence to the contrary. But, somehow if I just keep repeating this, it will become true of me.
We have a deep-seated drive to affirm our value, to matter to the world and to ourselves, to prove we “have what it takes” in life. And we desire to be respected or admired by others, even if only a few. We march through life’s journey hoping that before we die we will have achieved a sense of value and dignity, anything not to conclude our lives have been a train-wreck, or that we struggled but failed to achieve our “best self.”
A central underlying assumption undergirds all such attempts at answers: “I am an autonomous, self-contained individual. I exist with 7 billion other individuals currently struggling to be happy on planet Earth.” While understandable, this a priori assumption is, quite simply, wrong.
We assume we are an individual slice of the human pie, and therefore able to be measured either in comparison to all other individuals, or to some abstract ideal of individual perfection, strength, beauty, or success. Thinking as self-contained beings will never sufficiently answer our heart’s desire to know ourselves. It will leave us stuck in endless comparisons, or deceived into thinking we can just create our own identity based on how we feel – today. And if we feel differently tomorrow – that’s cool, no problem. I am my own answer. This is deep and tragic confusion. It leaves us still thirsting to know the answer to the “being” question, and struggling with our self-destructive tendencies.
Before our primordial parents Adam and Eve disobeyed the command given them in the Garden of Paradise, they did not exist or think of themselves as individuals. Then who were they? Genesis 1:26 says “Then God said ‘let us make man in our image according to our likeness…’” What exactly is this “image?” It is the answer to our “being” question.
Certainly, some could interpret this verse to mean the Creator consists of many different individual gods. Therefore the “image” of these gods is countless numbers of individual humans since time began. But that presents us with another problem: three of the world’s greatest religions all agree: God is One, not many.
As Christians, we believe our Faith is the fulfillment of Judaism, and one major characteristic of the Jewish Faith is its absolute and unequivocal monotheism. How then are we to understand the plural “us” attributed to the One God of creation? Or hear Jesus our Saviour claiming to be the great “I Am” of the Old Testament? Or trust his unprecedented claims of being divine: “I and the Father are one,” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Christians in the centuries after Christ rose from the dead were led by the Holy Spirit to articulate the great mystery of God in creedal form to combat the error of Arius, an intelligent and articulate priest. His false and novel interpretation of the scriptures was confusing and misleading for a great number of Christians in his day. It was a serious threat to the one Body of Christ Who prayed fervently for our maintaining love and perfect unity.
Borrowing words from Greek philosophy, all but two of the 318 fathers of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea agreed that our God is three Divine Persons – using the word hypostasis – eternally existing in one Divine Nature, or Essence – using the word ousia. These early successors of the apostles received from Christ the revelation of Who God is. They never tried to rationally explain God’s reality since there is absolutely nothing in the created order which is, at one and the same time, 3 and 1.
St. John of Damascus, writing in the 8th century and summing up the Christian Faith as it had been received and passed on in the Church says this: “… it is quite impossible to find in creation an image that will illustrate in itself exactly in all details the nature of the Holy Trinity.”
The three Persons of God are each a distinct personal expression of the one Divinity, but in no way do these distinctions divide God. Within God, there is only one Nature or Essence, one will, one mind, one activity, fully and equally shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an eternal “dance” of love and inter-dwelling. God has never been alone.
St. John goes on to write of the way we are to think and speak of this great mystery:
“The holy catholic and apostolic Church teaches the existence at once of a Father: and of His Only-begotten Son, born of Him without time and flux and passion, in a manner incomprehensible and perceived by the God of the universe alone… The Father alone is un-begotten (ingenerate), no other subsistence (Person) having given Him being. And the Son alone is begotten (generate), for He was begotten of the Father’s essence without beginning and without time. And only the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father’s essence, not having been generated but simply proceeding. For this is the doctrine of Holy Scripture. But the nature of the generation and the procession is quite beyond comprehension.”
It certainly is, and many may say it’s as relevant to everyday life as trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. So why even attempt to think or understand this lofty and abstract theology? Simple – our being is this mystery. We carry within ourselves the very image of this Trinitarian God. This is who we are. It is the only key to unlock the mystery of our truest identity, and which, through our trust in Christ, is our path to a fullness and experience of life God has always desired for us.
Through the centuries, Christians have reflected on the varied meanings of the image of God. The most important understanding is that we are distinct persons who participate in one human nature. In light of this, who are we? We are communion. I am communion, and you are communion. Living as self-contained and self-referenced individuals goes directly against our deepest reality.
This wondrous image cannot be destroyed. It is often covered over by our actions, hidden from ourselves and others. All the children of Adam “miss the mark” of loving God and others as we were created to do. But God’s image and thus our value is unquestioned, unconditional, and indestructible in spite of our autonomous choices.
Science, even with all its advances and techniques, will never discover or observe the image of God in people. It is not empirically verifiable. As Christians, we accept this revelation by faith. God’s grace and mercy slowly transform the heart of the believer to “see” and trust our identity. By faith, we gradually heal the issues and destructiveness brought about by our individualism. Let’s explore this further.
Human nature is one, given to us at conception, binary expressions as male or female. Before the Fall, God created Eve “out of Adam’s rib.” When he awoke and saw this new creature, he exclaimed (probably with loud and unspeakable joy) “This is now bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh…” In other words, she was exactly like him in his humanity, being the complementary female expression of our nature. And at the very same time, Eve was uniquely and wonderfully different from Adam. She was her own person.
By birth, we share this mystical oneness with every other human. We are placed in a relationship with all persons whether we want that to be true or not. It is impossible to “slice up” or divide our humanity. The distinctiveness of our identities is not to be found in our nature.
An important truth must be emphasized at this point. Persons, whether within the divine Trinity or within humanity, do not exist apart from their common nature. But person and nature are not the same thing. If we can describe anything about ourselves, our personalities, our inclinations and idiosyncrasies, our many physical differences, etc. we are talking about our common humanity. At the molecular level, there are infinite variations of our DNA, but even that is not what ultimately makes us unique.
A person is a unique, unrepeatable, and infinitely valuable expression of humanity. This gift of personhood is unable to be described or rationally understood. A person’s value is not dependent on any aspect of our human nature. It never fluctuates. God is changeless and is never tempted by evil thoughts. Our Father in heaven cannot view each and every human being except through the “lens” of the eternal personal love He shares with His Son and His Holy Spirit. It is the overflow of this perfect divine love which brought us all into existence as His very image in created form.
Through our minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day consciousness, freedom, and choices, we uniquely express our common humanity. No one else has ever, or will ever, express himself or herself in the exact same way we do. This is the amazing and beautiful diversity of human personhood, called by one Orthodox theologian “the wonderful adventure of our freedom.”
Because of our intrinsic and infinite value to God, there is no point or profit in comparing ourselves to anyone else, at any time, for any reason. It is a fruitless and misguided effort, one of the many tragedies of our Fall from grace. The church fathers clearly teach that to judge or evaluate any person regarding their virtues or vices is inappropriate, even dangerous. God alone knows our unique personhood and our deep heart. He alone is our source and judge.
If we can’t finally and rationally describe just what being a person is, how is personhood revealed and known? There is one and only path to the knowledge and experience of a person: unconditional love and acceptance. As we stated earlier, the Divine Persons of the Trinity know and love each other from all eternity. They are never blurred into one person, or divided into three natures. “God is love” says St. John the Theologian, but not because He radiates some divine “force” from His nature. He is love because He exists as Personal communion outside of created time and space.
We can see an example of this experiential knowledge of personhood in the parents of identical (monozygotic) twins. Their DNA is exactly the same – so much so that they often delight in fooling friends or teachers. But Mom and Dad are not fooled. It is in the relationship of parental love and acceptance that each twin is known and loved personally and uniquely, as two distinct expressions of the same DNA.
God the Father, out of the overflow of His eternal and unconditional love, and in the Person of His Timeless Son, has become human in Christ without ceasing to be God. Jesus assumed the whole of our humanity in Mary’s womb, uniting it to His divinity that He might invite us to re-enter the divine/human communion of persons fractured at the Fall. Being joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in baptism, and raised as a “new creation in Christ,” we are “seated” – even now – in the heavenlies” as members of Christ’s body, His human and deified nature.
The good news which Jesus preached and accomplished has set us free to leave the prison of thinking of ourselves as self-contained individuals, forever comparing and measuring and experiencing life as survival.
This is our salvation: the restoration of Paradise and communion with God and man. In His life on earth, God the Son never sinned or broke this communion with His Father. By His voluntary suffering and death on the cross, He abolished and forgave humanity’s sins “for they know not what they do.” By His glorious resurrection from the dead, he destroyed humanity’s final and most powerful enemy: mortality.
Death entered humanity after the eating of the forbidden fruit. This death was not the cessation of physical life. It was a brokenness and fracture of humanity. It was the beginning of life as individual survival for Adam and Eve and their progeny. Physical death was a saving grace from God, so that our survival as individuals did not enter eternity.
“Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”– therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.”
14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He (Christ Jesus) Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
Fear of death is the core motivation for all who live as self-contained individuals. Besides fearing our final departure from life, for most people it means fear of change, fear of loss of control, fear of being shown up, left behind, made fun of, abandoned by those we depend on, fear of the future, fear of being taken advantage of, fear of being used as an object, fear of being poor or homeless, and all other neuroses and psychological dead-ends which are the tragic consequences of our inheriting mortality and a weakened humanity from our first parents.
After disobeying God, Adam and Eve were “naked and ashamed.” This is not to be understood as our common embarrassment and vulnerability when someone we’re not married to sees us naked. It was a complete change in their psychological and emotional experience of one another. They now looked upon each other as individuals, not persons. And as individuals, there was now a built-in distrust. The “other” may in some future way hinder or even destroy my contained individual self.
When we love others, and accept them unconditionally for who they are, we transcend our nature and our fear of death. In those precious moments of communion and perfect love, we are “lost” in the other person, and they are “lost” in us. It is in those moments of being face-to-face with a beloved one that we know them as distinct and valued, and they know us. Can we rationally describe those times, or the person who is the object of our love? Not at all, but the reality of that experience causes us to taste eternity, and hunger for it as a divine sweetness not to be found in any earthly pleasure.
God saves us daily by inviting us to “lose” ourselves in order to “find” our unique personhood and value. Our individual concerns and anxieties and fears of death and loss are now, in a real sense, irrelevant. Christ has “trampled down death by death.” “He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
He then asks: “Do you believe this?” That is now humanity’s new ultimate question. Do I really trust His words that I am now free of death’s dominion, free to live as persons in communion? Following our Lord is learning daily to trust this return to God’s paradise in Christ’s Kingdom, expressed in His body the Church.
Christ invites us – for it is truly a free request – to take up our cross and follow Him. It is necessary to die to the mentality of being a self-contained individual, with all our survival impulses, judgments and measurements. All the saints throughout history know the myriad layers of our heart’s deceptive self-containment. We cannot even let “our left hand know what our right hand is doing” without the temptation to be proud of our individual “accomplishments.”
Bearing Christ’s cross is an invitation to partake of the joy of the Bridegroom’s wedding Feast offered to persons whose loving orientation is no longer self. This is manifested in space and time at each celebration of the holy Eucharist, where we commune, in a great mystery, with Christ’s very body and blood. This “medicine of immortality” both reaffirms and nourishes our eternal life as unique persons who are mystically joined to our Lord. In this feast, we are again ravished by God’s outrageous love and acceptance. We are made more and more complete by our union with all other persons joined at this heavenly table, those gone before and those of us still fighting the good fight. The power of the cross releases us to enter His life-giving communion of peace and joy.
In so doing, we answer and experience our ontological quest. We are restored to personhood and communion. We are healed from our slavery to individualism. We are set free to “love even our enemies,” and to do good to those who spitefully use us, finding the grace to forgive everyone exactly as God has forgiven us. We are free to become by grace everything God is by nature. This is who we truly are.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, Amen!
 An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus, AD 749
 Genesis 3:22-23, NKJV
 Hebrews 2:14-15, NKJV