By Philip Kariatlis
The most basic questions in life occasioning answers so that we can have peace of mind and happiness are often related to discovering our distinct ‘identity’. Those who have not found answers to such questions are said to be suffering an “identity crisis” which can lead to much anxiety and unhappiness. For this reason, it is not only fundamental, but quite natural that we struggle to find answers to the questions relating to our identity, such as: Who am I? From where did I originate? What is the purpose of my life? What does it all mean? Is there any meaning in life? Where am I heading? For most persons, it is not only during their adolescence that they usually begin to search for meaning and identity, but certain life changing situations throughout their life, such as: middle age; parents whose children marry and move on in life; widowed persons will trigger these questions again and again. And it is only in our struggle to discover our true identity that we are free to express the uniqueness of our personhood and therefore to enjoy purposeful living. It is only in this great and sacred effort on our part to find answers that we can attain peace of mind in this great adventure we call life.
Different people will attempt to discover who they really are in different ways. Some will derive answers from the amount of material wealth they possess. Therefore they will argue that they have more value than others not because of who they are but because of what they possess. Others may base their identity on physical appearance going to extraordinary extremes to improve their appearance as this, they argue, could help in establishing some sort of better self worth and identity. Still others will seek psychiatrists and psychologists hoping to discover who they are. For many people, they will find answers in the sciences. So depending from their area of interest or specialization, whether they are biologists, physicists, chemists or geneticists, they will give different answers as to who the human person is. And we must admit that the sciences go a long way in telling us about the human person, but still instinctively we may feel that we have not gained the fullness of our identity.
Just from the above, we begin to appreciate just how difficult it may be to discover a complete answer of who we are, given that in our society today the idea of what it means to be a human person is many things to different people. Along with this, society, profoundly influence by empirical positivism has argued that in our pursuit for truth and identity only logical considerations which can be verified empirically are valid. Therefore any beyond the sensory world is non existent. However very early in our adult life we discover that our intellectual or rational capacities are but one aspect of our life. Coupled with the confusion in this vast diversity of answers, we only need to take a few moments to appreciate just how different, unique and distinctive each person is. While it may be true that a group of people may lead similar lives, have similar interests, yet they still are all distinct. Physiologically, there are no two people that look the same, talk or think exactly the same way. Even identical twins will have discrete differences that usually can be distinguished only by those who know them. It is not enough to say that amongst the entire animal kingdom, the human race occupies an exceptional position; it also has to be affirmed that within the human race itself, each person possesses an irreducible uniqueness and therefore within each of us there is a priceless treasure not to be found in anyone else.
For this reason, each person has the unique vocation to discover and become all that they were created to be – and for every person this is entirely unique and unrepeatable. The Greek poet, Elytes noted in one of his poems that even though throughout the centuries all people in love may engage in the act of kissing, yet each person will kiss in his or her unique and unrepeatable way. If one, hypothetically speaking could gather all the human faces throughout the ages, there would be none of exactly the same image. There is only one of me and one of you! Living this truth alone would surely make every person to appreciate the infinite value of each person thereby embracing all kinds of persons since they can add to the diverse beauty of the world. However, more often than not we like other people only to the extent that they are similar to us. However since there is an inexhaustible variety of human person we are called to embrace the ‘other’ not despite his/her differences but because of those very differences. I would add that this must be done because we have been created not different from each other, but different for each other.
Since we are all unique, it follows that we cannot compare ourselves to others. People have a unique calling in life to discover and live out their unique mode of existence. And this uniqueness needs to be made a reality to our fullest potential and in freedom. If for example, it was Christ’s calling by His Father to become a human person, live a certain number of years on earth fulfilling the signs of the expected Messiah found in the Old Testament, then to die and resurrect then this is what He had to do willingly and freely. For others it may be to live life not dying for another, as was Christ’s vocation but working for the common good of society. Then this needs to be undertaken the best of one’s ability. If for others it may be to gain a certain professional degree, then it needs to be used to serve society for its advancement. Even those called to clean the streets have a sacred task and duty to society in that they have promised the community that they will keep the streets clean and tidy.
Consequently, the difficulty faced in establishing our own identity is that it cannot be made to conform to another person’s identity. We must not seek to discover our identity by becoming somebody else – be that our personal hero, a famous actor or even simply a person who has been inspirational to us in our life and to whom we look up – e.g. a teacher. Unfortunately, more often than not, we prefer to conform and that is why we organize states, clubs, fraternities so that we can ‘fit in’ since we do not want to be considered ‘outcasts’ or ‘nerds’. We prefer conformity instead of diversity – that is living the adventure of our personal freedom. Life is definitely not how much good I can do or how I can improve my character by trying to conform to some form of standards and morals. Rather in life we all need to embark on that difficult journey in freedom to discover all that we have been created to be. But the question which justifiably arises, is: how can I discover who I am? How do I know who I am? How do I find and fulfil myself as a person? How do I find the ultimate meaning of existence? How do I come to terms with my life in this ever-changing world?
Now, the question that begs answering is in what way can a Christian view of who a person is add to a scientific or secular world view? Can the Christian vision help a person struggling to discover their identity? For those who are linguistically sensitive, the word alone for human person in Greek “anthropos” reveals something of who we are. An-thropos literally means a creature that looks up beyond the sensory world to the heavens, in contradistinction to an animal who looks down. In other words, for a person to discover fully who they are, they need to look up to find the answers and not simply act by instinct as the animal kingdom does. And if it is important for us to know who our Creator God says that we are, then it is to the Church’s teaching that we must turn to find the answer.
To God, the human person is more than simply flesh and blood; more that a compound of complex substances; more than a complex system of obsessions; rather the human person is a special creature whom God knows more intimately than ourselves (cf Jeremiah 1:5), created in God’s image (which means that we are something like God) and stamped with His likeness (given the potential to become everything that He is by nature, by grace). In order to uncover our true identity we need to spend time reflecting to what extent we are like God. Just like the sciences conscientiously examine our likeness with the animal kingdom, the same should be done regarding what we have common with God.
It becomes clear that we must come to know God intimately so that we can discover who we are since we are created in His image and according to His likeness. The Christian answer to who we are begins with the affirmation that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God. In Gen 1:26 we read: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’.” Such is the Christian answer to who we are – every human person is an icon and ephiphany of God. It follows therefore that God calls all human persons, in their own unique way, to become, by His grace, power, will, energies and love, everything that He is by nature. We are called to share in the very qualities of God. True happiness, inner peace and joy will come about if we search to exist the way God exists. And since God is all-wise, compassionate, merciful, loving, kind, desiring union with all creatures, we too will find peace and joy in saying “yes” to living out all these qualities. Whether we know it or not, or even accept it or not we are all created in God’s image and according to His likeness.
This means that there can be no definition of who a person is understood apart from divine being, for the divine is the determining element in our life. The deepest element of our being is God Himself. And we should hasten to add the true God. The good news is that once we discover this truth and accept it then this becomes paradise for us right down here on earth. And this is the satisfaction and fulfillment that all human beings are thirsting and hungering for. However if we come to know this truth and deny it, then this can become our anxious, worry ridden “hell” right down here on earth. And with this usually comes a loss of freedom since we become entangled in so many compulsions or addictions. Or else we make idols of things such as food, power, prestige, pleasure, possessions etc. insatiable greed for power, knowledge and status.
Having stated that the human person is created in the image and according to the likeness of God, the question which justifiably arises is: what part of us is in God’s image? What is signified by the image of God? To be created in the image of God implies, first and foremost that we are relational beings. We only exist to the extent that we relate with others in a loving way. Therefore we would say: I need you in order to become myself. Descartes, the great philosopher was partly right when he affirmed, ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I know therefore I am); it is also vital to affirm, ‘amo ergo sum’ (I love therefore I am) since this is what God does after whose image we have been created. We are not called to be individuals competing with one another; rather persons working together with others. The whole purpose of life is to develop from this false sense of security in believing we are fulfilled as individuals to becoming relational loving persons. How radical a teaching it is to believe that in giving up our will for the sake of the other, we are not annihilated rather what is revealed in front of us is a world so beautiful as seen through the eyes of that other person, leading to our enrichment.
Furthermore, created in the image of God means we have the potential for growth and maturity in all aspects of our life – knowledge, feelings etc. Not only are we called to live life in a relational way but also to grow. Indeed that does not imply growth only in this life, but for all eternity. The fathers of the Church teach that we continue to have before us limitless possibilities yet unrealized and even in the life to come we will endlessly grow towards unending perfection. The human person must continue to become more aware and more conscious of the world around through his or her powers of reason, introspection, and intuitive insight. And the more we learn of the beauty of the world and how it functions the more this will lead us to a sense of fascination, awe and gratitude to its Creator.
Lastly the image is to be seen reflected in our possession of free choice. God is free so human beings, made in His image are free to choose. “Heaven, sun, moon and earth have no free will” state the Macarian Homilies of the fourth century, “but you are in the image and likeness of God; and this means that, just as God is His own master and can do what He wishes and, if He wishes, He can send the righteous to hell and sinners to the Kingdom, but He does not choose to do this… so, in like manner, you also are your own master and, if your choose, you can destroy yourself.” Therefore, our vocation, as persons made in God’s image is not to become copies of one another, but through our freedom, to become authentically our own image. In the world to come I will not be asked why was I not like Moses or why was I not Paul, but why was I not Philip.
For such a glorious destiny have human beings been created since they have been created in God’s image and according to His likeness. That is, they have been “ordered by God” (St Basil the Great) to be all that God is in His nature, by grace. Human persons have infinite possibilities since they are the crown and fulfillment of God’s creation.
But sooner of later we see that we are like the earth, and will return to it one day. Not only do we die, but through life there can emerge so many problems of loneliness, fear and depression which make us realize just how frail we are. We see the sufferings of others around us and ask what meaning can there be in all this. But in this whole – and often difficult – adventure we call life we must never forget that God, who created us all in a unique way purely out of His love, loves us more than we could ever imagine. Moreover, this world which came into existence out of nothing was created for us simply to enjoy – to enjoy God’s beatitudes. The paradox is that within us there exists a strange mixture, of feeling invincible yet frail; in the words of St Gregory the Theologian of the fourth century, we are “earthly, yet heavenly…. midway between majesty and lowliness…. both spirit and fresh.” Yet in all this we are never to forget that we are created in God’s image, all in a distinct and unique way, capable of relating and mutual love, open to unending growth and self awareness and entrusted with a free will. To end this brief examination of who we are, we quote a passage from St Gregory of Nyssa, a father of the fourth century who wrote:
“For this is the safest way to protect the good things you enjoy; by realizing how much your Creator has honored you above all other creatures, He did not make the heavens in His image, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor the beauty of the stars, nor anything else which surpasses all understanding. You alone are an icon of Eternal Beauty, and if you look at Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, whose glory is reflected in your purity. Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur. All the heavens can fit in the palm of God’s hand… and though He is so great… you can wholly embrace Him. He dwells within you… He pervades your entire being.”