Man as Microcosm & Mediator

A great book on Orthodox Christian spirituality is The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), by Kallistos Ware. He writes on the concept of man as microcosm and mediator that was taught by some of the early Church Fathers. This perspective was also important to the great Romanian theologian, Dumitru Stăniloae, whose work has only recently been translated into English. The approach of the Church Fathers can be paraphrased this way: mankind, being constituted as both body and spirit, occupies a unique position in the created order. Because of his dual composition as spirit and matter he participates “upward” into the spiritual, invisible creation and “downward” into the material, visible creation. Only he, of all created things, participates in them both. He is biologically related to the animal kingdom and spiritually related to the angelic. He is, therefore, ontologically connected to both the material and the spiritual realms and is what the Fathers called an imago mundi, a little universe: micro cosmos. (The Orthodox Way, p. 63).

In addition to being a microcosm, man also has the capacity to be a mediator. The Church Fathers saw man as both a bridge and a bonding agent between the realms of spirit and matter, the visible and the invisible because all created things have their meeting place in mankind. Lars Thunberg, reflecting on this construct of the Fathers, says,  “Man was brought into being as an all containing workshop, binding all together in himself. As the last of God’s creatures, he was to be a natural link between all creation, mediating between the extremes, through his own dual composition as spirit and matter. He is, therefore, in the position to unite the world and to bring it into a harmonious relationship with God.” (Charles Miller, The Gift of the World: An Introduction to the Theology of Dumitru Stăniloae. T&T Clark Ltd, 2002. p. 31)

Therefore, through us, the created world, or cosmos, which has been fractured by sin, can be reordered; its natural harmony can be restored and offered back to God. I will explain how they saw us doing this below, but suffice it to say here that the categories of microcosm and mediator are an important way of understanding our role in both the order of creation and the order of redemption.

Because of sin we are now unable to exercise this calling of microcosm and mediator, and this is where the incarnation comes in. Jesus has perfectly united both realms of creation, visible and invisible, in himself—and as recipients of his salvation we are now restored to our original calling and can fulfill our mandate as both microcosms and mediators of creation. Reflecting on the work of Stăniloae, Charles Miller says, “In this respect Jesus, the God-Man, is a uniquely concentrated expression and fulfillment of humanity’s link role by which God and creation, spirit and matter, incorporeal and corporeal, are joined. That link, already existing in humankind but limited in action and orientation because of the fall, is strengthened and perfected in the humanity assumed by [Christ]. Jesus, by becoming man, has actualized humanity’s unifying powers as microcosm and link.” (The Gift of the World, pp. 90, 91)

The mediation of Christ does, of course, go light years beyond our own. Jesus unites not only the spiritual and the physical dimensions of creation in himself, but also the divine and the human, the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. Our mediation only concerns that of the created visible and invisible orders, but nevertheless ours is a mandate that is full of excitement, creativity, and promise if properly understood.

In some ways, our calling to be microcosms of the creation is a role with which we are somewhat familiar even though we may not have used the term. As people who believe in the spiritual dimension of biological man, we are battling away in the arena of contemporary conversation to assert that man is more than an advanced primate, and that he even has a unique spiritual capacity compared to other spiritual beings because of his participation in the mystery of the gospel. (cf. I Peter 1:12)  In addition, we advocate that the physical universe is the result of intelligent design. It is a love gift from God and not just the shrapnel of the Big Bang. We must continue to assert this, but since we often speak about this, it will not be my emphasis here. I would like to focus on our calling as mediators, as I believe this can bring coherence to our calling as believers in the twenty-first century. This construct has the capacity to integrate what are often felt to be conflicting roles and responsibilities. Because we are constituted as microcosms of the cosmos, we alone, of all created beings, can act as mediators, as bridges and bonding agents, in offering the world back to the creator of creation. I’d like to suggest some examples to illustrate this, but my own list by no means exhausts the possibilities.

  1.  Our role as mediators is realized when, as the chief recipients of the gift of creation, we recognize that we alone can adequately offer it back in praise and worship.

Everything I see in creation should be viewed as if I alone was in the mind of God when it was made. If it is for everyone then, in a sense, it is for no one. But if it is intentionally given to me, I must see it as such: a love gift bestowed personally on me. Everything in creation is, therefore, to be seen as a sign of God’s love, just as every gift that we give to one another is a sign and vehicle of our love for each other. This is what birthday and Christmas gifts mean. They are symbols of our love, not simply an exchange of artifacts, but signs and tokens of love (The Orthodox Way, p. 85). In a similar way, I need to view creation as an extravagant birthday gift bestowed on me personally. Stăniloae says that because of each man’s unique ontology he does not merely live in the world, think about it, and use it, but he is capable of seeing the world as God’s gift, as a sacrament of God’s presence, and a means of communion with him (The Orthodox Way, p. 85). His unique calling, therefore, becomes that of offering the world back to God in praise and thanksgiving.

The universe is the theater of God’s glory, and, in the words of C.S. Lewis, it is drenched with deity. But creation is mute without man to give it voice, just as a painting is mute hanging in an empty gallery. Man is needed to give voice to creation and glorify the artistry of God. Without man the heavens are still declaring the glory of God, but only as a painting in an empty gallery. Only man can appreciate this speech, give voice to it, and offer it up in thanksgiving and praise. Ware writes, “Man gives material things a voice and renders the creation articulate in praise of God.” He quotes Church Father Leontius of Cyprus, who says, “The creation does not venerate the maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that stars glorify him, through me the waters and showers of rain venerate God and give him glory.” (The Orthodox Way, pp. 54 & 55)

Most of us faithfully offer God thanksgiving and praise for our redemption, but we tend to neglect doing the same for the gift of creation. A fresh appreciation of our role as mediators can help us restore the balance. And living in a day when the creation is often plundered, polluted, and raped, our calling to reverence it and offer it up in praise becomes all the more urgent.

  1.  Our role as mediators means that as a skilled craftsman, man can take the raw stuff of creation and beautify it.

Clay becomes sculpture, fields become gardens, pigment becomes paintings, wood becomes furniture, steel becomes an graceful suspension bridge, and brick becomes beautiful buildings. Man as mediator is called to reshape the world and endue it with fresh meaning. Ware writes, “In the immense cathedral which is the universe, each man, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as the priest of his whole life, to take all that is human and turn it into an offering.” (The Orthodox Way, p. 86) His vocation is not to dominate and exploit nature, but to transfigure it and offer it back as a gift to God through agriculture, manufacturing, music, works of art, and scientific inventions.

Miller elaborates:

“[Stăniloae is] anxious to reestablish labor as something spiritually valuable, positive, and even joyful. No one returns to God the things that he has received without his own labor being added to them. Speaking of the Eucharist, he says that grapes, bread, and wine are not only gifts to God but things imprinted with human labor . . . We are to use creation, and life itself, as a perpetual offering to God. This response of humanity constitutes our natural priesthood. As priests, humanity is called to acknowledge the world as a gift and is called to present it back to God. This priestly offering is to become the means of communion and fellowship with God.” (The Gift of the World, pp. 63 & 74)

Properly understood, this means that even our every day work can become a means of communion with God. This was a strong emphasis of Martin Luther as he sought to recover the dignity and vocation of the ordinary person. However common you may seem to yourself to be, your unique ontology and, therefore, your unique posture as mediator, uniquely qualify you to take the raw stuff of creation, beautify it, and offer it back to God. No one else can do that in the way that you can as a unique human personality. Such a perspective should color and give dignity even to the simple manual tasks that you perform each day.

  1. As the recipients of revelation, we alone can proclaim with confidence that the creation is a theophany of God’s love.

The creation, as the artwork of God, reveals what he is like, much like a great painting reveals something of the personality of the artist. However, fallen man does not see this, and our job is to make the creation, which has become opaque to fallen man, transparent again. Stăniloae says that we are called as mediators to “spiritualize the material (to make creation transparent) and to manifest the spiritual in and through the material.” An example would be the human person. I am a small piece of creation. People can view me as an amazing biochemical machine but since coming to know God this little piece of creation has become transparent. They can now see God in and through me. I have spiritualized the material (my body), and I now manifest the spiritual in and through the physical.

The creation may indeed be drenched with deity, but fallen man doesn’t see this. It’s like a piece of glass. We can see it as something beautiful but if we only look at it, it remains opaque. And particularly since Darwin, this is how most people look at the material world. However, our role as mediators is to provoke man to not only look at the glass, but also through the glass, and so to discern God’s presence within and yet beyond the creation.

Miller points out that in most Latin based languages, the word for world is derived from the Latin, mundus. However, the Romanian word for world, lume, is taken from the Latin, lūmen, light, from which we derive the English word illuminate. In this sense the Romanian word is very helpful, as it points to the lume (the light, the world) as a theophany, something that can become transparent to the light of God (The Gift of the World, p. 27). It is our unique mandate as microcosms and mediators to open the eyes of the blind and allow them again to see creation as a great theophany of the love of God.

  1.  Our calling as mediators can also sanctify our role as consumers.

As consumers we ingest into our bodies air, food, drink, and all the good things of the earth. If this were the end of the story, we could, and often do, view our role negatively, and with a degree of guilt. Are we not just using up the earth’s resources and making it harder for the creation and for the rest of the human population? However, as mediators, these consumed things are then transfigured—we are, in this sense, what we eat—and through the activities of our bodies, the creation is offered back to God. Hasidic master Abraham Yaakov of Sadagora says, “All creatures and plants and animals bring and offer themselves to man, but through man, they are all brought and offered to God.” (The Orthodox Way, p. 55)

This is why Paul insists that we must not only offer our souls and spirits to God, but we are to “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.” (Romans 12:1, emphasis added). This is mediation. Creation flows into me as air, food, and drink and through my body is offered back to God. It may be hard to imagine a glass of water praising God, but in one very real sense, it does. I drink it, it hydrates my body and in turn my body glorifies God in acts of love, compassion, work, and worship. Many from a liturgical tradition would also see this as enacted in the Eucharist. We transform wheat into bread and grapes into wine, and we offer them in the holy supper back to God. Ware comments, “It is significant that when at the Eucharist we offer back to God the first fruits of the earth, we offer them not in their original form, but reshaped by the hand of man. We bring to the altar not sheaves of wheat, but loaves of bread; not [bunches of] grapes, but [glasses of] wine.” (The Orthodox Way, p. 70)

The Fathers said that food was the love of God made edible and perhaps that is why we enjoy it so much. We receive it as a love gift. It then nourishes our bodies, and we complete the mediation by using our bodies to honor the Lord in worship and in good works through which men glorify our Father who is in heaven. Thus, even as consumers we can fulfill our vocation of being mediators of creation.

  1.  As those who experience not only the beauty and bounty of creation, but also its pain and brokenness, we have the unique opportunity, again as mediators, not just to bear suffering but to transform it into glory.

Pain is a very powerful manifestation of the way creation has been fractured by sin, and reveals how its integrity and cohesiveness compromised. In addition, many of the victims of pain react with anger and rage against God, thus heightening pain’s power to alienate. By way of contrast, when we refuse to allow our personal pain to operate as alienation, we fulfill our calling as mediators. This is what is happening to Job when, in the midst of his pain, he affirms that, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust [or hope in] him.” (Job 13:15)

Clearly our sufferings are not redemptive in the same way as our Lord’s were, but they can be redeemed and sanctified by the power of the cross and offered back to God as first fruits of a restored and renewed creation.

Philip Yancey relates the story of Peggy Woodson, who suffered with cystic fibrosis from childhood and died at the age of twenty-three while she was finishing university. Beside her bedside was a 3 x 5 card that read, “Endurance is not just to bear a hard thing but to turn it into glory.” She may not have realized that her suffering was mediation, but it surely was. To bear tribulation joyfully is to turn pain into prayer. Conversely, healing (not only suffering) is mediation. A healed body is a signpost to the renewed creation and is an equally powerful testimony to our role as mediators in restoring what has been wounded by sin and death. And this, of course, is why the Apostle John describes our Lord’s works of healing as “signs” in his gospel. The healing miracles are signposts pointing towards a renewed and restored creation.

  1. As the human recipients of reconciliation, we are God’s channels to mediate it to others human beings.

This is of huge importance. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 that God “gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Reconciliation always necessitates mediation, and as those who have received the benefits of reconciliation, we have now been given the ministry of reconciliation. Just as I spoke earlier of taking the raw stuff of creation and beautifying it so we can offer it to God, now, in Christ, we have the high calling to mediate the reconciliation of Jesus by our words and our works to those unique masterpieces of creation we describe as human persons. Our role as a bridge and a bonding agent never reaches a higher pinnacle than this. Paul describes his grace-given mediatory role to the non-Jews in Romans 15:15-16, where he describes himself as “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Paul is serving as a priest or mediator of the transformative grace of the gospel. He does this so that fallen human beings, ruined and alienated by sin, may become forgiven and redeemed, fully welcome into the promises of God. This is our calling also and the apex of our vocation as mediators.

Much more could be said, but the concept of man as both microcosm and mediator can be very helpful in integrating the many diverse activities we are all involved in. Someone said that we should distinguish between nature and grace, but I assert that we should not separate them. The Church Fathers never did, and their construct of microcosm and mediator can be very helpful in integrating realms that since the dualism of the Enlightenment have been alienated from each other.

  • Authored by Ray Mayhew, , and revised with the author’s permission by his friend Kurt Mahler.
  • © Photo by tomiraci , # 78523174


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