What is Man that Thou are Mindful of Him?

Author: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

What is Man that Thou are Mindful of Him?

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

What is Man that Thou are Mindful of Him?: Is man really the "crown of creation"? Sixth Catechesis by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn on Sunday, March 12th, 2006, St. Stephen's Cathedral. Translated by Prof. John F. Crosby.

In its pastoral constitution, Gaudium et spes, Vatican II said, "Believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their center and summit."

Is this position still tenable 40 years later? Is everything on earth really ordered to man? Is this what believers should think? Do unbelievers agree? The consensus assumed by the Council on man as summit of creation seems by no means to exist. For that would mean that evolution, which led to man, had a goal and was thus a teleological event that corresponds to some plan or intention or design; it would mean that the emergence of man comes from a purposeful and not from a merely accidental process. And with that we are back in the middle of the current debate!

To call man the crown of creation sounds for many like an arrogant excess of self-esteem. Today we read and hear that while faith raised man high above all other living beings, science has cast him down from his lofty pedestal.

It has become standard to speak of the three main ways in which science has given offense to man's sense of his worth. On this subject the well-known investigator of human behavior, Anton Festetics, has written:

The first offense came from Copernicus in Cracow (the earth is not the center of the universe), the second came from Darwin in London (we come from the animals) and the third came from Freud in Vienna (the analysis of our  psyche). We were offended most of all by Darwin's blasphemy about our kinship with the primates, a fact which embarrasses us and angers us, since precisely the apes look so similar to us as to mimic us. (Die Presse, January 1, 2006, p. 30.)

Just one more example that serves to strengthen man's sense of being offended by scientific progress: A few months ago scientists succeeded in decoding the genome of the chimpanzee; it is supposedly over 98% identical with the human genome. "The crown of creation" has been shaken. It has strong competition. Is it not better to say with the English evolutionary biologist, Olivia Judson,

Some people want to think of humans as the product of a special creation, separate from other living things. I am not among them; I am glad it is not so. I am proud to be part of the riot of nature, to know that the same forces that produced me also produced bees, giant ferns, and microbes that live at the bottom of the sea. (Herald Tribune, Jan. 3, 2006.)

Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely.

Man as crown of creation has been challenged in three ways:

1. The earth has lost its central position in the world, it now exists somewhere on the edge of a galaxy of over a hundred billion stars and this galaxy exists on the edge of over one hundred billion galaxies in the universe.

2. Man comes from the animals. This need not be a problem for faith nor even for reason, as we shall see. What stirs up controversy is the supposition that man emerged in a gradual way from nature, that there is, as a result, no fundamental discontinuity between animal and man, no metaphysical difference between them. Man as a being endowed with spirit is thought to be nothing radically new in the vast world of life.

3. The soul of man has been cast down from its spiritual height and been debunked as the mask of unconscious drives. Man is determined not by spirit but by libido. Being thus dethroned in these three ways, the crown of creation is now rolling, as it were, in the dirt. If man remains here in the dirt, then science has definitively dethroned man. Is man a king or a slave? What is man? Psalm 8 prays:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has ordained: what is man that thou are mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him?

Is man a piece of nature or the crown of creation? Or is he both? Does he come from the animals, or is he a special creation of God, or is he both? Modern science has pushed him to the edge of the universe, reducing him to a tiny point on a tiny planet. Is he, on the contrary, the most essential goal of the gigantic event of the coming to be of our world? Or is he both? Is he humiliated as a result of realizing that he is lost in the universe, or is he exalted as a result of being the point in the universe, tiny as the point is, where the universe can become aware of itself and reflect on itself? The psalmist continues in his prayer of praise:

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of they hands: thou has put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsover passeth through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

The world is created for the sake of man

What the Bible says about man has been richly elaborated by the Christian tradition and before that by the Jewish tradition. Thus we read in the "Letter to Diognetus" from the early second century: "God loved men. For their sake He made the cosmos and subjected everything on earth to them. To them alone He gave understanding and speech, them alone He allowed to look up to heaven, them alone He formed in His image, to them alone He sent His Son. He promised them the kingdom of heaven and He will give it to those who love Him."

We have here a very man-centered view of the world and a very God-centered view of man. Man is the center and summit of creation. Everything is made for his sake. Evidence of this is the observable bodily and spiritual superiority of man (language, reason, upright posture) as well as his special supernatural gifts (existing as God's image, as the goal of the incarnation of God, as called to eternal beatitude).

Christianity shares this conviction with Judaism. In the Talmud we find the beautiful simile: the world is created by God like a wedding chamber prepared by a father for his son. Having prepared everything, he led his son into the chamber. But beautiful as the simile is, is this glorification of man really tenable?

At the dawn of the modern world a young genius, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), celebrated the surpassing dignity and greatness of man and did so in the spirit of the Renaissance (which should be understood as something Christian). In one place in his Oration on the Dignity of Man he lets God speak to man, reminding man as follows of his unique position in the world:

Adam, we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose. All other things have a limited and fixed nature prescribed and bounded by our laws. You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature. We have placed you at the world's center so that you may survey everything else in the world. We have made you neither of heavenly nor of earthly stuff, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with free choice and dignity, you may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose. To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine.

Here we find anticipations of some of the themes that have been elaborated in the modern philosophy of man: the openness and indefiniteness of man is both his weakness and at the same time his strength; but he is most of all distinguished by self-determination, the wonderful and unique good of freedom. This contains both the risk of abuse and also the possibility of man being "reborn into the higher forms." In harmony with the entire Christian tradition the young Pico sees the special goal of man as divinization, as becoming like God. This tradition raises man above the other creatures into a position of uniqueness.

Since the discovery that the earth is no longer the center of the universe, that the sun does not go around it but that it goes around the sun, since this "Copernican revolution," man's faith in his central place in the world was deeply shaken. The more scientific investigation discovered about the true dimensions of the universe, the more difficult it became to share the Christian faith in a privileged position of man on earth, in the earth as that axis of the world that God has chosen for the purpose of sending His son as redeemer. Why should this little planet be so very important? Why should we grant to the human beings on this planet a special place?

The famous trial of Galileo in 1633 came to the conclusion that the heliocentric picture of the world was incompatible with the Bible. We know that this is not something to be proud of in the history of the Church. This trial, veiled in various legends, is even today for many people the symbol of the Church as the enemy of science, as if the magisterium, the dogma of the Church, wanted to control science and tell it what it may and may not discover. The special place of the earth and of man, seemingly required by faith, seems to lack the support of science.

Who is man? "A gypsy on the edge of the universe," as man has been called by Jacques Monod, a Nobel prize winner in biology, in his famous book, Chance and Necessity? At about the same time that Monod wrote his book Vatican II solemnly affirmed once again the lofty place of man: "Man is the only creature whom God willed for its own sake." (Gaudium et spes, 24; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 356.) So man does after all have a privileged position?

Who is man? Is man a someone or a something? Is he endowed with inalienable dignity that has not been ascribed to him or conferred on him by someone but that he has always possessed as man, possessed just because he is man? Or is man a something that feels itself to be only a part of some larger whole? All the great questions regarding human dignity and human rights revolve in the final analysis around this question. How we deal with human dignity and human rights depends on how we answer it. Before saying anything else let me make this point: the answer to this decisive question cannot be found in opposing faith and reason, religion and science to each other, but can only be found by reflection, research, and faith working together.

Man a part of nature

We can see again and again in the history of thought how it is that the pendulum swings back and forth. First, man is completely absorbed into nature and denied any special position in the world. Then the pendulum swings and man is elevated so high and is so isolated from the rest of nature that he loses his roots in the earth and ends up standing over against all of sub-human nature. In the modern period these swings of the pendulum have been, in my opinion, particularly extreme. On the one hand, we have Descartes and his influence on modern thought; here man is lifted out of the rest of nature as a "thinking thing," or res cogitans, as Descartes says, and everything else is res extensa, or a quantitative world that is mechanistically understood. On the other hand, we have the attempts to dissolve man into the whole of nature.

Let us examine more closely these swings of the pendulum so as to bring out more clearly the Christian view that balances both aspects and harmonizes them: on the one hand, man is tied into the whole of nature as a result of the fact that we are all creatures; on the other hand, man occupies a unique position as a result of the fact that he is made in the image of God.

So let us first ask whether man is a part of nature. But of course! And in what sense? It is very interesting to look into the early history of this discussion, which after all did not just begin today. At the time when Judaism and Christianity appeared in the ancient world certain pagan philosophers of the time strongly opposed them saying: the idea that God made the world for man is absurd. The anti-Christian philosopher, Celsus, said in the 2nd century: "The world came into being just as much for the animals as for man." (Cf. Origen, Against Celsus, IV.) He means that man is wrong to boast of some special position in nature: "it costs us human beings much effort and suffering to feed ourselves, whereas the animals do this without sowing and planting." (Ibid.).

We are almost reminded here of the words of Jesus: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." (Mt. 6:26.) And of the "lilies of the field" he says "that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." (Mt. 6:28.) Does Jesus Himself here not deflate a little the excessive self-estimation of man? Did He not again and again point out the wonderful providence of God for all creatures, even the sparrows? This is very similar to the question of the pagan philosopher Celsus: "Does nourishment grow only for man and not rather for all living beings." (Ibid.) As for the argument that we are the lords of creation only because the animals are subject to us, Celsus offers a very impressive refutation when he says that not only do men eat animals but animals also eat men. Our fear of the bird flu reminds us that we are very much tied into nature. And we have no reason to look down on other creatures just because we can plan and build splendid cities, says Celsus, "because after all the bees and the ants make amazing cities and structures." In a word: "It is not for man's sake that everything has been made, just as little as it is for the lion's sake or the eagle's sake or the dolphin's sake." The core of Celsus' argument is based on the whole. God created the whole and He cares for the whole. Everything in this whole has it role and its place, and this is no more true of man than it is of the ape or the rat.

What this ancient philosopher opposes to the Judeo-Christian view is often put forth today: man is a part of the whole, that is the heart of the argument that has been used from ancient times until today. Immersed in the stream of life man is not different from the other creatures; there is in man no spiritual principle, no power, no special calling that sets him apart. He should be satisfied with this and should finally have the humility to give up his aspiration to be something more.

There is something fascinating about this view that dissolves man into the whole; again and again people adhere to it with enthusiasm or even with fanaticism. Some of the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century recognized as the primary reality the whole of some state or of some party or of some race or class; they thought of the individual not as a subject but merely as a member of the whole, as a part, and as a result they subjected human dignity and human rights to the whole. Ideological evolutionism (which I always clearly distinguish from the scientific theory of evolution) is very akin to the view of Celsus, only with the difference that in his time the whole was understood in a static way whereas today it is understood dynamically. Everything is one great process, the stream of evolution. This is what the microbiologist Reinhard W. Kaplan says at the end of his book, The Origin of Life, in the course of drawing some philosophical consequences: "Today we see the power of life no longer as something incomprehensible but rather as an understandable level of the self-development of matter and as thus embedded in the gigantic evolution of the cosmos as a whole." (P. 252.)

I do not say that this statement is false, but I think that it is one-sided, at least when said of man, and that an essential aspect of the human phenomenon remains here unexpressed. It is true that everything on earth, matter and life and even man, is embedded in this gigantic event of the becoming of the cosmos as a whole. Whether we should call this process of becoming by the name of evolution, is another issue. But this much is certain: we owe our bodily existence to the becoming of the world, beginning with the elements that emerged in the process of the unfolding of the universe and extending to those conditions that have made life possible on our "gentle planet."

Immersed in the stream of becoming

This state of being immersed in the stream of becoming is entirely compatible with the biblical view of man. It is a wonderful thing about our earthly existence that we human beings are really related to other creatures. We share with them the same laws of matter, the same basic elements of life. We occupy the same environment as all other living beings. We are together with them in the Noah's Ark that is our planet.

Just how deeply our bodily existence is woven into the history of the universe has been shown very vividly by Arnold Benz, professor of astrophysics in Zurich. The material elements that form our body emerged in mighty nuclear fusions in the stars:

The carbon and oxygen in our bodies come from helium burning in some old star. Two silicon nuclei fused right before and during a supernova and became the iron in our blood. The calcium of our teeth formed during a supernova from oxygen and silicon. The fluoride with which we brush our teeth was produced in a rare neutrino interaction with neon. The iodine in our glands came about when neutrons were trapped in the collapse before a supernova. We are directly connected with the development of the stars and are ourselves a part of the history of the cosmos. (Benz, Die Zukunft der Universums. Zufall, Chaos, Gott? Muenchen, 2001, p. 35.)

The astrophysicist Marco Bersanelli of the University of Milan adds: "We are literally 'children of the stars.'"

There is no shame in acknowledging this. There is no shame in being a part of the universe. The ancients liked to speak of man as a microcosm. This means that in him the whole of the universe is present and that he is present in it. It is fascinating to explore the links connecting man with what is smallest and what is greatest, with the infinitely small world of atoms and with the immeasurably vast world of galaxies.

Thus we need not be humiliated when it is shown that the emergence of man on earth had a long history. The long path towards "hominization" is the object of intense research. The reconstruction of the exact ancestry of man becomes, of course, less certain as our knowledge expands. Is there only one line of development common to all men, or are there several? But the biggest question is: when can we speak of man? Is there only a gradual transition from animal to man? How did it happen that man (homo sapiens) developed from hominids, or man-like species?

Anthropologists speak of anatomical and cultural signs that reveal the special place of man: the size of the brain, the upright posture, the use of fire, the forming of traditions, the production and use of tools, and finally language. How did all of this come about? What made man to be man? Is it just a matter of genes? But if chimpanzees have almost the same genetic code as men, where is the difference?

The small difference

But do we have to acknowledge a difference? Many people nowadays simply do not want to see it or accept it. Like the ancient philosopher Celsus they point to the so striking similarities between man and animal that sometimes go so far as to make the animals even seem superior to us.

Let me tell a little story to show that the difference — despite all the kinship — cannot be denied and that everyone who looks at the facts with honesty sees it very clearly. A fellow Dominican and colleague took delight in telling us at table about his project of writing a philosophical work to prove that man is not different from the animals. He kept telling us about this, and so one day another Dominican had had enough and he asked him, "Tell us, Father, is your book autobiographical?" Our laughter and his embarrassed silence were a clear answer. There is an essential difference between animal and man. We do not know just when this difference emerged in the course of the development towards man. But we know with the full evidence of reason that this difference exists. What is the difference? Consciousness? Even animals have a kind of self-perception. Having relations? Even animals have relations of some kind among themselves and also relations with us human beings, and often very touching relations. Personhood? Certainly, but what makes for a person? I especially like the approach developed by the German philosopher Hans-Eduard Hengstenberg, who says that the distinguishing mark of man is his "capacity for objectivity," that is, his ability to go beyond his immediate interests and needs and to perceive himself and others as the beings that they are in their own right. I do not just feel, I can also examine my feelings, approach them "objectively," interpret them. I am not completely immersed in my world, I can look at it, can change it, compare it with other things, and can stand over against it in a critical spirit. I can think about it as well as about myself. This power cannot derive from animated matter, which cannot consider itself and stand over against itself.

It is certainly true that chimpanzees and human beings have largely the same genome. But no chimpanzee will ever take an interest in its genome, to say nothing of decoding it. His world stops with his banana, with reproduction, with his environment and his needs. Man can investigate his genome and that of the chimpanzees as well. He can take an interest in his kinship with chimpanzees and can study it. He even has the freedom to deny the difference between himself and the chimpanzee. But he can only do this because he is endowed with a spiritual principle. Only a human being can hit on the idea of writing books to deny that he is different from the animals. This too takes spirit, reason, will.

Evolutionism of the ideological kind is based on this freedom. Thanks to his spiritual principle he can spin out theories that reduce precisely this spiritual principle to matter. This is what evolutionary cognitive theory does: it wants to derive the human capacity for knowledge from what promotes evolutionary adaptation and survival. And this is what evolutionary ethics does: it explains moral behavior in terms of evolutionary usefulness. It has often enough been demonstrated that all of these attempts are condemned to failure. Spirit cannot be derived from matter, even if our spiritual activities have material conditions. Thinking requires the brain, but the brain does not produce thinking, just as a piano does not produce Mozart's piano concertos. Without a piano they cannot be heard, but the piano is only the necessary instrument, it is neither the composer nor the piano concert.

We stand here at the great divide between a materialistic view and a view that leaves room for the spirit. This is not primarily the divide between faith and science, but between an irrational and a rational view. Materialism is intellectually untenable, it is in fact self-contradictory. One can as a matter of scientific method bracket out the question of spirit and reason and look only for material causes and connections. But this methodological restriction is the decision of a spiritual being. It is only possible for free personal subjects; only human beings can use their reason to bracket out the spirit, but they cannot do this without using their reason. Only reason can deny reason — and in this way show itself to be unreasonable!

The choice between reason and unreason

This sounds somewhat complicated, but it is in reality completely clear and intelligible. Let me clarify this refutation of materialism (it is a classic refutation) by bringing in the beautiful example used by the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas. In writing his great work, The Ethics of Responsibility, he realized that all talk of ethics and responsibility makes no sense if there is no spirit, no soul, no reason, no free will. Genes do not accept responsibility. They are not arraigned in court when they produce cancer cells. Neither are animals held accountable. Only human beings have responsibility because they can (normally) be held accountable for their deeds. Every form of economic activity gives a direct refutation of materialism. For I am responsible when I hold some job, unlike the ants and the bees, which have no responsibility for their mistakes. They cannot make mistakes, since their behavior is directed by instinct. Only free beings can make mistakes. Everyday life refutes the materialistic conception of man. And yet very clever people fall into the error of materialistic interpretations of man. Here is the example that Hans Jonas uses to refute materialism.

Around the year 1845 in Berlin a group of like-minded young physiologists was formed. They were disciples of the famous Johannes Mueller and wanted to transform physiology into an "exact" science. They met each week at the home of the physicist, Gustav Magnus. Two of them, Ernst Bruecke and Emil du Bois-Reymond, solemnly swore "to uphold the truth that there are no other forces at work in an organism than the common physical-chemical forces." The young Helmholtz soon joined these two (who had met him in the home of Magnus) as a third taker of the oath. As each of the three rose to great fame and brilliant scientific success, they remained faithful to their youthful commitment. But what escaped them was the fact that the act of entering into this oath already violated the oath. In the act of swearing they entrusted the control over the functioning of their brains to something entirely non-physical, namely to their relation to truth; and yet by the content of their oath they denied this control in principle. To promise something, knowing that you can either do the thing promised or take the equally available option of not doing it: this is to grant that there is within the whole of reality a power that is different from the forces that are inherent in matter and at work in the interaction of inorganic bodies. (Macht und Ohnmacht des Subjektivitaet, Frankfurt, 1981, p. 13 ff.)

What follows from this? These three scholars were right to admit, for the purpose of their scientific research, only "physical-chemical forces." But they went wrong in assuming that this says everything there is to say about man. Their oath shows that there is the dimension of spirit, soul, reason, freedom, which cannot in turn be the product of the material conditions for spiritual activities.

But if the spiritual principle in man cannot derive from its material conditions, whence does it derive? Reason requires us to assume a spiritual principle in man that the philosophical traditions have usually called "soul." Only the soul makes man fully man. Though it cannot be scientifically "demonstrated," there could not be, without this spiritual principle that transcends matter, any such thing as science, which is after all a "spiritual function."

The soul is immortal, as philosophers since Socrates have understood. Some of them in fact thought that the soul must therefore be eternal. Against this view the Church teaches that "souls are immediately created by God." This statement is found in the famous passage of the 1950 encyclical, Humani generis, where Pius XII says that it does not contradict faith to hold that the human body originated in some already existing living matter. The spiritual soul of man, by contrast, cannot be a product of evolution. It is also not "brought forth" from the parents (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #366). It is immediately created by God. This is the firm and clear doctrine of the Church, a doctrine that just applies concretely the biblical teaching about man being created in a special way, that is, as the only living being created "in the image and likeness of God" (cf. Genesis 1:26). It is true that, according to the second creation account in Genesis, man is taken from the earth and formed by God from the earth; but he became a living being and a man only through the "breath of life" that God breathed into him (Genesis 2:7). He is united with all living beings through his earthly origin, but he is man only through the soul that God breathed into him. This confers on him an unsubstitutable dignity, but also a very special responsibility; thus he is raised above all other living beings and at the same time he is ordained to be their shepherd.

"You created the fly"

Is then man the "crown of creation"? What remains of the three great offenses given to man?

1. It is true that our earth is a speck in the universe. But we see more and more clearly how inconceivably privileged this planet is, how life on this planet, which is our home, was incredibly improbable. The earth is not the spatial center, but we live on an exceedingly marvelous "privileged planet" (this was the title of the book by Gonzales and Richards, Washington, 2001). What we should never forget is that we are apparently the only beings on this planet who know about this and know about ever more amazing things.

2. It is true that we are a part of nature, inserted into the great process of world's becoming. And yet we know about this and can examine our place in this process, we can reflect on it, and we can exercise our unique freedom in drawing consequences from it, whether responsible or harmful consequences.

3. It is true that we are directed by instincts and conditioned by drives, and yet we can investigate these and come to understand them. In addition we are obliged to raise ourselves above our drives and to order them responsibly.

In a word: on closer examination the "crown" of creation is not dethroned. Our immensely expanded knowledge should just make us more humble, grateful, and responsible.

Let me conclude this catechesis with two sayings of the rabbis. Jewish wisdom is often so vivid, and it always has a note of humor that puts us in our place when we take ourselves too seriously.

"Why was man created only on the sixth day? So that, in case he became too arrogant, he could be told, 'The fly was created before you.'" (Quoted in Urbach, The Sages, Jerusalem, 1975, p. 218.)

"Man outweighs the entire work of creation." (Ibid., p.214.)

From both of these follows a third rabbinical saying (Fr. Georg Sporschill, the great friend of the street children, liked to quote it): "Whoever saves one life, saves the whole world."

(© Christoph Cardinal Schönborn )