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Creation, Part V: With Help from St. Maximus

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Written by Basil on 02/25/2005 10:33 AM. Filed under:


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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series
Part II in this series
Part III in this series
Part IV in this series

In the last article, I set up what seems to me to be the most problematic of the apparent conflicts between the biological account of our origins and the theological account. According to Christian faith, particularly in the Christian East, our first parents are responsible for the human race being subject to death and corruption, which leads inevitably to sin through the fear of death. According to biology, however, death and corruption are normal, natural elements in the cycle of life.

In this article I hope to reconcile these two complementary accounts and show that they really do not conflict at all. In doing so, I wish not to invent a new doctrine nor revise the unchanging revelation of God; rather, I hope to show that one quite Orthodox description of creation, recognized by at least one of the fathers, is quite compatible with modern science. I hope, indeed, to show that it is not necessary to be novel in order to be modern. I intend to show that modern man can be traditional and Orthodox without discarding modern science.

Humanity is unique in creation. Man is created in the image of God and called to attain his likeness. We are called to be priests, prophets and kings over creation, manifesting the goodness, mercy, and sovereignty of God, whose image we share.

Man, however, has failed in his vocation. St. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) holds that man sinned “at the instant he was created.” (Ad Thassalium 261) St. Maximus is responding to the followers of Origen, whose innovations were condemned at the Council of Constantinople (553). The Origenists held that human souls originally pre-existed bodily existence and dwelt in perfect union with God. These souls, they held, became dissatisfied with God and fell into bodily existence.

This opinion is more complex than a simple dualism between material and spiritual existence. In Greek philosophical thought, material existence is marked by motion and change, while spiritual existence was marked by stability. This is most clearly seen in the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus.

The recognition that bodily existence is marked by movement and change is essentially a commonsense realization, and one which the fathers all apparently take for granted. It also an essential element in modern science. For example, examine the cup of tea I enjoy as I write this. Water molecules, whose heat is a fast, excited motion, move in and out through the permeable membrane of the paper, forming weak bonds with the chemicals in the tea leaves. Along with weak bonds formed with the sugar in the bottom of the cup, the result is a most enjoyable drink. The essential ingredient in material creation is movement; a theoretical lack of all movement, though never actually observed, is 0° Kelvin. According to the hypotheses of some quantum physicists, this lack of all movement, 0° K, could even be non-existence itself.

The problem comes when one recognizes the chaos currently attendant upon fleshly existence. How does one reconcile the passions of our bodily life with our original beatitude? St. Maximus’ answer is an insight of inspired genius: Our passibility is the very possibility of our salvation. Our passions can be redeemed by reorienting them away from the essentially temporary pleasures of this life and toward God. Thus, eros is transfigured into desire for God; wrath is transformed into a weapon against sin and the evil one. It is this very passibility and possibility for movement and change that separates us from the angels, whose fall is often held to be permanent because of the impassibility of spiritual existence. This capacity for movement and change makes possible our salvation.

In St. Maximus’ view, our natural passibility was given so that we could grow in a movement toward God. Our passibility is also providential, created in foreknowledge of our fall into sin. This passibility, the liability to passion which is a direct result of the constant movement and change of the material world, is both our ability to fall away from God, our ability as embodied spirits to move toward God, and our ability to return to God through repentance once we have become subject to the essential irrationality of passion. Our fleshly, bodily existence is God’s gift to us, bringing us back into his bosom. Our vocation from the beginning has been to subject the passions to the end for which they are created, union with God.

Mortality, then, results from our ancestors’ failure to subject the passions to the spirit as they were created to do. Having once become subject to the passions of this world, they became powerless to avoid the eventual death of their fleshly existence.

Adam and Eve are not created in an abstract image of God, an image somehow reducible to some faculty or another which separates us from the animals, whether a rational or a moral or a spiritual faculty. Adam and Eve are specifically created in the image of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ. Thus, creation anticipates by a sort of grand, cosmic foreshadowing the advent of the Incarnate God.

In a similar manner, all of creation anticipates the coming of humanity by a similar foreshadowing. The essential passibility of all creation, its motion, its integration of death and corruption as essential to the cycle of life, already foreshadow the coming of man. Motion, passion, death and corruption become the material by which God effects our salvation in the Incarnate Logos, who is already the Principle of God’s ongoing creative activity in the world.

Our first parents, therefore, can still be said to be responsible for the subjection of the human race to the passions, to death and corruption, because they abdicated their vocation to bring our fleshly existence under the subjection of God. Their failure to fulfill their vocation may also explain the subjection of the whole creation to death and corruption, by way of foreshadowing and God’s foreknowing providence. Their failure has a ripple effect on the fabric of existence, in just the same way that the Incarnate God, in whose image they were created, himself creates a tsunami reaching back to the beginning of time and stretching forward to its end.

One further note on the scientific account of our origins. A reasonable examination of nature will find traces of the signature of its divine author, if it is true in any sense. What could be more pervasive a signature in creation than development? The fathers are fond of using the example of a seed or of a child who grows into an adult. Embryology points out that a human embryo passes from a single-celled organism through a recapitulation of our animal ancestry. What we see in current science simply shows us that this divine signature runs throughout the entire cosmos. Another signature is the interrelation of all things. No one creature can claim any kind of autonomy. Every creature is dependent upon other creatures and in the final equation upon its creator for its existence.

In other words, creation is dynamic, not static. It has been designed with our salvation in mind. Our dynamic, material existence as flesh and spirit is God’s gift to us, giving us the potential to either damn ourselves or grow in communion with him, with each other and with all of creation.

I will offer some parting thoughts in the upcoming conclusion.

Part the last (next in series)

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8 Responses to “Creation, Part V: With Help from St. Maximus”

  1. Dawn Says:

    Basil,

    I haven’t read your entire essay (all parts) yet, but what I have read is very germane to my thoughts of late. Do you have a compiled version in Word that you could email me?

  2. Basil Says:

    Dawn, no I’m afraid not yet. If time is not an issue, I will send you a rough draft once I’ve completed the conclusion.

  3. sockmonk Says:

    I posted a response here. In a nutshell, I really appreciate what you’re trying to do here. I’m still concerned with whether Adam and Eve are real people, and if not, what effect if any that has on all the theology that hinges on what Adam did, and what Jesus did.

  4. Basil Says:

    Sockmonk, I think the Roman Catholic position that human beings are a special creation is probably correct. I have some difficulty being dogmatic about that, but it seems important to the theology of imago Dei. Whether the human race began with a single couple (disturbing in its implications for sexual relations) or not seems to focus too much on the factuality of the story and misses the point that the characters are archetypes, thus their archetypal names “Man” and “Mother of the living.” I remain unconvinced that the Apostle’s comparison of Jesus Christ to Adam implies that he believed that Adam was an historical figure. I am thinking of this in the context of Judaism — wherein the entire structure of the Hebrew language itself is metaphorical — as well as Hellenic philsophy — wherein even monotheistic philosophers who rejected the Greek pantheon referenced mythical figures such as Odysseus, Oedipus, and Hercules to support their arguments. I am truly baffled by your reference to the “Descent into Hell” icon as problematic if Adam and Eve were not historical. Icons as a genre are full of archetypal and mythical figures which help complete the story, such as King Cosmos in the Pentecost icon or the water god in the Theophany icon.

    As for the effect on Jesus’ sacrificial action in the Incarnation, perhaps I have been too long in the grip of this worldview, but I cannot see any disturbance. Both our original ancestors — the first human beings ever — and each of us personally is responsible for the reign of sin and death. We both receive mortality as an inheritance, and we participate in perpetuating it. We are powerless to overcome it. The enfleshment of God abolishes the law of sin and death in us. I have difficulty seeing how that is affected by the existence or non-existence of the Adam referenced in Genesis.

  5. sockmonk Says:

    I think part of my discomfort with treating Adam and Eve as mythical, allegorical characters is realizing that this same type of literary criticism is used to suggest that Paul also believed that Jesus was a mythical figure, or some incorporeal person in a Gnostic sense. When Paul draws the analogy between them as the first and second Adam, it seems that a strictly literary approach to it would be to conclude that Paul that they were both historical, or that they were both ahistorical.

    Yes, I know icons have archetypal figures and don’t need to be read literally. But Adam and Eve figure so prominently in that icon, in the hymns of Pascha and probably other times of the year, and in other writings that personally I have a hard time praying these hymns without believing that they are real people. Granted this could well be just a personal problem of mine. I may be reacting to the many skeptics and atheists on wikipedia.

    It just seems important to maintain that both Adam and Jesus are real people, and that Adam’s sin and Jesus’ resurrection are both real events, because they are so tied together. Hopefully there’s a way to do this without pitting science and religion against each other.

  6. Basil Says:

    Sure, and the same critical method leads some to believe that Plato invented Socrates as a rhetorical device. I think it’s bosh, personally, but if it bothers you, then believe that Adam and Eve were historical. Though I would imagine their lives looked more like those of real people than the archetypal stories in Genesis, believing that they existed, in some sense, still does not necessitate rejection of the biological account of our origins.

    It would entail belief that:
    The first humans were specially created by God, rather than humanity slowly becoming less animal and more human. As I mentioned, this is the official Roman Catholic position on the matter. (Also alluded to by C. S. Lewis in one of his books, either Miracles or The Problem of Pain, I think.) The idea is that the specifically human element (the divine image) is a special creation (that is, it is a new thing that does not come about through the ordinary workings of creation; God intervenes with purpose to bring about something new). This is essentially what I believe, though not quite dogmatically.

    That God intially created a single couple (Adam and Eve). I think the text of Scripture makes this rather unlikely. Cain founds a city and marries a wife; whence do these people come? However, one can hold this without discarding the belief that our animal ancestors (that is, the ancestors of the animal in human nature) gradually developed and are interrelated. What the special creation of man looked like we may never know exactly in this life; it is clearly not important to the theology of creation, fall, and redemption.

  7. sockmonk Says:

    I think we’re finding common ground. :-) Yes, even looked at theologically, Genesis would seem to say that Adam and Eve were created differently than the others, in a special way. As we talk about divine nature and human nature, it seems to be assumed that human nature is something not shared by the animals.

    I’m not sure it’s necessary to believe that God created only a single couple, Adam and Eve; only that the first humans included Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve don’t necessarily have to be alone at first in order to be real people. Genesis can probably be read to accomodate either view; well, maybe. Need to think and pray about this some more.