By Fr. Bedros Shetilian
Anthropology is the study of human beings, of who we are. There are many theories and approaches to clarify who is man, what are his components. My article is about my idea on this subject from the Bible point of view, focusing on what Christianity emphasizes regarding this issue.
In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, in the history of creation, we see the fundamental of knowing the man as it says in the Bible, which means that’s how God reveals who we are. We are created in the image and likeness of God. This is crucial and if to listen and consider this seriously, this phrase gives us an understanding about who we are, and also an 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 God. Surely, this is not all about who God is. Complete knowledge of God is not achievable for us, but this can be a subject of another article.
Going back to the main topic of this article and that is who is man, we can take as guidance whatever we said above about God in order to try to understand who we are. Actually, we always question what that makes us different from other creatures. In the philosophy, there are many theories on anthropology. One of the most famous theories on this subject is Aristotle’s one, as he stated that we are social animals. Another famous one is French philosopher Descartes theory focusing on our minds and logic, since he said 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 the Wisdom, He is in the universe as the Creator, He is in arts as the Inspiration, and in religion He is 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, human beings, should be what we choose, evil or good, and not how much money we make, not what social status we have and not 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 already mentioned our ability to choose, freedom of choice or free will and that is I think the biggest gift that we received from God, a gift that is also a huge responsibility. In difference to other creators, we are not programmed. While for example lions are programmed to kill and sheep to be slaughtered and be eaten, we human beings have the choice to be both, we can be beasts, we can be Hitler, or we can be saints, we can be Saint Mother Teresa. For a lion killing is not a sin, because he doesn’t have a moral essence, he is not created in God’s image and likeness. But if we kill, that is an issue, because for us there is a moral issue, we have to choose 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 by God image and likeness doesn’t mean that automatically we become that image and likeness, but means that we have an opportunity to become that image and likeness. This is the most important question that we have to ask ourselves. Do we want to be God’s image and likeness? In reality, this is the same question put in a different way: “What would Jesus do?” Wow, we can be gods as says in 82nd Psalm, but we also can be beasts. We can be in the middle also. Actually, most of us are in the middle. There is an Armenian saying: “To go in what direction wind blows”. That is a fact. Throughout history, Jesus-like goodwill people on the one side and devil-like bad people on the other side struggled to gain control. Between these two groups who are fewer in number, the majority of people stand, and more often they took the side of evil because of ignorance and/or fear. That is why history is so tragic and filled with wars. But history also is filled with goodness and tremendous heroism of good people 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 what makes us different from other creatures, that ability is one of the primary reasons to define the man.
Beside free will, there is something else that is so important and also crucial and that thing revealed to us in Christianity. There is a widely accepted understanding in a comparison between how God is in the Old Testament to the God of the New Testament. God in the Old Testament is a ruler, is a King, is the law and that is why He often punishes, He punished Adam and Eve, He caused the flood, He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Conversely, in the New Testament God – Jesus is a poor man, He doesn’t have any earthly power, He doesn’t make laws, and He forgives. Just to prevent any misunderstanding this doesn’t mean that God of the Old Testament is a different God from the God of the New Testament. Simply, God revealed Himself differently. The Old Testament was the first step where God revealed Himself incompletely, the New Testament is the second step and He revealed Himself if not completely, but certainly His revelation in the New Testament through Jesus Christ is 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 New Testament is a Ruler (fear and respect), in the New Testament He is a Father (Love). Accordingly, 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, His deeds are and should be a guide to us on who we are, or to be more correct on who we should be. Besides His supernatural power since He was God, I will put these qualities to define His human side; justice, humility, purity and mercy. All other qualities talked about are in one way or another connected and derived from these qualities. These human qualities are not supernatural and are achievable for each one of us. The combination of these qualities is good and the highest condition of these qualities is Love and that means to be good and do goodness for no reason other than Love, unconditional Love. “God is Love”, this is the most important revelation in Christianity on God. There is no word other than Love to define who God is in one word and accordingly we also should become loving people, people who have the same kind of Love that Jesus had and that is unconditional Love, Agape՛ as we call it in Church’s language. And here I will dare to challenge Descartes 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 our love, our hearts and our souls.
Besides free will and Love, there is something else that has been revealed in Christianity. The Russian Patriarch Kirill I talks on society of conscience. It is unfortunate that we don’t use this word much – we have forgotten about it. In reality, conscience is an indication to show what kind of soul someone has whether he is a Christian or not. That 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”, Roman 2:14-15. St. Paul clearly indicates that everyone no matter who he is, has “the law written in his heart” and the witness, in other words, the proof of that “writing” is his conscience.
Yes, it doesn’t matter someone has a chance to know God and the law or not, conscience is natural, conscience is given to everyone no matter of his religion, race, education and living conditions. That’s why commonly we define conscience as God’s voice and that is true, since God is there and His voice is present in every soul, whether somebody believes in God or not. People who say that they don’t believe in God might be saying the truth, but they cannot say that they don’t have conscience, because initially and naturally everyone has it. Despite this fact we know that not everybody acts according to his conscience. Some people because of their egos and selfishness bury their conscience under heavy weight of their personal gains and agendas, and sometimes at the extent that there is no chance to bring their consciences back.
It’s amazing to see the example of some Turks who were few and opposed the Armenian Genocide, like the governor of Aleppo and then Konya, Mehmet Celal Bey who refused to deport Armenians and was removed from his both positions. Mehmet Celal Bey is called a Turkish Schindler. It is more astonishing in the case of Mustafa Bey (Azizoglu): “Who was the district governor of Malatya, a transit point on the deportation route. Although he was unable to prevent the deportations, he managed to hide several Armenians in his own home. He was murdered by his own son, a zealous member of the Ittihat ve Terakki Party, for “looking after infidels”, (The Armenian Weekly. July 29, 2013).
The example of such people shows that they didn’t listen and didn’t fear their governments, but taking risks acted according to their conscience, they listened to God’s voice in their soul and not the orders of their superiors who could harm them and also not fatwa’s issued by some Muslim authorities for jihad against infidels. Such examples show that it is possible to keep human dignity and integrity in the most difficult circumstances no matter how difficult they might be. Since conscience is a natural gift given to any individual, people who don’t have a chance to know God and be educated under the law, such people will be judged according to their conscience, Roman 2:15-16. In other words, such people will be judged by how they dealt with their conscience; did they listen to the voice of God, or ignored it?
Listening to our conscience and following it is the most important thing in order to be saved and that is why conscience is the most visible indication of who someone is. That is why I would like to point out that man, first of all, is conscience, or he should become conscience. In reality, conscience is connected to Love, since it’s hard to believe that if someone has Christ’s unconditional Love won’t be acting 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 also to everyone whether he is a Christian, or a follower of other religion, or an atheist, a skeptic, an agnostic, and to anyone whether he lives in the jungle or in a modern city.
Freedom of choice, Love and conscience. This is my understanding of Christian anthropology.
About the Author
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.