Thursday, January 31, 2008

Contemplation and Balance

Today we celebrate the memory of Saints Athanasius and Cyril, Patriarchs of Alexandria. The best known work of St Athanasius, and quite rightly so, is his On the Incarnation. It’s often overlooked, however, that this is in fact the second of a pair of writings; indeed, the very opening words of On the Incarnation are “Whereas in what precedes…” The preceding work is Against the Heathen. It contains one of my most beloved passages in his works:
Just as the Holy Scriptures say that the first man to be created, who was called Adam in Hebrew, had his mind fixed on God in unembarrassed boldness, and lived with the holy ones in the contemplation of intelligible reality, which he enjoyed in that place that the holy Moses figuratively called paradise. So purity of soul is sufficient of itself to reflect God, as the Lord also says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

In this way then, as has been said, did the Creator fashion the human race, and such did He wish it to remain. But men, contemptuous of the better things and shrinking from their apprehension, sought rather what was closer to themselves. But what was closer to them was the body and its sensations. So they turned their minds away from intelligible reality and began to consider themselves. And by considering themselves and holding to the body and the other senses, and deceived as it were in their own things, they fell into desire for themselves, preferring their own things to the contemplation of divine things. Spending their time in these things, and being unwilling to turn away from things close at hand, they imprisoned in bodily pleasures their souls that had become disordered and mixed up with all kinds of desires, while they wholly forgot the power they received from God in the beginning. One could also see that this was so from the first created man, as the Holy Scriptures relate of him. For he also, as long as he fixed his mind on God and contemplation of Him, kept away from the contemplation of the body. But when, by the counsel of the serpent, he abandoned his thinking of God and began to consider himself, they fell into the desire of the body, and knew that they were naked, and knowing were ashamed. They knew that they were no so much naked of clothing, but that they had become naked of the contemplation of divine things, and that they had turned their minds in the opposite direction. For abandoning the consideration of and desire for the one and the real, I mean God, from then on they gave themselves up to various and separate desires of the body. Next, as is apt to happen, having formed a desire for each and sundry, they began to be habituated to these desires, so that they were even afraid to leave them: whence the soul became subject to cowardice and alarms, and pleasures and thoughts of mortality. For not being willing to leave her lusts, she fears death and her separation from the body. But again, from lusting, and not meeting with gratification, she learned to commit murder and wrong. We are then led naturally to show, as best we can, how she does this. (I, 2:4 – 3:4.)
Saint Athanasius, in this extraordinary passage, gives an allegorical reading of the story of the Fall. The first man, living in the place “figuratively called paradise,” lives in bold contemplation of God, his attention given solely to Him. The Fall took place when “they turned their minds away from intelligible reality and began to consider themselves.” The Fall was an act of looking away, of looking down from the One and the Real and towards his own materiality. Following this, man became “imprisoned in bodily pleasures” because his soul had had become “disordered and mixed up with all kinds of desires.” Man formed a desire “for each and sundry” passion and desire. He disintegrated, being pulled to and fro by incompatible passions, pulled apart at the seams by his own conflicting desires.

It’s noteworthy that St Athanasius nowhere mentions Adam by name. Everything he writes could equally well be applied to any one of us, as we continually turn away from God to our own selves, and then get pulled to pieces by our own spiritual schizophrenia. St Athanasius goes on to explain how this turn from the Immaterial to the material resulted in the worship of the flesh and, consequently, in idolatry. Could we not say the same thing about materialism today? Or, for that matter, about idolatrous attention to the self in terms of dieting, therapy, or “empowerment” (what ever that means)? I would urge you all to read Against the Heathen, Part I, chapters 1 - 8, which is not long at all but rich in theology.

St Cyril of Alexandria made a vast contribution to the formation of Orthodox Christology. It is very instructive to study the fifth century Christological controversies between Alexandria and Antioch, specifically from the outbreak of the Nestorian heresy in 428 to the Fourth Ecumenical Council in 451. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying matters, the Alexandrians put a great deal of emphasis on the unity (i.e., oneness or singularity) of Christ, while the Antiochenes emphasized Christ’s duality (i.e., that He is both God and man). Both of these positions were perfectly in keeping with Orthodoxy. The Alexandrian position, however, taken to an extreme, resulted in Monophysitism (i.e., the teaching that Christ has only one nature); the Antiochene position, taken to an extreme, led to Nestorianism (i.e., a doctrine of separation between Christ’s divinity and humanity). It was only at the Council of Chalcedon that these two tendencies were reconciled: “Our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in humanity,” as we read in the Chalcedonian Definition (Tomos). We see, therefore, that pushing any particular legitimate doctrine too far in any one direction can result in a one-sided and incomplete theology. This is a trap into which many theologians risk falling. We all have our particular insight into the mystery of Christ, and it’s far too easy for us to build up entire systems out of those insights, thereby throwing our theology out of balance. As Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) likes to repeat, theology is saying and unsaying to a positive effect. Too much modern theology is either a matter of saying and saying to a negative effect or, more often, unsaying and unsaying to a disastrous effect.

For more on St Athanasius, consult Fr John Behr, The Nicene Faith and Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius and Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. For St Cyril, read Fr John McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts. For a lucid treatment of the Christological controversies of the fifth century, see J. N. D Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, chapter XII.

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