What Was Christ’s Love Like?

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. (Philippians 2:5-9)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:35-39)

St. Maria of Paris writes:

What was Christ’s love like?  Did it withhold anything? Did it observe or measure its own spiritual gifts? What did it regret? Where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s divinity was incarnate fully and to the end in his spit-upon, battered, humiliated and crucified humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — has become for the world a symbol of self-denying love. And at no time nor place — neither from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, nor in the miracles he performed — did Christ ever give any occasion to think that he did not sacrifice himself wholly and entirely for the salvation of the world, that there was in him something held back, some “holy of holies” which he did not want to offer or should not have offered.

He offered his own “holy of holies,” his own divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely wherein lies his divine and perfect love in all its fullness. (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, pp. 179-180)

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Our Heart of Flesh

And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  (Ezekiel 11:19)

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.   (Isaiah 57:15)

Archimandrite Zacharias instructs us:

Unless we endeavour to live within our heart, we remain blind to our untamed passions. The inclinations of our heart and mind remain beyond our control. We sin whether we want to or not. Sin can never attract the blessing of God, so unless we keep our hearts alive and alert, we will eventually become strangers to Him. The Scriptures say that ‘the heart is deep.’ God honours this ‘deep heart’ of man. All heaven hearkens to a deep heart athirst for God and ready to receive Him. But if our heart is indifferent to God, we are worth little more than dust and ashes. We must attend to our heart and cultivate it, for the hidden man of the heart is very precious in the sight of God. May God give us such a heart, a deep heart that is capable of divine and spiritual sensation!  

St. Seraphim of Sarov

We learn to enter into our ‘deep heart’ through personal prayer in our rooms and attendance at church services. And if we take courage and enter therein, we shall behold the great miracle of the union of our life with God’s Life, for this takes place in the heart of man. Indeed, the aim of our entire ascetic struggle – our fasts, vigils and prayers – is to reveal the heart, to unearth it.   (Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony, p. 241-242)

Anger is Another Kind of Drunkenness

Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa. 29:9)

This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander.

He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3). (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 49 & 50)

Images of the Church: The Crowd Around Jesus

In the Scriptures and in Tradition there are many images of the Church –  Body of Christ, a living temple, a holy nation, a local community, a flock, , vine and branches, a revelation, a bride, a gathering of the saints, a hospital for sick sinners, a household, a family, the Kingdom of God.       In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 8:41-56 – synagogue ruler Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood) , the church – the assembly of those who are following Christ is envisioned as a large crowd of people.   And not a passive crowd at that but a jostling, pushing and shoving throng.   This one is perhaps my favorite image of the Church.

The Athonite Monk Archimandrite Amilianos offers a vision of the local church which is a family gathering big enough to include everyone in the world (see The Church is God’s House for Prayer).  His vision of the Church goes way beyond any legalistic “member in good standing” way of viewing Christianity.  His vision certainly incorporates the Eucharistic offering: “Again we offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world…”   This certainly encompasses everyone in a crowd of people, not just the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), but “all mankind” – the entirety of the human race.

Who is in this crowd, following Jesus?               His apostles, his disciples, the sick, miracle seekers, the curious, Pharisees, synagogue attendees and synagogue leaders, men and women, those who love Christ and those who hate Him, friends and enemies, those seeking the Kingdom of God and those seeking to entrap Christ in this world.   People whose names we know (Peter, James and John for example) and the unknown.  Rich people, rulers and beggars as well.  Let’s consider the Gospel Lesson:

 And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue.

The rulers of the synagogues were frequently in the Gospel among those who opposed Jesus because He didn’t keep their rules about the Sabbath.  They are sometimes his most vocal critics, and yet they are in the crowd following Christ where He goes.  Not everyone in the church community has to agree with what I think or with what most of us think.  The Church community is big enough even to consist of people who disagree with most of us or find most of us disagreeable.

And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Those looking for miracles.  Desperate for help from any source. Those who loved their children.  Those who are distraught and despairing and running out of hope.  Those who socially outranked Jesus and His followers.  Those who represent groups we criticize – for the synagogue leaders like the Pharisees are among those Jesus criticizes most frequently.

But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.

The socially unacceptable.  The outcast. The forsaken.  Social diseased.  The despised.  Strangers.  Foreigners.  Immigrants.   Those whose lives do not matter.  But also those with means and money – this women had spent her fortune on doctors.  Those with hope and some kind of faith even if the faith is only for some self-serving end.

And Jesus said, “Who touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” But Jesus said, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.”

The disciples are there too.  Those who think they understand Jesus but don’t.  Those who don’t understand Jesus but who follow Him anyway.  The crowd – the great unwashed masses.  The constantly needy.  The dependent.

Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”    

There are also in the crowd the timid, introverts, those who wish they could disappear.  The shy and retiring.  But also those who like to be the center of attention, the extroverts and expressives.  Those commanding attention, and those who are willing to be commanded.

 While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher.”

Those who serve others.  Those who have more important things to do in life – those on a mission.  The doubters.  Those who don’t really believe in Him.  Those who want to remain respectable.  Those who are there merely because it is their job to be there. These are the aids and spokespeople for those with power and prestige.

But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.

Unbelievers.  The incredulous.  The scientists.  The realist.  The skeptical.  The Jaded. Scorners. Those who see believers as naïve and ready to be deceived.  The Pessimist.  The Cynic.  The sarcastic.  The know-it-all.  The presumptious.

 But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

Parents and children.  Families and neighbors.  Brothers and sisters.

And today, we the Church are asked to be the same, followers of Christ, one and all, no matter what the reason or attraction, we assemble to be around Christ to   have Christ in our midst.  We need to be something to all the people of the world, not just a motley crowd, but visibly to be the Body of Christ – to make the One present whom the world is seeking.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Corinthians 9:19)

No one person can do that, but together as the Body of Christ, the parish community can become all things to all people.   We have friends, neighbors, family who might be looking for something from Christ, we are to be those who make Christ present to them.  We are to encourage them to look for Christ and to follow Him.  There may be women seeking help from God, or people with sick children, or the needy or the lost.

 

There may be people that some of us don’t want to minister to and don’t want in our midst, but others in the Church community will be able to be Christ to them.  That is the real image of the Church.

We, the Church – all of us together – are responsible for making Christ present, for giving the crowd, the world an opportunity to be with Christ.

Spiritual Pleasures

“We are aware of a difference between the pleasure we experience in our bodies and that we experience in our hearts. Physical pleasures, when we lack them, arouse in us an all consuming desire for them. As soon as we possess and devour them, though, our satisfaction turns into distaste. Pleasures of the spirit, on the other hand, seem distasteful when we do not possess them, but once they begin to be ours, our desire awakens. The more hungrily we seek them when we have begun to enjoy them, the more do we enjoy them even as we hunger for them.

With our bodies it is the desire that gives us pleasure, not the gratification of our desires with the spirit, as the desire is nothing, the fulfillment is all the more pleasing. Physical desire leads to satiety, and satiety leads to distaste for what we desired; spiritual desire produces satiety, and satiety leads to new desire.

The pleasure of the spirit increases our inner longing even while it satisfies us, since the more we savor it the more we perceive that there is something more to long for.”  (St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p 15)

The Tree at the Heart of Creation

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight.   As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity.    That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ.  Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world.  And so we Orthodox sing:  “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.”  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:

When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness. 

The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you:  Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom.   (Friday, Tone 3)

The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden.   The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.

Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love.  They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God.  Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God.   It was a terribly grave deception.

Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross.  They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God.  They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.

Christ, however, showed the way.  The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans.  In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.

For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.

May the cross be graven on our hearts.

(See also The Cross is the Mirror of My Soul)

The Church is God’s House for Prayer

“Because we know and believe that God is our Father, we view the church, especially when we celebrate the Liturgy, as our true home.We come in and go out freely, we are happy to be here, we make the sign of the cross, we light our candles, we speak with our friends, and it is easy to see that the Orthodox feel that the church is their home. And the church is our home. Our family is the gathering (synaxis) of the church. Our family is not simply our children and relatives, however many we have. It is rather all of us, all humanity, including all those who have turned aside to the left or to the right, or who have perhaps not yet even thought about God, or dared to admit that their heart is filled with cries and groans, and that, with these, they hope to open heaven, or that God will answer them, but they are hesitant and are ashamed.

The Liturgy is our family, our gathering, our house. And what a spacious house it is! Together with us are those who are absent, along with sinners, and the wicked, and the dead, indeed, even those who are in hell, but who may yet remember something about God. And who knows how many of these will find relief, be drawn out of Hades, and even dragged up from the depths of hell, thanks to the prayers of the Church, her memorial services, and divine liturgies. This is our home. We believers have such a large house!” (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, p. 68)

Now is the Time for Salvation

Repentance is powerful upon the earth; only in Hades is it powerless. Let us seek the Lord now while we have time. Let us do what is good so that we will be delivered from the future endless punishment of Gehenna, and will be made worthy of the Kingdom of the Heavens. By the grace and love toward man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the might, unto the ages of ages. Amen. (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 130)

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)