The claim that a human being is nothing more than a highly evolved animal, known collectively by the genus-species designation Homo sapiens, represented a turning point in the history of the West. Man, once dignified by the image and likeness of his Creator, became one with a spiritually untransformed world.
The claim did not come suddenly, of course. It was the outcome of centuries of reflections and assertions about the nature of man. It was a consequence of what in The Age of Utopia I call the “desecration of the world,” the progressive de-sanctification of a cosmos once filled with heavenly immanence. Beginning with the Renaissance, intellectuals proclaimed man’s autonomy in relationship to heaven. Instead of being the the image of a transcendent God, man was reconceived as Prometheus, after the mythical pagan figure symbolizing liberation from divinity. To this end, eighteenth-century secularists like Rousseau came to celebrate freedom from a distant “watchmaker god,” just as Voltaire envisioned, in his novel Candide, a humanity that could “cultivate the garden” of the earth without divine interference.
Man as Homo sapiens seemed to secure for the nineteenth century a hard-won autonomy. Yet in the end, the new anthropology not only subverted man’s dignity but the very autonomy it sought to secure. To understand this, it is necessary to consider what might be called Christendom’s anthropological baseline, the conviction that man is imago Dei and not Homo sapiens–nor even Prometheus.
The fundamental conviction about the human being proclaimed in Christendom since Pentecost was that man is a creature of the one, holy, and transcendent God revealed by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Man is totally dependent for his existence on God and cannot exist–let alone thrive–without divinity. What is more, man is the “image of God” (imago Dei), made by God with the purpose of enjoying divine communion to such a degree as to acquire, through the sacramental life of the Church, a condition of deification. The Gospel on which this conviction was based was a heady alternative to the entire anthropological inheritance of pagandom (even when the latter, in its Neoplatonic mode, opened the way toward a concept of divine union). Because of the doctrine of the Incarnation, traditional Christianity did for man what no other religion or philosophy every could (or has). Through divine participation, man experiences the very life of his Creator.
This anthropological baseline was secured in a civilization with a supporting culture that directed its members toward the heavenly transformation of the world. It grew out of the paradisiacal culture that nourished Christendom for more than a millennium. It was centered on worship. Through sacramental liturgy, man experienced the kingdom of heaven in this world. And the result was the sanctification of the cosmos.
A good expression of Christendom’s primordial view of humanity was found in iconography. More than other liturgical arts, the depiction of the deified human image revealed the true essence and purpose of the human being. In Sicily, for instance, the twelfth-century Cathedral of the Virgin in Monreale near Palermo features a mosaic series along the northern wall of the nave depicting Adam in Paradise. His face is represented as a perfect copy of that of his Creator. In other words, man is the image of God. Few statements proclaimed Christendom’s anthropological baseline so vividly.
The result was a civilization with a supporting culture in which the dignity of the human being was rooted in theological conviction rather than biological observation. Likeness with divinity assured that every human being was of incalculable value. Within the sacramental body of the Church, following Saint Paul, there ceased to be essential divisions between sexes, classes, and races (Gal. 3:28). Every human being, from the moment of conception, was given a standard of perfection defined by God himself.
It was this baseline that ceased to guide the utopian culture of nineteenth century. And as we shall see, the result could be catastrophic.