Saturday, February 5, 2011

Genesis as Icon, Part VI: An Icon of What Else Ails Us

In the previous post, we considered death and the icon of how we acquired mortality. But the problem of the human race doesn't stop there; it only begins there. Here, let us look at several implications of the death residing in us.

Corruptibility & Vulnerability

Perhaps there were floods and fires and hurricanes from the beginning, but none of these could harm us if we were immortal. Immortality implies one never decays and is never vulnerable to disaster. Man, however, having acquired mortality, acquired with it vulnerability to everything from mosquitoes to earthquakes to smallpox. In rejecting God and separating themselves from Him, our first parents removed themselves from the protection implicit that communion. They made themselves prey to every evil satan could inflict.

Just as no decree or law was necessary to render Adam and Eve corruptible once they had renounced God (because that very rejection itself had done that), neither can any decree or law suffice to remove the corruptibility, vulnerability, and the dying. Even if they had repented, they were by now incompatible with Him upon other grounds than merely moral; they had contracted not only moral but also bodily corruptibility and death, while God is Life and is incorrupt. “Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough,” says St. Athanasius, but due to the ontological corruption in Adam and Eve, "…no, repentance could not meet the case.”

Human Relationships Poisoned

Clark Carlton observes,

Once man had made the world into an object of his desires it did not take long for him to turn against his fellow men and use them as tools to accomplish his purposes. It is not accident that the story of the Fall in chapter 3 of Genesis is immediately followed by the story of Cain and Abel — the first murder — in chapter 4.

“It did not take long” is an understatement; as we have seen, Adam turned upon Eve immediately, implying God should never have made her; and perhaps the only remarkable thing about the first murder victim is that it wasn’t Adam.

No longer are human beings regarded as infinitely precious images of God or as other selves; no longer does man find his life in that of his fellow man, but competes with him and uses him and sees himself in contrast to himself, viz., as an individual instead of a person. As Carlton puts it:

We were created in the image of God to live in a perfect communion of love with God, with one another, and with the entire created order. Yet in our own self-centeredness we have abandoned the only source of live and love. We have sealed ourselves off from one another within the impregnable fortresses of our own egos. And we have turned a garden of delight into a toxic waste dump.

Garments of Skin

Adam and Eve now became aware and ashamed of their nakedness (for by now lust had entered the world, lust as distinct from innocent desire for total communion). They improvised for themselves clothing of fig leaves. God, however, replaced those with clothes He made for them, “garments of skin”. The Fathers interpret this phrase as a reference to all the changes in the human being as a result of the fall. These changes have a two-fold and paradoxical nature. On the one hand, they are tragic and for our chastisement. On the other hand, they are a mercy from God, because God re-engineered the human body, mind, and soul to enable us to survive in a now hostile world.

  • Man’s body, we are told, became more grossly material. (Compare with the body of the risen Jesus, which can appear and disappear, change appearances, enter locked rooms.)

  • Man acquired a whole new set of emotions and drives, such as fear, hatred, anger. These have survival value. Anger, for example, ought to be directed against satan. Fear, too, has a proper use; we ought to fear sin. Aggression is a survival tool if we come face to face with, say, a tiger in the wild. Such emotions are only perverted when we mis-direct them, usually against one another. (Drives and emotions, when they are disorderd, are called “passions” in Orthodoxy.)

  • Man’s mind became darkened. Cut off from the things of God, the human mind must try to make sense of the world which makes no sense except as headed by God and infused with Him.

All these and more are comprehended under the patristic understanding of “garments of skin.”

Enslavement of Our Spirit

As man was created, his spirit (that is, the Holy Spirit he had been given) was to rule his mind; his mind was to rule his body; and with his body, man was supposed to rule his world. That is the natural order of things; but when man is estranged from God, the order becomes inverted. The Holy Spirit is not to be found. The mind seeks consolation from bodily things; it values pleasure instead of true joy, relaxation where it cannot find peace, attraction where true love eludes it, feeling good instead of becoming holy, and so forth. The body, in turn, seeks these things through its senses; in other words, from the external, material world. Thus, the material world controls the body; the body with its demands largely rules Man’s mind, and man’s spirit capitulates and fades into the background to such an extent that most of us, most of the time, are hardly aware, any more, that it exists. Thus, everything is topsy-turvy.

St. Paul expresses this when he says that we were “dead in sins”. (cf. Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13) We were not yet annihilated, since, as we have seen, God mercifully slowed down the dying process until the time should come for Him to abolish death. That we were not yet dead in that full sense is obvious from the fact that men were still walking around in their bodies; a body cannot live without its soul to sustain it, nor can the soul live without the Holy Spirit every moment sustaining it, albeit from outside the man. Nevertheless, we were spiritually dysfunctional or inactive, having succumbed to material life instead.

Fear & Survival

There is a scene in the movie, Moonstruck, in which the mother, Rose, is dining with a man she has just met. Rose is distressed because her husband is cheating on her. She is trying to figure out why. “Can I ask you a question?” she says to the stranger.

“Go ahead,” he replies.

“Why do men chase women?”

He answers, “Nerves.”

But after a moment’s reflection, Rose gives her own answer: “I think it's because they fear death.”

The line draws laughter from the audience. How did she ever come up with that for a wacky explanation? But in fact, there is much truth in Rose’s observation, although the reasons for it are not immediately obvious. Rose’s husband actually confirms it later. After he has agreed not to see his mistress any more and to go to confession, the very next thing he says is, “A man understands one day that his life is built on nothing. And that's a bad, crazy day.”

“Your life is not built on nothing!” Rose retorts.

But if everything is to end in death, then yes, life is indeed built on nothing.

Fr. John Romanides explains in detail how the fear of death causes us to sin.

In the first place, the deprivation of divine grace impairs the mental powers of the newborn infant; thus, the mind of man has a tendency toward evil from the beginning. This tendency grows strong when the ruling force of corruption becomes perceptible in the body ... Satan manipulates man’s fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him, in other words, transgression against the divine will regarding unselfish love, and provoking man to stray from his original destiny ...

Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man’s weaknesses in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent. Resting in the hands of the devil, the power of the fear of death is the root from which self-aggrandizement, egotism, hatred, envy, and other similar passions spring up. In addition to the fact that man “subjects himself to anything in order to avoid dying,” he constantly fears that his life is without meaning. Thus, he strives to demonstrate to himself and to others that it has worth. He loves flatterers and hates his detractors. He seeks his own and envies the success of others. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory, bodily pleasures…

Sin is a progressive disorder.

Sin, unless checked and remedied, grows progressively worse, both in humanity as a whole and within each person. St. Athanasius writes,

Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.

In the individual, sin gradually degrades our minds, bodies, and intellects. Unchecked, it eventually destroys us. It leads man’s spirit further and further from God and from life; it culminates first in spiritual death, and then in physical. Everyone is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13) meaning disconnected from the Holy Spirit and therefore spiritually inactive.

Yet by God’s grace, we retain the ability to embrace Christ, Who re-vivifies us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

Ultimate and definitive spiritual death comes when we have ignored that knocking so often and for so long that we no longer even hear it. Our hearts become so hardened, our selfishness so impenetrable, that we are no longer able to repent, no longer open to the possibility of love. We value others, even God, only insofar as they may be able to give us the “fleshly” pleasure we seek and we hate whoever interferes with our pleasure; and this condition has become irreversible.

“Now is the accepted time,” writes St. Paul, “and today is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2))

“Today if you will hear His voice, harden not your heart.“ (Psalm 95:7-8)


Marsha said...

Thank you so much for these posts!