In Genesis 2 we see life emerging from the inert and even inorganic dust of the earth. And while Genesis 2 presents this as happening instantly, it is not spontaneous from the earth but rather it is the breath of God which vivifies the dust and animates the physical to be alive and spiritual. Nonetheless, the animate human rises from the inanimate material – by the power of God. Humans so created were, according to the great teachers of early Christianity, also gifted by God with a rational nature. Humans were conscious and possessed a conscience. Humans have free will and can make choices, which also means human behavior has consequences for good or ill.
“Irenaeus’s sustained arguments … The guiding question here is why the human person, though created for glory, was not created automatically good but neutral and free. The preliminary answer is that it is not God’s nature to coerce (AH 4:37:1), and human beings, though flawed, inherently know what is best. The logic is as follows: if human beings are shown what God is like and are given the option either to follow God and go the way of life or to disobey God and go the way of death, they will naturally choose, life. But virtue is pointless and meritless if coerced or achieved by mere programming. If people were created either bad or good by their nature, they would be neither praiseworthy for being good nor worthy of punishment for sinning as they would be simply behaving according to their nature. . . .
It is only when the human person ‘knew both the good of obedience and the evil of disobedience that the eye of the mind, receiving experience of both, may with discernment choose the better things …’ (AH 4:39.1)
The human person must act out of freedom and experience; for this to happen, the human person has to encounter evil and so become all the more grateful for what is good. . . . God allows the apostasy because he knows it will foster in the human person both gratitude and humility.” (Peter Bouteneff, BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES, p 79-80)
God bestowed a rational nature on humans which is only meaningful if the humans are free to choose good or evil. If humans are automatons whose behavior is preprogrammed, there would be nothing rational about them. Rationality implies being able to analyze and decide what to do. Rationality in this sense is necessary for a person to be able to love. Love is a choice. If everyone was lovely and loveable, there would be no love, but simply instinctual response. We choose to love which makes forgiveness and repentance possible as well.
On the other hand for humans to be rational and for love to be truly freely chosen, both evil and good must be attractive to us. Evil is not always repulsive; if it were there would be no rationality in rejecting it, just instinctual response. Evil can be alluring, seductive, tempting and beguiling. The way given to us by God to reject it is to use our rational nature to recognize the evil and reject it for what it is. It is the way of love, for we must choose to love God and neighbor by rejecting the enticing sin which lies before us.
and that it was a delight to the eyes,
and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
she took of its fruit and ate…” (Genesis 3:5)
Eve could see nothing wrong with taking the fruit – it looked good to her, delightful and desirable. Instead of using her rational nature, Genesis presents her as listening to the talking snake, of all things! She rejects her rational nature and listens to the irrational animal for she fails to see the temptation before her. She does not choose to love but engages in self-love: it looks good to me! And from her individualistic perspective it all appeared good. She fails to love God or Adam and fails to use the gift of rationality.
What the Patristic writers understood from all of this is that God gives us the opportunity to conform ourselves to His likeness through the choices we make. Obviously, using our rational nature and choosing love to attain the likeness of God is only possible if we are not yet perfect. Adam and Eve were not created perfect, rather, they had the potential for perfection. They were, as we are, created weak and corruptible. We are certainly full of paradoxes and contradiction: created for perfect yet corruptible, spiritual yet physical, in God’s image yet made from inanimate dirt. We have the potential to choose to become more godlike. To do so, we have to cooperate with God – we have to use our rational nature in synergy with God for our salvation (Philippians 2:12).
“According to St. John of Damascus, we are in the image in that have reason, intellect, and free will . . . ‘reason’: it is above all the faculty that enables us to choose how we behave—in other words, to exercise our free will. Reason enables us to act freely—without constraint—because it permits us to rein in our appetites. The dumb animals, John says, are governed by their nature—or, as we might say today, by their genetic makeup. They compete for dominance, territory, food or mates; rivals must either submit or fight. Being a microcosm, we experience the same pressures, the same imperatives from our nature. The difference is that we have the option not to give in to these pressures. We do not have to take part in the struggle for survival: we are free to choose instead to love those who hate us and not to resist those who wrong us. . . . Fathers such as St John of Damascus are telling us something startling: the ‘unnatural’ behavior commanded by the Gospel is not just an ideal that we try to live up to. It is in fact the only way to become a real human. However ‘natural’ it might seem to react according to the pressures of our animal nature, to do so is to violate our essential self and become something less than human.” (Elizabeth Theokritoff, LIVING IN GOD’S CREATION, pp 71-72)
To be human is not merely to have a rational nature, it is to exercise the rationality to aspire to and strive for something greater than the limits of our animal nature. The fully human submits his/her animal nature and desires to the rational nature – it is our way of becoming more godlike.
“What I am is an image of God manifest in a spiritual, immortal and intelligent soul, having an intellect that is the father of my consciousness and that is consubstantial with the soul and inseparable from it. That which characterizes me, and is regal and sovereign, is the power of intelligence and free will. That which relates to my situation is what I may choose in exercising my free will, such as whether to be a farmer, a merchant, a mathematician or a philosopher. That which is external to me is whatever relates to my ambitions in the present life, to my class status and worldly wealth, to glory, honor, prosperity and exalted rank, or to their opposites, poverty, ignominy, dishonor and misfortune.” (Nikitas Stithatos, THE PHILOKALIA Vol 4, p 116)
Consciousness and conscience, rationality and intellect all belong to that which is quintessentially human, at least in the eyes of God.