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.