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.Continue reading