Demonic Autonomy and Divine Obedience (Anthropology of Antichristianity, Part 8)

Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Philippians 3:17-21

What does it mean to live a good life? What does it mean to truly love one another? How are we to acquire genuine and lasting peace, happiness, fulfillment, and joy? What does it mean to be human?

If I have at all accomplished my purpose throughout this lengthy series of articles, it has by now become clear that the answer to all of these questions — the mystery at the heart of anthropology — lies in the answer to another question:

What does it mean to be a god?

Strangely enough, even in this most secular of all ages, it somehow turns out that all of our problems are really theological problems. Loneliness, depression, anxiety, promiscuity, consumerism, addiction, exploitation, outrage, violence, nihilism, utopianism: all of the pitfalls which so easily ensnare us, all of the sorrows and griefs which afflict and oppress us, all of the difficulties which makes our lives miserable, all are the direct result of human beings trying to act like gods, when they have gotten their theology all wrong.

And truly, the problem is not that we want to be gods. Contrary to what some might believe, it was not the Devil who implanted that longing in our hearts in Eden; he merely exploited and distorted the God-given desire to fulfill our primal calling: in the words of St. Athanasius the Great, to become by grace everything which God is by nature. Christ Himself quoted from the Psalms: “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” The Devil’s lie was not that we could one day be as gods — his lie was in telling us what that meant, and how we could attain to it.

The Lie of Autonomy

Let us examine more closely the words of the Devil in Genesis 3 (and truly, the fullness of mankind’s existential dilemma can only be comprehended through a profound understanding of Genesis 3):

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

As the Scriptures say, the serpent was indeed exceedingly cunning. In this one short reply, he managed to implant within our hearts three lies which would subsequently bring about all the long centuries of death, destruction, suffering, and misery which have since befallen the  human race:

  1. Disobedience to the commandments of God brings not death, but deification.
  2. Deification consists in “knowing good and evil,” which is to say (at least in one sense) that deification consists in deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
  3. The commandments were given by God not out of love, but rather out of petty tyranny.

And in merely enumerating these three lies, it is all but impossible to avoid seeing that modernity has enshrined all three among its most basic articles of faith. And note well that the essence of all three lies is the same, namely this: to be a god means to be autonomous. To be free means to be autonomous. To be a real human being means to be autonomous.

And in this fatal principle of autonomy, we see why the Devil is named in Greek diabolos: the divider, the slanderer, the one who brings confusion. He slanders God and makes Him out to be a liar, and through his own lies the Devil brings about confusion as to the true meaning of deification, and the freedom which makes it possible: we no longer believe that they consist in our unification with God, but rather precisely in our division from Him.

The lie of autonomy brought Lucifer down from Heaven, and it brought our First-Created Parents Adam and Eve out of Paradise and into this broken and fallen world. In fact, it can be said without any exaggeration that this lie created Hell itself.

And yet we continue to go on believing that, any minute now, it will open Paradise and bring about Heaven on earth.

The Rise of Autonomy

This lie brought down Christendom and gave birth to the modern world. First, the once-glorious See of Rome was infected with this poison, believing that she had no need of conciliarity, that she could alone and independently dictate to the entirety of the Church (alas that we see such poison once again at work within the Orthodoxy today!). But once succumbed to, the spirit of autonomy cannot easily be checked or held at bay. And so it came to pass that many in the Roman church were not content to leave autonomy to the pope alone, but claimed it also for themselves: and thus was the Protestant Reformation born, with each man claiming the right to interpret Sacred Scripture for himself, according to his own reason. Shortly afterward, however, the West began to chafe at this bond also, and so began to proclaim that Scripture too was unnecessary, outdated, and oppressive; thus the so-called “Enlightenment” began the worship of Reason itself.

And therefore during the Enlightenment, Reason began to flail about in the dark, in search of a reality not founded upon revelation. Descartes famously employed Reason to search for certainty, but could thereby discover only his own consciousness. This was, understandably, quite troubling: in what then might reality consist? Spinoza answered: in substance. Locke answered: in experience. Berkeley answered: in ideas. Schopenhauer answered: in will. And finally, the demonic prophet of modernity Nietzsche answered: in the will to power.

This world is the will to power––and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power––and nothing besides!

Friedrich Nietzsche

The will to power — in other words, autonomy, unfettered by law or custom or commandment. As Nietzsche wrote in another place: “Must we ourselves not become gods?”

This is truly how we have come to think of gods: as beings who have the power to get their own way. And it has therefore become exceedingly easy for us to considers ourselves (whether consciously or no) to be gods, because in the modern age, we indeed all too often have the power to get our own way.

The Age of Magic

Fr. Seraphim Rose once wrote prophetically:

The omnivorousness of modern man, born of his need to find something to replace Christ — this attitude that underlies both his mania for experimentation and his celebrated ‘tolerance’ (which is quite limited, actually)—can only come to a natural end in magic, moral perversion, occultism, which might be defined as the ‘ultimate in experimentation.’

Such a statement might seem, at first blush, both startling and implausible… until one begins to take a step back, and to truly examine the technological achievements of the scientific age in a neutral light. Fr. Seraphim continues:

Modern science has given itself totally to power… [The] viewpoint [of science and magic] is the same. Both are preoccupied with phenomena and their manipulation, with wonders, with results. Both are an attempt at wish fulfillment, an attempt to bend reality to one’s own will. The difference is simply this: science (modern science) is systematic magic; science has found a method, where magic works in fits and starts…. Yes, scientists can consider themselves rational (in the narrowest sense of the word) as long as they keep themselves buried in the laboratory, enslaved by technique. But to someone not so enslaved, someone capable of looking at things in a larger frame of reference — do not the results of science today resemble a magical landscape?

Even the famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Consider: instead of crystal balls, we now stare into digital screens to perceive things afar off, and to receive an answer to any question we might imagine. We fly through the skies on airplanes rather than broomsticks, in far more comfort and making undeniably better time. With the flick of a thumb, we alter every room’s climate according to our preference at that particular moment. We tap once or twice on a screen, and a few hours later literally anything we desire will arrive in a brown parcel on our doorstep. We lie back on the couch and immerse ourselves for hours upon hours in photorealistic worlds which have never existed at all (at least, not as of yet). Even the most absurd and obscene dark fantasies await only a simple search engine query to immediately appear before our eyes. And on top of all of this, we have become comfortably insulated from nearly all the vagaries of nature which once elicited a very important response from our ancestors: prayer.

Indeed, there is very little for which even believers now instinctively feel that they must turn to God. All is within our own control. Nature, once a terrifying and majestic force which shaped every aspect of our lives, has become now a mere object of intellectual curiosity, something to be tinkered with until it conforms totally to our desires and expectations.

And, truth be told, often even when we do pray, our prayers are merely yet another form of attempted wish fulfillment, yet another tragic manifestation of our magical age.

C. S. Lewis, by profession a medievalist, sheds some historical light on this subject:

I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

Lewis wrote the preceding words in the 1940s, but they are more relevant now than ever. And he gets to the absolute heart of the matter: are we fundamentally meant to conform ourselves to reality, to God’s reality, or are we to attempt to force reality to conform to our own whims and preferences, declaring ourselves to be gods in all but name?

The Truth of Divinity

And yet, to return to the premise of this article, the real tragedy is that we have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of divinity. Divinity is not defined by power, and a limitless autonomy is not what makes one a god. On the contrary, unlimited autonomy is what makes one an antichrist, as it is written: “Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped.” When we conflate freedom with autonomy —  and thereby pathologize obedience — we do not become divine; we become demons.

When such a fundamentally marred theology is ingrained in us by the surrounding culture, we must devote ourselves with zeal and attention to the study of the true patristic theology. Only by applying ourselves to the writings of the Holy Fathers can we hope to free ourselves of all the many insidious deceptions and errors of the modern age.

With this in mind, let us turn to these holy and God-inspired words of St. Nikolai Velimirovich:

Oh, how ready perfect love is to show perfect obedience! This perfect love can express itself perfectly in no way except in perfect obedience. Love is always alert, with desire and readiness, to obey the beloved. And from perfect obedience there comes, like a stream of milk and honey, perfect joy, that makes love a thing of beauty.
The Father has perfect love for the Son and the Spirit; the Son has perfect love for the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit has perfect love for the Father and the Son. Because of this perfect love, the Father is the Son’s and the Spirit’s readiest Servant, as the Son is to the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit to the Father and the Son. Perfect love makes the Father a perfect servant of the Son and the Spirit; as it does the Son of the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit of the Father and the Son. As no sort of love in the created world can be compared with the mutual love of the divine Persons, so no obedience can equal their mutual obedience….
The saving rule that the Apostle Paul recommends to all the faithful: “in honour preferring one another” (Romans 12:10), is realised in its perfection among the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Each Person strives to give honour to the other two rather than to Himself; as each desires, through obedience, to make Himself lesser than the other two. And were there not this sweet and holy endeavour by each of the divine Persons to give honour to the other two and to make Himself the lesser by obedience, springing from the boundless love that each has for the others, the triune Divinity would become one undifferentiated Person.

With these bold words, the hierarch of Christ reveals to us the truth of the matter: the characteristic trait of divinity is not unparalleled power, but rather unparalleled obedience. The very Persons of the Holy Trinity are defined by their complete obedience and total self-surrender toward one another.

The Icon of Christ

This is manifested most clearly in the image of Christ Himself:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

This total obedience showed forth not only the true character of Christ’s divinity, but also of His humanity: He fulfilled in Himself the Threefold Office of mankind with which we began this series.

He fulfilled the role of Prophet, not by teaching men His own personal opinions but rather by revealing to them God’s Truth: “For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.”

He fulfilled the role of Priest, not by striving for His own personal vision of a fulfilling life, but rather by pouring out His own life for the salvation of the world, and thereby uniting all of creation with His Heavenly Father through His own sacrificial death: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me… That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”

And He fulfilled the role of King, not by lording it over His subjects through a show of brute force, but rather by gently inspiring them with His own example of humble obedience:

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

In short, He showed us — through His life and through His death — what it truly means to be a god, and therefore what it truly means to be human. And He did this by showing us what it truly means to love: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

When Christ in His surpassing obedience took up the Cross, this was not some accident forced upon Him by the Fall; it was the deepest and most profound expression of His Divinity — which is to say, of His Divine Love — that could possibly be made, as St. Isaac the Syrian writes:

God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to death for our sake (cf. John 3:16). This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us…. Yea, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own.

The humility and obedience and self-sacrifice of Christ all spring forth from the fountainhead of His love, as St. Nikolai wrote above. And this is truly the heart of the matter, the heart of all theology and of all anthropology: love.

It might be said that to love is to wish the best for the beloved, and to give unstintingly of oneself in order to give the best to the beloved, even to the point of one’s own death. And insofar as this, there is actually not much difference between Christianity and Antichristianity, because (notwithstanding the malice of the devil) both seek to fulfill the deepest desire of the human heart for love. Both seek to bestow freedom, paradise, and divine life upon the human race.

The difference, however, is precisely this: what is truly best for the beloved? How can we be free? Where can paradise be found? What does it mean to be divine? Absolutely everything hinges upon the answer to these questions, which is why theology and anthropology are both so crucially important for all of us in our daily lives.

Antichristianity — and the Devil who founded it — proclaims that freedom means autonomy, that paradise can be created in this world, and that to be a god is all about power. And therefore, it proclaims that to love one another means to bring autonomy to others, to struggle to turn this world into paradise, and — most of all — to bless the lives that others choose to live, no matter what that happens to look like.

Christianity, however, proclaims that freedom can only be found in obedience, that paradise can only be found with God, and that to be a god means to take up the Cross and to follow Him Who first carried it for our sakes. And therefore, it proclaims that to love one another means to do absolutely everything in our power to bring them to Christ, Who alone — through our obedience to Him — can grant us true freedom, can bring us to the true Paradise, and can make us truly divine.

We all want to be gods. We all desire paradise. We all yearn for love. But whose path will we follow, and who will we trust: God, or the Devil? This is the only choice before us, the same choice which the human race has been struggling to make ever since that fateful day in the Garden at the beginning of the world, and the same choice with which we will struggle until the end of time. And for all of us sinners for whom this choice is still a struggle, I will close with these beautiful words of Fyodor Dostoevsky:

I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and skepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one.

All true theology — and all true anthropology — meets its end and its fulfillment in the icon of Christ.

5 comments:

  1. Bless, Father!
    I would be most grateful for a clarification regarding autonomy. The articles states that “..it [Antichristianity] proclaims that to love one another means to bring autonomy to others…” However, I have heard it said that the reason God does not coerce us to accept Him is precisely out of His love for us. Putting it another way, forcing us to accept Him would deprive us precisely of that which distinguishes us from the animals – our very ability to make moral choices which in itself is part of the image and likeness of Him. If endowing us with autonomy to make moral choices is a reflection of God’s love for us should not our love for others mean letting them make their own moral choices? The statement that we should “do absolutely everything in our power to bring them [the unbelievers] to Christ” sounds like it implies more than letting one’s light shine and ministering to others according to the ability given to each of us. Considering the Lord’s omnipotence, if He did absolutely everything in His power to bring us to Him none of us would be going astray, but then none of us would have the ability to do so. Please help me understand this better.

    1. May the Lord bless you!

      That is an excellent question, and I ask forgiveness for not making the matter clearer in my article.

      By “autonomy” I do not at all mean the gift of freedom, which as you said is one of the most exalted qualities which the Lord has bestowed on us. Rather, by “autonomy” I mean the attitude that our freedom should be uninhibited by anything other than our own desires, opinions, beliefs, preferences, etc. Freedom is only ever truly acquired by voluntarily submitting our will to God’s will, otherwise we will remain forever enslaved to our own passions.

      And yes, that submission absolutely must be voluntary — but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be encouraged. The glorification of autonomous “freedom” has led to the attitude that we must “live and let live,” not doing anything with even the slightest hint of suggesting to another how they ought to live. So when I said we should do everything in our power to bring others to Christ, I didn’t at all mean that we should force them against their will, only that we ought not to sit idly by and watch them perish eternally, simply because that’s what they themselves happen to prefer.

      Oftentimes, bringing them to Christ means praying for them in silence. It always means focusing first of all on our own repentance. But sometimes it does mean suggesting to them that there is a better path than the one they are on.

      When Christ came, “a bruised reed He did not break, and the smoking flax He did not quench.” But He also “brought forth judgment unto truth.” We must pray for the gift of discernment in order to know how to unite these two great principles: boundless respect for human freedom, and the fearless preaching of God’s truth.

  2. I only wanted to post and say thank you for this exquisite series. You’ve articulated with clarity something that many of us have instinctively felt, without having the words to explain its origin and cause. There’s also been much I’ve come to learn.

    Absolutely blown away by this thought-provoking reflection in today’s article:
    “Consider: instead of crystal balls, we now stare into digital screens to perceive things afar off, and to receive an answer to any question we might imagine. We fly through the skies on airplanes rather than broomsticks, in far more comfort and making undeniably better time. With the flick of a thumb, we alter every room’s climate according to our preference at that particular moment. We tap once or twice on a screen, and a few hours later literally anything we desire will arrive in a brown parcel on our doorstep. We lie back on the couch and immerse ourselves for hours upon hours in photorealistic worlds which have never existed at all (at least, not as of yet).”

    Your reflections throughout the series on God’s unfathomable love for us was weaved in so beautifully. It showed the way of love and mercy and freedom so aptly when compared to how those terms are used and understood in our modern world. It only served to magnify Him all the more.

    I look forward to sharing the series. Thank you Fr.

  3. Glory to Jesus Christ!

    Father Gabriel,

    I just discovered your blog, and was blown away by this 8 part series. Thank you for drawing a line through history, removing the veil from eyes and making connection on so many issues that I’ve missed in my own studies and in my own life. This needs to be read by every Orthodox Christian, and it stands as a great reminder that we are truly at war for a battle of our souls. It is easy to let the enemy slip in behind the lines incrementally over time, where we don’t even see that we are being overcome. Thank you for challenging me as an Orthodox Christian and as a priest, reminding in a prophetic way, that I too can give way to Venus and my own idolatry!

    1. Glory forever!

      Thank you for your kindness Father. Almost all of my writings are directed first and foremost at my own sins and shortcomings. I am glad that by the grace of God they are useful to others also. I fervently ask for your holy prayers for me, a sinner.

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