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.

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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)

Healing Our Bodies and our Souls

I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame.  (Job 29:15)

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The Gospel lesson of John 9:1-38 tells us about Christ healing a man who had been born blind.  We are also given in the healing miracles a chance to reflect on the nature of the human body and its relationship to the spiritual life.  I happen to be reading Jean-Claude Larchet’s newly published THEOLOGY OF THE BODY and will quote a few passages that struck me as a powerful witness to the meaning of today’s Gospel lesson of Christ healing the blind man.  Larchet writes:

“Without the soul, the body can accomplish nothing.  Likewise the soul without the body, though for different reasons: the body needs the soul in order to live and move, whereas the soul needs the body in order to reveal itself, to express itself, and to act on the external world.  For the body is the servant, the vehicle or instrument of the soul, essential to the exercise of its functions of relating to the world and manifesting its faculties in the conditions of the earthly existence.  In this setting, all of the soul’s activities, insofar as they reveal themselves, can only exist through the body.  Moreover, they remain unexpressed if the necessary bodily organs are unable to function properly.  Such is the case with some illnesses that prevent these organs from expressing certain of the soul’s capacities, something for which they had naturally been ordered.”  (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 18-19)

So it is that each of us is a composite of soul and body, neither of these two substances alone make a human – it is only their union which cause a human being to come into existence.  Both are necessary for each of us to be fully human; neither substance can act alone without the other.  Whatever affects one affects the other.  Sin whether originating in the will or the body affects the whole human, body and soul.  And as Larchet notes when illness affects any part of the body, the soul’s capacities are denigrated.  Without the body’s physical eyes to see, the soul’s ability to navigate in the world is also affected, suffering limitation.  And so when Christ heals the man born blind, He is restoring or recreating the man’s full humanity – gifting this man so that his soul can fully experience the abundant life of grace.

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In the Psalms it is idols, not humans which are portrayed as being blind and not even as capable as any human being.

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths.”   (Psalm 135:15-17)

8480132255_5cf28fbb2f_nThe idols are lifeless, and lack not just one bodily function or sense, but all of them.  On the other hand, the Law of the Lord, just like the Holy Spirit, enlivens every soul and gives sight even to the blind:

“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…”  (Psalm 19:7-8)

Each and every organ in the body serves a particular role in allowing us to fully experience God in this world and also to totally serve the Lord.

“Like Scripture, the Fathers often point out the role played in our spiritual life by the different members of the body.  They stress that their purpose is not merely physiological but also one of enabling us, in superlative fashion, to attune ourselves to God and unite ourselves with him.  This is above all the case with the senses, which should contribute to our perception of God in all sensible phenomena.  Thus, the eyes should enable us to see God in the harmony and beauty of creation and so to praise him and give him thanks.  The ears should enable us to ‘listen to the divine word and God’s laws,’ but also to hear God in all the world’s sounds.  The sense of smell should enable us to detect in every creature the ‘good odor of God’ (2 Cor 2:15); the sense of taste to discern in all food ‘how good the Lord is’ (Ps 33:9).  . . . Thus the spiritual function of the hands is to carry out for and in God whatever is necessary in order to do his will, to act on behalf of justice, to reach out to him in prayer (cf. Ps 87:10; Ps 143:6; Tim 2:8).  The task of the feet is to serve God by allowing us to go to where we may do good.  The tongue should proclaim the Good News and sing of God’s glory.  The heart is to be the place of prayer; the lungs are to produce the breath that regulates and supports it.”    (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 28-29)

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And though we can both experience and accomplish goodness in and through the body and its organs and part, it is also true that the same body can be used to experience and accomplish evil.

“A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, scrapes with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing. There are six things which the LORD hates, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers.”  (Proverbs 6:12-19)

Our bodies are fully capable of experiencing the Holy Spirit and theosis.  It is not only the soul which has a relationship to God’s Spirit for the body is created to be a divine temple for the Spirit. And as we see in the quotes above, there is an important relationship between certain parts of the body and the Holy Spirit.  Thus, at Chrismation, we anoint the head, ears, eyes, lips, nose, breast, hands and feet of the new Christian, saying each time, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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“At the same time, the Fathers refer to the spiritual benefits that our body obtains from being directed towards God in this way, for, acting under the direction of the soul and in collaboration with it, the body too receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.  ‘For as God created the sky and the earth as a dwelling place for man,’ notes St. Macarius of Egypt, ‘so he also created man’s body and soul as a fit dwelling for himself to dwell in and take pleasure in the body, having for a beautiful bride the beloved soul, made according to his own image.’  This is simply to repeat in another form St. Paul’s assertion that the body is the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 6:19).”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 29)

God created our bodies to be the very means by which we can accomplish His will and grow in virtue and holiness.

“For the Fathers, it is by means of the virtues that we can become like God, and it is in this likeness to God, acquired by a collaboration between free will and the grace given us that we can ultimately become a partaker of divine life – a participation to which we are both destined by our nature and called by personal vocation.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, p 27)

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We become like God not by escaping our bodies, but by willfully making them instruments of goodness.  We become virtuous and holy in and through our bodies – and all who do with, in and through our bodies are potential means for us to unite ourselves to God.  We have the task to choose wisely what we do so as to invite the Holy Spirit into our bodies.

Refugees or Refuse?

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. . . .    we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.  (1 Corinthians 4:1, 13)

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The current kerfuffle about refugees being a threat to America exploded when President Trump carried out a campaign promise to close our borders to terrorists by forbidding people from certain Islamic countries to enter into the United States.

And while many are in agreement with what the President endeavors to do to protect the country from terrorists, there are many who are troubled by the way in which it is being carried out.  It judges broad swaths of people guilty even if they have done nothing and are themselves trying to escape the very Islamic extremists our country has proclaimed as its enemies.   It consigns the innocent and some victims to further suffering, even though they did nothing wrong, and may have in fact followed all the rules and jumped through all of the hoops that were placed before them on their road to freedom in the United States.

In the refugees we begin to understand how St. Paul felt when he wrote the words above to the Christians at Corinth.  He knew what it was to be treated as refuse, garbage.  Most likely when he made his escape from Damascus, he was lowered in a basket used to dump garbage over the city wall.  He was speaking literally when he said he was refuse!

For many immigrants now living in America and for the descendants of immigrants, the whole current American effort is very troubling because many know there are people in the world who desperately need our help and need to get out of war torn areas of the world for the sake of their children.  Some Americans have taken to the streets to protest President Trump’s mandates – the protesters may not all have the same motives for coming out, but at least some immigrants and children of immigrants know what it is like to be unwanted in the world.

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(Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Certainly, as Christians, we should never cease praying for these refugees, even if our country won’t let them in.  Praying for the suffering of the world is our task – it doesn’t matter whether or not we agree with what the President is trying to do.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.  (Hebrews 13:2-3)

We do need to remember that our fellow Christian people from the time of the apostles were often rejected by society and made to suffer with little hope of rescue, as St. Paul himself notes.  Our prayers and sympathies should be with the current refugees of the world.  We may feel uncertain about what our role as Christians should be – on the one hand we sympathize with the refugees, on the other hand we want to stop terrorists from coming into the country, I am reminded of a story from the desert fathers:

Certain brethren came to Abba Anthony, and said unto him, “Speak to us a word whereby we may live.” The old man said to them, “Behold, you have heard the Scriptures, and they are sufficient for you.”  The brethren said, “We wish to hear a word from you also, O father.” Abba Anthony said to them, “It is said in the Gospel, ‘If a man smites you on one cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Luke 6: 29). They said to him, “We cannot do this.” Abba Anthony said unto them, “If you cannot turn the other cheek, at least allow yourself to be smitten on the one cheek.”  They said to him, “And this we cannot do.” The old man then said to them, “If you cannot do even this, do not pay back blows in return for the smiting which you have received.” They said, “We cannot even do this.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Make then for the brethren a little boiled food, for they are ill,” and he added, “If you cannot do even this, and you are unable to do the other things, prayers are necessary immediately.”   (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 770-77)

We Christians may be far from behaving perfectly toward the refugees, but we still can do something for them – prayer at the very minimum.  [Though I am not down playing the importance of prayer.]   Even if we can’t give them maximal love through our charity, we can offer to these refugees some love, as noted in the story from the desert fathers above.   It is not an all or nothing situation for us.   We aren’t to say since we can’t help them, forget about them.  NO!   Perhaps if we prayed for these suffering people at every Liturgical service, our hearts as the Orthodox living in America would be open to what God would have us do.

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Again we pray for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and visitation for the servants of God the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of their teeming shore, the homeless and for the pardon and remission of their sins.

We might also think of some words that St. John Chrysostom said while he was sent into exile.  As he was on the forced march, he commented that if Christ says in Matthew 25 that those who did not give nourishment to Christ when he was hungry are condemned to the fires of hell, what will happen to

“those who have not only not welcomed strangers but have chased them away; and those who have not only not cared for the sick but have afflicted them yet more; and those who have not only not visited the captives but have cast into prison those who had been free of chains?  Imagine what torments they will suffer!”  (LETTERS TO ST OLYMPIA, p 77)

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All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)

It is not just the State Department than needs ambassadors.  St. Paul says we are the ambassadors for Christ to the world.  We bring Christ to everyone, and our mission is the same as that of Christ’s – to reconcile the entire world to Him.

From Icon to Idol

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”   (Genesis 1:26-28)

According to the Scriptures, God created humans in God’s own image and likeness.  In the Greek text, it says God made us as icons (Greek for image) of God.  We are living icons – we breathe, we move, we see, we sense, we hear, we think, we create, we reproduce, we have dominion over other creatures.

“… then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”  (Genesis 2:7)

Though we are in God’s image and even are said by the Word of God to be “gods” (John 10:34 quoting Psalm 82:6), we are not idols.   Psalm 115:3-8 describes exactly what an idol is:

Our God is in the heavens;
he does whatever he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.

Idols show no sign of life, but are lifeless works of human hands.  The ancient idol makers had no technology to add animation to their creations as today’s media animators could.

When one thinks about the description of an idol – mouths but cannot speak, ears but cannot hear, eyes but cannot see, feet but cannot walk and incapable of speaking – one realizes that in the New Testament, the result of sin and evil in the world is that humans have been reduced from icons of God to mere idols.  Sickness and disease have turned us into idols.  Those that make idols will become like them.  So many of the Church Fathers thought idolatry was the main human sin that brought the downfall of humanity.

We can take a quick glance at a few Gospel passages to see how humans, as a result of sin, have become exactly like idols:

“Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?”  (Mark 8:18)

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.  (Matthew 13:13-17)

Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.” Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him.   (John 12:37-41)

“God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.” And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a pitfall and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs for ever.”  (Romans 11:8-10)

And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  (Matthew 11:4-5)

All the healing miracles of Christ – sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, voice to the dumb, walking to the lame – undo the effects of the fall.  They turn us from being like idols into being in God’s image to restore us to being icons of God.

 The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.”  (John 9:15)

In Genesis 2 God takes the clay of the earth to form the first human, but doesn’t form a lifeless idol.  Rather, God breathes into the clay and the human becomes a living soul.  In John 9, Christ again takes the clay of the earth, which an idol-maker could form into the lifeless idol, and grants sight to the blind, restoring the image and likeness of God to the created human.

 

 

Peace: The Search for Being Human

In the 13 June 2016 issue of TIME, Belinda Luscombe writes an article, “How to Stay Married.”   Part of what interests me is that article is defending marriage and the benefits for couples who remain in the same marriage for life.  The article is not advocating some retro-return to a religious past nor is it overtly defending conservative religious values.  It notes the divorce rates have declined over the past few decades, and does claim there really are health and happiness advantages to remaining married over a life time.

However interesting the articles main points are, I was also intrigued by the worldview expressed about humans, which seems to be a natural extension of secular, humanistic assumptions.  Luscombe writes:

“Lifetime monogamy, as many have pointed out, is not a natural state.  Very few animals mate for life, and most of those that do are either birds or really ugly (Malagasy giant rat, anyone?).  One theory as to why humans took to monogamy is that it strengthens societies by reducing competition among males.

But natural and worthwhile are not the same things.  Reading isn’t a natural thing to do.  Neither is painting, snowboarding nor coding.  Nobody suggest we abandon any of those.  Monogamy also has a certain energy-saving appeal: it saves humans from wasting time and effort on constantly hunting out new mates or recovering from betrayals by current ones.

Luscombe did not apparently do much research in or reflection on the entirety of Western Civilization (Christian, Jewish or Islamic) and its understanding of what it is to be human or its attitudes towards marriage and monogamy.  If she had she might have easily recognized what is so totally incomplete in her own thinking on humanity and marriage.  [BTW, just because it is bizarrely interesting, I will mention that wolves are reportedly monogamous, and so too vultures!].

I’ll focus only on the Christian version of this, but Luscombe’s concept of what is “natural” is incomplete, for humans have not only an animal nature (which they do share with other animals) but humans also have consciousness and a conscience.   Humans are not limited by what is natural to animals because they are not reducible to only animal nature.  Humans have a human nature which undeniably is tied to our animal bodies, but which is capable of self-awareness, of consciously changing behavior and rising above mere animal instincts.    Morally, humans have developed traits of altruism, kindness, sharing, self denial, love, forgiveness, selflessness, philanthropy, apologizing, benevolence, etc.  These are very much part of what it is to be human.   Monogamy may not be common in the animal world, but it is a consciously and conscientiously chosen human behavior.   From an Orthodox Christian point of view, morality is a normal part of human nature.

Humans choose monogamy not simply because it has some benefit for natural selection, but for moral reasons, for religious beliefs, because they can!   For believers, human practices such as monogamous marriage, is not the random outcome of natural selection, but a morally chosen path for humans.  Humans are capable of self-consciously choosing behavior which is not purely animalistic because humans are more than mere animal nature.

Being self-conscious, humans have to choose behaviors, and can reflect on their choices and which can reflect their chosen values.  Humans can create abstract reasons to defend their choices, and for believers, can receive revelation from God about how to use their consciousness, free will and conscience for a greater good.  Humans are not completely limited by their genes, but now are actively shaping their genetic futures.  We are not completely and uncontrollably pre-destined either by our individualism nor by our genetic make-up.  We are capable of being philanthropic and making choices good for our species as well as for the world. [And sadly, we don’t always choose those options!]

Luscombe’s comments seemed to me to be exactly the kind of thinking about humanity which Fr. Alexander Schmemann so lamented and skewered as where humanity has gone wrong.   A recent issue of The Wheel (Number 4 | Winter 2016), has a quote from Fr. Alexander which is exactly to the point, though he is addressing a different issue and problem (reducing humans to economic beings), yet the underlying errant assumption is materialism.  He writes:

“Man’s nature demands peace, but his life conduct constantly opposes it. Why?

The materialistic worldview that is presented by its preachers as the most advanced teaching about a human being not only does not give an answer to this question, but does not see the question itself. It reduces all human divisions to economics and the distribution of earthly goods, while the overcoming of those divisions is reduced to struggle, including armed struggle. Therefore calls for “world peace” smack of a terrible hypocrisy on the lips of the representatives of a materialistic worldview that does not, in essence, recognize peace. There cannot be true peacemaking where there is no person to be reconciled to, to reconnect with, where there is no one with whom harmony, accord, and love can be reconstructed. This is because, from the point of view of materialism, there is no peace in the very nature of man; there are only animal needs, the satisfaction of which does not pacify but only affords a sense of satiety.

The Christian approach to man sees in division and strife a tragically irrational disparity with respect to his true nature and calling. The cult of natural demands to which, in essence, all materialistic anthropology is reduced is seen by Christianity as a sinful perversion of the original concept of a human being. Division and strife came about precisely because man had become satisfied with minimalistic self-valuation, had accepted a caricature of himself. Therefore the central place of peacemaking is in restoration of the true person and true humanity. Peacemakers will be called the sons of God because reconciliation is the transcendence of the boundaries of one’s “I,” the recognition of one’s brother in another, the reconstruction of life as the unity of love, the regaining of paradise lost.”

Humans, as Fr. Schmemann’s thought would have it, not only transcend the boundaries of “I” in peacemaking, but in marital love-making as well.  We choose monogamy to transcend our animal nature, our basest instincts and animals drives.  We do it because of love – because we are loved by God, and we are capable of loving others – rising above the limits of our animal nature and aspiring for sharing in the Divine Life and Love.