If you are in the helping professions, confronting problems in people’s lives, it doesn’t take long to realize that no one is purely and simply an individual. Our lives are much more complicated and interwoven. The problems we suffer may occasionally appear to be of our own making, but that is really the exception rather than the rule. Whether we are thinking of economic or genetic inheritance, or the psychological and social environment, almost all the issues in our lives are a matter of connection. The same is true when it comes to virtue and wholeness. Saints are not a phenomenon of individuality. I believe it was Fr. Thomas Hopko who noted that saints tend to run in families; they clump.
There is a model of what it means to be human that is simply wrong, regardless of its elements of truth. That model envisions us primarily as free agents—individuals as free agents—gathering information, weighing it, thinking, and making decisions. That way of thinking emphasizes the importance of choice and the care with which we make our decisions. It tends to lecture long on responsibility and the need to admit that we ourselves are the primary cause of our own failings. It praises hard work and admires those with creative insights and wants to see them rewarded. Success comes to those who master these virtues, and we encourage everyone to take them as their models. I say that’s a model that’s simply wrong.
This model of human agency is written deep in the mythology of American culture, and, with its global influence, it has become increasingly popular elsewhere. Many elements of contemporary Christian thought—that have also been formed and shaped and formed in our modern culture—assume this model of agency to be true and have interwoven it into a fairly new account of salvation itself. The scandalous popularity, for example, of the novel teachers of prosperity and personal-success schemes have raised this model of humanity into something like cult status. But even those who are scandalized by such distortions of the Gospel often subscribe to many of its ideas. For those ideas have become part of the “common sense” of our culture.
They are also part of the nonsense produced by our culture’s mythology. There is virtually nothing about human beings that, strictly speaking, is individual. Beginning from our biology itself, we are utterly and completely connected to others. Every element of our DNA is inherited, not invented. The same is true of our language—it is inherited, not invented—and our culture: we are born into a culture; we do not go and create a new one. None of us is an economy to ourselves. We are linked by every action we make. Even those things we most cherish as uniquely individual are themselves questionable.
We celebrate choice as the true signature of our individuality. “I am free, and I choose.” However, if you scrutinize decisions carefully, they are something less than autonomous exercises of the will. For instance, Americans have a strange way of choosing like Americans (often to the dismay of the rest of the world). Germans choose like Germans; Russians choose like Russians. We are “free agents,” more or less, but who play the game of life on a field that is deeply slanted by the world around us.
As I noted at the beginning, it is easy to describe the many-sourced nature of failure (how I got to where I am). But with a bit more effort, we could see that “success” is equally derived from many sources outside of the self. It should not be surprising then, to see that salvation (and condemnation, as viewed in the Scriptures) are also corporate matters rather than strictly individual. Indeed, the corporate nature of our existence lies at the very heart of the classical doctrine of Christian salvation. Indeed, we hear in the Fathers that no one is saved alone. They suggest that we can fall alone, but that we cannot be saved alone. I’ll come back to that.
One of the earliest complete accounts of Christian salvation was written in the fourth century by St. Athanasius the Great. It has long been recognized as a touchstone of Christian theology. In that work, called On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius explains in detail that the salvation of humanity is brought about through the action of God becoming human, not just that Jesus became a man and did this and did that, but that he became human that the work of Christ’s death and resurrection are not external to our humanity, that he became one of us. Rather, their power to work salvation lies precisely in the fact of our communion with him. For instance, when we say he took on human nature, the Fathers also taught that there was only one human nature, so he took on my nature, your nature, the nature of every human being. We are connected with him. He is incarnate to the middle of us, to the midst of us, connecting all of us to him. So it’s our cooperation with that action completes and makes effective what has been given to the whole of humanity through the God-man, Jesus Christ. Our cooperation with what he has done makes it effective and displayed in my life as salvation.
Our cooperation, that is, a choice, is only effective, however, because of the communion established in the Incarnation. Salvation is not a reward given to someone who chooses correctly; walvation is a new life that is lived as a communion, a mutual indwelling (or koinonia).
That primary saving reality, our common nature and its communion with the God-man, is something that has largely been lost in our modern understanding, dominated as it is by the myth of individualism. Christ’s incarnation is only effective if our humanity has a corporate reality. It would make little sense otherwise. It was classically summed up in the Fathers by saying, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.” This is only possible if there is, in fact, a “what” that we all share. This “what” makes possible not only our communion with him, but also our communion with each other.
St. Silouan famously said, “My brother is my life.” He was not speaking figuratively. Rather, he was giving assent to the very mechanism of our life and salvation. We were created to live as beings-in-communion. Adam declares of Eve, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The story of sin is the story of the disruption of this communion:
The communion between persons is disrupted, as well as the communion even with animals and creation, all ending in the dust of death. But even our death is a communal death, for none of us dies alone. Paul writes in Romans 14:
For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
This is the very heart of our existence, and of our salvation as well. In some manner, we carry within us the whole of humanity. St. Silouan called this the “whole Adam.” We could extend that and say that each of us carries within us the whole of the created order. St. Maximus the Confessor called human beings a “microcosm,” meaning “the whole cosmos in miniature.” The life we live is a life for the whole Adam, the whole cosmos. In some manner, our salvation is the salvation of the whole cosmos. You hear this in Romans 8, where Paul writes and says:
For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…. because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
So this bondage that creation has to death and decay is to be set free, because we are set free. It is a part of us. We as microcosm will free the macrocosm, the whole world.
Our salvation can be described as the restoration and fullness of communion with God, but that same salvation includes the restoration and fullness of communion with one another and with all creation. Just as Christ’s communion with us is the means of our salvation, so our communion with everything and everyone works towards that same salvation, ours and theirs. In Ephesians, the first chapter, Paul writes and says:
[God has] made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in him.
This is an image of a union and a unity of all creation. The modern myth of human beings as individual, discrete, self-contained moral agents is just not correct, not in any sense of fullness. It can also be a tool of deception, for the myth is often used to absolve us from the mutual responsibility that constitutes a just society, as well as to falsely blame individuals for things over which they have little or no control. That contemporary Christianity is often complicit in this deception is perhaps among its greatest errors.
It has long been observed that the greatest weakness of the Reformation was in ecclesiology, that is the doctrine of the “Church.” Reformers found it difficult to articulate the reality of “the Church” without undermining their own reforming project. From its inception, the Reformation was not a single work, but an immediate work of divisions and competing reformations. There has never been a “Protestant Church,” only “Churches” that were mutually exclusive even in their origins. That modern ecumenical theories have invented the notion of an “invisible Church” to mask this essential failure and does nothing to address the real problem. Indeed, it has provided the fertile ground for the individualism of the Modern Project with all of its destruction.
I am recording this podcast during the Christmas season, or it’s drawing near to Christmas, early next week. In the two Sundays just before Christmas each year, we celebrate the Sunday of the Forefathers, that is, those who have gone before Christ in faith, and also the Sunday of the Ancestors, those who preceded Christ genealogically, whether in faith or not. So we celebrate, if you will, that Christ’s birth is not the arrival on the human scene of a wonderful new individual. He’s certainly unique and comes among us, but he comes just as we come—with a history. He is not only the eternally begotten Son of the Father, but he is the Son of Mary, and on and on and on, as we hear the names of that genealogy read, as we hear the names of the forefathers in faith recited in Church. All of that is something that Christ unites himself to. We are being saved together.
We have opportunity and are reminded many times during this season of the need to share our joy, to share our bounty, and to share of the substance of what we have with others. It’s not simply a “good thing” to do; it’s a recognition of the truth of who we are. You are my brother; my brother is my life. I give to you because you are my life. Glory to God.