Friday, June 11, 2010

The Theology of Illness (1 of 3)

Question of health and sickness have been very much on my mind these past two years, and for this reason I have decided to return to two books authored by the remarkable French Orthodox scholar, Jean-Claude Larchet: The Theology of Illness and Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, (the third volume of the trilogy, The Therapy of Spiritual Illness is due out in English this summer from Alexander Press). I hope to blog about these two books over the course of the next several days, covering one chapter a day.

The co-translator of the book, Fr John Beck, describes the structure of The Theology of Illness in these words:
The author begins with consideration of the relation between sickness and sin, providing a traditional yet refreshingly contemporary view of human nature and the human person. The questions he considers are fundamental: the origins of sin in a fallen world, its impact on physical health, and the healing of human nature by the incarnate Son of God. In the second chapter, he discusses the positive value of illness: how it can engender spiritual growth, patience and prayer. Finally, he takes up the matter of healing as a means of glorifying God, stressing again the crucial role of prayer and sacramental grace in promoting genuine health.
In his introduction, Dr Larchet notes:
The development of medicine in a purely naturalist perspective served to objectify illness, making of it a reality considered in itself and for itself. Illness came to be construed as uniquely physiological and somehow independent of the afflicted person. Rather than treat the person, many physicians today treat illnesses or organs. This fact – complicated by diagnostic methods that are increasingly quantitative and abstract, together with therapeutic methods that are more and more technical – has had as its primary consequence the effect of considerably depersonalizing medical practice.
As a result “a great many of our contemporaries to expect that salvation comes from medicine and encourage them to make of the physician a new priest of modern times, a king who holds over them the power of life or death, and a prophet of their ultimate destiny.

Professor Larchet begins his first chapter with the assertion that “God cannot be considered to be the author of illness, suffering and death.” Man in the original state of his nature was immortal, but “the incorruptibility and immortality of the first man were due solely to divine grace.” The prelapsarian state of man was what we call paradise; here the Fathers affirm that man was not created in paradise but placed there by God. Here Larchet offers this tantalizing footnote concerning the place of Adam in human history:
The Fathers have radically different conceptions of the origin of man than those held by modern science. The history of man as it is conceived by human paleontology, as compared with the point of view of Holy Tradition, refers only to the history of humanity outside of paradise. The Fathers would see homo habilis not as a representative of humanity as he emerged from the hands of God, but as already fallen from his original state, fallen in the lowest state of his “involution,’ and beginning to develop himself according to a new mode of existence. (It is important, therefore, to avoid confusing the state of spiritual infancy attributed by the Fathers to Adam at the time of his creation [...] with the historical “infancy” or a state of underdevelopment that characterized the earliest human beings.) The original condition of man as is presented by Scripture and the Fathers is situated in another temporal order than that of historical knowledge: it does not belong to the time of sensible realities (chronos), but to the duration of spiritual realities (aion), which eludes historical science because it belongs to the sphere of spiritual history. Without being “non-temporal” (because it had a beginning in time and developed over time, which it in fact began), the existence of Adam in his primitive state is “ante-historical,” just as human existence following the parousia will be post-historical. Spiritual history, then, cannot be replaced by historical science The teaching of Tradition about human origins is neither more nor less incomplete with our present knowledge of human paleontology than is the faith of the Church in the eucharistic transformation of bread and wine into Body and Blood of Christ with the findings of the science of chemistry, or faith in the Ascension of Christ with the findings of physics and astronomy. In each of these cases, we are dealing with two different modes of apprehension that cannot be reduced one to another. Each concerns different modes of being and becoming. Faith and spiritual knowledge correspond to a domain in which the laws of nature are transcended and to a mode of existence that is, in the proper sense of the term, “super-natural.”

Larchet, following the Fathers, states that “the source of illness, infirmities, sufferings, corruption, and death, together with all other evils that presently afflict human nature, in the personal will of man, in the bad use to which he has put his free will, that is, in the sin which he committed in Paradise.” Yet the world was created good, but it was man’s responsibility to preserve it as such: “God created man as a microcosm within the macrocosm, so that man might recapitulate every created being.” According to St Maximus the Confessor, “man’s primary mission was to unite Paradise with the rest of the earth, and thereby to enable all other created beings to participate in the conditions of Paradise.”

Larchet next poses the question of whether people are responsible for the illness that afflict them. He answers that individuals are not; the responsibility is in the nature we inherited from Adam. Larchet clarifies that, according to the Eastern Fathers, “men inherit not the sin of Adam itself, but rather its consequences.” St Cyril of Alexandria writes:
Nature fell ill from sin through the disobedience of a single man, Adam. Thereby the multitude of human beings was made sinful; not because they shared Adam’s sin – they did not even exist yet; but because they shared his nature which had fallen under the law of sin.
For this reason one can say that “illnesses that afflict human beings appear to be due not to their person sins, but to the fact that they share in the fallen human nature of their first father Adam.” But not everything can be blamed on Adam, since we imitate him:
All men, in fact, bear responsibility to the degree that they have become imitators of Adam. It is because Adam’s descendants have also committed sin that the consequences of Adam’s sin have affected them. This is precisely St Paul’s teaching: “by one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death; thus death spread to all men, because all men sinned."

We are all co-responsible with Adam; we have developed and multiplied the consequences of his fall; there is a “solidarity in evil between Adam and his descendants.” This leaves us with a “collective responsibility in the face of misfortune that strikes our neighbor, of which illness is merely one expression.”

Larchet goes on to consider the healing of human nature by the Incarnate Word:
By His Incarnation, Christ has overthrown the barrier which separates our nature from God and has opened nature once more to the deifying energies of uncreated grace. By his redemptive work, He has freed us from the tyranny of the devil and destroyed the power of sin. By His death, He has triumphed over death and corruption. By His resurrection, He has granted us new and eternal life. And it is not only human nature, but also the creation as a whole which Christ heals and restores, by uniting it in Himself with God the Father, thereby abolishing the divisions and ending the the disorders that reigned within it because of sin.
Yet that begs the question of why illness persists. Larchet replies:
The restoration and deification of human nature accomplished in the hypostasis of Christ remains potential for human hypostases unless and until they are incorporated and united in His. This incorporation and uniting are accomplished within the Church – which is the Body of Christ – by the grace of the Holy Spirit communicated in the sacraments. It is necessary, nevertheless, that man collaborate in this transformation of himself by grace. He must work (cf. Phil 2:12) to appropriate it; he must open himself to it and assimilate himself to it by constant effort. Through baptism he puts off the “old man” (Eph 4:22) and puts on Christ (Gal 3:27). Thereby he becomes the “new man” – but only potentially. He needs to actualize this transformation in himself from his fallen nature to a restored and deified nature. This can only occur by virtue of a process of growth which presupposes first a constant renunciation of the fallen state of human nature, an ongoing struggle against temptations and self-purification, and second, acquisition of a renewed nature in Christ by practicing the commandments (cf. Mat 7:14; 11:12), one falls again and again, and no one can claim to be without sin (cf. 1 Jn 1:8-10; Rom 3:10-12).
It will only be at the end of time “that the restoration of all things will take place,” when “the order and harmony destroyed by sin will be restored and the benefits acquired by Christ in his work of redeeming and deifying our human nature will be fully communicated to all.”

Larchet concludes with a consideration of the connection between illnesses of the body and illness of the soul, offering the surprising proposition that the “illnesses of the body, far form being directly engendered by illnesses of the soul, are to the contrary provoked by the health of the soul.”

This is a remarkable work, deeply steeped in the patristic tradition yet eminently readable, and one that I would urge all to acquire and read attentively. I hope to treat chapter two tomorrow.


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