In modern usage, the word “nature” generally refers to growing things – “the great outdoors.” Having been born in the ’50’s, I have been the veteran of several “back to nature” campaigns. There is a sense, at least as old as the Enlightenment, that if we could only get ourselves “back to nature,” things would be alright. Some of the present day environmental movement has this sense about things. Green is good.
Christian theology also uses the word “nature,” but in a far more precise sense. The word was borrowed from Greek Philosophy and given a different meaning – one which eventually did double service – becoming part of the carefully worded doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as well as the equally nuanced doctrine of the incarnation of Christ (Christology). Later Protestant theology would take the same word and push it into further use – or offer varying takes on its meaning. Thus it is not unusual in some strands of Protestant theology to discuss precisely what is meant by the statement “fallen nature.”
The use of the word “nature” (Greek: physis) was also used interchangeably with “being” (Greek: ousia), and by the 6th and 7th century had acquired an extremely precise usage in the Church’s continued refinement of the Council of Chalcedon (457 A.D.). Perhaps the most precise usage was that found in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (whose feastday was but a week or so ago). His thought is frequently difficult, occasionally almost impenetrable. But much of what he wrote is quite important, even if often neglected.
I have been reading Andrew Louth’s book, Maximus the Confessor, with great interest lately and deep appreciation. I found a particular passage (among many) worth noting:
Willing is a natural power, that desires what is natural….But with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfillment. For, in their fallen state, rational creatures are no longer aware of their true good, which is God. Various apparent goods attract them: they are confused, they need to deliberate and consider, and their way of willing shares in all this.
Maximus (and the Orthodox Church) teaches that the nature of something (or someone) is not fallen. Everything and everyone created by God was created good, and in its nature remains unchanged – else it would be something other than what it is. Nature is an answer to the question: what is it? If it has a human nature – it is a human. Were its nature changed – it would be something else.
This runs counter to much modern Christian thought – where nature is either used in a less nuanced manner – or where the traditional teaching of the Church is unknown or rejected. It is a commonly held opinion among many modern Christians, that human beings have “fallen natures,” some taking this into a misuse of Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity and concluding that people are basically bad.
We are not basically (or naturally) bad. Human beings, and all of creation, are, by nature, good. Maximus offers a more precise understanding of our fallen state: our own nature has become opaque to us. We do not see who we are and what we are. We do not clearly see what is naturally good (the good that is naturally desired within our being). We were created for God, but this is not clear to us.
Thus, Maximus teaches, we find ourselves in a confused state. We have to “deliberate and consider.” Making choices is the stuff of our lives and we often do it badly.
None of this is to say that the confused state of humanity does not result in great evil – for it obviously does. Our confusion is more than a mental aberration. Our confusion is existential. Our own nature has become opaque to us: what it means to be human is not at all clear.
This can be taken a step further. It is the very desire of our nature to want God. But just as our nature is not clear to us, so God Himself is not clear to us. Confusion darkens our thoughts even when we turn to God.
Without the work of grace, the fathers taught, our confusion would leave us in rebellion against God (and our own nature). The Christian life, our growth in grace, is a movement from glory to glory, returning to the truth of our being, returning to union with God in whose image we were created.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12).
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).
What is not now obvious will be someday. What is not clear today will be someday. What seems confused and opaque will someday shine like the noonday sun – when the glory of God is revealed.