March 14, 2017 Length: 16:06
Fr. Theodore Paraskevopoulos, adjunct faculty member of the Orthodox School of Theology, speaks at a panel discussion titled "Resurrection of Logos: the Divine, the Individual, and Finding Our Bearings in a Postmodern World," held at Trinity College in Toronto, Ontario, on March 7, 2017. Fr. Theodore addresses the basic understanding of Orthodox anthropology as man striving to attain the image and likeness of God.
So there’s not going to be any mind-blowing. That’s reserved for Fr. Geoffrey. Thank you to the OCF at U of T for asking me to come and be up here on the stage where I feel out-classed definitely, but I appreciate the invitation.
I was told to speak for 10 to 15 minutes about what it means to be a human person in the Orthodox tradition. I don’t know how possible that is, but Vlad just mentioned that in the past two days, on Sunday we celebrated in the Orthodox tradition the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which is the first Sunday in Lent. For those of you who don’t know what that is or don’t know what we celebrate on that day, we celebrate the return of the holy icons into the Church. For a lot of people who have been to Orthodox churches know that the church is full of icons, and they wonder when was there ever a return and why was there a return, considering—well, did we ever not have them? Of course, Christians have had images in their churches and in their places of worship from the very beginning, but there was a time that there was an oppression of the idea of using images, and it was considered to be idolatry within the Church, and there was a faction within the Church that fought against this. For almost a hundred years, icons were burned, destroyed, and taken out of churches. It was only with the Seventh Ecumenical Council that they were returned.
Of course, why do we celebrate this on the Sunday of Orthodoxy and why do we call it Sunday of Orthodoxy is because those who were the proponents of icons—and of course all modern Orthodox Christians today knew that the attack on the depiction of Christ was an attack on the Incarnation itself, on the idea that Christ is an actual human being, he actually existed, actually lived and lives, he was an actual historical figure who lived at a certain time and not a figment of our imagination as some people today would say. This means that when we speak about God and when we speak about the Trinity, when we speak about the second Person of the Trinity, who is the Son, the Logos, as we were speaking about tonight, we are speaking about a very specific Person.
That is in contrast to many of the discussions that we see today, both in the public forum, online, at symposia like this, where many people would like to think of God as an abstract. For Orthodox Christians, and I would say for historical ancient Christianity, God is not an abstract, but rather God is an actual Person. There is an objective reality there. Christ is an objective person. He thinks a certain way, speaks a certain way, acts a certain way, even looked a certain way, so we can depict him in icons.
The reason why I started with this and I kind of begin my thoughts, is because there is a little bit of a contrast between many religions and Orthodoxy. This is generalization, but as generalizations go… In many religions, whether they be Christian or not, the concept of God or the concept of the divine usually centers around the idea of the word of God or the concept of God made text. There are usually writings about this and writings that are usually very ancient, that are passed down, and the text is usually what is focused on. Even among many Christian denominations, it’s all about the text. However, in the Orthodox tradition, it is not about the word becoming text, but rather about the word becoming flesh, becoming a human being. So our faith is not based on a text, but rather on a deep mystical experience of the risen Lord throughout time.
You’re going to say we read the Bible, too. We use the Bible, we venerate the Bible, we have it in very high regard. However, for ancient Christianity—[cell phone sound] I love that, because I like Star Trek, too [laughter] [cell phone sound] There you go—when we speak about Christ, when we speak about God, we speak about a living tradition. Christ didn’t found a book, neither did he found a philosophy, but rather he founded a very real community, a living community. The Orthodox Church for the last 2,000 years is this living community that has never stopped. It has not ceased to exist. There was never a time when it did not exist. We have no beginning, we have no reformer, we have no founder, we have no school of thought, but rather we exist from the very beginning. The reason why I say this is because our concept of God and our concept of our relationship with him is a very intimate one and one that is living for the last 2,000 years.
Going back to the idea of incarnational theology and of icons, if we are to say that God is real, if he actually exists—if we don’t believe in that, then this talk doesn’t really matter—but if we believe that God exists and that God is an actual Person—he has a mind, he has a personality—and that Christ is God in human form, then the reality is that there is an objective reality to who God is, and by that we can say that there’s an objective truth that we can speak about and there is an objective good that we can speak about and there is an objective understanding of the human being, that it is not subjective, but rather objective. For us as Orthodox Christians, we tend to follow the motto that was coined by St. Athanasius the Great, famous fourth-century Father of the Church, a great theologian who said that “God became man so that we may become god.” Not that we may become real gods, but like gods.
For us, the goal of the Christian life is to emulate Christ, to become Christ-like. It’s not about what I think of myself, it’s not about what I want to be or what I would like to create in my mind about what I would like to be or what I think I am, but rather that there is Christ and Christ is the perfect human being, and I try to discover what that is. I know that is diametrically opposed to the society that we live in today for the most part; that we live in a society that is a society of subjectivity, not objectivity. And we live in a society that, when it speaks about religion or it speaks about spirituality, when it speaks about theology, it usually refers to the subjective understanding of God, the subjective understanding of the human person, as Professor Peterson had been dealing with in the last few months. When we talk about human identity, it is something that is to be discovered, not to be created or self-created.
There’s a writing, a very early second-century writing in the Church called the Didache/em>, which means “The Teaching,” one of the earliest writings of the Church. I guess you could say it’s one of the earliest manuals of how to be a Christian, or the basics of the Christian faith, I guess you could say. In the Didache, the first line says, “There are two ways: one of life and one of death, and there’s a great difference between the two.” This is the opening lines. Really, when it comes to the understanding of the human person from an Orthodox point of view, we would say the same thing, that there are really two ways to understand. There is either the revelation from God and how we emulate that, or rather there is the movement towards the self, towards self-revelation, self-understanding, and really, we would say, self-idolization. So of course, we as human beings are free to do whatever we want to do and we have free will, but how we use that and what we do with it and what we choose to become really depends on where we’re looking towards, what we want to do, and who we want to be.
I would say that the modern existential crisis of our time can really be remedied by the simple statement that if there is a God—there is a God—I’m not him. So the understanding of that—there is a God and I’m not him—would mean that I need to discover who that God is and what he expects of me and why am I here and what am I supposed to do with my life. And that’s diametrically opposed to the understanding that God is whatever I want him to be or what I would rather him to be, and go from there.
In pre-modern Western civilization, society was predominantly a society of these kinds of values, these kinds of objective truths. It was kind of like the social glue that provided stability for the family and social institutions and religion and even business ethics, like people believed that there was a good, there was a truth out there that we needed to discover, there was a God that we needed to somehow figure out who that God was. And the humility that was required to accept that we are not gods was what held all of that together, the social and psychological fabric of society.
Without it—and this is where I think Professor Peterson would also agree and has said many times—without this kind of understanding of an objective reality, there is an endless movement towards the individual, towards subjectivity, towards what is relative, and ultimately towards nihilism, because if there is no objective meaning in life and there is no objective truth in life, and everything is whatever I make it and everybody is right, then really everybody is wrong, and really what do you have to live for? There’s no real ultimate meaning in life. So this is a problem, and there’s a movement towards the delusion that everyone is their own god and that everyone is free to create themselves in their own image. This breeds endless fragmentation, as Professor Peterson has said, of both so-called individual truths and also individual identities.
If there is no God, as we said, this conversation doesn’t really matter. However, if there is a God and he is a personal God as the Christians claim, then we cannot go on ignoring him without suffering a serious identity crisis. I believe that this crisis has arrived, and the question is: How do we as Christians see the word of God, the divine Logos, in those who refuse to see it in themselves? How do we speak to that? How do we speak to a world that doesn’t even acknowledge that there is such a Logos, that there is such a truth in the first place? This is the conundrum that we find ourselves in, the difficulty. How do we witness to a world that is not speaking the same language any more? I think that is something that… discussions like this are extremely important. This is kind of the first steps, because here we are attempting—and I applaud the OCF for doing this—to find points of convergence between a Christian tradition—the Orthodox Christian tradition—and also the secular approach—psychology, sociology, history, biology—places where these things converge and they tell us and they preach the same truth.
This is why I was so enthused about coming and speaking today, because watching a lot of Professor Peterson’s videos online, I saw that there are a lot of points that he makes that not only are congruent with Orthodox theology and Orthodox anthropology, but speak common sense to the world, a world that is completely fragmented, a world that is completely disengaged from the idea that there can be a truth outside of ourselves, and that there needs to be some type of seeking, some type of understanding of what that truth may be. The main difference between philosophy and theology, I always tell my students, is that philosophy comes from us. It is us trying to understand the world, trying to understand the metaphysical, trying to understand God, trying to understand anything. You can philosophize about anything, but the source is a human being, and we have this wonderful thing called the mind that is so powerful it can do so many things. But that’s philosophy.
Theology deals with revelation, deals with what has been revealed from outside the community, from someone else. And that’s what the Church has to deal with; that’s what Christianity has to deal with: the idea of what God has revealed in himself by becoming a real human being, becoming one of us. We can’t negate that, as much as we try. To do so would mean to negate an important part of ourselves, because we believe, as Orthodox Christians like to say all the time and as I would like to quote Genesis, where God says in the very beginning, in Genesis 1:26, that God makes man in his image and his likeness. He gives us this great ability to choose, this great ability to reason and to figure things out for ourselves and to decide whether we want to be like him or whether we want to be more like something else. This is the great dilemma. It’s not a theological dilemma, it’s not just a spiritual dilemma, but it’s an existential dilemma, and it’s becoming a social dilemma, it’s becoming a political dilemma, a biological dilemma, and a whole lot of other dilemmas.
I will end there. I will let my colleague, Jonathan, take it from here. But I think this is a general introduction to at least the way we see it as Orthodox Christians, that God becomes man so that man can become God. Also the words of the Apostle Paul: “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” This is our ultimate goal. Thank you very much. [Applause]