Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)

Previous post: Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (I)

St. Gregory of Nyssa writing in the 4th Century wanted to present a clear image of how humans are unique in God’s creation.  In his ON THE MAKING OF MAN, he shows how adept he was at incorporating biblical ideas about humans with what was the commonly accepted science of his day.  Christianity in the 4th Century was becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, providing everyone with a particular paradigm for how to understand God, creation and what it is to be human.  Gregory works hard on this new synthesis of ideas to show that the bible is compatible with the established science (philosophy) of that day.  Like most of the Christian thinkers of that time, they wanted to establish the superiority of Christian thought over pagan philosophy.  They believed that there is only one truth (Christ!), and so all “truths” are Christian truths.  These beliefs led them to work on a synthesis between the biblical understanding of science and humanity and the well established philosophical truths of the intellectual culture of the Roman Empire.

In the next post we will look particularly at some of Gregory’s understanding of the human body; this post will look at a few of his general claims and perspectives on the world, on Scripture and even on whether his ideas are in fact correct.

First, to one of his comments on the science of astronomy.  Note  in this comment that he reveals a lot about what the ancients believed about the world, and they certainly were no flat earth believers.  In the following quote, Gregory describes the size of the sun in comparison to earth, that the darkness of nighttime is nothing more than being in the earth’s shadow as the sun is shining behind the earth, that the earth is round and that they did think about what the space around earth  might be like.  All of this from a 4th Century Christian.   Of course they had to rely on scientific speculation and a logic derived from observation and mathematics – they had no instruments to prove what they considered to be true.

“For just as those skilled in astronomy tell us that the whole universe is full of light, and that darkness is made to cast its shadow by the interposition of the body formed by the earth; and that this darkness is shut off from the rays of the sun, in the shape of a cone, according to the figure of the sphere-shaped body, and behind it; while the sun, exceeding the earth by a size of many times as great as its own, enfolding it round about on all sides with its rays, unites at the limit of the cone the concurrent streams of light;

so that if (to suppose the case) any one had the power to passing beyond the measure to which the shadow extends, he would certainly find himself in light unbroken by darkness – even so I think that we ought to understand about ourselves, that on passing the limit of wickedness we shall again have our conversation in light, as the nature of good, when compared with the measure of wickedness , is incalculably superabundant.” (p 101)

What they believed to be true about the earth and the sun is surprisingly “modern” as the modern diagram describing an eclipse shows.  They were not trying to be superstitious, nor were they resistant to scientific claims or reasoning that could not be found in the Bible.  They believed that creation itself reveals the Creator just like the Bible does, but they did not assume that all knowledge about the Creator or about creation is derived from the Bible.  Some knowledge about creation and about the Creator is derived from scientific observation and from philosophical reasoning.

What is particularly ancient in Gregory’s comments is the willingness to derive moral lessons from nature and science.   So he describes space in terms of light, the sun and the earth, but then uses that as a model to understand the limits of human evil.  Those kinds of lessons the ancients would also have considered to be science.  They derived from observing the world lessons in what is natural and thus what is good.  Modern science would not see drawing such moral conclusions as science, and is much more willing to point out the endless exceptions to such thinking which also can be observed in nature.  It becomes a risky thing in modern science to derive moral ideas about what is good, normal or natural from by observing animal behavior.

St. Gregory appreciates that much knowledge is discovered through research, experimentation and observation.  Regarding human anatomy he writes:

“… any one too may learn everything accurately who takes up the researches which those skilled in such matters have worked out in books.  And of these writers some learned by dissection the position of our individual organs; others also considered and expounded the reason for the existence of all the parts of the body.”  (p 144)

Research has revealed knowledge that cannot be found in the Scriptures.   Humans are capable of not only dissecting organs but explaining their purpose as well (more on this in the next post).  And St. Gregory advocates study and research even if something is claimed Scripture.  While commenting on the bodily organ of the heart and whether it is the organ associated with human intelligence, he writes:

“Even if any should allege to us on this point the Scripture which claims the ruling principle for the heart, we shall not receive the statement without examination; for he who makes mention of the heart speaks also of the reins, when he says, God tries the hearts and reins; so that they must either confine the intellectual principle to the two combined or to neither.

Here St. Gregory shows his willingness to consider both what the Scriptures say as well as what science has revealed.  Simply quoting a verse from Scripture does not prove the point to him – proof texting still has to be researched by comparing the ideas to what else we know to be true about the world.   He doesn’t make a distinction between the heart as a bodily organ and the scriptural mentioning of the heart in a metaphorical way.  For him, references to the heart mean both things.  And though he holds to certain ideas which he defends, he is also willing to admit that his ideas may be proven wrong:

“Well, whether our answer is near the truth of the matter, the Truth Itself may clearly know; but at all events what occurs in our intelligence is as follows.”  (p 104)

There are ideas about the human body to which he adheres and teaches, and still he is willing to admit that his ideas when it comes to anatomy may be proven wrong.  He strives to work out a truthful understanding of the body based on scriptural statements and the knowledge from philosophy and yet allows for the fact that future research may prove these ideas inadequate.

St. Gregory does accept the science of his day.  He believes all physical things are made up of the four elements, Air, Earth, Fire and Water affected by the humors of heat and cold, moisture and dryness.  Such ideas were common in the ancient world.  So he writes:

“As it is then acknowledged by all that there is in us a share of all that we behold as elements in the universe – of heat and cold, and of the other pair of qualities of moisture and dryness – we must discuss them severally.”

This “science” is reflected even in the Orthodox blessing of water when the priest prays:

by Your providence You order the world. When You had joined together the universe out of the four elements . . . You have established the earth upon the waters. You have surrounded the sea with barriers of sand. You have spread out the air for breathing

The Church Fathers worked hard to make sense of the world, which included not only what they could observe of the physical world, but the claims of the Scriptures as well as the science of the philosophers.  Truth was the very basis of the Church, and thus all that was known to be true was incorporated into their anthropology and theology.

Next:  Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (III)

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Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (I)

St. Basil the Great wrote an extensive commentary on the six days of creation as found in Genesis 1-2 (Basil read both chapters together as one story). His commentary is called the Hexaemeron.  Though it contains comments about the creation of humans, Basil’s brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, was concerned that Basil had not written enough about the creation of human beings and so Gregory composed an addendum known as ON THE MAKING OF MAN.   His goal was to complete the picture which he felt Basil hadn’t done and also to answer some of Basil’s critics as well as some of the questions raised by heretics about Basil’s commentary on the creation of the world.

Reading through St. Gregory’s work on the creation of humans caused me to think about how we today might describe what it is to be human.  Orthodox theology says Jesus Christ is fully human.  Modern science has defined a human in terms of our genetic structure – a science which no one in the 4th Century even remotely imagined.  So it raises questions for us today – if we say Christ is fully human, do we mean that Christ has a fully human genetic makeup – 23 chromosomes and all the biological and genetic markers of every human being?  If so, then we might find ourselves having to rethink some of the concerns of the Christian theologians of the Patristic era.  For they certainly were not thinking genetics when they wrote about what it is to be human or what it means that Jesus, God incarnate is fully and perfectly human.

The Patristic theologians were concerned with creating a synthesis between Scripture and Platonism (I am including neo-Platonism in this) as well as with ideas from the Stoics and Aristotle.  That was the “science” of their day, and they did accept these philosophers as espousing scientific truth – truths that are not  debatable.   Several Patristic writers, Gregory of Nyssa among them, held to assumptions that  sexual desire and gender were not part of God’s original creation of or plan for humans.  These were provisional things which God used as a result of human rebellion against God’s plan.  The Patristic writers worked very hard to create a synthesis in which they incorporated the prevalent ideas of the Greek philosophical “science” (which were regarded as non-negotiable truth) with the witness of Scripture.  The ideas from philosophy were so much a part of the thinking of their day that they knew they had to reconcile the Scriptures to the truth assumptions of the great philosophers if they were ever to get Christianity a hearing among the educated people of their day.  Many of the Patristic writers were well trained in the writings of the great philosophers, and even if they weren’t their society values were permeated by these teachings.   It is not some artificial synthesis the Patristic writers were attempting to force, they were simply incorporating the background assumptions of their culture with the claims of Scripture.  Truth is one, and so they believed they needed to discern how to hold science, philosophy and Scripture together.

So, for example St. Gregory writes:

“While two natures – the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes – are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned – of the Divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female . . . For he says first that God created man in the image of God (showing by these words, as the Apostle says, that in such a being there is no male or female): then he adds the peculiar attributes of human nature, male and female created He them (Gen 1:27).”  (pp 78-79)

In St. Gregory’s reading, the first humans did not have gender – gender is added to the humans in the “second” creation of humans which occurs after the Fall of Adam and Eve.  Some of his ideas about sex and gender were common to the Greek philosophers who were influential in his world.  Gregory attempts to harmonize the ideals of this philosophy about how humans are “higher” than mere animals with what he read in Scripture.

Gregory finds support for this idea in his reading of Genesis 1:27, which in our English Bibles usually gets translated as :

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

St. Gregory, however adds punctuation to the text, making it into two clearly distinct acts.  [His adding punctuation, by the way, is legitimate in the sense that the original texts lacked any punctuation – our English translations with their punctuation are no more correct than Gregory’s].   Gregory’s reading is like this:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him.

Male and female He created them.

Gregory treats these as two separate sentences, two separate acts of God.  First God creates humans.  Only later does God make them into male and female.  In the first action, humans are created in God’s image – and since God has no gender, neither do humans in their God-created natural state.  Gender becomes part of human existence only after the Fall when humans choose to be more like all the other animals.  So for St. Gregory as for many Patristic writers, gender and sexual reproduction belong solely to the world of the Fall and are not a natural part of what it is to be human.

“… but as brute life first entered into the world, and man, for the reason already mentioned, took something of their nature (I mean the mode of generation) . . . (p 88)

Sexual reproduction (Gregory’s “the mode of generation“) becomes part of the human condition only after the Fall.  If this is Orthodox anthropology, it raises interesting questions about what it is to be human and what it means to be fully human.  This has implications for Christ Himself whether he is male, or as a “perfect” human is He genderless as Adam and Eve were thought to have been.  Does Orthodox anthropology require that Christ have 23 chromosomes?  If only that which is assumed is saved, does Christ take on our entire genetic nature, or is our genetic nature not part of what Christ unites to God?

St. Gregory continues:

These attributes, then human nature took to itself from the side of the brutes; for those qualities with which brute life was armed for self-preservation, when transferred to human life, became passions; for the carnivorous animals are preserved by their anger, and those which breed largely by their love of pleasure; cowardice preserves the weak, fear that which is easily taken by more powerful animals, and greediness those of great bulk; and to miss anything that tends to pleasure is for the brutes as matter of pain.  All these and the like affections entered man’s composition by reason of the animal mode of generation.” (pp 88-89)

We can even see in the passage above that St. Gregory is really describing survival of the species – animals have traits good for self-preservation.  Gregory accepts a certain anthropomorphic interpretation of animals – their behavior is seen as reflecting virtues and vices.  Carnivores attack because they are angry, and animals engage in sex because they love pleasure.  These “animal traits” became part of human behavior when humans fell from grace and came to live by animals senses and sexual reproduction.  Pain became part of human experience once we chose to live for pleasure – this is how God punished us for rebelling against him.

Modern science more sees us as more projecting human emotions, virtues and vices on animals, rather than animals possessing such traits.  Gregory sees us as receiving emotions, virtue and the desire for pleasure from the animal nature we took on in choosing to share the animal life.  Whether we could in any way reconcile Patristic “science” with modern science is the challenge we face in the modern world.  Scientific reasoning is as all pervasive today as was Platonism in the age of the Fathers.  The ancient Christians assumed the need to reconcile these truths and created a synthesis that did just that.  We have to consider whether we can do the same and thus follow the mind of the Fathers.

St. Gregory, like many of the Eastern Patristic writers, holds to ideas that seem similar to the notions of “original sin” in the West.  Gregory sees our love of pleasure as stemming from the animal nature we now inherit.  His writing rejects the Platonic ideas that Origin more readily accepted, but still we see in them a more Christianized version of a notion that our physical nature is not really part of what God intended for us.  Humans indeed have animal traits and share an animal nature but that is really only the result of sin.  Modern science on the contrary would say humans evolved from other animal forms over a long history, and any animal characteristics in us are because of our genetic relationship to other animals.

“Thus our love of pleasure took its beginning from our being made like to the irrational creation, and was increased by the transgressions of men, becoming the parent of so many varieties of sins arising from pleasure as we cannot find among the irrational animals.  Thus the rising of anger in us is indeed akin to the impulse of brutes; but it grows by the alliance of thought: for thence come malignity, envy, deceit, conspiracy, hypocrisy; all these are the result of the evil husbandry of the mind; for if the passion were divested of the aid it receives from thought, the anger that is left behind is short-lived and not sustained, like a bubble, perishing straightway as soon as it come into being.  Thus the greediness of swine introduces covetousness, and the high spirit of the horse becomes the origin of pride; and all the particular forms that proceed from the want of reason in brute nature become vice by the evil use of the mind.”  (pp 89-90)

Gregory sees the animal nature (love of pleasure, vices, passions) as actually being made even worse by human free will and rationality.  Swine are greedy but humans turn that into an art of covetousness.  Carnivores are angry but humans add to this ill will, envy, deceit, conspiracy and hypocrisy.  It is our human minds, the very thing God bestowed on us humans to distinguish us from all other animals, which change animal behaviors into sin.  Animals act the way they do because of their nature, humans imitate their bad behavior by choice, according to Gregory.

St. Gregory’s acceptance of the “science” of his day raises many interesting questions.  He does not reject the science of his day.  He accepts it as factually true and thus Scripture also being true should easily reconcile with science.  He is neither afraid of the pagan science nor does he see any need to assume that science and the Bible are presenting opposing ideas.  Gregory works to create a synthesis of what he believes to be true, regardless of the source.   If he held to these same principles today, it would suggest that Gregory might have been willing to work to create a synthesis between modern science and the Bible.  Truth is truth for him, and it is we who have to work to reconcile truths if they appear to be in opposition to each other.

St. Gregory of Nyssa is not alone in his thinking on these issues among Patristic writers.  We can see many of the same assumptions about sexual reproduction and gender in St. Maximos the Confessor who writes more than 200 years after Gregory.   The great theological synthesis they were creating incorporated the science of their day, a science they saw no need to refute.

Next:  Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)

 

Insights from Science

I’m not a scientist and I don’t read science journals, but do enjoy reading the more “popular science” reported in DISCOVER magazine.  In the November 2017 issue there were two articles that had quotes that caught my attention.  These are a bit random, but here goes:

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(Photo by Seth Bobosh)

 Max Tegmark in an article, “Our Next Billion Years: Humanity only just arrived on Earth.  But its future is in the Cosmos” writes:

“Thirteen point eight billion years after its birth, our universe has awoken and become aware of itself. . . .  Although these self-aware stargazers disagree on many things, they tend to agree that these galaxies are beautiful and awe-inspiring.  But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the laws of physics.  So before our universe awoke, there was no beauty.  This makes our cosmic awakening all the more wonderful and worthy of celebrating: It transformed our universe from a mindless zombie with no self-awareness into a living ecosystem harboring self-reflection, beauty and hope – and the pursuit of goals, meaning and purpose.  Had our universe never awoken, then it would have been completely pointless – merely a gigantic waste of space.  Should our universe permanently go back to sleep due to some cosmic calamity or self-inflicted mishap, it will become meaningless.”

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The appearance of conscious beings on earth – namely us humans – has impacted the entire universe.  This is not merely the claim of believers, but is now acknowledge in the scientific world as well.  Humans by being not only observers of the universe but conscious and intentional participants in it have altered the universe.  Humans give meaning to the cosmos as well as derive knowledge from it.  We are not merely along for the ride with no ability to affect our destiny.  Humans do not merely observe, but even have taken our own development (our genetics, our evolution) into our hands.  (see also my blog The Antropocene: Are Humans Really in Charge?)  We can and do impact not just human development, but we now affect the entire world and our influence is expanding into space.  The arrival of humans, self-conscious beings, in the universe is awesome, and that awe has led humans to acknowledge their own coming into an already existing cosmos.  We stand in awe before the cosmic reality, but we give it meaning and purpose.  In awe we celebrate creation by worshiping the Creator.  Our self-awareness serves a purpose, allowing us to come to know not just the empirical universe, but the God in whom the universe itself exists.

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Not only are humans self-aware, but they are also very creative and have managed to take items which occurred in nature and reshape them into useful tools, which further advanced human development.  This is the segue into the second article.

2.  Bridget Alex writes in “Stone Cold Science”:

“Because stone tools are a forgotten technology, the purpose behind different styles is not self-evident.  Scholars in the 19th century devised names, like scraper, point and burin, based on shape and assumed function.  But they had no evidence that scrapers scraped or points impaled.  Unsure how stone tools were used, archeologists fared better at determining how they were made.”

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Something I’ve not thought much about in terms of archaeology.  Stone items are discovered which are thousands or tens of thousands of years old.  We look at those items from a 21st Century perspective and try to determine what purpose the item served.  But we are anachronistically reading into the item what its use must have been based on modern tools, methods and assumptions.  We really don’t know what the original intent of the tool was.  Tools might have been invented for one purpose but then through time it is discovered the tool is very good for a purpose totally different than its original intention.  The original purpose is lost in history and all that remains is what purpose the tool served later in history.  We may never know what a stone knife was originally conceived as.  All we can know is how the knife became used at some point in history – a use which was passed down from that point on to our generation.  Thus when looking at archaeological finds, we have to be careful not to overly read our understanding into an early time period. What we might use a tool for today may never have been conceived by the first inventors of the tools.

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Egyptian Deity: Genius

Adam, Moses and Christ: Denying Salvation Alone

Exodus 32:9 (NRSV)
The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”   . . . On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”
(Exodus 32:30)

Holy Moses!  There are many great events in the life of Moses which are wonderful to contemplate.  Exodus 32 describes one such stunning moment.  God is fed up with Israel and tells Moses to stand aside as God intends to destroy Israel.  Moses puts his own life on the line in defense of Israel – a people who have done nothing but rebel against Moses and blame him for all their troubles.  Yet, Moses tells God, he won’t separate himself from Israel – whatever Israel’s fate is to be, Moses demands that he should share their same judgment.  Even though Moses did not sin against God on this occasion and God tells Moses that he alone is to be made into a great nation, Moses tells God: “If you won’t save Israel, then don’t bother to save me either.”  God is not willing to destroy His faithful servant, so chooses to spare Israel rather than lose Moses.  The notion of salvation being a social construct is an idea revealed in Scripture.  No one is saved alone.  In Christianity all  are saved as part of the Body of Christ – and thus together with all of God’s redeemed people.  Moses shows us to choose that communal way of thinking – even if I’m the only one not sinning, still I choose to be identified with all of the people of God, to share with them whatever judgment they deserve.  Moses tells God: Do not look at me and see me as the lone righteous person.  I’m either part of the people, or I am nothing.

The idea that we are saved in, through, with and because of community is not one that meshes well with the extreme individualistic thinking of the modern West.  It does, however, remind us of what it is to be truly and fully human – to share in a common human nature, to be part of social history, to be lovingly united to one’s fellow humans.

We encounter this same thinking in a rather rare, yet beautiful interpretation of Scripture found in the writings of Johannes Duns Scotus, a prominent Franciscan theologian of the 13th century.  Going against the Augustinian tradition which dominated Western Christianity, Scotus has the first human, Adam,  choosing to eat the fruit God forbade them to eat, not in rebellion against God but rather choosing to be united with his wife Eve, who had already fallen in sin and become mortal.  For Scotus, Adam commits not the original sin, but rather chooses self-denial, kenotic love.  Instead of being separated from the woman whom God gave him because of her sin, Adam decides to share Eve’s fate, showing his true humanity.  Adam may think the whole mess is God’s fault (“the woman YOU gave me...” – Genesis 3:12), but he denies himself in order to remain united to God’s gift to him – united to “the bone of his bones and the flesh of his flesh” (Genesis 2:23).  All humans share the same life, a life which God in the incarnation chooses also to share with us.   Scotus says:

“Adam saw perfectly clearly that his wife had been deceived and that the serpent had lured her into a trap from which she could not now escape. She will have to die, he thought, and God will offer to create a new companion for me, either from another one of my ribs or from some other source. But I do not want a new companion. I want this one and only this one. There is but a single way in which I can remain with her, and that is by conjoining my fate to hers. We will live — and, when the time comes, we will rot together.”   [quoted in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, p 308]

Scotus has Adam thinking like Moses – I do not want to be considered by God apart from the people God gave to me.  It is a tradition not of salvation alone, but salvation as a member of God’s chosen people.

Both Exodus 32 and Scotus’s quote also reveal to us the Lord Jesus, who chose to deny His exalted, heavenly position, and to become a human, in order to completely identify with us, including choosing to die for us and with us and because of us, rather than to be a transcendent God separated from us His creatures.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:1-11)

Jesus Christ becomes incarnate, takes on Himself human nature and the human condition in order to redeem us and be eternally united to us.  Salvation alone is no salvation at all for it denies our humanity which Christ embraced.

And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.   (Hebrews 11:39-12:3)

Human: Created for God

“God did not create man in order for him to feel pain, but rather to know pleasure, which is why he placed him in the garden of Delight (Gen. 2.15).

We were not brought into the world to be deprived of God, but rather to become gods ourselves, to share in the perfection of the image of the Trinity. Man was created to become a vessel and temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 4.7; 1 Cor 6.19).

In his sermon on the humility, St. Basil says that “from a state of nothingness, man has expanded into the heavens.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, p. 203, 248, 311)

Struggling With Sexual Passion

St. John Chrysostom  (4th Century) is one of the great Patristic commentators on scripture.  He is a pastor and moralist in his outlook.  While today many embracing scientific materialism want it to be true that humans are simply another animal on the planet, governed completely by the same laws of genetics and biology as any other animal, Chrysostom like all those Patristic writers of the Christian tradition believed the very thing that made humans unique is the ability to arise above purely animal drives and to choose behaviors of a higher moral character rather than have one’s life determined by biological drives.  With the recent proclamation of the Anthropocene by current scientists, we start to see a scientific recognition that humans are an animal capable of rising above genetic determinism to the point that humans now are shaping not only human evolution by their choices but also the evolution of most species on the planet.   Chrysostom knew nothing of modern scientific theories on evolution and genetics, but he did think humans have a spiritual dimension given by God which humans needed to exercise in order to attain full human potential.

“For there are many who have stripped for the contest against the tyranny of nature, who with purity are pursuing the path of virginity, who in this mortal body are showing forth the precepts of the resurrection: ‘for in the resurrection,’ he says, ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage [Matthew 22:30].’And having engaged the battle against the spiritual powers, they contend eagerly for incorruption in bodies that are corruptible, and – what is unbearable for many to hear – they actually reach perfection through their works. For they drive off their passion, which is like a ceaselessly leaping, frenzied dog; and they take command over the raging ocean, sailing calmly amidst the fierce waves, making a successful voyage across the greatly troubled sea; and they stand firm in the furnace of physical desire without being signed, trampling on the hot coals as if they were clay. Yet, it can happen that such ones, capable of such great things, can be viciously attacked, shamelessly and pitiably, by this passion, and they can be conquered by it.”

Chrysostom’s imagery about how strong sexual desire can be, leaves little doubt that he understood sexual drive and temptation.  He does make it clear that some are able to overcome their sexual drive and actually control it.  He says this is unbearable for some to hear – including those who can’t control themselves, those who don’t want to have to control themselves and those who think humans are merely animals and shouldn’t bother to control their powerful, natural drives.  Many don’t want to hear about people who learn to control their animal instincts.   For Chrysostom, the person who can control their sexual desires, especially those who remain virgins, are the height of human perfection.  Today we have people who spend a great deal of time and energy to become perfect physical specimens of humanity – through exercise, dieting and other means.  We rave about the physically beautiful (athletes and the sexually attractive).  Chrysostom sees human perfection not in physical body sculpting but in learning to control one’s animal desires.  He elevates those spiritual athletes to be the highest degree of humanity and the most desired of human beings.   Humans are capable of making themselves physically beautiful and desirable, but Chrysostom following the Christian tradition thinks spiritual beauty is far more important to our desire to be fully human.

Virginity is something so great, and demands so much effort, that Christ came down from heaven in order to make men like angels and to implant the angelic way of life here below – not, however, daring to make this way of life mandatory, or to raise it to the level of a law, but instead, instituting the law of self-mortification. Is there anything that exists more burdensome than this? He has made it a commandment to bear one’s cross continually, and to do good to one’s enemies; but he has not made it a law to remain a virgin. He has left this to the choice of those hearing Jesus’ words: ‘The one who is able to accept this, let him accept it.’ For great is the weightiness of this matter, and the difficulty of these struggles, and the sweat of the battles; and in pursuing this virtue the terrain is precipitous.” (Letters to St. Olympia, pp. 68-67)

What makes the willingness to control sexual impulse and virginity so special to Chrysostom is that it is completely voluntary.  One chooses this way as a way of sacrifice and self-denial.  For Christ does not command us to live as celibates and virgins.  It is a way of life that one can choose  in order to fulfill Christ’s words to deny the self  and take up the cross to follow Him (Matthew 16:24).  We don’t become fully human by engaging in all our animal instincts and desires.  We become fully human when we realize we can rise above biological determinism and can develop our spiritual lives – and fulfill the Gospel law of love.

Opposing Racism: Commending OUR LIFE to Christ

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“Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign for ever, thy God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!”   (Psalm 146:5-10)

In many Orthodox churches, it is customary to sing the above Psalm 146 at the Eucharistic Liturgy.  The Psalm expresses an ideal for the life of the people of God and how we are to be godlike, and to act toward the stranger, the sojourner and the oppressed with the same intention as God Himself: executing justice for them all.  In fact, we are to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12).  It is for this same reason, this same vision, that the Orthodox in America need to stand together with those who oppose racism and bigotry.  It is why we believers need to oppose white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups: such ideology goes against the very understanding we have of God, of what it is to be human and of Christianity.  All humans are called by Christ into a holy unity.  It may be natural to us to identify with people like us – same ethnicity, or race or social class.  These may be the people we spend the most time with, marry and live with in our neighborhoods.  Scripture itself has a great deal of “us” and “them” thinking.  We can choose to live with and marry people like ourselves, but in Christ, we are to treat all others – the stranger, the alien – as we treat people like ourselves.  St. Paul writes forcefully:

12801397374_0fe3e55abb_n“… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”   (Ephesians 2:12-22)

Our vision as Orthodox calls us to this peace in Christ – to live at peace with those who are our neighbors.   As Christ taught, the real question is not “who is my neighbor?” but rather “how can I prove myself to be a  neighbor to those I meet?”  (Luke 10:29-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan).  We Orthodox in America need to prove we are Christ’s neighbor by standing against violence and racism and hatred, by siding with those we think of as the stranger, the alien, the sojourner.  Many of us Orthodox came to America as strangers and aliens (or our ancestors did), and many Orthodox as immigrants encountered prejudice and hatred for no other reason than our names, our languages, our Orthodox Faith.  Our message within our parish communities is to be Christ’s message of being neighbors, of love, of caring for the oppressed.  Our Communion is with Christ, not with those who practice or preach hatred and violence nor with those who teach any form of racism.

We would do well to remember our scriptures and the story of the great flood, and what prompted God to want to drown evil and send it back to the depths of the sea out of which it came:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”  (Genesis 6:11-13)

Those promoting violence and hatred embrace a way of life which God has hated (Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 11:5-6; Proverbs 6:16-19) throughout the existence of the human race.

We Orthodox Christians are called to be one race, a race united in Christ, not based on genes but on faith and holiness:

4263457299_d973374b2e_n“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  (1 Peter 2:9-12)

If we pay attention in the Divine Liturgy, we realize all of us share in the same life.  The Liturgy doesn’t speak about “lives” but life (in the singular, one life shared by all of us):

let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

enable us to serve You in holiness all the days of our life.

May the Holy Spirit Himself minister together with us all the days of our life.

 I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come

For a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful;

To You we commend our whole life and our hope, O loving Master.

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We all share the same life given to us by God which is why we need to stand with those whose life is threatened by those who rant and rail for violence, hatred and racism.  Life is precious and sacred.  Racism precisely denies “our life” – our common humanity which Christ took on in the incarnation – the one human life given to us all by our Creator.

[The Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America has issued a statement regarding the events which took place  last week in Charlottesville, VA.  The statement deals with racism and violence in America and a call for all of us Orthodox Christians to adhere to the Gospel commands of Christ and to the Tradition of our Church.  You can read their statement at:

Nature As Images of Spirituality

There are many images and metaphors of the spiritual life, some more poetic than others.  Sometimes we find even among non-Christians descriptions of the spiritual life that show that indeed God distributes His words to all people on earth.

Mevlana, who lived in the thirteenth century writes:

“Become like the sun in your compassion and generosity;

Like the night, cover up the shortcomings of others;

As the rushing waters, reach out to the entire world;

During moments of anger, at times of rage, become like a dead man;

Become like the earth (humus) so people can stand firm on your foundation;

And either become that whom you manifest, or manifest who you really are.”

(Mevlana Rumi, from Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 95).

Humanity as an Icon of God

‘The glory of God is man’, affirms the Talmud (Derech Eretz Zutta 10,5); and Irenaeus states the same: ‘The glory of God is a living man.’ The human person forms the centre and crown of God’s creation. Man’s unique position in the cosmos is indicated above all by the fact that he is made ‘in the image and likeness’ of God (Gen. 1:26). Man is a finite expression of God’s infinite self-expression. 

Sometimes the Greek Fathers associate the divine image or ‘ikon’ in man with the totality of his nature, considered as a trinity of spirit, soul and body. At other times they connect the image more specifically with the highest aspect of man, with his spirit or spiritual intellect, through which he attains knowledge of God and union with him. Fundamentally, the image of God in man denotes everything that distinguishes man from the animals, that makes him in the full and true sense a person – a moral agent capable of right and wrong, a spiritual subject endowed with inward freedom.

…To believe that man is made in God’s image is to believe that man is created for communion and union with God, and that if he rejects this communion he ceases to be properly human. There is no such thing as ‘natural man’ existing in separation from God: man cut off from God is in a highly unnatural state. The image doctrine means, therefore, that man has God as the inner-most centre of his being. The divine is the determining element in our humanity; losing our sense of the divine, we lose also our sense of the human.  (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, pp. 64-65, 67)

Thorns and Thistles: Reminder of Paradise Lost

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And to Adam God said, “Because you have … eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  (Genesis 3:17-18)

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According to Genesis 3, thorns and thistles became abundant because human sin had caused the ground to be cursed.  Those noxious weeds which are a plague to farmers and a toxin to cattle proliferate without any nurturing agriculture to help them.  While humans struggle to grow crops, noxious weeds seem able to thrive in the world of the Fall.   But, from another point of view, other than that of the farmer who is trying to cultivate crops, even the noxious weed has a beauty to it – a delight to the eye of the photographer.   Does it possess beauty because it too is a creation of God?  Or is that simply part of the deception which hides from our eyes the dangers of our spiritual disobedience?

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Remember that Eve “… saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.”   Tempted, enticed and seduced by a plant.  She forgot God and His commandment to embrace the world and all that it would give her.  It gave her and us more than she or we ever bargained for.  And yet, to this day we continue to look away from God and want to find immortality and eternity in a world which is passing away.

“Since by God’s grace we have renounced Satan and his works and have sworn our baptism . . . it is also our natural duty, for since we were originally created by God as ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31), we owe it to God to be such. Although sin entered us through our negligence and introduced into us what is contrary to nature, we have been reclaimed through God’s great mercy, and renewed by the passion of Him who is dispassionate. We have been ‘bought with a price’ (1 Cor. 6:20), namely by the blood of Christ, and liberated from the ancient ancestral sin.”  (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 10556-71)