Saturday, January 24, 2009

True Humanism

It strikes me that Orthodox Christians are the world’s true humanists in one sense. That is, we have a much higher view of mankind than secular humanists or Catholics or the children of the Reformation or anybody else I know.

We have a far more exalted view of the human being than secular humanists do for at least two reasons. The first is, we believe man is created in the Image of God; that his whole being is patterned after the Holy Trinity. (This takes at least a chapter or two to begin to explain in detail, though.) The second is, we believe mankind’s intended destiny is do be deified, to be glorified and godlike, and more than that, actually to participate in the inner life of the Holy Trinity. Because every human being, including unbelievers, including criminals, including every single person, is a bearer of the image of God and is called to become a god, every human being is “more honorable than the cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the seraphim.” (For anyone not up on your angelology, cherubim and seraphim are the higher ranks of angels.) We are higher than the angels because angels remain forever God’s servants and ours, whereas we are God’s children and called to be His heirs.

In Christianity, God actually came to us in human flesh, that fact alone bringing great honor upon humankind, greater honor than any other creature ever had. More than this, though, He died in human flesh and raised that human flesh from death, transfiguring it into something glorious and immortal. And if that weren’t enough, He did not shed that human flesh when He “ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father,” meaning the Lord of the entire Universe, who lives and reigns forever and ever, now and forevermore does so with a human body.

It is our exalted view of what a human being is that leads us to wish to protect all human beings, and to oppose abortion on demand, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and yes, physician-assisted murder. Nobody but God Himself has the right to decide when a human life shall end, and even if he had the right, nobody has the wisdom or the love or the dispassion to be qualified to make such a decision.

Orthodox Christianity also has a higher view of mankind than, say, the Vatican, as her history amply demonstrates. And so does her theology, as for example when she considers religious liberty a civil right but not a moral one, except for Roman Catholics.

Orthodoxy also has a higher view of mankind than Protestants. We do not agree with John Calvin that humanity is “but rottenness and a worm”. (Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 3) It is true that worms are better than we are in that they do not sin; but then worms never had the capacity either to sin or to do anything morally good. We do not believe in Calvin’s Total Depravity. Everything is us is indeed affected by sin, but not everything is completely destroyed.

We also hold a higher opinion of man than the Reformers because, unlike most of them, we believe that Man still has free will. True, we do not believe our will is entirely unimpeded; indeed, our passions and our ignorance importune our will vigorously and continuously. Nevertheless, despite their heavy lobbying, ultimately we choose what to do, and we can choose evil or we can, when presented with the opportunity, choose God.

Orthodox Christianity also insists that we are not individuals, as the Reformers assumed; rather, we are persons; and persons, the Orthodox Church teaches, only blossom as persons in communion with other persons. That means you are more than my brother or my sister; you are to me another self. I am to love you as I love myself because you are myself, you are another me, inhabiting different skin. And this is so whether you consider yourself my friend or foe. Orthodoxy insists that if I haven’t learned to love my enemy, I haven’t yet learned true love at all; I do not yet love anyone rightly.

So I think if you really want to exalt human beings, you want to be an Orthodox Christian.


Unknown said...

Wonderful article! Thank you for these bits of wisdom! Coming from a Reformed Calvinistic background before becoming Orthodox, that makes so much sense to me and is exactly what I experienced during the 20 years I was a Reformed Calvinist.