In this blog we continue exploring a few implications of the theological truth that humans have free will and a rational nature to guide that will. Orthodox Christianity rejects all forms of predestination whether theological or biological. Despite the fact that our wills are distorted by our personal sins and by living in the world of the Fall, we still have both a rational nature and a free will. This makes us responsible for our thoughts and deeds in the world. Numerous Orthodox saints said that if we don’t have free will and our actions are predetermined by fate or by God’s unbending predestination then there is no basis for God to judge us as that would be completely unjust. Nothing would matter in terms of human behavior, and God would be nothing more than a sadistic tyrant who destroys the life He creates purely by His own whim. God however was always considered by the Church as both loving and holy, respecting the free will with which He imbued humans. It matters to God whether we choose to cooperate with Him, or do His will, or love Him and one another. God holds us accountable, and this accountability is not arbitrary but truly measures our willingness to be full human beings striving to be in God’s likeness.
“It is for us to bear witness that God is the space of freedom, and that if humanity is not in God’s image it will always be in bondage to nature and history.” (Olivier Clement, ON HUMAN BEING, p 101)
If God had made humans only like all other animals, then we would have no responsibility to take mastery over our own passions or animal nature. Repentance, love and forgiveness would mean nothing since we could never act by choice but always we would simply act according to our animal nature. Orthodoxy on the other hand believes humans are not merely in bondage to nature or history. We can aspire for something greater; we have the image of God in us and the possibility to become like God. Neither nature nor nurture completely predetermines who we are as a people or as a person. We can use our free will to engage our environment and others. We also can truly change ourselves, history and even our own evolution. Numerous scientists admit today that humans have evolved to the point that our consciousness now affects and even directs our own evolution. No longer are we humans completely destined by evolution or our genetics, nor by our materialist nature. According to these scientists (some who are still atheists but no longer absolute materialists), we humans now shape our evolution and take new and unexpected directions freeing ourselves from materialistic predestination through consciousness (see for example Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY ; see also my blog series The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self or find links to the PDF version at Mindlessness, Loss of Consciousness and the Neo-Atheist Denial of Humanity). We live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28) – God, the Holy Trinity, becomes the very ‘space’ in which we work out our salvation.
Nevertheless, humans in the modern world, influenced by scientific materialism, sometimes completely fail to see humans as anything but soulless material, mindlessly being pushed through history by the cause and effect of physics. In the 19th Century many Christians warned that the effects of scientific materialism would be the overthrow of God’s lordship and the establishment of humans as the ultimate divine beings. This thinking may have manifested itself in the 20th Century with the development of atheistic fascism and communism (in which the human leaders became ‘gods’ not answerable to anyone since no power was greater than themselves). While Orthodoxy aspired to an ideal that with God all things were possible for humanity, atheistic materials proclaimed without God all things were permissible. Freed from the constraints of God-breathed rationality, of conscience, or the need for love for one another and repentance, all things became permissible to humanity. The slaughter of millions of human beings was the result.
“Dostoyevsky discussed the nature of man’s freedom in all his main novels. . . . His conclusion was that, having freed himself from belief in God, man was bound to deify himself, to put himself above all moral laws, to proclaim that everything was permissible, for if God did not exist then man was the lord of creation. This assertion of his own absolute freedom brought man face to face with the presence in his soul of dark and irrational forces which dragged man from his high pedestal and enslaved him by establishing their iron control over his personality. As soon as man declared that everything was lawful he became a helpless victim of his own passions, fears and doubts. . . . Dostoyevsky shows that suffering lies in the very nature of man as a free and morally responsible being, that nothing can eliminate it as long as man remains what he is, and that the purpose of human evolution is not to abolish suffering, but to explain its meaning, for only those who are not afraid of pain are matured and truly free people.” (Nicholas Zernov, THREE RUSSIAN PROPHETS, pp 90, 92-93)
Christians believed that suffering could have a meaning for the salvation of humanity, to bring us to Godlikeness. Instead in the 20th Century, suffering became the means for some humans to attain their ends: the domination over and subjugation of all other humans, in total godlessness. God was no longer part of humanity’s aspiration. Humans wanted for themselves what they imagined was the absolute, uncontested tyrannical and demonic power of the God in whom they no longer believed. They wanted this imagined power for themselves in order to subject the world to their distorted and evil ends.
However, scientific materialism did not stop evolving. After the 20th Century’s two world wars, even some materialists too turned away from the scientific experiments of humanistic rationalism, moving to reject not only God, but the notion of humans as god as well. Scientific atheism decided there is nothing in the world but empirical materialism, so many came to reject all notions of human conscience, consciousness or free will as sheer illusion. Perhaps this was shaped by the horrendous failures of 20th Century humanistic rationalism and materialism to deal with the reality of human sin and the suffering it inflicts on all. The answer to “sin” provided by 19th and 20th Century atheistic materialism and humanistic rationalism was an effort by certain ideologues to kill all those whom they designated as being “the problem” whether they be Jews, capitalists, Christians, the rich, Slavs or politically incorrect. Their better world could emerge only when any challenge to their thinking or people who failed to meet their ideas of a perfected humanity were eliminated. So the world was plunged into the bloodiest century ever in its history, all to attain an atheistic ideal of a perfected world. The world of atheistic materialism unleashed the forces of sin from the fallen world onto all of humanity.
This is not to deny that the Christian effort to contain human passions, sin and the world of the fall, had sometimes itself relied on worldly or imperial methods. In the the 20th Century the world rebelled against a church which itself was not being a beacon of light or the incarnation of God’s love. The end result of that effort, however, was not a deified human or a humanity freed from ignorance. Humans with no idea of God or spirituality proved themselves to be inhuman and no saviors of humanity or the world, rather they opposite, there was dehumanizing of both the oppressed and their oppressors (for what to me was a rather terrifying look into how fascism dehumanized victims and oppressors see Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest: A novel).
“In today’s world, psychology, pedagogy, and psychiatry—all of them based on a non-Orthodox Christian anthropology—ignore and are silent about the reality of sin. Yet sin after the fall is an anthropological reality. It does not disappear because we try to persuade ourselves that it does not exist. There exists only one way for man, the creature of God, to find freedom from guilt and weight of sin: through forgiveness by his Maker and Creator. Then, truly, man is at peace, liberated from the interior contradictions that create in him anxieties, neuroses and psychopathy. Then, indeed, he lives in the freedom of God.” (Archimandrite George Capsanis, THE EROS OF REPENTANCE, p 21)
There is a truth that humans will be humans. Humans sinned before the Law was given (Romans 5:13). Humans freed from the constraints of God and religion, continue to commit evil. The force of sin is real in the world whether we believe in God or not. Humans having free will are capable of choosing evil, it is a real choice in the world. Pretending there is no such thing as evil, doesn’t not make humanity better able to deal with reality.
The solution for humanity is what it has been from the beginning: to admit our weaknesses, our faults, our temptations, our passions, and our sins through repentance in order to seek God’s mercy. Our path forward is to recognize we humans are not the greatest power in the universe. There are other forces capable of leading us: sin, evil and God are all real in the cosmos and manifest themselves in the empirical and materialistic universe. God has provided us with the possibility to cope and manage with forces greater than ourselves. Our rational nature, properly exercised, can lead to our choosing humility, wisdom, love, repentance and forgiveness. In other words, built into our very human existence, implanted in our selves is the path, door or ladder to God.
Peter Kreeft notes however that despite our past experience and history, we humans still have tendencies to reject God:
“We extol action over contemplation, doing over being, analysis over intuition, problems over mysteries, success over contentment, conquering over nurturing, the quick fix over lifelong commitment, the prostitute over the mother.” (BACK TO VIRTUE, pp 21)
Ever affected by our desire for immediate gratification, we end up as myopic creatures, looking to our self-centered and narcissistic satisfaction. Still God gives us hope and says we can aspire to heaven and to Godlikeness. The possibility is before us, if we have the eyes to see and the willingness to deny the self and take up the cross to follow Christ.
“When he (man) lives in full liberty, in abundance and prosperity, then he grows in body and does not grow in spirit, does not bring forth fruits – good works; whilst when he lives in straitness, in poverty, sickness, misfortune, and afflictions, in a word, when his animal nature is crushed, then he grows spiritually, bears flowers of virtue, ripens and brings forth rich fruits. This is why the path of those who love God is a narrow one.” (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 1, p 294)
The solution for human dissatisfaction in the world is not found only in producing greater materialism and materialistic prosperity. Wealth is not a curse nor an evil in itself; like everything given to us in the world, it is a gift from God which we can potentially use for love and to the glory of God. The delusion occurs when we imagine that by our increasing materialistic goods that the world of the fall and/or fallen human beings will be perfected and turned away from sin, selfish passion or evil. What gets lost in the focus on wealth as a panacea is that the human is also a spiritual being, and our spiritual nature, our souls if we will, need attention as well. Otherwise, ignoring the soul, we enslave humanity to materialism and a world with no hope for aspiring to God. That was the world imagined and fought for by communists and fascists in the 20th Century. We already know the results of those ideologies.
Next: God became Human