Christianity believes that everything in the universe is created by God, sustained by God, and destined to return to God. Human beings hold a special place in this Creation because they alone are created in God's image and likeness (Gen 1). Human beings have been created with God-like abilities so that they can be God's presence in the world. Human beings are called to use these God-given abilities to continue God's creative work in the world. These abilities include free choice, rationality, the ability to relate to others, the capacities to do the right thing and above all, to love.
Human beings are free because God is free. God freely chose to create the universe from nothing: otherwise God would have been answerable to some other power greater than God. Therefore God is absolutely free and so human beings in God's image are gifted with the capacity to make free choices. Love requires freedom of choice. Love without freedom of choice is not love.
Human beings are rational beings because God is rational. Though God is free, the world that God has created is governed by rules or laws. The world as we know it is a place of patterns, a place of predictable events that suggest certain orderliness. There is a certain level of predictability about daily events, like the fact that we need air, food and shelter, that the Sun will rise and set, that spring will come, that a rainbow is the result of the refraction of light through water droplets, and so on. The Creator of such an ordered world where what goes up must come down must be a rational being. Human beings created in God's image are also rational beings. Because human beings are rational beings, they have the capacity to detect, understand and apply the patterns of natural world. In so doing they are able to freely participate in the mind of God and in the creative work of God.
Human beings are capable of doing the right thing because God is just. God's rational nature is important for another reason: it means that God is not unfaithful to God's promises. If God were unreliable and capricious human beings could never know what was true and what was not, what was good and what was bad, what was right and what was wrong. Because God is rational God has created a rationally ordered universe. God has gifted human beings with the capacity to reason and to gain insight into the rational order. Christians are therefore able to believe that there is a truth in any given situation and that truth is accessible, at least in part, to human beings through the use of their reason. God can be trusted to honour the promises made to human beings. Human beings, as images of God are called to be just, ensuring that God's deepest desires for humankind and the world are realized.
Human beings are relational because God is relational. The theological mystery of the Holy Trinity claims that God is one being, but three persons. The person of God whom the Tradition calls Father is the Creator, the source all things. The Father has spoken the eternal Word (the Son) into creation, and through the incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth is the visible expression of the Father. The Spirit is the active presence of God bringing creation to its ultimate destiny which is eternal life. These three persons of God co-exist eternally in a state of mutual indwelling, a very deep interpersonal relationship of boundless love (See section on Trinity in Part III).
Human beings are able to love because God is love. Believing that God is free, rational, just and relational is helpful in explaining many human experiences and the way the world works. But this belief about God is not particularly helpful in answering the question of why God created the world, human beings, the human individual. The Christian tradition believes that God is Love (1 John 4:8). God creates the world, every creature and every human being out of this perfect love. Unlike other creatures, human beings, as images of God, are both loved and are capable of love. Human persons are capable of knowing and loving themselves and, more importantly, they are capable of knowing and loving others with a profound intensity. It is this deep love, this deep gift of self, that Christian's believe triumphs over even the greatest trials, even death.
Human beings are bodily beings. Their bodies are part of who they are and who they were created by God to be. God does not create human beings as spirits alone, but as unities of both body and spirit. This 'being a body' is important for the Christian vision of the human person because it means that all human beings, regardless of their physical qualities, are created and loved by God. Moreover, this 'being a body' underscores human interrelationships with the world and with time and history. Each human being is unique and irreplaceable. Each human being grows and changes over time. Each human being depends on and acts in and through his or her relationships in the physical world. It is as bodily beings that we come to know God, that we love and learn to discern what is the right thing to do.
Each human being is unique and fundamentally equal to all other human beings. This is the case regardless of place and time, regardless of the development or expression of any specific abilities, regardless of any other features, physical or otherwise. The reason for this is that every human being is created, known, called and loved eternally by God (Psalm 139:13).
Every human being has an absolute moral worth and dignity. This dignity of all human beings is at the core of Christian moral reflection. In the Incarnation, God becomes a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. In so doing Jesus unites God's self to all of humanity. This is the ultimate expression of the supreme worth and dignity that God bestows on all human beings. Human beings have such worth and dignity and are so loved by God that God became a human being and suffered and died for them. Jesus was raised bodily to life, overcoming death. The promise of resurrection, eternal life with God and life to the full is made to every human being.
The concept of identity expresses the innate human desire to form a coherent sense of self through making free choices about who we want to be and what we want to do in the context of relationships. 'This includes, but is not limited to, the realms of gender, ethnicity, culture, social role, age group, personality, religion, spirituality, religious community, marital status, vowed life status, and sexuality' (Kappler, 2014). These relationships are formative for our identity in that they exert positive and negative influences on who we think we are and the roles we think we play. Moreover, as our place in these relationships changes over time, new expectations and opportunities arise to make choices to either embrace or reject these new roles as part of our sense of self. Whether we like it or not, these choices become part of our personal identities. We all experience being a child. When we are children no matter how much we might want to think of ourselves as adults we remain children. Becoming parents or deciding not to have children has a certain objective impact on our identities. Once a person has a child, regardless of their actual relationship with that child, being a parent becomes part of their identity. The ways in which we respond to the objective dimensions of our identity arising from our relationships to the world, to others, to institutions, and to time and history contributes to the formation of our own sense of self in the world and the formation of the way other people see us.
Everybody wants to be somebody, to be significant. Everybody longs for an identity. Humans as bodily beings have experiences of the world which are ambiguous. Sometimes humans experience the world as a place in which they seem to be the sole actors, the creators of their own universes. The world responds to the way individuals engage with it. At other times, however, human beings experience themselves as objects in the world. Things happen to individuals that were neither sought nor desired. Sometimes, human beings experience the world as a place that affirms them, that makes them feel that they are worthwhile and that their life has meaning and purpose. At other times, however, humans experience the world as a life-threatening place in which other people treat them as worthless, a place where the natural world seems indifferent to their existence, or to whether they live or die. Of course, all human beings must face the inevitability of their own mortality, their own inevitable and unpredictable death.
Consequently every human being experiences a desire to affirm themselves, to affirm the meaning and purpose of their own lives and their own worth and dignity in the face of experiences that seem to undermine or deny them their human dignity, meaning and purpose. Put another way everybody wants to be cherished and loved. From a Catholic perspective, individuals find themselves through loving and self-giving relationships. Whilst it might seem logical that our identities would be most affirmed by selfish or self-interested behaviour the contrary is the case. Our identities, our sense of ourselves as a person with meaning and purpose in life are most often discovered and affirmed when we are selfless and make a gift of ourselves in the service of others.
The paradox of identity is that it is both something that is always already true and unchanging and something that changes and develops over time. The Christian tradition affirms, on the one hand, that each individual is a unique creation of God possessing an inviolable inherent worth. God created you, loves you, and will always love you. On the other hand, it also takes seriously the reality that this unique individual is nonetheless situated in history. Each person grows through different stages of life, from childhood, through adolescence and adulthood, to old age. In all of these stages the essential core identity of the person remains constant. You are still essentially the same person that you were when you were born and the you that you will be when you die. But it also makes sense to talk about becoming a different person as we learn and grow through these stages of life. The child is different to the parent and the parent is different to the grandparent. Yet we can experience being all of these different people as we go through life. Still, we can only experience them by going through life. You can only experience being a grandparent by becoming a grandparent and can only make grandparent part of your identity if it is the case in real life. So, as we enter into different stages of our lives, we will often have to revisit and re-evaluate some aspects of our identity.
This developmental aspect of identity formation—the fact that though you remain the same person, you also change—is important for two reasons. First, one should not expect people at different stages of their lives to think and act in the same way. We talk about the wisdom of old age because the elderly have lived through the various stages of life and have the benefit of a lifetime of experience. Young people can only imagine what it is like to be old, but old people know what it is like to be young. Similarly, parents know what it is like to be a child, whilst children can only imagine what it is like to be a parent. It takes time to develop and mature, to learn what things are really worthwhile doing and which are not. It takes time to learn from one's mistakes as wells as from one's successes. Second, identity formation is an ongoing process that needs to be constantly revisited. Identity formation requires attention and flexibility. An unexplored, unexamined, unattended identity carries its own risks. A person runs the danger of drifting through life imagining that they are someone they are not. Individuals need to understand their changing identity in order to develop that identity or sense of self, in a way that truly affirms the meaning and worth of their life and desire for dignity. Humans need to embrace those aspects of their identity that are positive and life-affirming while recognising and carefully managing aspects that might damage personal hopes and the hopes of others.