The meaning of man, or what a human being represents in nature’s kingdom, was provided best by Shakespeare in his inimitable style.
The Bard made Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, meditate on man in the following words: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”
In the opening book of the Bible, we read, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
The metaphysical truth shared by all transcendent faith traditions is that humankind by nature approximates divinity, since this is an attribute carried within as God’s gift. It is when this intrinsic nature in people gets obscured, distorted or denied that the same person—“the paragon of animals”—behaves as less than the beasts of the Earth.
There is mystery within people, because God is mysterious even as He makes Himself known. The Koran, Islam’s sacred text, reminds man that “God is closer to him than his jugular vein.”
And the mystical teaching hidden at the core of the shared Abrahamic faith tradition among Jews, Christians and Muslims is about God’s search for humankind and its journey to God.
Human history is, however, a trajectory of betrayal of the divine gift in the heart of people. Never in recorded history did such betrayal and abuse reach their nadir as they did in the last century.
But before humankind can out-perform the beast in this fallen nature, it has to construct an alternative metaphysics to that of the Bible by reducing man to mere matter.
The metaphysics of materialism is the death-knell of man as angel.
It is in the context of 20th century history that the life, teaching and mission of Pope John Paul II, now departed from us, stand as an incomparably incandescent example of Hamlet’s meditation.
To the taunting question Stalin once asked about how many army divisions the Pope had, John Paul’s life came as a triumphant response. He stood at the head of indomitable souls and helped dissolve an empire of soulless materialism.
The paradox is the disintegration of the Soviet Union was far less demanding a task for John Paul than his efforts directed in surmounting the corroding effects of cultural relativism in a secular West.
He understood better than all his liberal critics, from a life experienced in his native Poland made into Nazi hell and Communist inferno, that any shading of eternal truth about the dignity of humankind was a bargain with the devil.
As a student of modern philosophy, he understood better than most the void in the heart of contemporary people was loss of faith. Reason in itself, unhinged from moral laws, John Paul vigorously taught, could not fill this void.
But reason joined by faith in a higher authority has been the timeless teaching of the church to shield humankind from its own depravity. In John Paul’s words, people “must be able to distinguish good from evil. And this takes place above all thanks to the light of natural reason, the reflection in man of the splendour of God’s countenance.”
Despite age and affliction, he taught, until the very last moment of his temporal life, how reason and faith in harmony have the power to transform a person from being a poor, naked beast into an angel.
It is this angel John Paul tried to awaken inside all of us, and to remind us of the eternity we carry within the shell of our mortal frame.
And people around the world responded, as we have witnessed, in being reminded by a man resplendent with the virtue of faith that heaven is humankind’s destination as angels.
?2005 – Salim Mansur is a columnist at Canada’s Sun Media. His column appears at here with Salim Mansur’s express permission by special arrangement with him.