The Divine Image And Human Culture

The divine image also includes the practical reason that has enabled humankind to develop creativity, the arts and sciences, economics and politics, and cultures. Because we are endowed with inventiveness, humans have created prodigious variety. Here, perhaps above all, it is clear that human free will governs the powers given with the divine image, so they can be used for good or evil. Human culture can glorify God and assist in his work, or it can threaten to undo God's handiwork by destroying humankind and with it the earth on which we live.

In icons, the Church has made ordinary matter into images that shine forth with divine beauty.34 Icons are a unique expression of Christian life, and they are not to be equated with art in general. Yet they do point to the true purpose of all the arts: to disclose beauty that is ultimately from God, not to hide or distort that beauty, producing idols or serving secular ideologies. Practical creativity has also invented skills that enable the world's economy, such as the crafts, agriculture, manufacturing and technology. Economic exchange enables humans to share with one another, yet it also produces many material things that can draw our attention away from God. Why do many find it easier to perceive God in the beauty of the natural world, which he has made, than in cities, which we humans have made?

Scientific reason is also a facet of the divine image. People can use the methods of science to discern the patterns of the natural world, thus to 'think God's thoughts after him', to discover with awe the vast inventiveness of the Creator. Yet, as Evagrius Ponticus35 and his successors in monastic life have understood, there is a way of contemplating nature that goes beyond scientific method. It is possible through prayer to perceive God within everything he has made, and at the same time to see God's ultimate purposes and plans at the heart of each created thing. Science can measure the outward surfaces of objects, but prayer can plumb their depths. In the end, we can come to see the whole creation as a vast burning bush, alight with God's glory.

Humans are also called to use reason to organise and govern society by implementing wise and loving plans. Political, economic and organisational leaders can thus share in the work of divine providence. Yet such power is often misused in ways that frustrate God's purposes. More generally, we must guard against the danger of becoming self-enclosed in our own imagination, of creating a 'virtual reality' that becomes an alternative to God's reality. We have been given creativity so we can share directly in God's creative activity, not so as to invent our own reality in a way that excludes God and tries to put humans in his place. That, after all, was the sin in the garden.


Panayiotis Nellas, one of the principal twentieth-century writers on Orthodox anthropology, expresses the point made above in terms of the 'garments of skin' of Genesis 3:21.37 According to St Gregory of Nyssa's interpretation, these 'garments' stand for mortality and all that goes with it; and that includes law, family life, political and economic life. All these things belong to the world of the Fall; but they are given within that world as blessings and means of salvation, provided that God is the ultimate goal of our endeavours within these areas. If, however, these 'garments' are treated as autonomous, they work to our harm. This provides Nellas with a clear framework for both affirming human engagement in 'the world' and keeping such activity in perspective.

Growing into the divine likeness through use and understanding of the world, through science and economic activity, is a theme very prominent in the thought of Dumitru Staniloae. Whereas Nellas uses the image of 'garments of skin', Staniloae starts from the cosmology of St Maximus. For him, using the world is a matter of developing our reason (logos) by perceiving God's Word and rationality (logos) in all creation. That Word calls for response and responsibility towards both God and the human community.38

Modern Orthodox anthropology is extensively concerned with interpreting the Church Fathers, but this should not obscure the fact that much of it is responding directly to the challenges of modern humanisms. 'False, atheistic humanism is a question put to the Church', writes Sergius Bulgakov, 'and Christian humanism would be an answer'.39 A part of that answer is the notion of personhood,40 seen as a corrective to both the impersonal collective of Communism and the individualism of capitalism. In addition to the well-known 'personalist' theologians discussed later in this volume, we should note the significance of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). In this Russian Athonite, the personalist emphasis of Russian religious philosophy meets the ascetic tradition with its profound experiential knowledge of human nature, and of the potentials of that nature revealed in the saint. Fr Sophrony shows how Christian asceticism and obedience open the person up to his or her full personal potential; their goal is prayer for the whole Adam-humanity, in which the oneness of human nature is realised.41

A similarly bold vision of human potential is expressed by Nellas, who advances what he calls a 'theocentric humanism'. Drawing on Maximus, Cabasilas and Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, he sees humanity as created for the sake of the Incarnation. In the Virgin Mary, human nature itself is revealed as 'Theotokos' ('Mother of God') - the creature through whom the Word of God comes into the world so that the human being can be deified.42

An aspect of this 'high' anthropology is the value it ascribes to the human body. Much more emphatically than most of the early Fathers, modern writers underline that the totality of the human being is created in the divine image. Important here is the influence of St Gregory Palamas- his emphasis on the Transfiguration and the actual vision of divine light inspires continuing exploration of the heights to which our bodily nature is called.

Honesty requires that an exalted view of the nature of the human creature must go hand in hand with a profound sense that our world is touched by a Fall: most of what we regard as 'natural' does not correspond to the Creator's original intent. This applies even to the apparently basic division of humanity into male and female. Certainly, men and women are both created according to the divine image- but does this mean that sexual differentiation is a necessary consequence of being in the divine image? Theologians influenced by Russian religious philosophy are more inclined to see masculinity and femininity as ontological components of the human being- Paul Evdokimov is one such who has explored anthropology in some detail, for instance in his Woman and the Salvation of the World: Christian Anthropology on the Charisms of Woman.43 But other Orthodox theologians, particularly patristic scholars, are sceptical of the claim that sexual differentiation in humans is part of God's original intention and will persist in the resurrection. As Valerie Karras points out, this raises some perhaps unexpected points of contact between Orthodox and feminist anthropology. Within Orthodoxy, this aspect of theological anthropology and its implications are still a subject of lively debate.44

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