Humans share with other animals a physical nature having flesh and blood (and according to modern science having a genetic makeup). Yet humans are a unique animal in having a rational soul as well. In this blog we continue to explore aspects of the rational nature of humans.
“The entire Orthodox Christian anthropology is based on the fact that man can discover God not by direct knowledge, but mainly through his own faults and repentance; not by avoiding all mistakes, but by humbly confessing them.” (Metropolitan Nikolaos Chatzinikolaou, “From Ethics of Dilemmas to Theology of Transcendence”, SVTQ Vol 54 No. 2 2010, p 179)
As rational beings we have free will and self-awareness (consciousness) as well as having a conscience which allows us to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil. Rationality also gifts us with the ability to admit when we are wrong, and thus to repent, forgive and ask forgiveness. The ability to know good and evil helps us to become aware of the God who is love and are Creator.
“What makes people truly human is the recognition and contemplation of the morality made at each moment. . . . Therapists should always help the individual hold on to their ‘humanness’ by bringing up the importance of courage and conscience in making moment-to-moment principled decisions, regardless of their fears.
Having ‘dealt’ with a problem or issue does not mean the matter is erased; it simply means that the individual can behave appropriately in spite of the problems or issues.” (Laura Schlessinger, HOW COULD YOU DO THAT?, pp 164-165)
When we recognize something we have done is wrong, we are acknowledging that there is objective reality, a source of goodness outside of the self. We recognize the ‘self’ is not the source of goodness nor the determiner of good and evil. Rather the self participates in a reality which is the given ‘background’ into which we each are born. This ‘background’ we know as existence itself. We live and move and have our being in God. Thus, it is that repentance helps us to recognize God and to seek out His love, and forgiveness when we have sinned against Him.
“When we shift our preoccupations, anxiety and selfishness out of the way and some space appears for God, we ourselves are brought more in touch with God’s healing. . . . the kind of life the desert teachers are talking about—a life where we are always trying to put aside our self-preoccupation and self-dramatizing, our compulsion to be in charge.” (Rowan Williams, SILENCE AND HONEY CAKES , p 105)
When we are able to realize and value the other – someone other than our self – we become capable of love, and thus of being human. Infants learn that the mother (or any other human) is not part of themselves, but that there really is another separate from the self, someone with free will whom we do not control or will into existence, but who is able to love me. This other pre-exists ‘me’, and is part of the context into which ‘I’ am born. If we have healthy parents, we learn that the other is capable of love. We also learn (at least hopefully!) as we age to love and to recognize the importance of others.
We also experience in relating to others, our own passions, all of which have been given to us by God. Some passions make us uncomfortable, other passions can motivate us to action – sometimes for the good but sometimes towards evil. The passions in us are not evil in themselves but are God-given. It is their distortion and misuse which are problematic. When we are guided by the passions toward selfish ends, we cease to love others and instead begin to use others and exploit them. When we gain control of our passions we can use them towards the good, toward the goals which the God-given passions properly used can lead us.
“Shame, which expresses itself first of all in sexual modesty, is the evidence that human beings regard themselves as beings transcending material nature. The moral principle that arises from shame is asceticism (discipline, self-control). Compassion for suffering companions shows that human beings are other-regarding creatures cognizant of the neighbor’s right to exist. The moral principle here is justice. Reverence, appearing first in the awe that children feel toward their parents, shows that human beings seek an object of worship. From reverence comes piety, or the religious principle. Taken together, the three principles define the right relationship to the whole of life: to nature through asceticism; to human beings through justice; to God through worship.” (Paul Valliere, THE TEACHINGS OF MODERN CHRISTIANITY, pp 555-556)
We are equipped by God, truly gifted by God, to love others including to love God. In our experiences in life, we learn to value others and to love them. We learn the pain of disappointing or hurting others, including God. The pain of disappointing the God of love, causes us to repent and to pray to God beseeching God’s mercy.
“As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to speak and to think. The human animal is best defined, not as a logical or tool-making animal or an animal that laughs, but rather as an animal that prays, a Eucharistic animal capable of offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and intercession.” (Kallistos Ware, PRAYING WITH THE ORTHODOX TRADITION, p vii)
We not only can repent, we also can offer thanksgiving to God. As St. Maximus the Confessor noted (see my blog: Confession: of Thanks and of Sin), there are two ways to do confession: first by humbling acknowledging our sins and seeking God’s forgiveness, but second, we confess God when we humble ourselves and thank God for the blessings we have been given. Both repentance and thanksgiving lead to our humbling ourselves and turning to God the giver of every good and perfect gift.
Unfortunately, it is also true that humans have rejected God their creator, establishing false gods, especially because of our own hubris, exalting our own intelligence as the only true god. This has been part of the problem which has plagued humanity which rejects God the Lord and believes technology and science can cure all human ills since there is only materialistic existence. As Fr. Alexander Men, who lived under the atheistic humanism of the communist Soviet Union, says:
“Intoxicated with science, proud of our power over the elements, we human beings have put our trust in our knowledge of the laws of nature, expecting peace and happiness to come from them. But it hasn’t happened. Knowledge, when in the grip of that animal nature of ours with its reasoning powers, has not saved civilization…” (Andrew Sharp, ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS AND ISLAM IN THE POSTMODERN AGE, p 127)
At least for Christians, notwithstanding the wonders and genius of both science and technology, human inventiveness and ingenuity cannot solve all human problems because humans have a spiritual nature as well as a materialist nature. Some of our problems are in fact spiritual and technology cannot change or alter this fact.
“Man, though a fallen sinner, is yet a child of God, and may become the friend and fellow worker of the Maker of all things. This belief, which set Christians free from the paralyzing fascination of Fate and Chance, lent them new energy and courage. . . . God, once man’s goal and guide, ground of his being and source of his power, has shrunk to ‘the Spirit of Man’ – his better self. Man finds himself alone, persuaded now that his own abilities are all the grace, his own devices all the bliss, that he can hope for or requires.
Thus in Europe was born the new, emancipated man, master of his own destiny. At the Renaissance it was the freedom of man which was stressed. God still seemed close, and friendly, only somewhat less exacting than had been supposed. By the eighteenth century the rationality of man bulked larger. God was by then so far away that it had become possible to patronize Him. He could still be useful, and might be respected, if he would learn to keep His place. God stoked the fires, but man was at the wheel. With the nineteenth century the development of the natural sciences finally made God superfluous, and seemed to promise man the succession to the office of Providence, if not to that of Creator. But the very discoveries that banished God at the same time sapped man’s belief in his own rationality and freedom. Western man saw himself as an animal, distinguished only by the ingenuity with which he resisted the blind hostility of Nature, and the sensitivity which made his recognition of the ultimate futility of his efforts a torture to him. Physics and chemistry, history and biology, each in turn proved chapters, not of a new Genesis or even a new Job, but of a new Ecclesiastes.
Economics and psychology completed the process of disenchantment. Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud between them, through their popularisers, have coloured the imagination of twentieth-century Europe, and left a picture of man from which the last traces of the image of God in human freedom and rationality have disappeared. Fate and Chance rise again in the shape of economic materialism and psychological determinism. The rational forms of public and private life, politics, philosophy, art, love, virtue and religion seem only illusive shadows cast by the blind movements of dark, subhuman forces.” (Nicholas Zernov, THREE RUSSIAN PROPHETS (1944) , pp 8-9)
It is the human reduced, not just to his/her animal nature, but even further diminished to mindless materialism, who becomes circumscribed by physical nature and hopelessly bound by materialistic determinism. To this materialist caricature of humanity, Christians hear Good News: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1). God became human so that we humans might become God. Astounding! Humans can aspire to something more than their empirical nature. Humanity indeed attempted to reduce itself to materialism in rebelling against God by sinning. God nonetheless enters into the world as a human in order to redeem humanity and save it from death which is where all materialism ends. God incarnate reveals true humanity.