The Radical Nature of Christianity (3)

3 March 2022

The wonderful and strange character of Christianity, which was particularly striking during the first Christian centuries, has been dulled over the course of history. The attraction of the world and the things therein have distanced the life of the faithful from their main purpose and has altered their spiritual senses and criteria. And this can be seen not only in the personal life of the faithful, but also in the life of the Church more generally. It’s noteworthy that in the search for the preservation or re-acquisition of the unity of the Church, the crucifixion and life in the grave have been marginalized. Greater weight is usually given to power, authority, social activeness and other similar secular criteria. But, in this way, the life of the Church is transmuted and altered.

Within this climate, there’s a revision of basic Christian principles and concepts, such as love, peace, and freedom, all of which have a special meaning and significance in Christianity. These notions, which are generally accepted by people, are usually understood and applied in a spirit which is discordant or even entirely opposed to that of the Gospel. So it’s possible for there to be complete agreement between the Church and the world as regards the concepts and yet, at the same time, total disagreement as regards what these concepts actually mean.

But the worst thing is when these disagreements about the actual meaning of the same concepts arise between Christians themselves. And this is no rare phenomenon in today’s secularized Christian world. Christian love derives from God; God is love (cf. 1 Jn. 4, 7-8). Without communion with God and observance of his commandments there can’t be Christian love in the world. Christian love is selfless. Christians who love don’t look out for their own best interests, but seek those of others. And they receive the strength to do so when they see Christ in the person of their neighbor, in the body belonging to them. But adherence to Christ has as its premise that we should deny ourselves. It’s only insofar as we deny ourselves that we can experience true Christian love. And when we’re devoted to Christ and experience this love, we become alienated from this transient life and find the life which has no end. Christians reject the world, and all the things in it which are considered precious, in order to devote themselves to becoming citizens in heaven (cf. Phil. 3, 20). They set aside and ‘hate’ father, mother, children and every carnal bond which prevents them from surrendering entirely to Christ (cf. Luke 14, 26). But when they live in Christ, they find again what they had set aside and ‘hated’, but on a higher plane.

Similar observations might be made about freedom, as well. According to Christian teaching, freedom doesn’t lie in the untrammeled capacity to satisfy one’s personal desires. Such freedom is merely allowing our distorted selfishness to run riot. Which means it’s radically opposed to the Christian notion of freedom. Real freedom is part and parcel of the transcendence of our selfishness. This is the only way in which one person’s freedom doesn’t impinge on that of others. Real freedom has its source in God and is experienced as communion with him and with other people. The acquisition of such freedom requires  complete self-denial on our part, and the observation of God’s commandments. It’s only through free and full submission to the divine will, and participation in the divine life, that we can gain our true freedom and also exercise what is, in fact, our real natural will. As Abba Dorotheos so aptly puts it, if you don’t have a will of your own then you’re always doing what you want, because you’re happy with whatever happens. This is because it doesn’t happen as you will, but because you want whatever happens (PG 88, 1810 BC).

Since we aren’t the fount and origin of our being, and, even more, since we’re subject to decay and death, we can’t be really free. Freedom which is restricted to this degenerate world and is threatened by death can’t be real. Subjection to secular concerns doesn’t merely restrict freedom, in the end it annihilates it. True freedom has boundless horizons. It’s the fruit of victory over decay and death and participation in the permanence of eternal life. With this freedom, we bestride all the limitations of the world and reach out into eternity and infinity. From the time of our entry into the Church we’re faced with a very odd perspective. We’re called upon to come to know true love by hating ourself. We’re called upon to find freedom by undergoing complete enslavement. And, in the end, we’re called upon to gain life by surrendering to death. In the Book of the Elders we read that one of the brothers asked Abba Moses: ‘I see before me a thing, but I can’t possess it’. The elder replied: ‘Unless you become as dead as those in the grave, you can’t possess it’ (PG 65, 285C).  This mortification becomes the source of unending life. With the acceptance of mortification, which is the culmination of the paradoxicality of the Christian life, human nature isn’t undermined, but, on the contrary, is brought to its perfection. We die, like wheat, in order to bear ‘much fruit’ (cf. Jn. 12, 25).

The mortification of human nature comes within the perspective of communion with the divine nature in Christ. We weren’t made in order to adhere to our created nature. ‘God made us so that we might share in the divine nature’ (Maximos the Confessor, PG 1, 42). This communion wasn’t given to us from the very beginning, nor was it possible for us to gain it through our own efforts. This communion, which opens up boundless freedom for us, is offered to us by the divine energy and life. When we share in the divine energy and life, we transcend ourselves and our nature; we aren’t restricted to individuality nor are we fully explained by our created nature. We become gods by grace; we share in the uncreated divine life and embrace the whole of creation.