One of the Patristic quotes I see most often is from St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” This is almost always taken out of context – not just it’s immediate context but also the context of the whole work in which it appears, Against Heresies – and it is not even the most accurate translation: “The glory of God is a living man.” See here. However, I’d like to address the way it is almost always used today.
Over the past few centuries in Western thought a divide has been expanding increasingly between God and man, resulting in God being thought to be impersonal. God is not thought of as someone, but rather as something and how you perceive this “thing” determines how it is finally to be grasped. For many God is the clockmaker whom we cannot know, but we can know its creation and by knowing its creation we become fully alive because we also come to grasp the mind of God. (Stephen Hawking is a good example of this, though he does not believe in a clockmaker God. Rather as an atheist he reduces God to the laws of physics). For others God is agnostically unknowable, but is most visible through the achievements of man both as individuals and as a whole. This applies not just to technological and scientific progress, but especially to moral and spiritual issues, a life lived in acceptance and tolerance. Here God is reduced to an idea that is manifested in our lives, again both as individuals and as a society. It is in this context, especially that latter, that people apply their meaning to “the glory of God is man fully alive.” For most people who give this quote it is not actually about God and His glorification. Rather it is about man and our glorification.
This view unfortunately is held unconsciously by most Christians. It is all the more unfortunate since it is the grossest type of blind optimism. Through the lens of God being distant (a deist view of the world) there is absolutely no evidence from human history to warrant someone having a reasonable hope of mankind achieving any kind of utopia, especially one in which man has attained full knowledge of all the universe or universes. To correctly understand Irenaeus’s words and for them to express true hope for us today there is much we must keep in mind, but for now a good start are these two:
1) “The glory of God is man fully alive,” must always be understood with the words of Pope Francis: “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 8)
2) Number one is only possible if God is not distant. He is truly imminent. Not just in a philosophical sense of being within all and grounding all, but in a personalist sense. He is truly active in our lives not as a force, but as One Who is truly personal and relational, and of Whose life and nature we are called to share in.