Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Nature of Man

The following is a chapter taken from the book "O Death where is thy Sting?" written by Father Alexander Schmemann. Chapter 8 entitled "The nature of Man" contemplates the mystery of the fall and how we can move forward following the fall. Fr. Alexander uses as his starting point the imagery of food. He relates food to the fall and how it is we become in communion with each other instead of being in communion with God. Our ultimate goal is communion with God and he tries to display this in the chapter!

One of the popular critiques of Christianity relates to its teaching about the fall of man. In this teaching the opponents of Christianity see a pessimistic attitude and the demeaning of human dignity. Perhaps in light of what I was discussing previously this accusation begins to lose its demagogic sting.

I began my conversations by citing Feuerbach, one of the founders of contemporary materialism. Feuerbach is remembered for his classic statement: “man is what he eats”. Ironically, this seeming reduction of humanity to food, to matter, without realizing it, Feuerbach himself said exactly what the bible says about mankind. The Bible teaches us that man is first of all a being who is thirsty and hungry, who transforms the world into his own life. But in contrast to Feuerbach, who subjects humanity to food and matter, the Bible sees in this transformation the goal of humanity to make the world into life, and thereby make it a means of communion with the world, with its beginnings, with its purpose, with God. Only in light of this basic biblical teaching can we understand why the symbol of man’s fall in the bible is also connected with food. 

On the basis of the mythical (that is, symbolic) story in the Bible, the whole world was given by God as food to man, with the exception of one forbidden fruit. And it is precisely this fruit that man eats, refusing to believe and to obey God.

What is the meaning of this story, which greets us like a child’s fable? It means that the fruit of this one tree, in contrast to all others, was not given as a gift to man. It did not bear God’s blessing. This means that if man ate this fruit, he did not eat it in order to have life with God, as a means of transforming it into life, but rather as a goal in itself, and thus, having consumed it, man subjected himself to food. He desired to have life not from God or for God but rather for himself.

The very fall of man consists in the fact that he desired life for himself and in himself, and not for God and in God. God made this very world a means of communion with himself, but man desired the world purely for himself alone.

Instead of returning God’s love with love for him, man fell in love with the world, as a goal in itself. But herein lies the whole problem, that the world cannot be an end in and of itself, just as food has no purpose unless it is transformed into life. So too, the world, having ceased to be transparent to God, has become an endless commotion, a senseless cycle of tie in which everything is constantly in flux, constantly vanishing, and, in the final analysis, dying.

In the divine conception of humanity, dependence on the world was overcome by the transformation of the world itself into life. Life means possessing God. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men”=so we read in the Gospel of John (1.4). But if the world is no longer transformed into anything, if life ceases to be a transformation into communion with Absolute Meaning, with Absolute Beauty, with Absolute Goodness, then this world becomes not only meaningless, it becomes death. Nothing has life in and by itself, everything vanishes, everything dissolves. Cut off from its roots, a flower can live for a short time in water and even decorate a room, but we realize that it is dying, that it is already subject to corruption.

Man ate the forbidden fruit, thinking that it would give him life. But life itself outside of and without God is simply communion with death. It is no accident that what we eat already needs to be dead in order to become our life. We eat in order to live, but since we eat something that is already deprived of life, food itself inevitably leads us to death. And in death there neither is nor can be any life.   

“Man is what he eats”. There it is, he eats…death-dead animals, dead vegetation, rot and dissolution. He himself dies and, perhaps, the enormity of his fall consists precisely in the fact that this very death-filled and corrupt life, this life defined from the very beginning by corruption, this life that flows and irrevocably vanishes-this life he considers absolutely normal. And he is confirmed in this attitude by those who dare to blame Christianity as being pessimistic and as destructive toward man. But when Christ approached the grace of his friend Lazarus, and they said to him, “Do not come near, for he already stinks” (Jn 11.39), Christ did not consider this normal-he wept.

“I am the image of your ineffable glory”-and yet they remove him and hide him so that he would not smell and disrupt their routines-this Man, this image and likeness of God, this king and crown of creation! Indeed, this horrible meaninglessness of the world, this constant commotion of mankind within a cosmic cemetery, these pathetic attempts to build something for those who are dying, for those already dead, and finally, the affirmation of all of this as normal and natural-this is what Christianity declares as the Fall, as the falsification by man of himself and of his divine and eternal calling. It refuses to come to terms with such a worldview, and firmly and clearly proclaims: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15.26).

We began these conversations with food, with Feuerbach’s “man is what he eats”. At the same time we saw that Christianity also places the fundamental hunger of mankind at the center of its understanding. However, Christianity alone offers an entirely unique approach to the question of what man is ultimately seeking, of what is the only thing that can satisfy his hunger. What is it that he desires? Feuerbach and the rest of the materialists will answer: he wants freedom, he wants prosperity, and he wants to be well fed. But what is the use of freedom, prosperity, and food to one who is condemned to death? Why should one build vacation homes in cemetery? Whatever we pursue, everything ends up in this dead-end, which Vladimir Soloviev described so well, “death and time are reigning on earth”.

To this question Christianity answers: man desires life, not simply for a moment, but for eternity, life which in the church’s hymnography so beautifully is called “life unfading”. This life is not to be found in food, although it is through food that man receives it, and not in the air, although breathing gives him the possibility to search for and desire it, and not even in good health. This life is the One who is himself life, that is, in God-in the knowledge of him, in communion with him, in love and in praise and in the possession of him. This is why it is the one who is fallen into death and into servitude to food, having become only that which he eats-this man-who needs to be saved. Subsequently, this becomes the basic theme of Christianity, the teaching about salvation, about the restoration and resurrection of man from death to life. 

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, O Death where is thy Sting, The nature of man, Pages 71-78.