Overcoming Anger

for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:20)

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Ephesians 4:31-32)

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St. Paul warns that those who act in anger will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Galatians 5:20-21).   The spiritual literature of Christianity through the centuries kept anger (or one of its manifestations – wrath, rage, revenge, hatred, etc) as one of the deadly sins or passions which Christians were to work to overcome.  And though the New Testament does allow for anger as long as it doesn’t involve sin (Ephesians 4:26), anger was viewed as a dangerous and destructive passion for it often overwhelms the rational thought process and pushes people to act hastily and with force disregarding wisdom or a measured response.

Christ does not want you to feel the least hatred, resentment, anger or rancor towards anyone in any way or on account of any transitory thing whatsoever. This is proclaimed throughout the four Gospels.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 13842-44)

Anger can give us a sense of empowerment – even when we are in the wrong or have not authority in a situation.  Our angry response towards others is often more a measure of our own feelings than a proper evaluation of the wrong we think someone else has done.  Anger can arise in prayer, making us think it is righteous, but often is a sign of our own spiritual illness.

When you pray as you should, thoughts will come to you which make you feel that you have a real right to be angry. But anger with your neighbor is never right. If you search you will find that things can always be arranged without anger. So do all you can not to break out into anger. Take care that, while appearing to cure someone else, you yourself do not remain uncured, in this way thwarting your prayer.  (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1302-8)

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The cure for anger?  Humility is a cure all for much of what ails us spiritually in Orthodox literature.  The humble person maintains an even keel no matter what is going on – be it praise or criticism – and does not react to others but carefully chooses their actions.  Humility stops us from getting emotionally charged by everything that happens around us.  But anger can also be overcome by the combination of courage and mercy – which may not seem like they can go together, but they are at the heart of what it is to be a Christian.

Nothing so converts anger into joy and gentleness as courage and mercy. Like a siege-engine, courage shatters enemies attacking the soul from without, mercy those attacking it from within.   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 43079-43081)

 

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That Woman at the Well

4264210180_5f21ae97a2_nThat woman was a sinner,

The woman at the well,

Not the type who talks with God

Very earthy, carnally so.

No searching her heart for things of heaven.

But for a man, she would seek

The kind sensuous women want.

Song of Songs is she, literally.

 

That woman was a Samaritan,

The woman at the well.

Wrong race, wrong morals. Them!

God would not be seeking her kind

He seeks only the holy of heart and mind. Right?

He loves the righteous, not the suspicious.

Can’t she learn her proper place?

She acts as if God speaks to her.

That woman was an outcast,

The woman at the well.

Even heretical Samaritans knew that, knew her.

Divorced! How many times? Living with some man.

A failure, a social misfit, irreligious to the max.

She came to the well at noon, shamelessly.

Decent women came together in the morning, not her.

She comes to seduce Him from His mission!

 

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That woman was shameless and bold,

The woman at the well.

Not the kind decent people care to meet.

She wants a drink, I’ll bet she does.

Flirting with a man in broad daylight,

Not just any man, a foreigner!

So alluring, so tempting, so seductive.

Is she the lover or the beloved?

 

That woman was too open,

The woman at the well.

To new ideas, and to divine love,

So ready to embrace any man.

How dare she speak of God?

He sees right through her.

Can’t she see how wrong she is

To believe, to convert, to share the Gospel truth?

 

8186718360_5b5d5d5ab4_nThe woman was a sinner, that woman at the well.

She confessed, God already knew.  It helped her see.

Very desirous, her heart was smitten,

She found what she looked for but could not see.

Rightly named.  Disciple, saint, evangelist, martyr.

Photini, pray that we may drink as deeply as you

Of the Living Water whose source He is.

I’ve come to the well, a sinner too.  “Give Me a drink,” says He wearily.

 

The Courage to Be Human

John 5:1-15
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

This Gospel speaks about obeying God rather than looking for mere miracles/magic in one’s life, and not making rules and rubrics more important than God Himself.

But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’  (Jeremiah 7:23)

The Paralytic heard the voice of God when Christ spoke to him and he obeyed the voice of God.  Notice in the Gospel lesson Jesus doesn’t say anything about healing the paralytic.  Jesus issues a command and the paralytic walks in the way that God commanded him – literally!  He was made well – it was well with him – because the paralytic obeyed God’s voice.  Hebrews 3:7-11 describes exactly what it is like when God’s people do not hearken to His voice:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'”

The Paralytic did not harden his heart but rather he heard God’s voice and obeyed for immediately he got up and picked up his bed.  He chose to obey this voice which apparently he recognized immediately as God’s – and as the events unfold it becomes obvious that prior to this, this man did not listen to God’s voice.

At the very end of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the healed paralytic, “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”   This seems to imply that the paralytic had gotten himself into the condition in which he was in and had suffered for 38 years.  Somewhere in his life, he had made choices that had long term consequences.  He had been ignoring God’s voice for a very long time, but at this moment he changes his life.

But there is a message of hope – even if you are in the condition you are in because of your choices, it is possible to change, to make other choices, to get things right in your life.  To learn from the past and to take path in life, even if late in life.

Jesus asks us as he asked the paralytic 2000 years ago, do you want to be made well?  Are you willing to make the spiritual changes in your life to start on a new path – to start life over again?  Are you willing to listen to the voice of God and walk in His ways?

Are you willing to change, or make the changes necessary for a new life?

And we can ask ourselves:

Do I want to give up my grudges, when I have not yet gotten vengeance on those who hurt me?  Do I want to give up my righteous anger, when I have not vindicated?  When I have not yet been validated by others recognizing the righteousness of my case?

Do I want to give up the pains, sorrows and excuses for my behavior?  Or do I want to hold on to them because they help me justify my behavior?

Do I want to give up my lusts and desires?  Or perhaps like St. Augustine I want to say, “Deliver me, O Lord, from my sexual lusts, but not just yet for I still enjoy them”?

We are human beings, we do have free will, free choice and personal responsibility.  In any given situation we can rise above our biologically determined desires  and say no to our self.  We can choose a behavior, a morality, we can refuse to do something we feel driven to do – whether by hormones or emotions.

About 20 years ago a radio talk show psychologist said:  “You know the final excuse that really gets my hackles to full quivering attention?  It’s when callers protest that they are ‘only human.’  ONLY human?  As if one’s humanness were a blueprint for instinctive, reflexive reactions to situations, like the rest of the animal kingdom.  I see being ‘human’ as the unique opportunity to use our mind and will to act in ways that elevate us above the animal kingdom.”  (Dr Laura Schlessinger, HOW COULD YOU DO THAT?, p 9)

The attitude of that psychologist fits well into Orthodox spirituality which sees us humans as being specially gifted by God precisely to rise up above our animal nature.  It doesn’t deny that we have animal desires, instincts, genetics.  It just says but God has blessed us with hearts and minds that can choose to rise above the limits of our animal nature.

We are indeed dealt some things in life – our genes or even our epi-genetic make-up,  the time and place of our birth, the family we are raised in.  We have no control over these things and they do influence our lives.

However, our situations in life are not completely determined by external conditions, they also result from our character, courage, morality, values, life-style and choices.

It is possible for us to change many things about ourselves and the choices we make.

St. Symeon the New Theologian writes:    “Baptism does not take away our free will or freedom of choice, but gives us the freedom no longer to be tyrannized by the devil unless we choose to be.  After baptism it is in our power either to persist willingly in the practice of the commandments of Christ, into whom we were baptized, and to advance in the path of His ordinances, or to deviate from this straight way and to fall again into the hands of our enemy, the devil…. We are created good by God – for God creates nothing evil – and we remain unchanging in our nature and essence as created.  But we do what we choose and want, whether good or bad, of our own free will.”

Jesus calls us to grow and to change:

A Call to repentance

Call to forgiveness

Call to the truth

Call to love.

 

Each of these are telling us to change, to become what we are not yet.  Each is a call to be courageous enough to be human – rise above your instincts, your desires, your DNA and become what God created every human to be – God like.

We, like the paralytic, need to hear God’s voice, recognize it as God’s, and to walk in His ways.

Humans Were Created for Christ

St Nicholas Cabasilas  says that we humans were created by God with our unique set of characteristics precisely that we might know Christ. Adam was created with Christ already “in mind”  –  God didn’t send Christ into the world in response to a broken Adam, rather God created Adam in Christ’s image so that Christ could become incarnate as a human.   The human was designed to be capable of bearing God.   God knew where He was going with these creatures created in God’s image – with mind, desire, reason and memory.  God the Trinity was planning for the incarnation of God the Son from before the humans were ever first created.  Adam was not the model for Christ, but rather Christ was the Archetype which made the particular human characteristics necessary so that God could be incarnate as a human.  God knew what was needed in a creature for the incarnation to take place, and God created us accordingly to prepare us and the world for the incarnation.

“It was for the new man that human nature was created at the beginning, and for him mind and desire were prepared. Our reason we have received in order that we may know Christ, our desire in order that we might hasten to Him. We have memory in order that we may carry Him in us, since He Himself is the Archetype for those who are created. It was not the old Adam who was the model for the new, but the new Adam for the old, even though it is said that the new Adam was generated according to the likeness of the old (Rom 8:3) because of the corruption which the old Adam initiated.

The latter Adam inherited it in order that He might abolish the infirmity of our nature by means of the remedies which He brings and, as Paul says, so ‘that which is mortal might be swallowed up by life‘ (2 Cor. 5:4).”   (The Life in Christ, p 190)

Evil Imaginations

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.   (Genesis 6:5)

. . . the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.   (Genesis 8:21)

The Genesis account of the Great Flood begins and ends with God woefully acknowledging that the humans He created had a heart which was inclined toward imagining evil  even from when the human is quite young.  Before and after the Great Flood, nothing had changed in the humans.   Evil  is described in Scripture and Tradition as coming from within the human – from the imagination of the heart – not from Satan or demons.   Humans don’t need a great evil force to push us to do evil, we are quite capable on our own of imagining evil things and then doing them.

The Virgin Mary at the Annunciation sings a hymn in which she recognizes that God’s incarnation means the healing of the human heart.   “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts …” (Luke 1:51)  For the Theotokos that imagination of the human heart which has conjured up so much evil and caused so much grief for humanity has been blown away by God entering the human condition in the incarnation.

Jesus Himself points to the human heart as the source of all sin.  Christ teaches:

And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”  (Mark 7:20-23)

The rabbis at the time of Jesus also taught that the origin of evil is not in Satan but rather evil resulted in the world from the presence of a wicked imagination (or desire) in the human heart.  The 2nd Century Christian book, The Shepherd of Hermas repeats this rabbinical idea that evil in the world originates in the imagination of the human heart.  We both can conceive evil and bring it into existence.  This idea then is found repeatedly in Orthodox theologians.  St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 384AD) writes:

“Man was …. the image and likeness of the power that rules all creation; and this likeness to the ruler of all things also extended to man’s power of self-determination: man could choose whatever pleased him and was not enslaved to any external necessity.  But man was led astray by deception and deliberately drew upon himself that catastrophe which all  mortals now share.  Man himself invented evil: he did not find it in God.  Nor did God make death; it was man himself who, as it were, was the creator of all that is evil.”  (From Glory to Glory, pp 112-113)

St John Cassian (d. 435AD) says:

“A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men; He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men. When we abandon our brothers for some apparently good reason, we do not eradicate the motives for dejection but merely exchange them, since the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again in other circumstances.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc 2212-24)

A thousand years after those early Patristic writers, the Orthodox tradition continued to offer this same idea that human are the source of evil in the world.  So St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) teaches:

“That evil which is evil in itself, namely sin, originates from us.  . . .  Just as illness was not created by God, although the creature who suffers from it was, so sin was not made by Him, although the rational soul created By Him willingly turns aside after it.  This soul was honored with free will and independent life, as without this honor it would have been pointless for it to be rational.”  (The Homilies, p 518)

In our daily Orthodox Vespers service we find a prayer asking God to deliver us from this evil imagining of our heart:

O Lord our God, Who bowed the heavens and came down for the salvation of the human race; look upon Your servants and Your inheritance; for to You, the awesome Judge, Who yet love mankind, have Your servants bowed their heads and submissively bent their necks, not waiting for help from men, but asking for Your mercy and looking confidently for Your salvation.   Guard them at all times, both during this present evening and in the approaching night, from every foe, from all adverse powers of the Devil, from vain thoughts, and from evil imaginations.

We pray every day at Vespers that God will deliver us from the evil imaginations of our heart.  We ask God to guard us against the evil that comes from within our hearts.   We ask God daily to prevent us from becoming the source of even more evil in the world.

Great Lent is our time to set a guard over our heart, so that we will not be inclined to evil.  This is something for which we pray throughout Lent:

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, nor to practice wicked deeds.” (Psalms 141:4)

 

Nothing is as Sacred as a Human Being

“There is nothing as sacred as a human being, whose nature God Himself has shared.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas)

“The glory of God is a living human being.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of our God.  And the incarnation is the most amazing act of God – for God sees in humanity something so sacred that God desires to be united to humanity.  The Holy God wishes to share in human nature because God sees in humanity something lovely and holy and blessed.  God chooses to share in human nature.  This is the mystery of the God of love which results in the incarnation – results in the Nativity of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom describes it this way in a homily:

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

As Chrysostom envisions Christmas, Christ Himself as Creator fashions the body in the Virgin’s womb that He Himself will take for Himself.  God is able to see in humanity something so holy that God wishes to be united to the holiness of humanity.  God chooses to share His natural holiness with the humans created in God’s image and likeness.

Chrysostom goes on:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”   (St. John Chrysostom)

The mystery and the amazement continues.  For God chooses to unite Himself to humanity while human nature is still subject to the power of sin and death.  God doesn’t choose perfect and sinless human nature before the Fall, but accepts human nature as it is in the world.  God enters into the human condition and does not create a special humanity and a special world free of sin, temptation, violence, evil, suffering, sorrow or death.  God enters into the world that we experience with all of its suffering and sorrow and accepts our human nature.  God enters into our lives and embraces the same life that we all share.  God is not distant and transcendent, but near you where you are .

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.  (Hebrews 2:14-18)

There is nothing as sacred as a human being.  Even an imperfect human, a sinner, a flawed person, one beset with temptation.  For God every human being is sacred – no matter who I am, no matter what I think about myself, or what others think about me.  In God’s eyes, I am still sacred, holy.  I am to be what God is.  “Be holy for I am holy, ” says the Lord (1 Peter 1:16).  This is why God became incarnate.  God became human because God sees humans as having a holiness to which God wishes to unit Himself.  God did not avoid the fallen, sinful world, but entered into and shared our life in this world.

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)

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)