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.

Soul, Mind, And Brain

Mind & BrainOne interesting question ponder is: What is the exact relationship between the mind and the brain?   It is a question for scientists, as well as philosophers and believers.  The materialist says the mind has no existence apart from the brain for it is merely a function of the material brain.  Philosophers and believers look beyond the material existence, to the existence of self or soul and what it means to be human.

The Fifth Century Christian author, St. Mark the Monk, reports on a conversation which deals with these very issues of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.  Christians of the 5th Century were well aware that the desires and passions of the body often went against what a person willed to do by choice.  That spiritual warfare is obvious to anyone who attempts to practice self denial or self control.  The ability to exert self control was often thought to be a hallmark of the human being who was not guided by animal instinct but had free will.

The attorney then asked, “Does the flesh have will apart from thought?”

The monk answered, “It does, in accordance with what the Apostle says: ‘We ourselves were once disobedient, doing the will of the flesh’ [Titus 3.3; Eph 2.3], and again, ‘What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh’ [Gal 5.17]. So, you see, the flesh has desire and will, and we are ignorant of this fact on account of the carelessness and assent of our thoughts. Because of this fact, not only those who neglect prayer, but also those who do not pay heed to their thoughts are injured.  (Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 4523-4529)

braingodWhat was obvious is that apart from the mind or the self, the body has a will of its own, which the goal of the Christian life was to control.  We are always trying to exert our spiritual will to govern the body, rather than having bodily urges control the person.  The mind in this worldview is not identical to the physical brain and the rest of the human body.  The body is capable of creating desires which might go against what the mind wants to do.

In a more recent book, Dr. Clark Elliott (The Ghost in My Brain: How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get it Back), writes about his personal experience with brain trauma and the effect it had on his life.  In the book he describes the effect the brain trauma had on his spiritual life and reflects exactly on the relationship of the brain to the self and one’s spiritual life.   To be honest I didn’t find the whole book that compelling a read, but I did find this one section interesting.

DIALOGUE WITH GOD AND THE MATTER OF SENTIENCE.

Since my very early teens, I’ve had the sense of a dialogue with God. Though I did not grow up religious, praying was easy for me. I talked to God, and God listened. God talked to me (in pictures, and through intuition), and I listened. Dialogue with the spirit was easy and natural: comforting, occasionally demanding, real. Almost immediately following the crash, this dialogue disappeared. I recall very distinctly entering the small chapel at DePaul’s downtown university campus, sitting alone on one of the chairs to pray for my students, and for my ability to serve them as their professor—something I often did. In a profoundly disturbing moment I realized that there was no longer anyone there. No one was listening. I thought: These are just empty words I am saying to myself. My prayers are no different than if I were reading aloud from an auto repair manual. I felt a deep sense of loss, but in a weird way. Though I understood, intellectually, about the loss of dialogue with God, and I felt quite disturbed about how sterile my life had become because of it, I nonetheless couldn’t quite “see” what was missing. It was like trying to remember a dream. I still believed in God, but viscerally it was an entirely different experience: there was no longer anyone there. When we consider the nature of my later recovery, and the many examples we’ve seen of how our internal world is so very symbolic in nature, it becomes apparent that it was the loss of my visual/spatial ability to represent symbolic relationship that was at the heart of my troubles with God. If so, then losing the closeness to God I felt pre-concussion raises some interesting questions about our connection to the larger universe around us. Could this sense of connection be located entirely in one of the visual/spatial centers of our brains? After all, in my case I had this easy faith up until the moment of the crash. I lost it in the days after the crash. I didn’t have it for eight years. I got it back again after treatment for my concussion. This is pretty strong evidence that it is our brains—our physical brains—that support this kind of spiritual faith. What this means is still up for grabs, however. As scientists, we have to allow for at least two possibilities. On the one hand we could take this as evidence that a sense of God, and the spirit, is just an artifact of the neural, and possibly other, programming in our brains—a purely physical uprising from a locus in our heads. Certainly there are researchers who talk about the “God spot” in the parietal, and other, regions of the brain that are thought to give rise to spirituality. Some have even have claimed to have created a “God Helmet” that artificially stimulates a profound religious experience via artificial manipulation of the brain.* On the other hand, we could just as easily imagine that these parts of the brain allow us to connect to a real channel of spirituality, and that without them we have simply lost one dimension of our sensory capabilities. That is, if we lose our hearing, the world is still full of sound; in the same way, if we lose our sense of God, that doesn’t mean that God is not still out there.     ( Kindle Location 1350-1373)

Obviously the mind and the brain, or the self and the brain, have a relationship.  One enters into relationships in and through one’s physical body.  And yet, we believe that the self is not identical to the body.  The self can have a relationship with God, using the body as a means of voicing prayer and of physically moving one’s body to correspond to one’s prayer and thoughts as in bowing in repentance.  The soul comes into existence when the breath of the Spirit enters into the physical dust of the earth to cause into being a living soul.  Acts of the Holy Spirit, touching a human will register in the brain of a person.  The physical and spiritual are not in opposition to one another but rather are united in the human being.

The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal

This is the 16th  blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is St. John Chrysostom on Humans as Beasts and Saints.

“For the devil has always been eager, through these philosophers, to show that our race is in no way more honorable than the beasts.”   (St. John ChrysostomWOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 231)

It is not only modern scientific materialists who think humans are nothing more than another animal.  In the Fourth Century St. John Chrysostom was engaged with philosophies and philosophers of his day which had decided that humans are nothing more than a brute beast. [Certainly through the centuries many rulers have thought that human life is cheap – just look at how troops were used in warfare, nothing more than ‘cannon fodder’ and hoping to use up enemy arrows and spears before one ran out of men].   Prior to the Fourth Century Christianity had spent a great deal of its apologetic arguments against various form of Gnosticism beginning with Docetism in the First Century, all of which had denied the value of the physical nature of humans.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.“   (1 John 4:2)

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”  (2 John :7)

The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ showed the extent to which God valued humanity’s physical nature.  God had created the humans with a physical body which was capable of being united to divinity.   Humans though having a physical body like any animal were viewed by the early Christians as not being merely animals.

“It is not only in our possessing a rational (logikon) soul that we surpass beasts…, but we also excel them in body.  For God has fashioned the body to correspond with the soul’s nobility (eugeneia), and has fitted it to execute the soul’s commands.”    (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 125)

Humans have an animal body but the human corporeal nature is not controlled by or limited to the body.  Each human has a soul, the very place where divinity and the physical world interface.  God bestowed upon the human God’s own image and likeness, which is how humans differed from all other animals – humans are related to God in specific ways which other animals are not. Each individual human has a nobility and a value bestowed upon them by God:  this is certainly a great contribution Christianity offered to the world- even the “impoverished masses” are seen by God as beings to be loved and cherished and all have worth and nobility in God’s eyes, and so are also to be loved by all other humans.

“God has given us a body of earth, in order that we might lead it up with us into Heaven, and not that we would draw our soul down with it to the earth.  It is earthly (geodes), but if we please, it may become heavenly (ouranion).  See how highly God has honored us, in committing to us so excellent a task.  ‘I made Heaven and Earth,’ He says, ‘and to you I give the power of creation’ … Make your earth heaven, for it is in your power.”  (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 146)

The human is created to be both the connection between God and creatures, and the mediator between them, enabling all of the rest of creation to have a full relationship to the Creator through the human’s relationship with God.  St. Ephrem the Syrian makes an interesting, if allegorical interpretation of the humans having both physical and spiritual qualities.  He sees these qualities as interrelated and intertwined with both the world of agriculture and the liturgical year.  Everything is arranged by God:

“… Ephrem points out that human beings possess both a physical and a spiritual side and that they need to cultivate these two aspects equally: physical labor on the land receives its reward in October, with the ingathering of its produce and the arrival of the rain after the long hot summer months of drought;  spiritual toil, however, is rewarded in April, the month of the Feast of the Resurrection—and it was on Easter eve that in many places it was the custom for baptisms to take place.  Agricultural labor and spiritual toil turn out to be closely interrelated, for October provides the oil for the baptismal anointing in April.”   (Ephrem the Syrian, SELECT POEMS, p 181)

For St. Maximos the Confessor humans share a relationship with both plants and animals, but then have beyond either intelligence and a intellect.  This gives humans a means to share in immortality.

“The soul has three powers: first, the power of nourishment and growth; second, that of imagination and instinct; third, that of intelligence and intellect. Plants share only in the first of these powers; animals share in the first and second; men share in all three. The first two powers are perishable; the third is clearly imperishable and immortal.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 13154-59)

In the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas the human naturally has a relationship with God, but if that relationship is lost or distorted, then the human too becomes unnatural and loses his/her humanity.  Being dehumanized, or becoming inhuman is in his mind a form of hell on earth.

 “‘A mind removed from God becomes like either a dumb beast or a demon.  Once having transgressed the bounds of nature, it lusts for what is alien.  Yet if finds no satisfaction for its greed and, giving itself the more fiercely to fleshly desires, it knows no bounds in its search for earthly pleasures.’ . . . Life becomes a hell, freedom a burden, and other people a curse.”  (Archimandrite George Capsanis,  THE EROS OF REPENTANCE, p 9)

Life on earth becomes a hell when we lose our godliness, even if we gain all the riches of the world.

“‘What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?’ Christ asks His disciples (Matt. 16:26); and He says that there is nothing equal in value to the soul. Since the soul by itself is far more valuable than the whole world and any worldly kingdom, is not the kingdom of heaven also more valuable? That the soul is more valuable is shown by the fact that God did not see fit to bestow on any other created thing the union and fellowship with His own coessential Spirit. Not sky, sun, moon, stars, sea, earth or any other visible thing did He bless in this way, but man alone, whom of all His creatures He especially loved.”  (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34642-54)

Christian theology has through the centuries highly valued each human being and viewed human life as sacred because God the Trinity bestowed on each human being a sanctity by creating all in God’s own image and giving each person a soul and imprinting the image of God on every human being.  Orthodox Christianity continues to defend the sanctity of human life and to defend the dignity and nobility of every human being whether saint or sinner, believer or not.  Christianity is not opposed to science, but rejects the reductionist thinking of materialism which denies that humans are related to God or can aspire to something greater than our brutish animal nature.  We believe that even science shows humans have conscious awareness, consciences and free will.  As many scientists now acknowledge humans are no longer predestined by their genetics but have even gained control over some these natural forces of evolution.

Darwin caused controversy, not merely because his ideas contradicted Genesis, but because they fell foul of the way in which Genesis had been read by those influenced by the Enlightenment, for it was the Enlightenment that conceived of the human as almost exclusively rational and intellectual, and set the human at a distance from the animal. When the Fathers interpret Genesis, they see the human as sharing a very great deal with animal, and indeed plant-like, creation. The possession of reason, the gift of being in the image of God, makes the human distinctive, indeed raises the human to a position that transcends the animal and the plant-like, both as being nobler, and also as bearing responsibility for the rest of creation, but the human still shares a very great deal with the rest of creation, both animal and plant-like, and even with the inanimate”     (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1469-75)

We humans are biologically, chemically and genetically related to all other animals on earth.  However, we believe we are not only or merely animals.  We are rational and intellectual beings.  However, rationality and intellectualism neither completely define delineate what it is to be a human being, for we believe we are created in God’s image and we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies, and thus are spiritual beings.

“When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart.  Placed by the Creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals: for animals have the faculty of will or desire, and the faculty of jealousy or fury, in the same measure as man.  The spiritual faculty in the heart manifests itself—independently of the intellect—in the conscience or consciousness of our spirit, in the fear of God, in spiritual love towards God and our neighbor, in feelings of repentance, humility, or meekness, in contrition of the spirit or deep sadness for our sins, and in other spiritual feelings; all of which are foreign to animals.” (Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov, THE ART OF PRAYER, p 190)

Next:  The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal (II)