Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Worst and the Best, the Highest and the Lowest

One commentator offers an interesting thought in response to an earlier post here based on Fr Jonah's thoughts on leadership in the Church. The comments, by AMM, address what I would see as the irony that Western theological anthropologies, with what Orthodox Christians see as very negative view of the human, has given birth to democracy. AMM notes that the East, on the other hand, with a very positive theological anthropology have tended to favor (and still favor) more autocratic and even authoritarian modes of governance. You can read all of his comment here, but let me quote the writer's central point:

As I said, the church champions freedom, but usually seems most comfortable conforming itself to authority that suppresses it. One of the ironies to me are the convert oriented polemics surrounding sin and the nature of man. Specifically the idea that the Eastern view represents a paradigm of the goodness of man in the wake of the fall as counterposed against the wickedness of man in the Augustininian/western view. Absolutism and political authoritarianism (the preference of the East) of course assumes the worst in man, and is a mechanism to keep humans in check. It is in the west, the home of the dreaded doctrine of Original Sin, that true freedom (enlighten by faith as outlined by Acton) has been allowed to flourish; and it is among the western confessions that you see the greatest emphasis on the service of man that as you said seems to be lacking in Orthodoxy.
What makes this even more interesting to me is a post by Thomas Berg on the blog Mirror of Justice. Berg argues for the centrality of Augustinian model of original sin for political theory and practice. He quotes from the Christianity Today review of Jason Byasseeof Original Sin: A Cultural History, a recently published book by Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs. Byassee writes that
Original sin is a good word to the poor, bad news to tyrants, and a prescription for a politics more radical than any we've seen: a genuinely Christian democracy, inclusive of all the living and the dead, each equally bound up in a plight we cannot solve ourselves.
Jacobs thinks original sin does this leveling work in a way that other points of Christian anthropology do not. God's good Creation, humanity's crafting in the image of God, the charge to tend the Garden and to multiply: such prelapsarian pronouncements don't lift the luggage politically. They "should do so, but usually" do not, he writes. Somehow it works better for us to "condescend" than to try and lift up others to our level.
There is something seductive about the popular understanding of Orthodox theological anthropology. Yes, certainly, we emphasize the human as created in the image of God. And yes, we understand the Incarnation in terms of recapitulation and salvation in terms of participation in the divine nature (deification). But, to simply, as many do, appeal to these and related doctrines, is to risk heresy, both Christological and anthropological.Balancing the sunny view of the human, to address my immediate concern, is the wealth of more negative anthropological teaching embodied both in the Church's liturgical and ascetical tradition. For example, in the funeral service we sing the Canon of St John Damascene:
What pleasure in life remains without its share of sorrow? What glory stands on earth unchanged? All things are feebler than a shadow, all things are more deceptive than dreams; one instant, and death supplants them all. But, O Christ, give rest to him You have chosen in the light of your countenance and the sweetness of your beauty, as You love mankind.
As a flower withers and as a dream passes, so every human being is dissolved. But once again, at the sound of the trumpet, all the dead will arise as by an earthquake to go to meet you, Christ God. Then, Christ our Master, establish in the tents of your Saints the spirit of your servant whom you have taken over from us.
Alas, what an ordeal the soul endures once separated from the body! Alas, what tears then, and there is none to pity her! She turns towards the Angels, her entreaty is without effect; she stretches out her hands to men, she has none to help. Therefore my dear brethren, thinking on the shortness of our life, let us ask of Christ rest for him who has passed over, and for ourselves his great mercy.
Everything human which does not survive death is vanity; wealth does not last, glory does not travel with us; for at death's approach all of them disappear; and so let cry out to Christ the Immortal one: Give rest to him who has passed from us, in the dwelling of all those who rejoice.
Truly most fearful is the mystery of death, how the soul is forcibly parted from the body, from its frame, and how that most natural bond of union is cut off by the will of God. Therefore we entreat you: Give rest in the tents of your just ones, him/her who has passed over, O Giver of life, Lover of mankind.
Where is the attraction of the world? Where the delusion of the temporary? Where is gold, where silver? Where the throng and hubbub of servants? All dust, all ashes, all shadow. But come, let us cry out to the immortal King: O Lord, grant your eternal good things to him who has passed from us, giving him rest in the happiness which does not age.
I remembered how the Prophet cried out: I am earth and ashes; and I looked again into the tombs and saw the naked bones, and I said: Who then is a king or a soldier, a rich man or a beggar, a just man or a sinner? But give rest, O Lord, with the just to your servant.
Your command which fashioned me was my beginning and my substance; for wishing to compose me as a living creature from visible and invisible nature, you moulded my body from the earth, but gave me a soul by your divine and life-giving breath. Therefore, O Christ, give rest to your servant in the land of the living, in the tents of the just.
Give rest, our Saviour, to our brother/sister, whom you have taken over from transient things, as he/she cries, 'Glory to you!'
Having fashioned man in the beginning in your image and likeness, you placed him in Paradise to govern your creatures; but led astray by the envy of the devil he tasted the food and became a transgressor of your commandments; and so you condemned him, O Lord, to return again to the earth from which he had been taken, and to beg for rest.
I grieve and lament when I contemplate death, and see the beauty fashioned for us in God's image lying in the graves, without form, without glory, without shape. O the wonder! What is this mystery which has happened to us? How have we been handed over to corruption, and yoked with death? Truly it is at God's command, as it is written, God who grants rest to him who has passed over.
Lest any think these are simply words sung in grief, look at what is sung in the Canon of St Andrew during Great Lent. It begins:
Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.
Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In future refrain from your former brutishness, and offer to God tears in repentance.
Having rivaled the first-created Adam by my transgression, I realize that I am stripped naked of God and of the everlasting kingdom and bliss through my sins. (Genesis 3)
Alas, wretched soul! Why are you like the first Eve? For you have wickedly looked and been bitterly wounded, and you have touched the tree and rashly tasted the forbidden food.
The place of bodily Eve has been taken for me by the Eve of my mind in the shape of a passionate thought in the flesh, showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things.
Adam was rightly exiled from Eden for not keeping Thy one commandment, O Savior. But what shall I suffer who am always rejecting Thy living words? (Hebrews 12:25; Genesis 3:23)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
Superessential Trinity, adored in Unity, take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion grant me tears of compunction.
Now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Mother of God, hope and intercessor of those who sing of thee, take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and as thou art our pure Lady, accept me who repent.
Again, there is nothing particularly upbeat to be found here. It is this sober appreciation of human sinfulness that undergirds, I would suggest, the Church's ascetical tradition. The expectation of rigorous ascetical life is there not only monastic, but also clergy and lay people (You can read a brief overview of fasting in the Orthodox Church here). While Orthodox theological anthropology tends to be positive, it is not sentimental. Thinking about our vision of the human person, it is not one that is necessarily incompatible with more democratic modes of government. Indeed, at its best, Orthodox polity allows for the election of bishops and the active participation of the laity in the selection of lower clergy. Returning now to Jacobs, it seems that a noble vision of the human person is insufficient. It must be balanced by a practical awareness of human sinfulness. I wonder, and here especially I invite your thoughts, if democracy in the political realm isn't analogous to asceticism in the personal realm and a formal liturgical tradition in the Church's worship. All three seem to serve the realization of my best self by the restraint and re-direction of my worst self. Further, democracy, asceticism and liturgy, cannot be understood, much less rightly practiced, apart from the willingness of the human person to freely decide NOT to act on the passions—in all three I must be willing to be, however briefly, my better self.As always, your thoughts are appreciated and actively sought. In Christ, +Fr Gregory
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