What is he then in the absence of God? A question, yes, but a literally unanswerable one.
Then again, even posing -- or being -- the question implies something important, in that no other animal questions its existence. All other animals are "complete." They are answers without a question, while man is a question without answer.
There's a riddle for you: why would the most thoroughly complete animal be the most radically incomplete? The one must somehow imply the other in a roundabout way.
Perhaps the most compact way of saying it is that man is free; depending upon whether or not God exists, then freedom equates to the Good or Bad Infinity -- or, in existentialist terms, "being or nothingness." Each term is infinite, although it's the difference between a mountain peak and a swamp.
Schuon writes that "the purpose of our freedom is to enable us to choose what we are in the depths of our heart."
It seems that there is no way to reduce this orthoparadoxical formulation to something more cutandry. We have a seed or spark at our center, "which, far from confining us, dilates us by offering us an inward space without limits and without shadows; and this center is in the last analysis the only one there is" (ibid.).
Ah. This would be the famous circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In other words, God is the principle of centrality as such; without this principle, reality would be completely diffuse and disconnected, with no internal coherence.
Another way of saying it is that interior coherence is subjectivity as such. And all of this is related to the trinitarian structure of reality. It implies that man is, in a manner of speaking, God right here or over there. Both -- you and I -- are subjects of cosmic centrality, i.e., "in the image and likeness of Grand Central."
In a helpful (if we're lucky) essay called Overview of Anthropology, Schuon writes that human nature is distinguished from animal nature by virtue of being "made of centrality and totality, and hence objectivity..." Now he's thrown two more cosmic categories into the mix (totality and objectivity), but each must imply the other.
Centrality and totality are really two names for God -- or at least our (potential) conformity to him: they are "the capacity to conceive the Absolute" (i.e., God is every-where and every-thing).
And objectivity is "the capacity to step outside oneself," and therefore transcendence (although its opposite as well, i.e., sinking beneath oneself, not to mention various lateral iterations, i.e., false selves).
Without transcendence objectivity would be impossible, and without objectivity there is no intelligence deserving of the name.
Note that this objectivity takes three forms: there is 1) "objectivity of intelligence: the capacity to see things as they are in themselves..." 2) "objectivity of will, hence free will..."; and 3) "objectivity of sentiment," i.e., "the capacity for charity, disinterested love, compassion" (ibid.). Animals do not build hospitals.
As we know, man is composed of intellect, will, and sentiment; or truth, freedom, and virtue (or love). Animals are intelligent, but cannot be objective with it. It is doubtful that the most brainy animal can stand outside or above itself and regard itself as an object among objects.
And while animals obviously have will, it is not free; like animals, human beings can't help willing, but we can stand above (transcend) various options given by will and choose accordingly.
Finally, animals can love, after a fascion, but they have no way of knowing whether the loved object is worthy of it (e.g., Hitler's dog no doubt loved him).
I was just reading in MotT about how our various senses are like wounds. For example, thanks to a couple of holes in our heads, we are "pierced" by the light which allows us to see.
Now I'm thinking that the intellect, will, and sentiments alluded to above are equally wounds; and now that I think about it, they would have to be ontologically prior to our sensory wounds, i.e., sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing.
Let's start with the easiest: I mean, everyone knows that love is a wound, right? This is prefigured mythologically in the image of Cupid and his arrows.
And freedom is a wound, in the sense that it is "wide open." The existential anxiety produced by freedom is a consequence of the subjective experience of infinite choice; it's like having no skin, only on a transpersonal level (in the absence of God, our freedom is an unbound nightmare, a free fall into infinite space).
Finally, intelligence is definitely a wound, in the sense that, in order to know anything, we must first be open to the world. Think of the animal mind: it is not wounded in the same way ours is. They have the sensory wounds, but are untroubled by the higher injuries.
Much of this converges upon Jesus' most famous sermon -- you know, the one on the mount. In nearly every case, he talks about the necessity of the wound: blessed are the the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. Blessed are these gaping wounds, because without them we can't be healed.