The Rise of Anthropological Pessimism in the West II

November 26, 2013 Length: 30:36

Fr. John contends that to understand the coming of the Renaissance and its humanism, one really needs to understand how in the West the doctrines about man became increasingly pessimistic.





Welcome back to this first episode of part two of this podcast, entitled “The Rise of Anthropological Pessimism in the West.” In the previous segment, I reviewed the Greek Fathers and their anthropology, an anthropology which has often been called optimistic by its emphasis on the high dignity of man, especially man’s calling to deification, to communicate in the very life of God, to participate in the life of God, through participation in God’s divine energies. I emphasized in that segment the importance of distinguishing between the anthropology of Christendom and what came before it in classical paganism as well as the anthropology of what came in the post-Christian Christendom of modern times. I want to add to that point that I made one more before I go any further, and that is that to understand the coming of the Renaissance, which marks in many ways in the narrative that I’m telling in this history, marks a major change in the direction of decline in the life of Christendom.

To understand the Renaissance and its humanism, one really needs to understand how, in Western Christendom during the Middle Ages that preceded the Renaissance, how doctrines about man became increasingly pessimistic. It was in many ways a reaction against this pessimistic anthropology that the rise of humanism and its great dream of utopia constitutes. We’ll see that when we get to the beginning of part three of the podcast. For the time being, in the previous segment, I had just introduced the doctrine of deification by elaborating how it was articulated in the work by Athanasius called On the Incarnation.

In this segment, I would like to turn next to another area in which the doctrine of man’s deification was particularly prominent, and that’s in the area of theological reflection on baptism in the Christian East. The possibility of deification was not only contained within the incarnation of God but also in the experience and act of baptism. Baptism, as it was reflected on theologically by the Greek Fathers, was an event that brought deification to human beings. It imparted deification and the experience of paradise as well as the forgiveness of sins. It was not just the forgiveness of sins that baptism imparted, but it was something more than that. It was not just a, as it were, negative effect of eliminating sin and guilt—the guilt that went with sin, especially for adults—but it was also the positive effect of bringing a person into the light of God himself. It imparted deification and the experience of paradise.

I can quote Cyril of Jerusalem, who is one of the Church’s earliest sacramental theologians of baptism, on what baptism signifies. This is what he wrote. Again, I’m reading from a nice edition from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, one of their Popular Patristics publications, St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments.

I often get questions from listeners about the books I quote from. By the way, I might just comment that I made a mistake in the previous segment of this episode on the Nicolaitan Schism, stated that I was reading from volume II of The History of Byzantium by Runciman; that was a mistake; it was actually by Norwich. Runciman did not write, as one of my readers wrote to me, observing The History of Byzantium. No, I was speaking about Norwich, and I apologize for the confusion if I caused any there. It was Norwich’s second volume of The History of Byzantium that I was making reference to. I often get questions from the listeners about books that I’m quoting and such, so I try to make this available as best as I am able.

Right now I’m reading from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and this is what he had to say about the experience of baptism and what it imparted. It was forgiveness of sins, but it was so much more than that.

Great indeed is the baptism which is offered you. It is a ransom to captives, the remission of offenses, the death of sin, the regeneration of the soul, the garment of light, the holy seal indissoluble, the chariot to heaven, the luxury of paradise, a procuring of the kingdom, and the gift of adoption.

How much more could be said in addition to that, but that’s quite enough. All those things are what baptism brings. So baptism, for the Greek Fathers, was not just a remission of sins alone. It was that, but it was so much more than that, bringing man up to the condition of deification, the experience of paradise, and his restored dignity.

It’s interesting to note that in the East among the Greek Fathers, as is often commented on by historians of doctrine, there was a reluctance to attribute guilt of sin to infants when discussing infant baptism. Gregory the Theologian would be an example of this. Even in the West, early Western or Latin Fathers echoed that conviction. Ambrose of Milan, for instance, spoke of the baptism of infants as something necessary, not because they were guilty of sin and deserving of damnation, but rather it gave them, it imparted to them, initiation into the life of paradise.

So when the Fathers spoke about the role of baptism in bringing about deification, the place of infants was significant. It showed how baptism was something that all should be called to, because all human beings are called to the dignity of that life in God, not just to the forgiveness of sins. Infants, for instance, were not considered to need that forgiveness by the Greek Fathers, but rather simply to the life of paradise.

It’s also interesting, to continue this thread of thought for a little bit, that the development of a distinct rite of chrismation, through which the gift of the Holy Spirit is imparted, took place as the Church reflected on this experience of deification. The gift of the Holy Spirit was something positive given to all those in baptism, and early on in the life of the Church a distinct rite of baptism versus chrismation as such did not appear, not until about the fourth century. One of the earliest Fathers in the Greek East to comment on it was Cyril of Jerusalem, whom I just quoted. He talks about a distinct rite of chrismation now, imparting the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, that rite always followed immediately upon baptism so that there was really no separation of the two rites, baptism and chrismation, but it brought further attention to and elaborated the Church’s conviction that baptism is not just a remission of sins but also a gift of life in the kingdom of heaven, an opportunity for deification.

Now, later, the practice of separating chrismation from baptism began to occur in the West. This occurred much later. At the time we’re discussing right now, the fourth and fifth centuries, in the West as in the East, baptism and chrismation as distinct rites always occur together, immediately together. But with time a practice will arise in the West of separating them so that chrismation, which ultimately comes to be known as confirmation in the West will be delayed in the case of infant baptisms until later in life, either the year age of seven or even later into the teenage years, the age of discernment. That’s when the rite of chrismation or confirmation specifically understood as the imparting of the Holy Spirit occurs in the Latin West later on.

It’s interesting to note that this is defended first of all in the historical record, at least as I know it, by a Western Frankish monk—I’ll talk more about the role of the Franks in the coming of the Great Schism in the next episode—in the ninth century named Ratramnus, in his polemics specifically against the Greeks during the very Nicolaitan Schism that I described last time in the opening anecdote to this episode. But this takes us somewhat away from the role of baptism as bringing the Christian into the life of deification that Christ offered through his incarnation.

One final area in which the deification of man is understood as salvation in the Greek East concerns the place of what were called the divine energies, the energies of God and the ability of human beings to receive or participate in these energies, directly participating in the life of God through them. This doctrine was borrowed from Aristotelian metaphysics which possessed a concept of distinction between essences and energies, whereby essences were something that, in the case of God, could not be experienced—God’s essence was unknowable—but God’s energies could be imparted to human beings. Because of this, human beings obtained and experienced and communicated in direct experience of God’s life, not through some kind of created means such as a created grace, but directly experienced the life of the God through what was called the divine energies.

This is a rather complex philosophical concept which I can’t possibly give justice to myself, and for it I would recommend a book that tries actually to trace its origin in classical philosophy and then in the life of the early Church. It’s a work called Aristotle: East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom by David Bradshaw.

So this concept of essences and energies, found especially in Aristotle and appropriated by the early Greek Fathers, came to emphasize that God is in his essence simply unknowable, so great and so beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend that he will never, ever be knowable; that’s just impossible. However, God, through his own actions, shares his energies with human beings made in his image and likeness to know him, to participate in his life. As a result we find passages in the Greek Fathers that speak about the experience of the divine energies. Let me quote, for instance, a statement by Basil the Great on this very point. This is Basil:

While we affirm that we know our God in his energies, we scarcely promise that he may be approached in his very essence. For although his energies descend to us, his essence remains inaccessible.

That’s Basil the Great. As a result, then, of this doctrine of the divine energies in the context of the deification of man, Greek Fathers developed a conviction of the possibility of man’s participating in the very life of God: deification.

The last point that I’ll make here concerns another doctrine connected closely to deification and the role of the divine energies within it, and that is the concept of synergy. Perhaps in this very doctrine, so treasured in the Greek East, man’s dignity, the anthropological optimism of the early Church was best found. I just mentioned David Bradshaw’s book, Aristotle: East and West, and in that work there’s a passage in which he tries to establish one of the most basic features of the distinction between Eastern and Western Christianity in the period prior to the Great Schism. These are his words, and they relate very directly to the concept of synergy.

If one were to summarize the differences between the Eastern and Western traditions in a single word, that word would be synergy. For the East, the highest form of communion with the divine is not primarily an intellectual act, but a sharing of life and activity. It led to a tendency to think of earthly, bodily existence as capable of being taken up and subsumed within the life of God. Emphasis was placed not on any sudden transformation at death but on the ongoing and active appropriation of those aspects of the divine life that are open to participation.

In the West, synergy played remarkably little role. Although various reasons might be conjectured for this difference, its immediate cause was the happenstance way in which Greek learning was transmitted to the West. Most of the works in which the ideal of synergy had been developed were not translated into Latin. Furthermore, even if they had been, Latin offered no terms as suitable as “energy” for situating the notion of synergy within a broad metaphysical context.

Those are the words of David Bradshaw in his work, Aristotle: East and West. Notice that for Bradshaw, man’s synergy with God, that cooperation with God, involves an ongoing experience while in this life; it’s not something that’s just delayed until after death and the resurrection and the judgment, but it’s something that’s ongoing, that’s a part of the Christian’s life even now. As he put it:

It led to a tendency to think of earthly, bodily existence as being capable of being taken up and subsumed within the life of God. Emphasis was placed not on any sudden transformation at death but on the ongoing and active appropriation of those aspects of the divine life that are open to participation.

So a better expression of the central argument of this podcast that Christendom introduced man to an experience of paradise and brought paradise into the experience, the entire comprehensive experience of the world, would be hard to find.

The concept of this divine-human cooperation, or synergy, in the process of salvation brings attention to the role of human will, free will, the free will of human beings, as well as the will of God. One theologian has emphasized that the doctrine of synergy should not be understood as a kind of equality between God and human beings in salvation. God is always the one to initiate; God is always the one who offers more to that relationship. As Vladimir Lossky put it, “This synergy is asymmetrical.” It’s asymmetrical; it’s definitely more God’s activity than man’s activity. Nevertheless, man’s activity is real in it, and there’s an important place for man’s free will in traditional Christian conceptions of synergy.

Let me quote John Kelly again, talking about this cooperation in his book, Early Christian Doctrines. This is what he writes:

A point on which they (the Greek Fathers) were all agreed was that man’s will remains free. We are responsible for our acts. “Our salvation comes,” stated Gregory the Theologian, “both from ourselves and from God.” If God’s help is necessary for doing good, and if the good will itself comes from him, it is equally true that the initiative rests with man’s free will. Chrysostom similarly teaches that without God’s aid we should be unable to accomplish good works. Nevertheless, even if grace takes the lead, it cooperates with free will. We first of all begin to desire the good and to incline ourselves towards it. Then God steps in to strengthen that desire and render it effective. The orbit within which they (the Greek Fathers) worked was marked out by the ideas of participation in the divine nature, rebirth through the power of the Spirit, adoption as sons, new creation through Christ, all leading to the concept of deification.

That’s John Kelly.

So man possesses free will, and he exercises it in a cooperative way with God as synergy. So human beings are assigned a great dignity as they participate with God in their salvation, even if in an asymmetrical way. Part of this synergy involves a genuine desire by the believer for purification that leads to God’s indwelling within them. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, in a very beautiful passage, speaks about the place of purification and the role that the individual believer needs to play in desiring to draw near to God through the purification of his life, especially his passions. Here Gregory is commenting on the Beatitudes.

The Lord does not say that it is blessed to know something theoretically about God, but to possess God in oneself.

In other words, salvation is not an intellectual experience, but an experience of the whole person, attained through purification.

“Blessed are the pure in heart,” he says, “for they shall see God.” Now I do not think that this means that God has offered a vision of himself face to face to those who have purified the eyes of their souls, but perhaps he explains what the noble sentiments of the beatitude offer us more straightforwardly in another context, namely, when he says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” This verse leads us to the conclusion that they who have cleansed their hearts of all creaturely passions behold the image of the divine nature in their own inner beauty. And it seems to me that the incarnate Logos incorporated the following advice in those brief words.

He might say: You human beings who desire to contemplate what is truly good, do not despair of beholding the object of your desire just because you have heard that the divine majesty is exalted above the heavens so that his glory is unsearchable and that his beauty is indescribable and that his nature is incomprehensible, for that which is accessible, the measure of the comprehension of God, is within you. Thus you share essentially in this good thing, in your very nature, with him who made you. For God has stamped the image of his good properties of his own essence in your makeup, as when a sculptor carves in wax the image of a sculpture he intends to cast.

So that’s Gregory of Nyssa speaking about the possibility, through purification, of the Christian drawing near to God and participating in his very life. It required synergy; it required a will and a desire for that life.

Basil the Great likewise spoke about the role of free will even more expressly in his account of the creation of man, an account related or documented or excerpted in a book recently published in the Popular Patristics series by SVS Press called On the Human Condition. It’s a wonderful book, a collection of Basil’s writings on anthropology, essentially. I used it here at St. Katherine College in teaching a class on the human person and society in part of our core curriculum. This is what Basil says about synergy and about the role of free will in bringing about the human being’s salvation in communion with God. This is what he writes, quoting right off the bat the passage in Genesis about the creation of man in God’s image and likeness

“Let us make the human being (he quotes God) according to our image and according to our likeness.” (Then he continues.) By our creation, we have the first, and by our free choice we build the second. In our initial structure co-originates and exists our coming into being according to the image of God. By free choice, we are conformed to that which is according to the likeness of God.

Here Basil finally gives expression to the distinction between being the image of God and being the likeness of God. Being the likeness of God requires effort, synergy, on our part, and this is what is according to free choice.

The power exists in us, but we bring it about by our activity. If the Lord in anticipation had not said in making us, “Let us make” and “according to our likeness,” if he had not given us the power to come to be according to that likeness, we would not have received the likeness to God by our own authority.

Yet now he has made us with the power to become like God, and in giving us the power to become like God he let us be artisans of the likeness to God so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made by a painter, lying inertly lest our likeness should bring praise to another. For when you see an image exactly shaped like the prototype, you do not praise the image, but you marvel at the painter. Accordingly, so that the marvel may become mine and not another’s, he has left it to me to become according to the likeness of God. For I have that which is according to the image in being a rational being, but I become according to the likeness in becoming Christian.

Beautiful passage of St. Basil the Great, emphasizing and demonstrated that high level of dignity that the Greek Fathers attributed to the human person in Christ.

With Basil’s emphasis upon the free will, even creating like an artisan does the likeness of God within one, it would be important to keep in mind that speaking there he had a way of speech that, taken out of context, could be misinterpreted as suggesting that human beings are somehow autonomous. I will speak at length about the principle of autonomy as an anthropological heresy later, in the next segment of this episode, but here, as we draw toward the end, I want to emphasize that for Basil and for all the Greek Fathers, there was really no question but that man was not autonomous. He is not self-governing or self-ruling, but dependent totally on the life of God.

This point is made I think quite eloquently by John Meyendorff in his survey of Byzantine theology, by that title, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, and this is what Meyendorff has to say.

The view of man prevailing in the Christian East is based upon the notion of participation in God. Man has been created not as an autonomous or self-sufficient being; his very nature is truly itself only in as much as it exists in God or in grace. Grace therefore gives man his natural development. This basic presupposition explains why the terms “nature” and “grace,” when used by Byzantine authors, have a meaning quite different from the Western usage. Rather than being in direct opposition, the terms “nature” and “grace” express a dynamic, living, and necessary relationship between God and man, different by their natures, but in communion with each other through God’s energy or grace. Yet man is the center of creation, a microcosm, and his free self-determination defines the ultimate destiny of the universe.

Again an expression of that high dignity that the Greek Fathers attributed to the human being in Christ.

Finally, as we reach the end of this segment on the rise of anthropological pessimism in the West, by reviewing the anthropological optimism of the Greek Fathers and their high evaluation of human dignity, I can perhaps close with a quote by Maximus the Confessor, who kind of ties in so many of the themes that I’ve introduced here. This is what Maximus the Confessor had to say about human dignity finding its true identity in God, and not only in God but in the indwelling of God’s energy, God’s very life and presence, his very being, within the believer. These are the beautiful words of Maximus the Confessor.

The admirable Paul denied his own existence and did not know whether he possessed a life of his own by saying, “I live no more, for Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2). (Maximus continues.) Man, the image of God, becomes god by deification. He rejoices to the full in abandoning all that is his by nature, because the grace of the Spirit triumphs in him, and because manifestly God alone is acting in him. Thus God, and those worthy of God, possess in all things one and the same energy, or rather this common energy is the energy of God alone, since he communicates himself wholly to those who are all wholly worthy.

Join me next time when I turn from the Greek Fathers and their anthropological optimism to the rise of anthropological pessimism among Western Fathers such as Augustine.