What Is Man – That Thou Art Mindful of Him?

mikhail_nesterov-holy_rusIn 1839 the eighteen-year-old youth Dostoesvsky wrote to his brother: “Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.”

From Konstantin Mochulsky’s Dostoevsky: His Life and Work

A short time ago I wrote about the “soul as mystery” – the fear and wonder with which human beings are made is a given starting point for me – an assumption that must be afforded to every human being. I have already confessed my debt to Dostoevsky but I wonder, “To what extent is he a man for our time?”

He wrote in the early to mid 18th century. In many ways he was ahead of his time – prescient – able to describe the tragic forces which, if not reigned in, would destroy Europe and the modern world. Those forces were not reigned in – and the twentieth century saw the destruction of Europe in two successive world wars that spent the largest part European cultural inheritance and then engaged in an orgy of madness with the competing worlds of Nazism and Communism. For a time, the mystery of man was placed on a shelf, or trampled underfoot.

But what of our time. We are now better than a generation removed from the last of those wars. My aging father (86) has stories to tell me and I can see about me – in books and in other things – the vestiges of a passed world. There can be no nostalgia for that world. For even Dostoevsky saw its impoverishment 100 years before my father witnessed the madness that would, in time, come to pass.

I am no Dostoevsky. I am only a priest. I listen to the hearts of other moderns like myself who are struggling to be faithful to the teachings of Christ in this early part of the 21st century. We are not filled with the idealism that bordered on insanity that marked Dostoevsky’s 19th century man. Nor are we the madmen who would come later and destroy all that had been left us.

There is likely no single nor easy way to characterize the man of the postmodern West. Some believe, and some do not. Most of the great cultural forces are either economic or hedonist. If there are ideals they are the dreams of youth who find purpose in “saving a planet” they imagine to be dying.

I believe, however, that man is not infinitely malleable – we cannot, in fact, be anything we want to be. We are creatures and have a telos,an end and a purpose, that is Divinely given. Whether it haunts us just now or lies as a forgotten dream in the pages of a 19th century novelist, our purpose has not changed. The Gospel that was good news both to Galilean peasants and to a Russian intellectual, remains the same. The end and the purpose are eternal, for they are the fearful and wonderful reason of our making.

C.S. Lewis, in his The Abolition of Man, wrote of “men without chests,” describing a certain breed of modern man which had jettison his heart, having substituted false science and a devalued subjectivity for the eternal verities that had once linked human beings together in a common culture. He wrote his work in the immediate years following World War II. Nothing in our educational system has reversed the trends of which he complained. We have not regained our chests – not as a culture.

However, we have no where been commanded to change the world or to save civilization. These are things that are measured on a much larger stage of history and longer period than a single life. It is not the diagnosis of our disease that is so important as it is the medicine of our healing. The heart which must again fill our chests is not some missing part of Western Civilization but the heart of flesh that is our inheritance in Christ. It is an imperishable healing that alone can give us what we lack.

Dostoevsky – in his youth – rightly saw his life’s work and the work of every lifetime well-spent. We do well to ponder the mystery of man – for we are a mystery that is a reflection of God Himself. To know man as he truly is – one must know the God who created him.


What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:4-9)

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


32 responses to “What Is Man – That Thou Art Mindful of Him?”

  1. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    In the Hebrew, verse 4 reveals a parallel between the names Adam and Enoch. Adam is the federal head of all humanity (universal) and Enoch (or Nok) is the historical head of the people of Israel (particular). The implication is that God cares for Humanity in general and for Israel in particular. Each individual is precious to the Creator, “crowned with glory and honor”. This is indeed a great mystery.

    Psalm 8 also speaks to the question of suffering: Does God care? The Psalmist’s response is to proclaim the excellence of the Lord, and that should be our response as well.

  2. handmaidleah Avatar

    I was born in 1965 and as I look around I see madness in the world, I don’t think that has changed since the 19th Century. The wackiness of Communism’s heaven on earth is replaced with the environmentalist’s view of heaven on earth (if we would only turn green enough).
    Not to mention militant secular atheism! Madness.
    Such falleness – but Christ conquered and God loves His creation – indeed a mystery and one I am grateful for…

  3. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    “we have no where been commanded to change the world or to save civilization.”

    Wow. I think I’ve been adding to Scripture.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s an easy mistake. Our generation thought it was supposed to “save the world” and that we could. Now my hope is for the salvation of my soul and as many as I can take with me.

  5. Steve Avatar


    “We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood.” — Father Stephen, May 2008.

  6. AR Avatar

    Valuable instruction for me as well.

  7. Gabriel Avatar

    I think Voegelin’s analysis here has been the most helpful about the unbalance which has occured in man’s experience of the world. The order of Christianity was always prone to unbalances, but not to the radical shifts which began after the Reformation and man’s inward turn towards himself as the source of knowledge (Gnosis) on how the world “ought” to be. (And by this I–and of course Voegelin–meant something far different than what Plato or Aristotle were up to when they looked at the well-ordered soul as the model for right order.) Promises which are supposed to be fulfilled of outside of time (“…the life of the age to come”) are pulled into history and now frequently acted upon when oftentimes devastating effects. After all, if the world is “supposed” to be X and a certain class of people are alleged to be keeping it Y, something has to go.

    It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the symbolism of contemporary social and political movements has been shoplifted from Christianity (and, in the act of theft, fractured). “Save the world” being one of the most obvious. Quickly, however, “save the world” from something becomes “save the world” from someone or, rather, some population(s) which simply do not “know” how the world “ought” to be. Eventually some class of human beings becomes hostis humani generis even if, ironically (and some might say paradoxically), they are castigated as such in an effort to save “mankind.” (I can’t help but think here of de Maistre’s wry remark on never having met “a man” despite the philosophe’s and revolutionaries’ insistence that he not only exists, but is worth fighting (killing) for.)

    These sort of breakdowns and unbalances aren’t going to be cured by simply pointing them out, however. Some have remarked that the era of ideologies is over, but I’m not so sure. Re-opening the human soul requires a tireless effort for which few are prepared anymore.

  8. Visibilium Avatar

    We have not been commanded to save the world, and such crusaders are frequently the butt of good-natured ribbing. Cervantes thought his character, Don Quijote, was a freakish buffoon.

    Yet, we have been commanded to aid the poor and to be good stewards and investors of the resources we’ve been given. This naturally leads to the subject of economics.

    Tradition tells us that Jesus was a carpenter. The only question in my mind is whether Jesus was a sole practitioner of his trade or whether he ran a bigger operation that employed other carpenters. I’d like to know how he plied his craft.

    It’s easy to get caught up in amorphous thoughts about theois and divination, but it’s much harder to navigate the intersection of the divine and the fallen.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I imagine that it is hard to suggest economic principles that are themselves consonant with the commands of the gospel. Instead, there would always be the temptation to generalize and create principles that appear consonant. Most Christian efforts to practice the gospel and run the world at the same time have succeeded much more on the world’s side rather than the gospel. R. Niehbuhr comes famously to mind. I might add that a priest who hears confessions regularly is always concerned with the intersection of the kingdom and the fallen world – theosis is hardly a topic of concern.

  10. Visibilium Avatar

    Would you say that science contradicts the Gospel? I’m referring to science, per se, and not the uses to which scientific discoveries have been put or the attempt to convert scientific principles into normative propositions. It would seem to me that particular truths as such don’t contradict Truth.

    By the way, Psalm 8 is my favorite Bible passage. Thanks for the subject.

  11. Steve Avatar

    Interesting to see how the principles of Deuteronomy 15 & 23 are now being “applied” inasmuch as they can be, by the so-called “one world government” (as some see it).

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would not say that it contradicts the Gospel, but that it does not and cannot go where the Gospel goes – that the fullness of created reality transcends the ability of science to know.

    Of course science and political systems and economics are not all the same thing, despite the fact that there is something called political science and, of course, the “dismal science” (economics).

    If you look at Chrysostom’s Christmas homily:


    this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.

    For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

    Obviously, science can’t go there – and yet much of the Gospel belongs to this same manner of Truth.

  13. Visibilium Avatar

    Yes, I agree. My favorite Desprez motet is “Praeter Rerum Seriem” (Outside the Natural order of Things), which describes the Incarnation. How timely.

    Merry Christmas!

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Do you think there are principles that could be applied to politics or economics (knowing that, like Canon Law, you might very well have to apply “economia” to those principles as well)? Is there one thinker more than another who you would point to? Honest questions – I’m just curious.

    I know a number of the readers here have an interest in Vogelin (it’s well outside my realm of reading – though I read a little of late on Vogelin and Strauss).

    Merry Christmas to you and yours as well! Christ is born!

  15. Visibilium Avatar

    Glorify Him!

    Thanks for asking. Well, I subscribe to the so-called Austrian School of Economics, which outlines the appropriate scientific method for economics and other social sciences. Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard are two leading lights of the School. The method is essentially teleological in that the focus is on man’s purposive behavior–i.e., the acquisition and use of scarce means to attain given ends.

    The “economia” comes into play when applying the theory to contemporary events or particular historical periods.

    I have no interest in Vogelin or Strauss.

  16. Gabriel Avatar

    The problem with economics is that the functionality of the system says nothing about the rightness/wrongness of that system. To stay within the realm of something I deal with on a fairly consistent basis, if one chooses productive efficiency as the telos (and why should it be that and not something else?), then I can’t imagine why one wouldn’t subscribe to the Chicago School of antitrust. At the same time, I can imagine a lot of reasons why productive efficiency should not be the “be all, end all” for antitrust law or economic regulation (even if I tend to quarrel with some of these objections in my professional life). The point being that these are closed ideological positions which may very well function, but functionality is far removed from a whole host of other, perhaps equally (if not more) important, concerns. Then you also have a series of other problems with ideological anthropological constructions such as the “rational man” found throughout Posner et al.’s economic analysis of law. Without for a second dismissing the functionality of that line of analysis, there’s still the lingering (and oft unanswered) question of whether or not it is working with an understanding of any man who actually exists. (These same objections have been tossed at Marxists, positivsts, historicists, etc. for decades, though with little effect on slowing down their scholarly output which might all very well be hogwash–erudite, jargon-packed, well-written hogwash.)

    People who are “high” on economics aren’t going to think well of Strauss or Voegelin since neither are ideologists. They’re speaking a different language, one which ideologists can hardly comprehend and are, it seems, unsettled by.

    Just to close, I also don’t think Voegelin or Struass were looking to produce “principles” which could be applied to politics. I think both were fearful of such things, especially since they lived through the outcome of principles divorced from reality being applied to remake the world. Voegelin saw quite clearly that the principles were willed constructs and sealed-off from questioning. Strauss, in his historical studies, mounted interpretations which rejected the notion that Plato and the classical philosophers attempted to produce a set of abstract principles to dictate the best order. He held that the classics were essentially skeptics who were far removed from holding that the best city could ever be realized. If anything, Strauss’s reading of the ancients inoculates against the utopian fantasies which have, and continue to, dominate modern politics.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    You guys are way beyond me on such questions. As I noted, I’ve read a little on Vogelin and Strauss at the suggestion of a reader. But it’s outside my field – I cannot compare it with something else. The same is true of Economics. I am leary of Idealism in any form I’ve seen, primarily because it has a history of genocide.

    I am just an ignorant parish priest. As I’ve written before: “I don’t know anything about that.”

  18. Steve Avatar

    For a CHILD IS BORN to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace. — Isaiah 9:6

  19. Visibilium Avatar

    Your criticism of economics may well apply to the Chicago School, but is merely a straw man argument against the Austrians.

    Let me give you a hint. Austrians don’t posit any particular telos in their analysis. We can handle any given telos. Austrian economics is valid everywhere and for everyone.

    My disinterest in Vogelin and Strauss stems from my suspicion of them as marginal thinkers, at best. Your explication confirms my suspicion. Maybe that means that I’m not really “high” on economics or whatever.

  20. Visibilium Avatar

    By the way, Fr. Stephen, whenever a Tennessee preacher says he doesn’t know anything about something, I always try to reach around and make sure that my wallet’s still on my hip.

  21. Gabriel Sanchez Avatar
    Gabriel Sanchez


    You’re still dealing with the functionality of Austrian economics, which requires certain assumptions to function. If what it purports to offer isn’t deemed valuable, then it won’t be valuable. Period. It might very well function at all times and in all places (an unprovable hypothesis, but one I won’t object to for the moment).

    Calling Strauss and Voegelin marginal thinkers strikes me as unpersuasive without at least an attempted showing about why they are marginal. Is it because they didn’t posit competing ideologies? Perhaps. But that would make them marginal in an ideological wasteland–something neither of them would be insulted by.

  22. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I still don’t know anything about this.

  23. Visibilium Avatar


    Rather than spending time reading marginal thinkers to demonstrate in detail why they’re marginal, I’ll settle reluctantly for being unpersuasive.

    Austrian economics pertains to the logic of human choice. It deals with logical necessity. Because it’s necessarily true, it has to be compatible with Truth. That’s why I am so critical of Orthodox thinking about political economy.

    By the way, unprovable hypotheses are true if they’re necessarily true. Then again, they wouldn’t be hypotheses–but “hypothesis” is your term, not mine.

  24. Steve Avatar

    Voegelin warned that “dogmatic adherence to doctrine […] threatens to sever the connection of experience with reality which leads to a “belief” in a remnant of ideas that are lifeless not to say meaningless” (Emberley and Cooper, 2004).

    Marginal perhaps, but not irrelevant!

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, would he mean by that an adherence to doctrine merely as rational formula?

  26. Steve Avatar

    God forbid. A God that is merely transcendent leaves man with far too much leeway (which we see as “history” before the Eschaton).

  27. Visibilium Avatar


    Thanks for your quote; it illustrates just what I am talking about. For Vogelin to say that doctrines are often at variance with reality is platitudinous. You’ve confirmed the wisdom of my disinterest in Vogelin.

    Relevance doesn’t matter. Let’s say that the village half-wit proclaims to me on every sunny day that the sky is blue. His proclamation would certainly be relevant, but would be immaterial and uninsightful.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    V.. says:
    “The method is essentially teleological in that the focus is on man’s purposive behavior–i.e., the acquisition and use of scarce means to attain given ends.”

    He then further assert that ” Austrian economics is valid everywhere and for everyone.”

    Only, at best in falleness. I would assert with Shakespeare, “there is more in heaven and earth…than is dreamt of in your philosophy”

    As Gabriel rightly points out, all systems of thought require foundational assumptions. V argues necessity proves truth, but it is quite easy to change some assumptions and the necessity vanishes.

    Christian economics, if there is such a thing, must not be captive to any attempt by man to describe and control our own behavior from a merely worldly prespective (as all economic systems do). All systems truncate and distort the human being. All systems are essentially ideological in nature. The ‘economia’ of the Church consists (over simplfying) in dealing with the pain and suffering of a particular person within the context of the Holy Tradition seeking to reunite the person with the Person of Christ in the community of the Church.

    The Church’s supreme economic proclamation at this time of year comes from Isaiah: “Submit yourselves all ye nations for God is with us!!!!”

  29. Visibilium Avatar


    What you say is irrelevant. Economics, as we know it, operates only in the visible, fallen world. Human choice underlies economics. Economics pertains specifically to the operation of human purpose in the allocation of scarce resources.

    When Christ became human, He submitted to the laws of economics in practicing a trade.

    Fr. Stephen has pointed out that, in the world to come, there wouldn’t be any scarcity. At that time, economics would lose its relevance. In fact, all of the sciences would likewise lose their relevance.

    There isn’t any Christian economics, anymore than there’s any Christian physics or chemistry. Christianity is about salvation, not science.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    Merry Christmas everyone!

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Obedience to Christ is never irrelevant. The very fact you think it so is a subtle denial of the Incarnation. All of creation is saved, not just our souls.

    The first commandment God gives us is to dress and keep the earth. In Orthodox practice that leads to what we call sacramental living–allowing the Holy Spirit to sanctify us thereby the people and things with which we interact. There is a Christian way in which to deal with money and the resources God has given us, there are non-Christian ways. There is a Christian way in which to investigate and use the rest of creation (science) and there are non-Christian ways. Discernment is the difficult part.

    It is self-destructive to maintain the idea that we can do anything of value when we separate our ideas and ourselves from God; when we believe the fallacy that we are capable of creating self-sustaining systems that will achieve OUR goals for the good of the many without reference to our Creator. Utilitarian ethics and systems are destructive to us as human beings no matter how useful they may seem in the short run. The only teleology that should be considered is our return to God.

    That does not mean that certain ideas cannot be valid and useful when placed in the correct context. The context, the intention, and the underlying assumptions are all important. It is the context that allows proper discernment. The right context begins with our submission to our Incarnate Lord in love and community. Unfortunately, we usually take the deadly short-cut of making up another set of rules and laws to replace discernment, call them ‘sacred’ as opposed to ‘profane’. At that point we either ignore our responsibilities to the rest of creation or set up a false dichotomy.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    Brothers be kind. Better to ask questions of each other than to draw conclusions so quickly.

    Pardon my moderating of comments. I would prefer that comments refrain from direct accusations of what someone else is doing. It provokes the conversation rather than treating an idea.

    Forgive me.

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