Beyond Nature

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Doing a little less than light reading today, I came across the following quote:

“For the Fathers, indeed, personhood is freedom in relation to nature: it eludes all conditioning.” The true person then is one that is free, not so much to do something, but from the limitations of nature. From Papanikolaou’s Being with God, pgs. 57-58) 

Before unpacking those two short sentences, another thought occurred to me. How many Christians, even Orthodox Christians, would have a clue as to the meaning of these two sentences? I know the answer because I speak and write to Christians all the time and I cannot offer such sentences except they be “unpacked.”

Shortly before I was reading the above sentences, my wife had come across an article (in tune with the present presidential nomination process) that detailed Mormon beliefs. The article very politely pointed out why Mormons are not Christians (or not traditional Christians by a long stretch) inasmuch as they reject a number of essential Christian doctrines, held rather universally by all who are commonly called by that name. But, of course, since their Founder, Joseph Smith, was personally told by God that all others who had gone before him had failed to get Christianity right, Mormons should not actually want to be identified with the rest of us (pace Romney).

I am not concerned with the present nomination circus, but I am concerned with the knowledge that Christians have of their own faith. There are deep dangers inherent in the “dumbing down” of Chrisianity. For like much in our culture, Christianity has not resisted the urge to simplify and make itself as quickly and easily palatable as every other commodity we purchase – such are the pressures of a consumerist society.

That most Christians are not given any significant instruction in the doctrine of the Trinity, also means that most Christians do not know anything much about God. Instruction cannot be a substitute for true knowledge – I have written much on the subject. But if lack of instruction makes proper knowledge difficult then there exists truly a great difficulty.

The statement I offered in the first paragraph – that “personhood is freedom in relation to nature” – is essential both for understanding what we mean in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – but also what it means to be me – a human person – according to the revelation of Jesus Christ.  This is truly essential, for without it I would not know the difference between the true faith and its thousand competitors that would in fact make me either the slave of my nature or, worse still, something else.

We are not called into relationship with God by a union of our natures, were this so – we would simply be what he was calling us to. For the nature of a thing (like a chair) is its very essence, its being.

Instead, we are called into this most wonderful form of being – we are called as free persons, who are free in relation to our being, to use that freedom in an eternal relationship with the living God. It is in this act of freedom that we come to be what we were created to be: not slaves of nature, but free persons. Thus St. Paul will tell us that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17).

We know something of this drive towards freedom. Many young people experience this in their drive to be something other than what everyone expects them to be. They intuit that to live authentically, they cannot live as automatons. To be a great pianist requires far more than arduous practice and native talent: someone actually has to want to be a great pianist. In such a setting, genius soars above nature and dances in the freedom that is God’s gift to persons.

I can recall listening intently to an album I owned of Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin. Many of the favorites he played on this album were not technically difficult. Indeed I fell so “in love” with the album that I bought music for many of the pieces. It was there (as I hacked away on the keyboard) that I discovered Rubenstein’s genius (or freedom as I will demonstrate). Listening even to the most basic of Chopin etudes, there was evident in each of Rubenstein’s fingers, an almost separate intelligence. No scale was played merely as the habit of fingers that have learned to move swiftly on a keyboard (such perfection is the perfection of nature). He had left such rote performance far behind. There was instead, inbued in each note, its own unique identity which could only come because Rubenstein played the piece in relation to every note before him. The music soared with a freedom that made me weep, the more familiar I became with what was actually happening. Such genius as Rubenstein’s exists – but as I have noted – it is more than genius – it is freedom in relationship to nature.

I can point to a number of such examples – they are not all to be found in the world of art. But I cannot speak of such examples in a way that properly speaks of their value, without reference to the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity. What the Church means when it speaks of personhood, whether in the primitive terms of St. Paul’s epistles, or in the mature writings of a Vladimir Lossky or Met. John Zizioulas, goes to the very heart of our human existence as well as to the heart of Christian revelation.

Thus to say merely, “Jesus wishes you to be saved from your sins,” is true. But stated so flatly it quickly becomes banal and of little significance. It is Mary Had a Little Lamb, repeated until you come to hate the tune. Such banality among Christians makes them easy prey for those who would say, “Mormonism is Christianity.” It also makes them easy prey for those who would exploit their simplicity in far more sinister manners.

Orthodox Christianity is not just the fullness of the faith tossed about like a slogan (“Look at us! We have the fullness and you don’t!”). Such fullness is not fullness but stupidity. It is fullness that is found only in relationship to Christ who draws us towards a freedom with regard to nature that we become Rubensteins of the spiritual life – or whatever calling it is God sets before us. We become not merely human beings who are individual instances of a general thing we can call human nature. We become persons, birthed in freedom which is the gift of the Spirit. In that freedom we are not determined by the limitations of our nature, but persons determined by their freedom as we turn to Christ.

Sadly, not only in campaign speeches, but in most Christian Churches, something less will be taught and we will all be the less for the teaching. Which is truly sad, because we are meant to be so much more! All of this relates to my recent writings on Orthodoxy and culture. True Orthodoxy will always produce culture (and wonderful culture) because, rightly lived, it will be composed of persons who, in their liberty, are becoming more fully, and uniquely the persons they were created to be. Their art, their songs, their writing, their love itself, will become as unique and beyond nature as Rubenstein’s music. It is why we must write and sing, paint and carve, etc. How else would a free person live?

I will offer one last example: the Gospel of St. John. We know the gospels – we have read them all – surely many times. But the Gospel of John stands alone – not just because it evidences no dependence on the Synoptic Gospels – but because it soars above its own words. The total vocabulary of St. John’s gospel, I am told, is around 600 words. There are hardly a hundred, if that, in his Prologue. And yet, his Gospel reads in a transcendant state. A simple declaration:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

These are words – but they dance above all other words in any other language. They dance both because they are true, though the truth could have been said in a way that left it trapped within its language. St. John’s statement (I have read it in a dozen or more languages), always soars. It is language from the lips of a man whose life bears evidence that he has indeed beheld this glory. Not only has he beheld this glory, but he writes in a way in which the glory somehow shines through. This is personhood in freedom from nature. And we must teach it and live it and breathe it in such a way that others may see it and teach it, live it and breathe it.

Glory to God for all things!

10 Responses to “Beyond Nature”

  1. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Monday Highlights Says:

    […] Person and faith. […]

  2. Ole Rocker Says:

    Wow! Well said, Father Stephen.

    This freedom goes for our other relationships. I need to want to be a great husband again …

    This helps me tremendously. Indeed – Glory to God for all things!

  3. FrGregACCA Says:

    RC Academic Dr. Mike Liccione, returning from a brief “sabbatical,” has posted a meditation on Colossians 2:20 which is relevant:

    Elemental Powers

  4. AR Says:

    “Determined by freedom”… there’s a phrase to enlarge the imagination. Christianity does seem alone in this, that it sees us at our most real when we are at our highest, instead of when we are at our most base, basic, or unconscious. I believe I recall that St. Peter wrote to some slaves, “Live as free men.” This post sheds light on that admonition. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

    This all makes me wonder…whether misuse of freedom (sin) naturally caves in on itself, destroying the freedom that gave it being, thus bringing about the destruction of our personhood (the image of God) thus death…and if this is the meaning of the Fall. Also, whether Orthodoxy believes that the Fall has a direct moral effect on each human person? Thanks to any and all who can explain this for me.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    AR,

    Yes, the fall would certainly include the description you have offered. Although typical of Orthodoxy, it would not want to exhaust the total meaning of the Fall with just one understanding. Reality always means more.

    Certainly the fall has a direct moral effect on each human being – if we look around us the evidence is everywhere. Of course, I need look no further than myself.

    What is striking and you noted it so quickly, is that we stand on an ontological razor’s edge, tottering towards death on the one hand and the fullness of freedom as human persons on the other.

  6. The Scylding Says:

    There is a lot of this theme running throughout CS Lewis’ corpus – the “earthly” Narnia being but a reflection of the heavenly one etc etc. If we don’t realise that, we descend either into tasteless legalism, or mindless mysticism. Outside of Christ it is ‘either/or’, but in christ it becomes both/and. Hence the immense importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Incarnation – without it, we are caught in a terrible epistemological prison. And since the Incarnation implies the cross and resurrection, we could sum up the essence of Christianity as Trinitarianism, Incarnation and Resurrection. Without these, no person can even atempt to lay claim to the title “Christian”.

  7. FrGregACCA Says:

    The prison to which you refer, Scylding, is not simply epistemological, but ontological.

  8. Mary Lowell Says:

    And artistic, as Fr. Stephen notes.

  9. AR Says:

    Thanks for refining my thoughts, Fr. Stephen. OK this gives me a lot to work with.

    Scylding, I know the epistomological prison you mention. It bars the way to fulfillment of every other kind and I think it is the special torment of most thinking people who approach Christianity in our time. That both/and you speak of is awfully important.

  10. bríde Says:

    Thank you for this bit of education, Father. It is good to hear wise words – these things making up the fullness of our faith – spoken publicly.

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