Astronomically Speaking: What Are Humans?


When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,

and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

(Psalm 8:3-9)

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan waxes eloquently on the same topic – how grand the universe and how tiny we humans are on that grand scale of things:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”  (THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 395)

I suppose Carl Sagan would roll over in his grave if he knew his writings was going to be used positively in a religious context – but then he didn’t believe in an afterlife, so I guess he won’t be rolling anywhere.  But his beautiful prose seemed to go well with the poem, “God”, written by Gavriil Derzhavin in 1784:

If all this mass of earth and sky,
This universe that we can see,
Is but a drop dropped in a sea,
Then what, compared to you, am I?
And if I saw not just this one
But five score times a million
Worlds, and if then I dared compare
Them to you, they would seem a dot
Tossed on an ample sea of air.

NASA Hubble Photo

I, too, next to you, am but naught.
Nothing!—and yet you shine within me
With magnanimity of virtue,
Your holy image etched upon me,
Like the sun on a drop of water.
Nothing!—yet, filled with breath of life,
Moved by a spiritual strife
And thirst, my soul flies up to you
And, in a state of high elation
And concentrated meditation,
It knows: if I am, you are too!

(THE WHEEL Issue 19 Fall 2019, p 43)

The vastness of space –  the size of the  known universe – defies human comprehension.  Poets, scientists and the Psalmist all have marveled at the universe and the human role in it.  The bigger the universe – or at least our understanding of it – the more distant God can seem.  And yet the witness of Scripture is that God is not far away, but always close to us, even dwelling in our hearts.  “... they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being‘” (Acts 17:27-28).

Additionally, each human is created as a microcosm of the universe, and God dwells in each of us.

“You must understand that you are another world in miniature, and that there is in you sun and moon and stars.  …  Hear something else that the Lord says to his disciples: ‘You are the light of the world‘ (Mt 5:14).  Do you still doubt that there is sun and moon in you, you to whom is said that you are the ‘light of the world’?  Do you want to hear still more about yourself, lest perhance by thinking small and humbly of yourself you might neglect your life as of little worth?  This world has its own governor, it has someone who rules it and lives in it, the almighty God, as he himself says through the prophet: ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord‘ (Jer 23:24).

Listen to what the almighty God also says about you, that is about human beings: ‘I will live in them,’ he says, ‘and move among them‘ (2 Cor 6:16). … This world possesses the Son of God, it possesses the Holy Spirit, as the prophet says: ‘By the WORD of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth‘ (Ps 33:6).”  (Origen, SPIRIT AND FIRE, pp 40-41)

The Body and Christmas: Coming in the Flesh

There has been a great deal written in recent years about ancient Syrian Christianity as a form of the Church distinct from the Greek or Latin Churches.  Syrian Christianity had its own language and thus a different way to frame theological ideas while participating in the controversies and councils of the early Church.   Even Orthodox scholars today believe that Syriac Christianity preserved some ancient ideas and expressions that would disappear from Greek/Hellenistic Orthodoxy; the rediscovery of  Syrian Christian tradition enriches our understanding of the theology of the early Church.  Byzantine scholar Hannah Hunt writes about the Syrian Christian understanding of the human body:

“Whatever variations there are in the Syrian understanding of the integrity of the human person, underlying them is the Semitic concept of the heart as the centre of the human person: ‘the heart of the inner man is also the heart of the outer man; neither heart can function properly without the other’.  This is rooted in a biblical rather than a Hellenistic concept, in which the heart ‘denotes the seat, not just of the emotions, but also of the intellectual faculties as well’. Because of this integration of feelings and thoughts, seeing the heart as the spiritual centre of the human person means that there is ‘no dichotomy between the heart and the mind’.

Over-simplistic antithesis between heart and mind, affective and noetic spirituality, may be something which is erroneously read back into the early Syrian context through the lens of the later Hesychast movement, which also insisted on the prayer of the heart as a key mode of spiritual practise.  As we have seen, the early Syrian context is affirming of the integrity of all parts of the human person, as a mirror of the perfect unity of two natures in Christ. Human salvation is shown by Syrian writers to depend on Christ’s salvific death on the one hand and on human integrity on the other. Adam can only re-enter Paradise when he is complete and whole.  Redemption cannot exclude the bodily; it has to embrace it to bring the whole person before God.”  (Clothed in the Body: Asceticism, the Body and the Spiritual in the Late Antique Era, Kindle Loc Location 3081-3094)

Christmas is the Orthodox Feast of God in the flesh – God became human to unite humanity to God.  The body, flesh, is not evil but all is being saved by God in and through the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  Hunt points out that Hellenistic Orthodoxy in its hesychast expression sometimes denies the body or acts as if the body has to be overcome through prayer.  Prayer and fasting are emphasized suggesting one is to minimize the body in order to be spiritual.   Syrian Christianity can help remind us of the true nature of the incarnation and salvation.  The human body is essential to salvation which is why Christ became incarnate.  A spirituality which denies the body also forgets St John’s admonition:  “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist”  (2 John 7).

Today, there is a popular idea that hesychasm was the only form of monasticism in Orthodoxy, but this is simply false.  Many monks in Orthodoxy were not hesychasts, and not because they failed in their efforts.  One can see in Orthodox history whole monasteries and some saints challenged and even opposed hesychasm – even monks from Mt Athos.  There were centuries in which one could hardly find any hesychasts among Orthodox monks.  Syrian Christianity is a form of ancient Eastern Christian monasticism which held to theological and anthropological ideas that hesychasm does not accept.  But it is true that hesychast writers often adopted Syrian Christian writers, reinterpreting their ideas from a hesychast point of view.

One in Adam, One in Christ

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)

St Paul came to the realization that God willed the salvation of the human race, not just the Jewish race.  He came to understand that the Law given to help humans do God’s will had not accomplished its goal and had in fact divided humanity with Jews believing they were to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  St Paul came to the startling conclusion that God was saving all humans and in so doing reuniting them all into one people, no longer two separated by the Law.  However, realizing this truth was one thing, actualizing it in community life proved to be quite a difficult challenge.  For St Paul was telling Jews to embrace Christ’s love and sit and eat with the Gentiles because all the rules for keeping Torah or keeping Kosher were not the way to salvation.  Salvation is love for God and neighbor which the Law cold never realize.

What drove Paul to see that Jew and gentile now constitute one people of God was not his own imagination or sense of social justice, and it certainly was not his “straight” reading of his Bible. If anything, putting Jew and non-Jew on the same level cuts against the Old Testament grain. What drove Paul to this revolutionary, countercultural conclusion was the reality of the resurrection of Christ.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 2989-92)

What St Paul came to understand is the importance of Adam: Christ restores all humans to the one undivided humanity which existed before the Fall.  Adam is not mostly the 1st historical human but the type of all prefallen humans.  Adam is not about biological origins but truly falls to that level of a mere biological being through sin.   Christ comes to restore the full nature of humanity, to reunite the physical and the spiritual, created and Creator, humanity and divinity, the living and the dead, Gentile and Jew.

In [Romans] 1:14 he announces his universal focus when he states his obligation to both Greeks and non-Greeks (v. 14), claiming that the gospel is for the Jew first, but then also for the gentile (v. 16). This is not just a polite way to begin a letter, but an announcement of the letter’s focus: one gospel for two heretofore distinct peoples.  (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3008-11)

The sin of Adam and Eve led to the giving of the Law which resulted in a division in humanity between Jew and Gentile.  However, the Law was meant to give life to all humanity.  The fact that it had caused division rather than bringing about wholeness is in fact the limit of the Law.  The healing of humanity, the end of all separation and divisions, begins in Christ.

One Self, Many Selves (I)

Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes on how the “self” emerges in the life of a baby.  Immediately after birth the baby’s brain is receiving stimulation from all of its senses even without an “I’ yet existing to process the information.   Somehow a self emerges which makes sense of the sensory perceptions which are constantly streaming in to the brain.  Humphrey asks, does the baby experience the different sensations at first as many distinct “selfs” each experiencing something but not yet as a whole or unified self?  Humphrey compared this experience to watching an orchestra before a concert as each musician tunes his or her instrument – there are only individual musicians tuning instruments and we watching them cannot make sense of them as a unit, nor do we hear yet the symphony.  The conductor must take the stage to form the unified symphony.

A unified “self” does emerge eventually taking in all information the various senses send to the brain and sorting it out realizing “I” exist.  “I” am distinct from all the sensory perceptions.  “I” not only make sense of them, but can act toward them and upon them for “I” am not a mere object being acted upon, but a subject capable of choice and actions myself.   Time passes, we mature and move into the world  where we come to experience our ‘self’ as many ‘selfs’ again.  I am young, a boy, white, I speak only one language.  I am different from others.   I experience the world through gender, race, nationality, language or member of a clan, family, nation, ethnic group.  Each of these ‘selfs’ make up my one self, and at times one of the ‘selfs’ emerges to the forefront as I relate to others or they relate to me.  This may be the self I consider myself to be or that others think is me.   However, no matter who I think I am, I realize others do not necessarily perceive me as I think of myself.  I may see myself as human, they as black or poor or dangerous or friendly or intelligent or fat.  I become part of other groups and there is my self as military, teammate, loyal fan, Southerner, educated, Democrat, Christian.  I can choose to fit in, blend in to community rather than stick out.  Or, I can become a leader, advocate for one of my many ‘selfs’.

Life becomes a balancing act of these various ‘selfs’ as we realize the selfs we identify with shape our worldview and shape the world’s view of us.  We have to make choices in contexts in which peer pressure is real.  I allow what others think of me to shape my ‘self’.  It is possible for my ‘self’ to be amorphous at times as I cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence, opportunity or danger.

For Christians, there is the hope that one self emerges as we grow spiritually and grow in Christ – that believing self which is consistent with the teachings of Christ.  This we understand is part of the healing that comes in Christ.   The many ‘selfs’ are a result of the splintered, broken and fallen world.  A whole self is wholesome.   But, oh, how difficult it is to be consistent in every single circumstance one finds one’s self in.

These are some of the themes that Russian writer Nikolai Leskov  (d. 1895) explores in his short story, “Figura.”  It is a story that has stood out in my mind for decades since I first read it.   It isn’t the best short story I’ve ever read, nor does it resolve all of these issues.  For me, it just helped make clear as a Christian the cutting edge of one’s ‘self’ as well as how individual conscience relates to society, even a society in which conscience is essential such as the church.

The story takes place in 19th Century Russia, Figura is an army officer from nobility in Orthodox Russia.  The story introduces ideas of regionalism (Russian vs Ukrainian, the Cossacks), class and social status (human divisions especially in the context of 19th Century Russia), which play into the many ‘selves’ of Figura.  The story ends up focusing on his Christian identity, which is part of what Leskov wrestles with: individual conscience when one is a member of an institutional church and cultural Christianity.  Figura is an officer over 42 soldiers and 6 cavalry men (who are Cossack’s, another social distinction).  On Pascha night he is feeling his humanity and decides to try to do something nice for his men as he realizes how hard their lives are.  He is struck by what it is to be human and the struggles this brings for each of us.  He spends all the cash he has on hand to buy them tea and sweet treats so they can celebrate the Feast even though they are on guard duty.  He has decided as soon as the “Christ is risen!” is proclaimed after Pascha midnight, he will treat his men.  Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Figura feel compassion for his men – their humanity – will become the thing that confronts his compassion and his ‘self.’  His 6 Cossack soldiers get drunk and just about midnight, in the dark, one of the drunken Cossacks assaults Figura, striking him on the face and tearing the epaulette off his uniform.  The Cossack then passes out.

Figura who had started the night off feeling his shared humanity with his soldiers and wanting to do something special for them because he realized their lot in life was hard, is assaulted by one of them, someone of lower rank than himself and also not from nobility.  For the second time in the story he is struck by the soldiers’ humanity – this time though in a literal and painful way as he is assaulted by the rawness of fallen humanity.  His emotions roil and boil, but then his Christian self comes into the forefront and he has to decide what to do.  The soldiers have witnessed the event and his uniform is torn, so he can’t hide what has happened.  The soldiers know there is dire consequences for a peasant to assault an officer and nobleman.  They are prepared to deliver their fellow soldier over to justice which might include corporate punishment which could result in the offending soldier’s death.

Figura however is overwhelmed by his Christian sense of what to do if someone strikes you on the cheek. He hears Christ saying to turn the other cheek. He knows as nobility he must defend his honor.  He knows as an officer he has to maintain discipline and order in the troops.  He knows he is part of a military hierarchy and so has no choice about what to do.  He is a man, a male, who must defend his personal honor in a society which would admire his willingness to use violence to defend himself.   He feels the pressure that he has to set an example for all the other soldiers standing around him as well as for his fellow officers.  He feels the weight of the expectation that he must defend the prestige of all those of his rank and class.  The issue is not only a personal assault and insult, for he must defend the order of society itself.  All the soldiers around him recognize what Figura ‘must’ do.

Yet, he forgives the soldier recognizing it was his drunkenness not malice that led him to this point.  He is moved by the soldiers tearful begging for mercy and tells all the soldiers to just forget what happened.  He has no heart to see his soldier punished to death for a stupid act.  As Figura says, “I couldn’t remember Jesus and at the same time go against him in the way I treated people.”   Figura’s ‘selfs’ have come in conflict and he has to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

Figura remembers an Orthodox prayer from the First Hour which he begins to recite, “O Christ, You are the True Light, instruct and enlighten every man that comes into the world…”  As the translator notes the Russian word for world and peace is the same and Figura’s mind hears both meanings – “I interpreted this to mean that He would enlighten every one who came from enmity to peace.  And I called out in a still louder voice: ‘May the light of Your countenance shine upon us sinners.’”  Liturgical prayers that he recited all his life suddenly took on meaning in a non-church context, and Figura suddenly desires to live and embody the things he prays.  All his soldiers are moved by his faith and prayers.  They all understand the demands on Figura of social and peer pressure but are moved by his desire to practice his faith.

One self has emerged in Figura as his true self.  This however is not the end of the story.  While Figura comes to peace with God and his neighbor, with the world and himself, he will now be put to the test as his fellow officers and commanders proceed to judge his case.  What he has come to peace with, society still has a say in.  He will again have to weigh his decision.

Next: One Self, Many Selves (II)

 

Basil the Great: Reading Scripture and Creation

Image 1…in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or “cultic” act, but the very way of life. …All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens”, “homo faber”…yes, but first of all, “homo adorans”. The first and basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands at the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God…”  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For The Life of the World)

Fr Schmemann saw the human as basically a worshiping creature.   Yes, we are ingenious at fabricating things, we are sentient and capable of wisdom.  But for Schmemann the human was created by God to be a priest, to worship  the Lord and that is partially what we lost when we humans decided we don’t need God to know our universe.  As soon as we desired to approach the cosmos in a role other than as priest in service of God, when we stopped seeing creation as a means to our maintaining our relationship with God, we lost our unique role as humans in the cosmos and lost our communion with our Creator.

St. Basil the Great saw humans as  ‘homo legitur‘ – the literary beings – the ones, as theologian Stephen M. Hildebrand notes in his biography of the Saint, created by God to be able to read not only the scriptures but the cosmos itself.  Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes this ability to read is what sets humans apart as a species: “Our ability to understand the universe and our position in it is one of the glories of the human species.  Our ability to link mind to mind by language, and especially to transmit our thoughts across the centuries is another.  Science and literature, then, are the two achievements of Homo sapiens that most convincingly justify the specific name” (THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 3).  Modern science agrees with St Basil that we are gifted to read.  However, a difference between modern science and St Basil would be that Basil believed God gave us two sets of scripture – the Bible and creation, both written to reveal God to  us.  We need to learn to read both while modern science only wants to focus on the empirical cosmos which it does not see as revealing divinity to us.   Hildebrand writes:

Basil sees man as a reader, but a reader must have a text. Man’s texts, for Basil, are principally two, the Scriptures and the whole of creation, including the human body. The author of man’s two books is God himself. One important implication here is that both the Scriptures and creation, being texts, are full of meaning and significance. The posture that the French poet Paul Claudel took before reality expresses well St. Basil’s too. Claudel in front of a piece of reality—a flower, a mountain, a woman—always felt the need to ask, “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?”‘  We might typically translate this as ‘What does it mean?’ but literally it is rendered ‘What does it want to say?’ For Basil, the Scriptures and the world want to say something, or God wants to say something through them.

So man is the reader, and creation and the Scriptures are the texts, the books. Basil tells his flock, ‘This whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God, announcing through itself the hidden and invisible greatness of God to you who have a mind for the apprehension of truth‘ (Hex. 11.4; 51).  The text, whether creation, the Scriptures, or the human body, calls for a response from the reader.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 657-667)

Basil believed the cosmos, creation, including the human body were a text to be read by humans to understand what God has done, is doing, is going to do.  In every sense of the word, Basil looked beyond the literal to find the meaning and for him the meaning always had to do with discovering the Creator through God’s activity in the cosmos.  “Glory to You [O Lord] spreading out before me heaven and earth, like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom” (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”).

I would suggest that St Basil would have been impressed with exactly how much modern science and technology has been able to read from the text of creation including the human body.   Just think about all the things we read in drawing blood samples from people or through pathology, chemical analysis, and especially now through DNA which is literally a language that has been recording all that God has been doing in and through humans for as long as humanity has been on the planet and even in the millions of years before that.  “In the beginning was the word.  The word was not DNA.  That came afterwards, when life was already established … But DNA contains a record of the word, faithfully transmitted through all subsequent aeons to the astonishing present”  (Matt Ridley quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 40).

Just think about ways we read creation today:  paleontology, archaeology, radio waves, molecular structures, laws of physics,  history, anthropology, biological evolution, quantum mechanics, chemical structures and signatures, mathematical equations, binary code,  the remnants of the Big Bang, just to name a few.  Creation has been recording all that God is doing from the beginning, and we are just beginning to learn to read the text which is the cosmos and to understand God’s creation and God’s activity from the beginning of the universe.  God has His hand in creating the cosmos and that cosmos is the record of what God was and is writing.  God’s narrative is God’s creation just as Scripture is – God’s word for those who could read to comprehend what God is willing to reveal.

We can read today so much more from the cosmos and about creation than St Basil ever imagined was possible (as well as countless things he couldn’t imagine at all).  As we sing in the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”: “The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!

Of course, just like in scriptural interpretation there is the danger of reading what we believe into the text rather than seeing what the text reveals.  Eisegesis instead of exegesis is a risk for scientists as it is for biblical scholars.

We are the creatures who have learned not only to read, but also to write, to create literature.  This is part of what Dawkins says sets humans apart.  But in creating  literature, we also are not only using our reading skills, we are participating in creation and in the creative process.  Chemist Peter Atkins who says all creation is moving toward chaos and collapse notes that literature, as well as music and architecture really are ways in which we slow down nature’s slide into chaos.  “The emergence of consciousness, like the unfolding of a leaf, relies upon restraint.  Richness, the richness of the perceived world and the richness  of the imagined worlds of literature and art – the human spirit- is the consequence of controlled, not precipitate, collapse”  (quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 16).

The Genesis creation account has God working against chaos, against entropy, to create [Greek: Poetry] order and bring life into existence.  This is a miracle in the midst of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.   Humans have an ability as God does to bring restraint to the universal move toward entropy.  Our ability to read and write are part of our creative abilities which put restraint, even if only temporarily on the slide to chaos.  God as the original writer or poet of creation gives to us what we can read – God brings restraint to entropy.  We humans can share in that creativity by exhibiting restraint!  And when we are truly creative, we put restraint on entropy as Atkins noted.  ‘Art’ that yields chaos is simply doing what the cosmos does naturally -move toward entropy which in the end is not art at all.  True human genius is restraining to entropy and controlled.

The second law of thermodynamics

Hildebrand continues:

“As Basil says about Genesis 1:26, ‘We have, on the one hand, you see, what looks, in its form, like a story, but is, on the other hand, at the level of power, a theology’ (Hex. 10.4).  God, then, is not concerned merely to communicate so much information, even useful information, about himself or about us. The Scriptures are not just informative, but, if you will, performative, and here the action that God wishes us to perform is the worship of him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a reader, man is constantly called to relate to God and to his own salvation what he finds in the two great books, Scripture and creation, that have been given to him. This is why Basil is never interested in mere history or mere observation.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc  673-678)

Science will only be interested in the informative part of creation, but believers are called to the performative part – knowing the truth, how are we to behave?  This is where St Basil is not so much interested in history or the ‘facts’ as he is in what does it mean, especially in our understanding of God and God’s will.   Basil sees Genesis as story but as a narrative with a message: the revelation of God also known as theology.  It is the message which we ultimately want to know.  To turn Genesis into science or facts or to reduce it to history is to look at creation through the eyes of science rather than the eyes of faith.  Scripture is to open the eyes of our heart to the depths of meaning which God is revealing to us.  The study of creation can have the same purpose which is why Christians should pay attention to nature and science as St Basil recommended.

Life

According to PlatoSocrates at the end of his life said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Ancient Greekὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτς ἀνθρώπῳ).   Or perhaps his statement can be translated as the unexamined life is not a fully human life, for we humans have been gifted with wisdom, consciousness and conscience.  To not use these gifts to look at one’s life is to fail to be human.    But what constitutes life?  For the modern American it is consumerism and the accumulation of wealth and things.  American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar who grew up American in a different age and experienced that time as a Black American also saw that life could be quite simple and yet still valued, valued enough to be examined which he did in his poetry.

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar kitchen table

He wrote in his poem “LIFE” –

A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,

A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,

A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,

And never a laugh but the moans come double;

And that is life!

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar bedroom

A crust and a corner that love makes precious,

With a smile to warm and the tears to refresh us;

And joy seems sweeter when cares come after,

And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter;

And that is life!

(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Kindle Location 877-883)

Life lived and experienced is more precious than things accumulated.  Joy and love are invaluable commodities that do not use up the earth’s resources.   As one old friend once said to me, “In the old days, it used to be that we loved people and used things, now in the modern world we love things and use people.”  How do we rekindle our humanity?

As Jesus warned:

For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.  (Matthew 16:26-27)

What Does God Ask of us?

This is the 6th and final post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51 and the nature of repentance.  The previous post is The Prayer of Manasseh .

So, what repentance looks like is for humans to be what God intended for us from the beginning.  It is not so much remorse and contrition or thinking of one’s self as a worm wallowing in mire.   Rather, it is recognizing God as Lord, and giving thanks for that truth to God.  The change of heart and mind in repentance is making the effort to be the human that God wants us to be.  We are to accept that God is the Lord, which means I am not.  It means accepting my role and place in God’s creation, rather than trying to establish my role as I see fit.  It means being a creature of thanksgiving for blessings received.

There is another prayer of repentance frequently used in Orthodoxy which expresses this same sense that what is asked of us is to stand before God and acknowledge who God and who we are.  That prayer begins:

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us;
for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to You,
as to our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us.

It is a prayer which makes it clear that we understand God is merciful and for this reason alone we approach God in prayer seeking God’s mercy.  We acknowledge our sins and sinfulness and take full responsibility for them.  We don’t give excuse for our sinfulness – bad genes, bad parents, poverty, the fallen world, suffering, lack of education, poor opportunities, fears, peers, enemies, abuse, mistakes, misfortune.  We lay all that aside and admit we do sin.  And we own our sin because we also know God is love, God is merciful, and we trust God to be God.  The prayer then goes on:

O Lord, have mercy on us, for in You have we put our trust.
Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities,
but look down on us even now, since You are compassionate,
and deliver us from our enemies. For You are our God,
and we are Your people; we are all the work of Your hands,
and we call upon Your Name.

It is much in the spirit of Psalm 51.  We recognize we need God to be God for that is our only hope in God’s creation.  It is a mystical vision which all humans are capable of having.

In this mystical vision of humanity, it turns out we humans are the place where God dwells on earth.  The mystical vision is not looking for heaven out there or trying to figure out how to get to heaven.   We ourselves are to be the “holy of holies” for God to dwell in so that the rest of the cosmos can also have its proper relationship to God.  God created the cosmos to be God’s temple, but created humans to be the place within the temple where God completely interfaces with creation.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   God’s plan is and always was to abide in us.  God is not trying to establish something outside the human to dwell in – a temple, a bible, a shrine.  Those things are merely shadows of God’s intention which is to dwell in us.   We are the ones who create all these religious sites to keep God at a distance.

And this vision of being human is for everyone, not just for monks, mystics or ascetics.  It is for moms and dads and grandparents and children, friends and neighbors.  No need to go to a monastery to find it, nor on a pilgrimage to a holy place, for the Kingdom of heaven is within each of us.  The Lord Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”  (Luke 17:20-21).

We all are to live up to our God-given potential as beings created by God to be in God’s image and likeness.  We do find this simple vision in the Bible, for example in Deuteronomy 10:12-22, which some consider a summary of Torah –

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?”

Repentance means getting back to doing this very thing that God commanded.  It requires humility – recognition that God is the Lord and we are God’s creatures and servants.  Repentance isn’t sorrowing for our failures, but deciding to live up to what God wants for us and from us.  It is the way that Christ describes to us:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”  (Matthew 11:28-30).   We can uncomplicate our lives by following the way of repentance.   It is the notion of “what you see is what you get” – no lies, deception, hiding, excuses, blaming.  It is the freedom of being able to stand in God’s presence knowing who I am and who God is.  The Deuteronomist continues:

“Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day.”

However vast and grand heaven is, God still sets His heart upon people.  Heaven may be where God’s will is done, yet God still favors human beings and God’s intent is to dwell in humanity.  We are to become God’s heaven and we see this already accomplished in the Theotokos who is more glorious than heaven.  Heaven is where God dwells and God desires to dwell in us.  God created us to be heaven.

Repentance is thus nothing  more than our being human:

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.”

Repentance leads us to giving thanks to God and praising God, because in repentance we recognize God’s lordship in our life and what we are to be.  We realize God’s will.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanksgiving to God for all that God intends for us, does for us, gives to us, and accomplishes with, in and for us.  Repentance leads to our showing mercy to all those around us including the stranger.  Repentance means we:

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.   (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

24873289413_680bc62134This is the third post in his blog series exploring Psalm 51.  The previous post is Repentance: Telling God What to Do.

If we take Psalm 51 to be the Psalm of repentance, and that David as the author of this Psalm to be a model of repentance, we can then learn from David’s own behavior how he understood repentance.  What does King David the Psalmist promise to do in Psalm 51?   We’ve already seen that much of the Psalm is telling God what to do.  Only in a few verses does David talk about what he is doing as a person who is repenting:

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

8186714938_1a9ffee81e_n

Theophan Whitfield writes that King David “acknowledges his guilt and presents this acknowledgment as the reason, which justifies his plea for mercy.” (“Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek”, FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI, p 45).  We don’t ask God’s mercy as if bargaining – be merciful to me God and I promise to … repent, be better, change my ways, be good, sin no more.  In Psalm 51, THE Psalm of repentance, David seeks God’s forgiveness based purely on his own acknowledgement that he needs God’s mercy because he has sinned against God.   He is saying, I come before you God because you want sinners to stand before you and recognize their sinfulness.  We are to do what Adam and Eve failed to do from the beginning.  We are to learn from their failure and admit our faults and acknowledge that there is no reason for God to forgive us because in fact we are not going to become perfect, sinless beings.  We approach God not because we are sinless but precisely because we are sinners in need of God’s mercy.   So we have to stand before God in humble honesty about own our behavior (including our sins) and realize God is right in whatever or however God decides to deal with us.  We do tell God – “remember you are merciful” and then we admit our sin and say to God, now be God.  David in the Psalm takes the stance that being honest to God is all we can do.  Don’t deny your sin or blame someone else.  Be courageous and humble, acknowledging who you are and what you have done.  The Psalmist in effect is saying to God, I will not behave like Adam and Eve – I will not try to hide from you (or hide my sin from you).  I will not blame anyone else for what I’ve done.  I come forward and boldly stand in your presence because You are good and love humankind.  Show me Your love and mercy which I don’t deserve, but I so greatly need.

King David goes on in the Psalm to say:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

my mouth shall show forth your praise.

were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

5454323608_5b75e825b6_n

Note David never promises that he will become sinless or that he will reform his life.  In the great Psalm of repentance, David never repents, nor even mentions repentance.  Literally, neither the word “repent” or “repentance” is found in Psalm 51.  While the Psalm clearly is that of a sinner, caught in sin, approaching God, it shows us a side to repentance that we often forget – we approach God despite our sinfulness because God is the Lord and we proclaim that even as sinners.   God is merciful and forgiving, that is the truth on which we rely.  It is why we do the Divine Liturgy.  As Good Shepherd, God calls us to the Liturgy, not because we are shining, spotless, pure and sinless, but because we each are the Psalmist who has sinned and we need God to be God (merciful, forgiving) so that we can become fully human.

King David in Psalm 51 promises little to God but acknowledges his sinfulness.  I might say “merely” acknowledges, but it appears in the Psalm that acknowledging one’s sinfulness is what required of us.  We don’t have to promise God anything – reform, change, improvement, a new me.  We do have to acknowledge that we sin before God and that God has every right to judge us.  We don’t reject that God is Lord, but accept it and humbly acknowledge that God determines what is good, not us.  Then David says he will praise God for His salvation.  He recognizes that he may not be able to put things right in his own life, or change his ways, but he should feel the brokenness of his life.  That should make him brokenhearted.   The world is a mess because each “I” fails to be human.

Repentance and the Liturgy do not require that we be angels, but rather that we be fully human.  Repentance and the Liturgy do not demand from us that we consider ourselves to be worthless worms wallowing in dung, but rather calls us to be the humans that God created us to be – the creature which is greater than angels or any of the greatest of animals.

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. … For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham.   (Hebrews 2:5-8, 16)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In calling us to repent, God does not tell us to see ourselves as nothing, rather God tells us to “man up” – be a human being, be what God has created us to be.  Humans are created to be greater than the angels and God is far more concerned with us than with the heavenly host. (As we sing about the Theotokos, the human par excellence – more honorable than the Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim).

Our phrase, “he or she is only human,” has got it all wrong, for being human is not an admission of weakness nor of failure, but of being created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over all the rest of creation, including the angels.  Even the Sabbath Day (the only thing created by God in the first creation story of Genesis 1-2 that God both blesses and makes holy) is made for us humans (Mark 2:27).  The most blessed thing of creation, the Sabbath, is made for humans not for angels. Christ is lord of this Sabbath which is made for us:

And Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”  (Mark 2:27-28)

In all things God as Lord is serving us, and this is reflected both in the imperative commands given to God in Psalm 51 and throughout the Divine Liturgy.  Repentance in King David’s experience is telling God, we recognize that we need you to be God and Lord, and we are saying we want you to be our God and Lord – so do it!  And we are emboldened by the truth that God is love, and even if God scourges us, it will be with God’s love to help us be perfect human beings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Of course, we might then ask, but if change, repentance, new direction, metanoia is not required in the Psalm, what good does it do to acknowledge our sinfulness?  If we are simply going to continue to sin, what good does it do to recognize sin or to admit to being a sinner?   Doesn’t it then end up being like the character in (I think) a John Updike novel who says something to the effect that God made a perfect world – it is God’s duty to forgive sins and my duty to sin.  Is there nothing more to repentance?

The acknowledgement of being a sinner is also acknowledgment of God’s Lordship and right to judge and right to determine what is good and what is wrong. God is the Lord and God is love.   The metanoia part of repentance first requires us to recognize there is a Lord to whom we answer.  When we stop ourselves from all we are doing, saying or thinking to consciously (and conscientiously) stand still before God, we have also the opportunity to stop our self-willfulness.  The first step in repentance is stopping what we are currently doing.  Only when we stop ourselves can we feel the brokenness of our life, and feel the broken heartedness which the Psalmist says is the condition for God to accept us again.  Even if we can’t change ourselves, we can put ourselves  before God and ask God to do all that is according to His nature to save us – from sin, from death and from ourselves.  The habitual sinner, the addict and the lazy can all recognize their own need to stand in God’s presence even when sin is active in their life.     St. John Climacus  (d. 649AD) wrote: “That all should attain to complete detachment is impossible.  But it is not impossible that all should be saved and reconciled to God ” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 304).

Next:  David the Image of Repentance

Dog Headed Saint

In the book 1421: THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED THE WORLD,  the Chinese, 1421 : The Year China Discovered the World by Menzies, Gavin Bantam New Edition (2003)whose empire was expanding, sent sailors to navigate the seas and explore the world.  They brought back to China all kinds of exotic animals from distant lands.  They also spoke of the many different peoples they encountered in the world: the varied races, languages and customs they discovered in their journeys.   The book mentions the Chinese also heard and believed there were even stranger people living in distant and mysterious lands – including dog-headed humans.

Reading that the Chinese in the 15th Century believed that dog-headed humans existed intrigued me since the same legends were bantered about in Byzantium and also believed to be factual.  So much so that reports reached the Byzantine Orthodox that in these distant and mysterious lands, the dog-headed people had converted to Orthodox Christianity.  Stories of their conversion were accepted as true.   St Christopher was the reported name of the first saint of the dog-headed people.  In some versions of his story he is transformed into a human after being baptized.  That means they were willing to accept that a dog-headed person could and should be baptized.  Christ’s salvation extended to every human being no matter how different they may be.

46718040571_94aa6b4de1_z

The Byzantines apparently were not surprised that the dog-headed people converted to Orthodoxy.  They believed Orthodoxy to be the true faith and believed it to be a faith for all people of the world.  It fulfilled a vision of the kingdom of God and of what it is to be human which was not limited to any one people of the world but was part of the new humanity created in Christ.  Recently Pantelis Kalaitzides describes this vision this way:

“In this perspective, the Church is seen as a spiritual homeland, a spiritual genus, in which all the divisions of nature (race, language, culture, gender, social class) are overcome, and the mystery of the unity in Christ and the fellowship of divided humanity unfold.  The Church is a new people, a new nation, which is not identified with any other people, race, or earthly nation since what characterizes it is not blood ties or subjection to the natural state of affairs, but voluntary personal response to the call of God and free participation in the body of Christ and the life of grace.”  (“Church and Nation in Eschatological Perspective”, THE WHEEL #17/18  Spring/Summer 2019, p 54).

All things are made new in this eschatological vision and all old divisions are no more.  As St Paul proclaimed:

… you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.   (Colossians 3:11)

Dog-headed depiction of Saint Christopher

And so whatever separated the dog-headed humans from the rest of humanity was  overcome in Christ.  Humans were humans and Christ died and rose from the dead in order to save them all.  They made icons of the saints of the dog-headed people and believed Christ Himself converted them.

xcynocephali-dog-headed-men-jpg-pagespeed-ic-mkidwhtt-n

In reality,  the dog-headed humans didn’t exist.  Lives of the saints contained many miraculous embellishments and were not always historical or factual, preferring to emphasize the miraculous.  But it is interesting to note that for the Byzantine Orthodox if such people existed, they could be embraced into the Kingdom of God.  They could be baptized, become saints, have icons of their holy people.  Belief in the dog-headed people may never have become part of mainstream Orthodoxy, but the piety of those Byzantine Orthodox was ready to embrace these people as being God’s creatures and capable of being united to Christ, no matter how strange they seemed.   Christ after all was pantocrator – Lord of the universe, of all living beings.

“When gathered in the Holy Eucharist, the Church realizes and reveals to the world and to history the incorporation of all in Christ, the transcendence of every discrimination and contrast, a communion of love wherein “there is neither male nor female, neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free” (Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28). In this way, it presents an image of the Kingdom of God, but at the same time also an image of ideal human society, and the foretaste of the victory of life over death, of incorruption over corruption, and love over hatred.”  (MESSAGE OF THE PRIMATES OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH SYNAXIS-ASSEMBLY AT THE PHANAR CHRISTMAS 2000 AD)

When I was at St Vladimir’s Seminary, a little over 40 years ago, I remember Fr John Meyendorff saying that whatever else the Byzantines were (Hellenistic, triumphalistic, ethnic, xenophobic, nationalistic, phobic of anything “western”) they were not racist.  That seemed to be his professional opinion based on years of research.  His words stuck with me because through the decades it has seemed to me it is hard to differentiate the ethnicism in American Orthodox from the racism which was also present in the same people.  But the Eucharistic and eschatological vision which Kalaitzides is far reaching in its scope and quite inspiring.

However the idea of “dog headed” people played out in Byzantine Orthodoxy, it does show that they really had an expansive view of what it is to be human.   They were not racists, even though they allowed slavery.   Slaves could even work their way up in the world in certain positions.  They accepted eunuchs in the society – people whose gender identity was altered by force or choice (though eventually forbidding making eunuchs within the borders of the Empire).  Several eunuchs rose to high positions in Byzantine society and some became saints in the Orthodox Church.  Can Orthodoxy hold to this vision today as it deals with Trans-people as well?    Certainly some Patristic theologians thought gender was not essential to humanity, and some saw it as belonging only to the fallen world but not to eternal life.  We are challenged today with thoughts about what it is to be human which do have precedents in Orthodox history.  God’s love is given to all who are human which the Byzantine Orthodox understood and applied to others no matter how differerent they imagined them to be.

The Human, The Male, The Theotokos

Man is called not to the implementation of rules but to the miracle of life. Family is a miracle. Creative work is a miracle. The Kingdom of God is a miracle. 

The Mother of God does not “fit” into any rules. But in Her, and not in canons, is the truth about the Church.

Inasmuch as a man is only a man, he is, above all, boring, full of principles, virile, decent, logical, cold-blooded, useful; he becomes interesting only when he outgrows his rather humorous virility. A man is interesting as a boy or an old man, and is almost scary as an adult; at the top of his manhood, of his male power.

A man’s holiness and a man’s creativity are, above all, the refusal, the denial of the specifically “male” in him.

In holiness, man is least of all a male. 

Christ is the boy, the only-begotten Son, the Child of Mary. In Him is absent the main emphasis, the main idol of the man – his autonomy. The icon of the infant Christ on His Mother’s lap is not simply the icon of the Incarnation. It is the icon of the essence of Christ. 

One must know and feel all this when discussing the issue of women in the Church. The Church rejects man in his self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertion. Christ proclaims: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 272)