Surely there are some things about which everyone can agree – or not. Either something exists or it doesn’t. Or is there more to the story?
In the thought of the Fathers, existence has a number of qualities. That we exist at all is the gift of God. But the gift of God is not mere existence – God’s gift is well-being (good existence). But existence is also dynamic – it is a movement. The proper movement of all that exists is a movement towards God – which is also a movement towards well-being. To move away from God is to move away from existence – to move towards non-existence. This is the character of evil – a hatred of being. Satan is described in Scripture as a “murderer from the beginning,” and the “father of lies.” Both of these descriptions are at enmity with existence itself.
This simple outline of the Fathers’ thought on existence raises a question for modern believers. Do we believe that existence has a range – or is there simply existence?
This is another way of asking if the secular model is an accurate account of the world. For within that model, something either is or it is not.
The Fathers would have no complaint with the secular claim – so long as it is understood to be describing what seems most obvious. What does not seem obvious is the spiritual nature of existence. Do things, in fact, only exist because God upholds them? Or do things have existence in themselves?
What is greatly at stake is the Orthodox Christian belief that true existence is relational. Our culture emphasizes the self-existent claims of secularism. Such a model is convenient for a culture that defines itself by utility and consumerism.
The Fathers would say that anyone who lives as though he were self-existent, is already moving towards non-existence.
Much of this aspect of the Church’s teaching is found under the topic of Personhood. To exist as a Person is not at all the same thing as to exist as an Individual. To exist as a Person requires freedom and love – and that freedom and love must be extended to everyone and everything. To exist as an Individual requires nothing. For the secular individual personhood is only an illusion, a political contract, nothing more and nothing less.
To exist in freedom is not a political statement (political and economic freedom). We exist by necessity. No one asked me if I wanted to be born. I am here (willingly now) but was a conscript to start with. There is something of the same necessity about many of our relationships. We are parents (some not so willingly – some wish it was with a different child or different spouse). We are workers (it is rare that necessity does not play a major role in our economic life). It could be argued that such necessity is simply part of being human. We are material beings born and existing by necessity.
This is indeed true, but we experience this necessity as a limit of our freedom. As such, our existence is frequently one of nature and not of person. My life, my existence, could be filled just as well by some other stand-in, completing the necessary tasks in the necessary manner.
The existence given to us in Holy Baptism is, however, utterly free. It is a birth into a life without necessity. It is marked by freedom and love. Who I am in Christ is a life that I either take up for myself or a life that does not come to be. Even those Baptized as infants must take up the life given to them for themselves or it becomes a gift that has been spurned. All that I am and all that I have as a Christian is either freely accepted and given or else it is not.
This is not the same thing as saying that Baptism has given me a self-generating existence. Nothing allows me to be anything or anyone I want to be. But who I am as Person is not constituted by my nature. It is not a product of my birth, my race, my nation, my intelligence, my inheritance, my genetics. To the greater extent, even I do not yet know who I am as Person. It is a discovery that is made only in the wonder of its existence.
The Christian gospel proclaims that there is such an existence. It is not an argument about the improvement of human nature. It is the proclamation that Christ is a whole new way of existing.
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).
This passage from St. John’s gospel, part of Christ’s “High-Priestly Prayer,” has nothing to do with ecumenical anything. It is not about a modern crisis (or ancient for that matter) in Church relations. This prayer is about the existence, the very being, of those who believe in Christ. The “oneness” of which Christ speaks is the “oneness” of God. The Trinity exists as a Trinity of Persons. It is this same Personhood for which Christ prays. His prayer is that we might exist in the same manner (modus) as the Father and the Son (“just as we are”).
Christos Yannaras offers this observation, using the example of Peter walking on the water:
The disciples are together in a small boat on the lake of Genesareth. The lake is rough, there is a storm, it is night, and the disciples are afraid. Suddenly they see someone coming across the water towards the boat. They are overwhelmed, they are frightened. But the one who is approaching them says, “Do not be afraid. It is I.” It is Jesus. And Peter says: “Lord, if it is really You, let me come to You on the water.” And Christ says to him, “Come.” And Peter steps out of the boat and begins to walk on the water. At that moment he receives his existence not from his own nature, but from his relationship with the Lord. This is the freedom that delivers us from death. (The Meaning of Reality, Kindle Location 702-706).
That same “relationship” (which is far more than this word often connotes in modern usage) constitutes Peter – the Peter who is Apostle and Saint. It is a relationship constituted in freedom and in love. It contains no necessity.
In the story of St. Peter, this new mode of being is demonstrated in the realm of space and time. Peter walks on water. Personhood can and is made manifest in such a blatant manner from time to time. Most often, however, it is seen in the extraordinary mode of love and freedom in the life of another. There is something about the life of Mother Theresa (to use a contemporary example) that simply transcends necessity. For those familiar with many of the details of her story it is right to say, “How can anybody have lived that way?” The same transcendent reality is manifest in the lives of all the saints. In many moments, it is manifest even within ourselves, though such moments may seem fleeting.
The modern secular eye sees this and argues that it is nothing more than a quality of existence – good character or heroic action. It is why modern man mistakes morality for something it is not. Morality is a manner of behaving – but it is not a mode of existence. Being a good man (moral man) doesn’t mean you can walk on water.
Such an existence cannot be judged from the outside. How do you explain to someone that the existence you have is a gift of freedom and not a moral achievement? On the Cross, even Jesus looked like just one more crucified man – indeed – as only one of three that day. And yet, His own testimony is that there was no necessity in His crucifixion:
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (John 10:17-18)
Only His resurrection manifests the truth of those words. But every moment of His life was equally free, equally personal.
Met. John Zizioulas describes this mode of existence as the “ecclesial hypostasis.” I prefer simply to say that in Christ we are invited to truly become Persons, even as He is a Person. And that freedom is the Truth of the Church and of our life in Him.