The Human Condition
Feb 11, 2013
Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis
Humanity, in Orthodox tradition, depends for its existence upon God’s gracious love. The fullness of being human can only be experienced in a communion of love with God and the “others” who mediate God's gracious presence in the world. The flourishing of human life as communion presupposes freedom. Freedom is a gift of God to humanity that defines and shapes human beings as being in God's image. "Man," writes St. Cyril, "from the origins of creation, received control over his desires and would freely follow the inclinations of his choice, for the Deity, whose image he is, is free." Human persons, because they are free, have a potential to transcend the limitations of their nature and experience the fullness of their humanity in opening their existence to God and to others. They are responsible for the nature and the quality of the relationships that they are crafting in encounter the other(s). Their life can be understood as a dynamic process of becoming, fully experienced through being relationship icons of God.
Human beings live their lives in the midst of a reflexive and complex relationship between transcendence and finiteness, human freedom and limitations. On the one hand, human beings are free to transcend the present moment, backwards in memory or forward in hope. They are free to transcend themselves as they reflect upon who they are and what they want to become. They are free to transcend their environment by changing it to suit their purposes. On the other hand, human beings are limited, conditioned and restricted by bad housing conditions, broken families, unemployment, advertising, the media and their own indiosyncratic complexes and genes. Death stands as an unavoidable boundary to all possibilities of life, a constant marker of human finitedness. In the tension between trancendence and finiteness, freedom and limitations, possibilities and actualities , human beings tend to become anxious. In their anxiety most of the time they fail to hold the balance between the two poles of their existence, and they tip over to one side at the expense of the other. Either they ignore their limits and posture as gods, or they give away their freedom and succumb like animals to the worldly forces that squeeze and determine them.
The tension between transcendence and finiteness and the anxieties that it generates, along with its potential imbalances, do not fully exhaust the possibilities of living the fullness of human life. Human life flourishes by its enhancement through the active and all pervasive presence of God’s presence in the world. For Orthodoxy, life is shaped not only by natural forces and human actions but also through the active presence of God in it through Christ and the Holy Spirit. It identifies the origins of all human alienation in the separation of humanity from God. Refusing to live with God through Christ is the root cause of all sin. What enables human beings to cope with the anxieties and the adversities of life is their trusting relationship with God. Human ideologies or deeds in themselves cannot sustain life in the midst of adversities, suffering and pain. Such an attitude or pattern of life is idolatrous. In the words of St. Paul, those who adhere to such a pattern of life " exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator." (Rom. 1:25) The result is that the good things of the world that ought to be our tools become our masters. If we must have something because it has become our final concern, it has enslaved us. Thus, idols acquire a power over us that can only be called demonic.
Whatever becomes an obstacle or ruptures a human being’s communion with God and interrupts the process of attaining the fullness of their personhood is evil. The Bible portrays a diversity of forces, such as sin, death, the law, satan, demons and principalities and powers, that endanger our relationship with God and put at risk the quality of human life. As long as we live in the present world, human beings will be subject to corruptibility and death. In the human quest to overcome death and corruptibility at its various stages and manifestations sin becomes an inevitable reality in the created world. "Having become mortal," writes Theodore of Cyrus, "[Adam and Eve] conceived mortal children, and mortal beings are necessarily subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to anger and hatred."
The conviction that there is something deeply wrong within human beings appears again and again in the New Testament. Jesus comes as the divine physician to cure sinners of their sickness (Mk. 2:17). Through sin people become "heartless" (Rom. 1:31), closed in upon themselves and thus incapable of love. Jesus declares how evil emerges from a wicked heart: "From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within.” (Mk. 7:21-23) The fact that men and women are oppressed, contaminated and inwardly wounded should not be exaggerated to the point of alleging complete lack of freedom, total corruption and utter egocentrism. Evil spoils and damages but never totally destroys the divine image in man. What was free, pure and good in the divine creation can never be completely erased.
The Church, continuing with the expectations and hopes of the people of Israel, believes that only the direct and personal intervention of God can save humanity and the world from mortality and from all oppressive and annihilating forces. God, because of His loving nature, grants through His incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit, the fullness of life as salvation from all deadly forces and realities. Yet, what God offers in His love for all creation needs to be freely received by His people. St. John Chrysostom rightly points out that salvation, the fullness of life, comes "neither from God’s love alone, nor just from human virtues , but from both together." If salvation were from God’s love alone, then all would be saved; if it were from human virtue alone, there would have been no need for the incarnation. Making the right choices and living a virtuous life are not enough for human beings to attain the fulness of life. They need to to be in communion with God. However, living with God pressupposes that they live a virtuous life by exercising their freedom. Being with God implies that authentic human beings participate in, and communicate in their lives, the love of God for all human beings and the world at large.
Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis is the Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology