whatismanIn the eighth Psalm, David considers the majesty of creation: “I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded” (Ps 8:4). But the poet suddenly turns away from his wonder at the star-strewn heavens towards an even greater mystery: that the Lord and Maker of these heavens should bend over the earth-bound with paternal solicitude: “What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” (Ps 8:5) This question, “what is man?” – which, on the lips of this king, is already a prayer, a praise, and a thanksgiving – is asked again today. But now it is posed in the same spirit in which Pontius Pilate ironically inquires, in the presence of the Truth: “What is truth?” In the difference in tone between the ancient Psalmist and the modern cynic, we see the sadness of our age defined.

It was only 10 years ago that, during World Youth Day in Toronto, Pope John Paul II made his acute observation at the close of a brutal age: “The twentieth century…(which) attempted to build the city of man without reference” to God, “ended by actually building that city against man!” This juxtaposition of the best laid plans and their horrific results points towards the paradox at the heart of every secular humanist project: that man by himself cannot fully be himself, that every form of humanism is already a form of anti-humanism, containing within it the seeds of its own ruin.

It is, however, not immediately obvious that this should be so. For, from its first noble stirrings in the Renaissance to its outright appearance in the Enlightenment, humanism has always embodied bright hopes and high ideals. Yet the very ideals on which these early humanists sought to found the city of man had to be severed from their historical (and Ultimate) source: the would-be architects of the human city needed to take, from the reservoir of human culture, the fruits of man’s pious search for God as achievements in themselves. But, like the seamless garment of Christ – which even the pagan soldiers knew not to tear (Jn 19:23) –  these pinnacles of culture derive their beauty and their meaning precisely from their unity. Only a few of the scholars, encyclopedists, and philosophes who set upon their heritage with scissors realized – too late – what their “improvements” had wrought.

And so, divorced from the God who assigned them, the highest human values of man quickly subverted themselves: indeed, when Nietzsche arrived in the 19th century, he merely unmasked the nihilism which had been haunting the West for centuries. Likewise, before the “human sciences” turned man into an illusion of language or explained him as the product of blind, libidinal drives, the biological sciences had already placed homo sapiens – a species like any other – on a unbroken continuum of biological life so that men and amoebas could differ only in degree, and not in kind. So it was that the same heaven which David beheld with wonder came to reveal to man only his own solitude.

One of Dostoevsky’s fictional philosophers discovers, with pitiable surprise, that: “Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism.” Although it is often thought that the fatal error in all forms of secular humanism’s terrible failures is the belief that man is infinitely perfectible, the chimeral mirage of the “superman –” invented in the projects of socialism or National Socialism alike – is actually needed to fill a terrible void. These systems must imagine what man might be in the future because he has no definition of him in the present; the brutal purges and repressions of these systems constitute desperate attempts to avoid the unanswerable question that each innocent life asks, and each victim still represents.

But man will always be a mystery to himself. The same ancient oracle who declared that Socrates – who knew he knew nothing – the wisest man alive also gave the world the gnomic utterance “know thyself,” precisely so that we might arrive at the philosopher’s same pious unknowing. For only in such a posture can man receive the answer to the enigma which he is. The answer, of course, is our very origin. If the God of the Israelites prohibits His depiction in idols (Lev 26:1), it is because He Himself set His perfect image into the world in the beginning: “God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).

Thus, when Pope John Paul II said that “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life,” he not only offered hope to man and the end of the last, desperate century, but he affirmed the dignity of that search itself. Whenever the question, “what is man?” is raised within a sincere heart, that heart is, likewise, raised and oriented towards its Origin. More light is shed on the searching soul by asking this question than by every answer offered by the world’s craven ideologies which can only conceal, obscure, or crush man’s inviolable dignity. For man is a sacred hieroglyph, God’s living signature within the opus of His creation. It is, then, at the wonder of his own existence that the Psalmist exclaims: “You have made him a little less than the angels, You have crowned him with glory and honour!” (Ps. 8:6)