The popular idea that Christianity says “human nature” is inherently bad is actually the opposite of what the earliest Christian theologians believed. This book challenges the popularized negative view by proposing a prophetic alternative grounded in early Greek Christian sources. It draws on the wealth of early theological reflection, the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers, and the heritage of Eastern Christianity to discover what God has made us to be.
Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Baker Academic, 2010), 5.
This book arrived several months ago. I have dipped into it, and have wanted to get down to a serious reading of it many times, but let’s just say that other things have intervened. I don’t intend blogging on it in detail, worthwhile though that would be, because such an intention would no doubt simply go the way of all my other good intentions! But I do hope to write more about it at some stage, for it strikes me as a very important book. Sister Nonna is an Orthodox monastic and patristics scholar who has taught in Protestant seminaries, and what she writes here would appear to present a very accessible and also practical introduction to Orthodox Christian anthropology.
The point of this post, however, is to highlight something that she says in the introduction, for this is also something that I keep coming up against and may even at times have said myself without thinking. All too often when we are confronted with the evil around us, and with the bad choices that people make, we hear people say rather resignedly that this is simply “human nature.” Scandals may occur because of greed, but greed is simply “human nature”. Moreover,
The difficulty is that folks today frequently see a Christian understanding of human identity as part of the problem. This is because an oversimplified negative vision of humanity is taken for granted in popular culture, and churches often reflect this negative vision. (3)
The idea that human nature is inherently sinful is of course the opposite of what Christians believe, for “Throughout the ages, Christians have believed that the image of God in which we are created (Gen. 1:26-27) is at the core of who we are and defines us as human.” (5) While sin has buried, wounded and distorted our true nature, it has not destroyed it, for “the image of God remains present in us as a foundation and a potential that awaits our discovery and can transform our lives.” (6)
Although Sister Nonna doesn’t address this in this chapter, I think it would also be worth pointing out that, were our human nature inherently evil, Christ could not have assumed it. Salvation, according to a Christian understanding, is dependent on His taking on our nature and transforming it from within; “What is unassumed is unhealed” in the oft-quoted words of Saint Gregory the Theologian. And we are constantly reminded of this in the words of a prayer by Saint Basil the Great that we pray in preparation for Holy Communion, “with your own blood you refashioned our nature which was corrupted by sin.”
So, when we see evil around us – and, which is more difficult, recognize its roots within us – let us not blame this on “human nature,” but let us rather look at how we may recover the true nobility of our nature which has been tarnished and covered over by sin.