If We Walk in the Light…

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Some further thoughts beyond nature…

In my previous post I quoted: “For the Fathers, indeed, personhood is freedom in relation to nature: it eludes all conditioning.”

Perhaps my favorite and most reliable theological “buddy” is my wife. No one has the same shared history (we’ve known each other since I was 19 – we met in prayer group) and I can think of no one with whom I’ve shared more of my own half-formed thoughts. By the time they reach the congregation I usually try to have moved thoughts from half-formed to something that will pass for “fully formed.”

Thus tonight, unlike any other couple in the restaurant where we ate our supper, we quietly discussed the implications of the quote I offered yesterday. My wife correctly noted that I first raised some of these questions when I was at Duke, reading Met. John Zizioulas. I admitted it was true, though I had read Lossky perhaps 20 years before where the same idea is present. I simply did not understand the questions well enough to know what I was reading when I first read Lossky.

But the simple statement that “personhood is freedom in relation to nature,” is deeply important for our understanding of the faith. Only a Christian could make such a statement or need to make such a statement. No other monotheism is required to say anything about person. Christianity not only must say something about person – it must begin with person when it begins to speak of God. Failure to do so is to be led slowly down a road of speaking about God in a manner that is distinctly not Christian. For the revelation of Christ is of a Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The very word, “person,” is a development of Christian theology, borrowing from its surrounding languages to find words to express what was known in silence. This same revelation speaks to us in our own personhood as we see Christ calling us to something beyond nature which can alone be expressed in the language of personhood and freedom.

This freedom that we have is light, or at least that is one of the images I want to use of it in this posting. Thus St. John says to us, “but if we walk in the light, as he [God] is in the light, we have fellowship [koinonia] with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Here John not only equates walking in the light with personal communion [koinonia] but as a freedom from sin as well. The ultimate failure of sin is our death – when nature (mortal) seeks to pull our very personhood into its own dissolution. We are threatened with non-being. And thus resurrection is the ultimate victory of freedom over necessity, of personhood over nature, or rather of nature being healed and being restored to its proper relation to person.

I think of these things not in philosophical terms, but in the very existential terms of the lives I pastor. Each of us wrestles with the darkness and its efforts to pull us into some form of death. The freedom that we express in love and in forgiveness are truly struggles between light and darkness, between freedom and necessity – a struggle to live as a person created in the image of God. And in those existential terms we fail – sometimes miserably – sometimes very privately. But with each failure is the kindness of God offering light ever again, cleansing us from every sin, every failure of freedom.

This is why, even though the language can push our understanding at first, the understanding of what it means to be a person in the image of God, of freedom in relationship to nature, is important. It is not philosophy but life and death.

I recall being in a Theology Seminar at Duke years back and reading a paper on Lossky (I was understanding him better then). One of the faculty members (all I remember about him was that he was a Marxist) challenged my paper by saying it was overly concerned with death. I remember thinking (and saying aloud), “Where I come from that’s an important question.” I had no idea where he was coming from. It remains an important question – answered only by Christ who trampled down death by death and bestowed life on those in the tombs. Glory to God.

15 comments:

  1. Father, once again, thank you for sharing your thoughts; you always give me a lot to reflect upon. If I may share some (relevant, I hope) thoughts from an article I have just finished reading from the recent St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (which discusses and compares Orthodox theologians Staniloae and Zizioulas on their ecclesiology). One of the points that I got out of this article was that we need to be careful not to pit nature and person totally against each other. To quote from Fr. Calinic Berger’s article:

    “…Staniloae rejects two elements, found in different degrees, in the syntheses of Lossky and Zizioulas: (1) a reductionist approach to the person/nature distinction, which would make ‘person’ the element of ‘freedom’, and ‘nature’ a ‘given’ opposed to freedom…”

    A footnote here elaborates:

    “… this approach… creates a reductionist approach to these realities in which essence = nature = substance = necessity = given = law, and person = relation = act = freedom = love = grace… Staniloae, following St. Maximus, holds that freedom is a part of spiritual nature, in both God and man.”

    Of course, there is much more to all this, including the reality of sin’s effect upon human nature, and the ‘bondage’ that all are in outside of Christ. This is what I hear you addressing. But I thought to share with you and your readers another perspective that I believe complements your topic.
    Thanks again.

  2. I guess I am the guy who is unable to move past the cover of the book: in the icon at the beginning of your post, do you know why one of the angels holds a person in a sphere and who that person might be?

  3. If I understand (even fractionally) St. Maximus, personal freedom for a fallen human being involves submitting the gnomic will (deliberation, inclination, intentional or opinion-based decision making) to God’s will in accordance with our true nature, which already naturally longs in its natural will for God its maker and would readily submit to the will of God. And this is the basis for all ascetic struggle.

    In his Opuscule 3 and elsewhere, Maximus describes the natural will as “the power that longs for what is natural.” He differentiates the natural power to will from the personal act of willing something; nature disposes one to will, but the person does the willing, and in our current fallen state, our gnomic will, under the influence of fleshly passions, is inclined to oppose God’s will. (I think this could be tied in with St. Paul’s words in Romans 7:15-25.)

    Speaking of Christ’s natural human will, he says “the Incarnate Word possesses as a human being the natural disposition to will, and this is moved and shaped by his divine will.” and “The Savior … possesses as a human being a natural will, which is shaped, but not opposed, by his divine will. For nothing that is natural can be opposed to God in any way …”

    He later goes on to write:

    “(The Fathers) did not however say that there was a difference of gnomic wills in Christ, lest they proclaim him double-minded and double-willed, and fighting against himself, so to speak, in the discord of his thoughts, and therefore double-personed. For they knew that it was only this difference of gnomic wills that introduced into our lives sin and separation from God. For evil consists in nothing else than this difference of our gnomic will from the divine will, which occurs by the introduction of an opposing quantity, thus making them numerically different, and shows the opposition of our gnomic will to God.” (from Opuscule 3, all my quotes are from Louth’s translation)

    And in his second letter, he tells us that it is through the way of love that we submit the gnomic will to what is natural, he writes:

    “Love alone, properly speaking, proves that the human person is in the image of the Creator, by making his self-determination submit to reason, not bending reason under it, and persuading the inclination (gnomic will), to follow nature and not in any way to be at variance with the logos of nature. … not having any discord with God or one another, whenever by the law of grace, through which by our inclination the law of nature is renewed, we choose what is ultimate.”

    I’m not entirely sure how to tie this in to everything that’s been said so far on the topic of nature and personhood, but I offer it for everyone’s consideration and would enjoy reading other people who are more knowledgeable than I share their insights.

  4. St. Maximus was working on an understanding directly related to the relationship of the two natures in Christ as well as their wills and energies, thus you have 2 natures, 2 wills, 2 energies (true Chalcedonian position). Nevertheless, it is St. Athanasius who takes about our “nature” (admittedly pre-Chalcedonian) as sustained by grace, but have a tendency, apart from Christ, towards the “nothingness” from which it was created.

    Maximus does not concentrate particularly on the doctrine of Person as much as the doctrine of nature.

    Nonetheless, to speak of Person as Freedom in Relation to Nature is not language used only of us as human beings assuming that we do this because nature is fallen, but is even applied by the Fathers with regard to God. Person is freedom in relation to nature, else God would be defined by necessity instead of freedom (which is undefinable).

    Thus, if you will, living in the fullness of our personhood (to use the language here of Zizioulas and Lossky), is not in anyway destructive of our nature, but allows our nature to live as it was created to be as well – which is only in union with God, never by itself or unto itself.

    The natural will according to Maximus always desires God. But with the fragmenting of our gnomic will, we do not live in unity with that. But we will not find unity with our natural will by seeking our nature, but by seeking that which our nature would truly seek, and that is personal union (in freedom) with the Father through Christ in the Spirit.

    In essence, that is the reconciliation of two different sets of language (you have to read all of them and then wrestle with putting them together). But I don’t think there’s a contradiction.

    It has not been very common in the language of the Church, including its hymnography, etc., to draw much from Maximus’ language, though it was approved at 5th and 6th Councils. Thus it’s hard to find books that are more than just specialities on Maximus.

    I hope my suggestions were useful. Harder questions that we’re used to seeing around here. Thanks.

    It is, however, very much the language of St. Silouan, Elder Sophrony, Lossky and Zizioulas.

  5. William,

    I am currently working through Aristotle Papanikolaou’s Being with God (Univ. of Notre Dame Press). Papanikolaou is on the theology faculty at Fordham (where Meyendorff also taught frequently, by the way). He has substantial references to Maximus, some of which I’m looking ahead to see what he does. I recommend the book both for its scholarship as well as its balance. But if I find something helpful in the next day or so, I’ll post it in the response area on this post.

  6. Thank you, Father.

    It flipped on another light bulb for me when you wrote so succinctly: “But we will not find unity with our natural will by seeking our nature, but by seeking that which our nature would truly seek, and that is personal union (in freedom) with the Father through Christ in the Spirit.”

    I think this is in harmony with Maximus where he he describes our choosing of what is ultimate “by the law of grace, through which by our inclination the law of nature is renewed.” And I think it demonstrates that love is the way of personal freedom.

    I’ve been a Maximus junkie over the past few months, so it’s hard to avoid bringing him into all of my conversations. You’re right that he doesn’t focus on personhood as much as he does nature, thanks to the disputes he had to engage. But he does seem to be such a key source for those in our own era (particularly Zizioulas, who I don’t pretend to understand well) in their treatments of the doctrine of the person.

    I also very much appreciated your statement that “Person is freedom in relation to nature, else God would be defined by necessity instead of freedom (which is undefinable).”

  7. Thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll keep an eye out for any comments on it you might have, and I’ll see about getting a copy.

    I appreciate your insights.

  8. Another aspect of Maximus’ view of personhood and nature seems to have to do with the logos/tropos distinction. There is nature or being, which is what is and is fixed, and then there is existence or mode, which is how nature is and is seen in the freedom of the person, just as the three persons of the Trinity have been described as modes of existence in the consubstantial being of God. So, when Maximus differentiates between the natural disposition to will and the act of willing/what is willed, he begins to touch on the freedom of the person in relation to nature.

    Also, if we were not free in relation to nature, we would each be identical.

  9. William, thanks for the conversation. I hadn’t cut my teeth on any Maximus in a while. He’s harder than any Father I’ve ever read and I still struggle. Papanikolaou, you’ll find, is well worth the read, particularly when he’s got paragraph’s with Maximus, Lossky, and Zizioulas all in comparison. Fordham’s lucky to have him. If any of my readers know much about him (where educated, etc.) I’d love to learn more. It’s not a book for the curious or for those who are only recently interested in Orthodoxy, or who do not have much background in Lossky and Zizioulas. Without those things, much of the read would be too boring or obscure.

  10. The issues of personhood (in the Trinity & in Man) and freedom have been recurrent themes as I have studied the Orthodox faith and I welcome seeing even more thoughts on the subject. I wonder if any here have read Yannaras’ “The Freedom of Morality” and if so could you comment on it in this light?

  11. Yes, Maximus is quite hard, and even harder as I try to read his more difficult works in French (if only they were available in English!). I enjoy being baffled by him, though, and I hope I don’t give any impression of actually understanding him, or, actually understanding anything. I enjoy these things, even when they’re out of my league. It’s just good to toss out some ideas of his and hear what others have to say and learn more. I always learn much from reading what you and your readers have to say. Thank you.

  12. Lisa,

    Yannaras is an excellent read, though I’d have to pull him out to bring him immediately into this conversation. but he is very much a part of it.

    The existential crisis of modern man, which is clearly a main issue addressed in Dostoevsky, in a very Orthodox fashion, was taken up by European Orthodox in the 20th century in a manner that was more fully patristic while at the same time taking into account work being done in Western philosophy. Papanikolaou demonstrates quite clearly that the efforts of Lossky and Zizioulas, though differing from each other on certain points, were neither guilty of simply building on Western thought, but both sought to use the language they found at hand and bring it into the fullness of Patristic understanding – a task that was not dissimilar to that of Basil the Great and others.

    There is (if I can be allowed to make this observtion) a second generation to be found in Fr. John Behr and Andrew Louth and others like them who, though occasionally critical of Zizioulas (for instance) are still bringing Patristic work to the forefront of post-modern studies and demonstrating the superior work of the fathers. I personally think that Orthodoxy is standing on some of the strongest ground in centuries – no longer viewed as a backwater but having to be taken seriously.

    Ii am personally highly sceptical of “ecumenical” discussions, but it still seems that the language of those discussions is coming largely from Orthodox work and not the other way around. At the very least, this sets the present conversations in a very different setting than the so-called Council of Florence. As I’ve noted before, on such matters, I will wait on Moscow, perhaps even the Holy Mountain.

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