Gregorian Answer to the Question ‘Who am I?’ / Fr. Dr. Bijesh Philip


Scientific explorations have led us to the distant corners of the space and also  to the core of atoms. Great thinkers of all ages give wise guidance to balance this scientific quest for knowledge with human self understanding. Sages and philosophers of ancient period used to take the question ‘Who am I?’ very seriously. Upanishadic philosophy of India equated man with God whereas certain western Christian thinkers  considered man as basically a sinner. Modernism   replaced God with man.  This  essay is an attempt to have a glimpse of the understanding of man in the thought of late H. G. Paulos Mar Gregorios, the renowned philosopher and theologian and the bishop of the Indian Orthodox Church. Based on the  teaching of the ancient Christian  fathers especially that of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Paulos Mar Gregorios(here after mentioned as PMG) develops an enlightening and  balanced  answer to the question of human self identity  which is very relevant to the people of post modern era. Let us  try to see how he develops the Christian understanding of man as the image of God, how he describes the process of the fulfillment of human potential to be like God, and also his vision of human vocation to shape the world in relation to mediatory role in creation, to social and political justice, gender justice, the humanization of science and technology, sustainable environment and peace and unity of the world.

  1. A glorious Portrait of Human

1.1. Sin as extrinsic to human nature /Essential goodness of man

PMG holds  comparatively a glorious picture of man. He  affirms the basic goodness of creation and especially of human beings whose ultimate source and ground is God. St. Augustine(4th century CE) has influenced the western theology enormously and even the reformers have imbibed some of his viewpoints into the reformed theology. For Augustine human beings without grace from God can do no good at all. PMG  is   trying to give an alternative theology to correct this pessimistic understanding of humans. He avoids both the overemphasis of human sinfulness in the western Christianity and the over glorification of  man in secular philosophy. PMG’s theology seems to take a moderate path which makes man neither a beast nor a god but gives due emphasis to human potentiality. As he rightly says St. Augustine’s “understanding of man as totally sinful, without any capacity for good in him, could be understood only as a pious confession of human frailty, but not as a matter of faith to be taken wholly seriously.”[1] PMG cannot tolerate a theology, which regards evil itself as central to human nature and the whole of humanity as a lump of sin out of which no movement towards the good can come.

. According to the original sin concept of western Christianity  Adamic sin or the sin of the ancestral parents is transmitted down through the generations and  since the sexual union is sinful, the product of that union is tainted by sin. As a typical Orthodox theologian PMG could not subscribe to this. Quoting eastern fathers like St. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Severius of Antioch, he totally rejects the original sin concept as such.[2] Sin is not transmitted. Sin’s consequences can be transmitted. Death and corruption or distortions of the image of God in man were communicated to the generations from the ancestral parents. Innocent children cannot be called sinners. PMG upholds the dignity of human sexual union in the married life. There is no evil in such a blessed act. With the support of eastern patristics, he attempts to emphasize the fact that sin is not part of human nature. But death and corruption are part of the fallen human nature.

1.2. Knowledge of God

Mar  Gregorios upholds the view of the Cappadoceans who believe that God in his essence is basically incomprehensible. What humans can undesrstand is the knowledge of the works of God and not the essence of God. Growth in even this knowledge of God is correlated to moral growth. In other words knowledge of God is dependent on ethical maturity.[3]  And ethical maturity is closely associated with worship also. So ‘good works’ and communion with God help humans to grow in their knowledge of God. As he   puts it “the knowledge of God can not be separated from the love and worship of God and from the love and service of fellowmen.”[4]  So it is holiness and obedience to God rather than theology that leads to the knowledge of God.  

1.3. Faith as Foundational to Human Existence

PMG portraits the ongoing human struggle for meaning and existence in a beautiful way: “Our being has an emptiness at bottom; we have to fill this in some way in order to feel our existence. The whole of human existence is the struggle to find the foundation on which we can establish that existence.”[5]  He  is fully convinced about the fickleness  of the  foundations like wealth, sex, popularity, education, race or tribe, nation etc[6]    It is faith or trust in God that gives true assurance of security in human life. What we proclaim in Nicene Creed according to PMG  is not merely knowledge about the Trinity and church but our trust in them, which gives a solid foundation in otherwise a bottomless pit or emptiness or abyss of this life. He enumerates the advantages of faith thus: a) Faith delivers persons from all fear of the future and worry about past guilt, from fear of death and anxiety about condemnation; establishing the person on the firm foundation of Christ and opening up channels to the powers of God available in the new life.      b) Faith provides confidence that the future of all is safe in God’s hands, that evil cannot finally triumph and that the good will be finally liberated from the mixture with evil. This gives one the courage to face the power of evil, to challenge it, and where necessary to accept martyrdom. e) Faith provides persons and communities with the courage for integrity and self –sacrificing love, since the knowledge of the grace of God in Christ frees one from the need either to justify oneself or to seek one’s own. This integrity and love manifest themselves in new ways of beneficent creativity. [7]

1.4. ‘Image of God’ Explained

Following Gregory of Nyssa’s thought PMG endorses the special and unique fashioning of humans: being created in God’s image, human beings can participate in God’s nature and manifest Him. Participation in God’s nature or becoming like God is the soul of eastern tradition. It is by acquiring the qualities of God in communion with Him that human beings fulfill their potentiality to be God’s image. For PMG divinization is humanization: “the very nature of humanity is to be like God, for that is what it means to be created in the image of God. The more humanity becomes like God, the more it becomes itself. Divinization is humanization. Theosis is anthropesis.”[8] So it is when humanity becomes what it is i.e. when it manifests its true nature as the Image of God that it becomes fully human. In other words it is when man becomes good as God is good that he or she becomes God like and God’s presence on earth and thus fully human.

Jesus Christ manifested the meaning of being in the image of God because he was the true image of God. He is the measure of man’s relationship with God and responsibility to serve the world. An understanding of PMG’s Christology and vision of freedom are necessary to get the full picture of being the image of God.

 PMG maintained a deep conviction of the equality of men and women. They share equally in the image of God. Domination of men over women is a development in the fallen state. Progress in divinization or growth towards the perfection in the image of God brings about proper fellowship of men and women.

1.5.  Freedom as Fullness of Life                                                      

By detecting humans’ danger of overthrowing all kinds of authority hoping for freedom, PMG attempted a deeper analysis of the meaning of human freedom. The titles of his books like ‘The Joy of Freedom’, ‘The Freedom of Man’, ‘Freedom and Authority’, ‘Love’s Freedom a Grand Mystery’ etc. refer to his special concern for freedom and dignity of humans. It seems that a proper understanding of his concept of freedom will disclose the beauty of the major portion of his theology and especially his understanding of man.

‘Freedom’ came to be accepted as a widely accepted watchword of modern scientific civilization. From the time of Renaissance onwards, people in the West struggled hard to free themselves from the extreme authority of the church and also from the sovereign God as presented by the western church. In the post-renaissance, secularist phase of human civilization, the centrality of God was ruled out and an anthropocentric worldview was overemphasized. What PMG tried was to uphold the dignity and freedom of man by rejecting the vision of a freedom hating sovereign God and highlighting  a God who is basically love and freedom.

PMG develops his theology of freedom mainly based on the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa  who saw the freedom of man as the central element to which everything was to be related. Being created in the image of God, man should have all the good things in God and among these the most important is freedom. God is free. He is not bound by his creation; he is transcendent because of the difference of his essence from that of the creation. God is independent in other dimensions also. He chooses and do good without any external pressure. Since God is free, humans who are His images can also be free and independent. Modern de colonization struggles, womancipation movement, liberation struggles etc. endorse this human thirst for freedom.  Freedom from personal evil, from socio-economic oppressions, from parochialism, bold access into the presence of God and doing good or shaping a world of justice and peace are expressions of human freedom.

1.6. Grace as constituent of nature

Opposition between grace and nature is one of the fundamental defects of the western Christian teaching. PMG traces its history back to St. Augustine whose theology contributed enormously to the development of this bane of the Christian theology. PMG presents this root issue in very simple terms  thus: “In Western Christian anthropology, the distinctive thing about man is that he is a sinner by nature. Nothing good can come from him by nature. Only grace can produce the first movements towards the good. By nature he is not free. Grace coming from outside humanity, outside nature liberates him to will the good and thus restores to him the limited freedom of being able to do good.”[9]  As a remedy to this PMG highlights the grace in creation: “It is the double grace – the grace of simple creation by will (of God)and of the second creation after His own image- that constitutes our being as body and soul. Grace is thus not opposed to nature, but is the constituent of nature.”[10] This grace in nature or creation is further strengthened by sacramental grace or the grace received through spiritual exercises.

  1. Fulfillment of Human Potential

2.1. Vision of the whole

Interconnectedness of the reality is a recurring insight in PMG’s writings. He refers to the worldview of various religions to affirm the vision of the whole. The point is that there is a continuum of four levels of reality-inorganic matter-energy, organic level or bio level, the level of consciousness, and the transcendent level. It is when he explains the impact of whole in healing process that we get a clear picture about his vision of the whole, which contributes, to the human fulfillment. “The human system is a subsystem of the whole universe, and is integrally related to it. Disturbance in that integral relation constitute disease. Restoration of that relation to the whole is healing, and the whole itself is the healing force –the whole is the energy source from which matter, life and consciousness all originate. …We need a framework for modern medicine in which we see matter, life and consciousness as a single continuum. …Consciousness, and its various levels, including the transcendent and hypnotic, should also be engineered positively in the interest of healing.”[11]

2.2. Christological dimension

Already we noticed PMG’s view of faith basically as a trust. When he explains personal salvation in Christ it becomes more evident: “To have personal faith in Christ is not simply to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but to be secure in Christ. It is to be aware that our life in Christ is already a risen life, no longer subject to the final death of extinction. …Neither are we afraid of condemnation. It is to know the joy of realizing that our life is identical with the life of Christ. Neither national defeat nor global catastrophe, neither personal disaster nor the machinations of the enemy, neither disease nor poverty –nothing at all can separate us from the life that Christ lives in us. Personal salvation is thus the end of all anxious concern about oneself. It liberates us to live without fear. It gives us a sure foundation on which to live, to live in the community of joy and hope, to live with and for others.”[12]

2.3. Ecclesiological dimension  

2.3.1. Becoming the Body of Christ

Each one initiated into this community can have a unique union with Christ. In other words each one is growing in Christ and becoming like Christ through the church. Church’s ministry in the world is a transforming ministry of a community being transformed in Christ. So in the ultimate analysis building up of the church is for the fulfillment of humans in the church and through the church.

There are various references in PMG to the cultivation of human life in the church, which is primarily through the worship and prayer and discipline. It is not merely the preaching but the body and blood of Christ that nourishes the church. An ordained minister who is a sacramental presence rather than a vicar of Christ in the church is used by Christ to facilitate the growth of the community in freedom.

2.3.2. Worship

Among the various important themes in PMG’s theology, worship seems to be one of the most important ones. He emphasizes the need of authentic worship as part of his fight against the negative impact of secularism and a deep concern for the fullness of life. It seems that he  describes worship primarily as a duty rather than for getting anything special. “The ministry of prayer and worship is primarily our due response to God’s mercy and grace, ancillary to no other purpose. Secondly, it is a ministry of intercession on behalf of the whole creation. Only in the third place should we regard any personal benefits that may accrue to us through worship and prayer.”[13] Worship is a special prerogative of the children of God. It is an important mission of the church, which is the priest of the creation.

Worship or prayer is for the fulfillment of humans. His definition of prayer is noteworthy in this regard: “Prayer is communion or communication with God – opening ourselves to Him and receiving His love. It is by living consciously in this relationship of love that we can be transformed into the image of God. By prayer we become more like God, more loving, more wise, more powerful, more kind and good.”[14]  So by communion with God man becomes like God. Prayer is to fulfill the human potentiality for divinization: “Prayer is therefore a way of training the will to desire the good, as well as of turning our wills towards the highest concentration of all good, namely God.”[15]

2.3.3. Theosis

PMG’s understanding of theosis (becoming like God) is very significant to know his anthropology. He describes it as the key to the Asian African Christian tradition. In western Christian tradition the goal of mystical life seems to be the vision or knowledge of God where as this eastern Orthodox tradition emphasizes the human participation in God and becoming like God. Being created in the image of God man has the potentiality for this process of becoming like God. Quoting Gregory of Nyssa, PMG describes it as an eternal progress.  Being liberated from evil, humans can progress through spiritual discipline by participating in God. Personal cultivation and participation in the church are facilitating this process of divinization.

So becoming like God means becoming like Christ, which is the vocation of man on earth. Thus man becomes true image of God or presence of God. So in the ultimate analysis theosis means becoming fully human which is the result of cooperation of God and man

2.4. Pneumatological dimension

PMG’s pneumatology (Understanding of the Holy Spirit) is not limited to the church or the individual Christian. Along with the Logos the Holy Spirit is also immanent in the creation imparting wisdom and power to all and at the same time transcend in the Trinitarian eternal realm. So the Holy Spirit is playing a role in human evolution and in all his creative activities. [16] He goes on to say that the Holy Spirit works in humans by respecting their freedom: “the Spirit of God does not act compulsively on the agent. The Spirit of God groans and struggles with the human spirit, seeking to persuade rather than to compel, to illumine than to teach.”[17]

In the second level he  focuses on the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Baptism is an initiation into this community of the Spirit. Pentecostal experience imparted mainly three virtues or powers to the community namely courage to stand before God and men with confidence, unity and obedience to Gospel. This means in short worship, fellowship and service to the needs of fellow human beings.

In the third level PMG explains the special and personal charismata of the Spirit. The presence of Spirit in the Church does not mean that all the operations of the Spirit go on automatically. That is why the church prays for special operation of the Spirit in all the sacraments. He  also makes a distinction between the general operation of the Spirit, which is common to all members of the Church, and the special gifts, which are differently distributed, to various members, all for the common good.

  1. Global Management: Human Vocation to Shape the World

3.1. Corporate Existence of Man

Unity of the reality and especially the corporate nature of mankind is a recurring theme in PMG. “Man is primarily corporate. His individuality is secondary. Body is the principle of individuation in an entity called man who is essentially corporate. Perfection itself belongs ultimately to the whole of mankind; the individual’s free goodness is contributory to the perfection of all good.”[18] He believes that God who works in the world is constantly encouraging us to think beyond the personal, group or national interests. Thus the mankind is in progress towards its perfection. But it will be complete at the end of history when evil ceases to exist. His Christology always presupposes this unity of mankind and verbalizes Christ’s cosmic impact. In an article on the finality of Christ he writes: “We must get an image of humanity past, present, and future as a single unit, the Great Adam, flowing through time, and of the presence of the Incarnate Christ in this Adam as a continuing phenomenon affecting the life of humanum in perceptible and imperceptible ways.”[19]

3.2. Man as co-creator with God

Showing Nyssa’s theology as a corrective to the general Christian anthropology, PMG writes about the human calling to be  co creator with God: “Christian theology has been generally reluctant to accept this idea of Gregory’s – that Man is not simply a creature pure and simple, but a co-creator of himself and his world. … To see the human enterprise as a joint operation between God and Man is neither dishonoring God’s sovereignty nor exalting Man above his created limit. It is in this context that both the notion of virtue as rectification and the free cooperation of man as a necessary element in God’s plan for the creation have to be understood in Gregory’s thinking.”[20]

Overcoming the limited views of Augustine, Luther, Barth, etc. PMG gives due importance to the role of human efforts to shape this world which is integral to the human vocation to be the image of God. So it is the human responsibility to  mediate for the world before God and bring the blessings of justice and unity to the world.

With science and technology humans have enormous power to recreate this world. While appreciating the positive contributions of them for the welfare of humanity he exposes the misuse of them for exploitation and injustice. Humans, being the image of God, are to use these extensions of power to address the enslaving threats of humans. He upholds a pure vision of a “science and technology liberated from the shackles of bondage to war and profit and redeployed for the elimination of poverty, for wiping out ignorance and want, redeployed for helping humans to find meaning and fulfillment through serving each other, so that all of us can live dignified human lives.”[21]

3.3. Environmental concern

PMG develops his vision of a sustainable ecosystem mainly based on a holistic creation theology.  For him the concept of nature as alienated from man is harmful to a healthy eco system. Human being is integral part of the creation and he is supposed to handle the creation as an extension of his body. The energia of God is the source, goal and dynamic of creation that has no self-existence. So his holistic vision completely rules out the concept of nature as a separate entity. He thinks that nature as the non –human part of creation plays a more central role in human perception when the transcendent dimension of reality becomes recessive. It is noticeable that it is in the post renaissance secularist phase that the concept of nature became prominent. So PMG recommends that “the idea of an objective world independent of man has thus to be abandoned, and there are no two realities called Man and Nature which can somehow be separately observed.”[22]  When man fulfills his being by participating in divine nature he will be a healing presence of God in the creation. Being the image of God man ought to share God’s concern for the welfare of the creation and develop a reverent receptive approach towards the creation.

  1. Man beyond History

In line with the patristic understanding PMG believes that history has a temporary value serving as a training centre of humanity for its fullness in eternity. History is not final reality; it is a time of freedom, when the fashioning of man is completed, by the human choices. PMG, while interpreting Gregory of Nyssa’s views on the fullness of man,  says: “Man in the world of history is like a seed in the ground, an embryo in the womb. His full potential is not at all evident here. …no amount of biology, psychology, sociology and history, can reveal to us the true nature of man. …The exaltation of human nature (by Christ)to the right hand of God thus determines its true locale-not in history, but in meta-history. History is the womb in which the embryo is formed, but it is being prepared to go out of the womb, through the trauma of death into meta-history. The First –Born, the Protokos, Christ, is that precisely because he was the first to be born this way through death and resurrection.”[23]  So the fullness of man is not achieved in history. And Christ’s life is the point of verification for eschatological fullness of humans. In the eschaton there is no place for male-female distinction, the passions that rage in the body, birth and death.  For him, man being created as an integral body-soul organism, achieves fullness not by rejecting body but by the right use of the material body and its feelings and desires that becomes the basis of virtue.[24] The point is that our historical existence has a role to play even in eternal existence because humans have capacity to determine, by free choice, the essential nature of their beings.

  1. Conclusion

Gregorian anthropology overcomes the drawbacks of traditional western theology. Mar Gregorios, with the support of eastern patristics affirm the fundamental goodness of humnabeings and does not hide the fact that man can do good  with the grace integral to his creation.  He emphatically teaches that there is no conflict between grace and human effort. Since he has overcome the nature grace conflict, human efforts to shape himself and the world are not against Gregorian understanding of Christianity.  Being created in God’s image, man fulfills his being in communion with God as power, wisdom and love. The Holy  Trinity uses the church also to fulfill humans. Worship is essential to this growth towards perfection .  To be fully human is to be freedom because freedom is one of the most important characteristic of God the original in whose image man was created. This freedom that is not merely liberation from personal and social evil but also the power to do good. So shaping of the world through good choices and actions is integral to one’s own shaping.  Thus the use of science and technology to recreate this world is closely related to human progress towards perfection. Divinization of humans which the church highlights as the supreme goal of all spiritual exercises and to be fully human and  humanization  of the world are closely related and identical. In other words Gregorian understanding of man  is the key to understand his Christian self identity and commitment to Global peace. To become the manifest presence of God or to be fully human  means to be committed to the welfare of the whole world which is inclusive of sustainable ecosystem and a just and peaceful world.

[1] Gregorios, Freedom and Authority, Madras: CLS, 1974, p 41.                                                                               

[2] Gregorios, Paurasthya Christhava Darsanam,  Kottayam: 2000,pp 150-165.

[3] Gregorios, quotes here St. Paul who says the same in his prayer for the Colossians (1:10) that they may “lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

[4] Gregorios, Freedom  and Authority, Madras : CLS, 1974, p56.

[5] Gregorios, Be Still and Know, Madras: CLS, 1974, p9.

[6] Gregorios, Be Still and Know,  Madras: CLS, 1974, p9. “Even if some of these were to give us support so long as we live, at the moment of death these begin to fall apart, and we plunge into an abyss where these can not provide us with a foothold. Also while we love in this world with these elements in creation as our footholds, there is a growing uncertainty about their strength, which makes us vaguely anxious. And life itself puzzles us.”

[7] Gregorios, Science for Sane Societies, Madras : CLS, 1980, p98. PMG further explains: “The fact that many of these advantages and possibilities are not always appropriated and realized by persons in the community of faith points to the phenomenon of sin which invades also the community of faith and persons participating in it.”

[8] Gregorios, Cosmic Man, Delhi: Sophia Publications, 1980, p 230.

[9] Gregorios, “Humanisation as a World Problem”, Study Encounter, Vol.5, No.1, 1969, p7

[10] Gregorios, “Humanisation as a World Problem”, Study Encounter, Vol.5, No.1, 1969, p 9

[11] Gregorios, Healing a Holistic Approach, Kottayam: MGF, 1992, pp28, 29.

[12] Gregorios, Be Still and Know, Madras: CLS, 1974, p38.

[13] Gregorios, Worship in a Secular Age, p127.

[14] Gregorios, Worship in a Secular Age, p10.

[15] Gregorios, Worship in a Secular Age, p11.

[16] Gregorios, Be Still and Know, Madras: CLS, 1974, p18.

[17] Gregorios, Be Still and Know, Madras: CLS, 1974, p19.

[18] Gregorios, “What is man”, p 5, Orthodox Seminary Archives, Kottayam.

[19] Gregorios, “The Finality of Christ”, p 25, Orthodox Seminary Archives, Kottayam. 

[20] Gregorios, Cosmic Man, Delhi: Sophia Publications, 1980, p154.

[21] Gregorios, Religion and Dialogue, Delhi: MGF and ISPCK, 2000, p147.

[22] Gregorios, Religion and Dialogue, Delhi: MGF and ISPCK, 2000, p7.

[23] Gregorios, Cosmic Man, Delhi: Sophia Publications, 1980, p 191,192.

[24] Gregorios, Cosmic Man, Delhi: Sophia Publications, 1980, p 196.