Recently I was involved in a discussion about social justice at an eastern catholic monastery. That discussion was immensely fruitful, filling in the void of many things I've considered over the years, as well as revitalizing older, more traditional considerations I had abandoned over the years in my quest for truth. One of the new considerations arising out of that discussion involved human nature, what that is exactly, and how it relates to the Gospel of Jesus Christ wherein all things, including human nature, are restored. This post is a result of such considerations.
What is human nature, and how is that "nature" restored according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Human “nature” is a description of dynamic capacities. Western Christianity has emphasized that humankind is made in the image of God, describing it with a more scientific addendum called “nature,” being classified alongside the “nature” of all other animal species. This, however, is unfortunate because it appears to be almost completely disconnected from its historic usage, especially that contained within the wide stream of Eastern Christianity.
Within the various expressions of Eastern Christian thought, it can be argued that to speak of human “nature” at all is to describe an abstraction, a potential. Unlike modern scientific categorization, human “nature” is unique precisely because its primary analog is not mammalians, or even any other creature; its primary analog is the incarnate Son of God. Human “nature” consists not only of being made as God’s image (which is technically more accurate than saying man is made “in” the image), but also after God’s likeness, the likeness of heavenly being itself (Gen 1:26; c.f. Gen 5:1,3 where the language is intentionally inverted, showing Adam “fathering a son” as his own likeness, after his image, thus implying his attempt to restore Seth to the image of God through likeness with his fathering).
Also, to be found within the tradition of Eastern Christianity is discussion about the uniqueness of human “nature” needing to become realized, not only rationally, but holistically in all actions and contemplation through the assent of a willing subject. Human “nature” necessitates a certain capacity for the reception of God, and such capacity is not a mere auxiliary that can be lost, a kind of addendum, but rather is definitive of human “nature” itself. Unless a human being is in communion with God, actively participating in the Divine life, that person can become and remain less than fully human, even though that person remains fully the image of God throughout one’s mortal existence. Human “nature” within Eastern expressions of the faith, therefore, presuppose this image and likeness of God. In other words, there exists an understanding and dialog about all mortal humanity existing immutably as the image of God, yet with a mutable likeness of God. To the degree that human “nature” ceases to actively participate in the Divine life of God, it ceases to develop and mature in God’s likeness as well; it ceases to share in the glory that it was created to become, and therefore disqualifies itself from eternal life. For some—certainly not most, or all—this mortal life will be the best life in which they exist and image their Creator.
Contemplating such a view of human “nature” also presupposes the reality of God’s grace bestowed. Within the Roman Catholic tradition, mankind was created before “the Fall” with a donum superadditum, a gracious gift of capacity “over and added” to the human capacity left to all mankind after “the Fall”, a gracious gift that must be restored throughout one’s life in order to reach God. (The equivalent of this original “gift” from an Eastern perspective is the “likeness” described above.) Unfortunately, such distinctions are not considered to be helpful for Western conceptions of the human constitution, especially those contained within Protestant confessionalism, which rely heavily on image-bearing through forensic appropriation. However, within the stream of Eastern Christianity, human “nature” presupposes that all humanity, pre and post “fall”, have received grace, and all are favored by being made in the image and likeness of the One who made it. All are born “naturally” with the capacity to receive God, but not all choose to appropriate it through likeness with God. Therefore, to become devoid of grace is to become “unnatural,” sub-human. Human life, by design, implies a necessary motion and growth into the appropriation of the life of the Creator, who is both infinite and eternal, thereby allowing participation in life with Him without end or limitation. Human life devoid of God’s graces results in an unfortunate detachment and distancing away from participation in the Divine life, now and forever. In other words, a life devoid of Grace is a reality, and not merely a potential, for Eastern Catholic thought. And although, from an Eastern perspective, it is not preferred to describe man as losing a gift that was added to him before he fell (as in the Western Catholic trajectory of thought), the most important emphasis of such trajectories of language is to note that man, as originally created, was threatened to lose participation in the Divine life of God itself, at that time and for all eternity thereafter. The Gospel of God dotted throughout the landscape of humanity was, of course, the assurance that human “nature” could and would be restored for all eternity. It was assurance of being raised from the dead-ones in Sheol/Hades, and also the end of Death and Hades itself. How that was to occur was eventually revealed with greater clarity, albeit in “shadows” of the coming reality, through the Divine administration given to Israel, i.e. the Old Covenant.
The historical and eschatological figures known to us in Tradition as “Adam” and “Eve” (narrated symbolically in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as “Human Life”) illustrate this much. They were not created to know (in the intimate, holistic sense of knowing) eternal death, the permanent unraveling of and distancing from the Creator into non-being. The path of knowing intended for them was rather voluntary submission to the divine will, developing into a community of harmony with their Creator, thereby ascending further up the ladder of communion with him, an ever increasing appropriation of God-likeness, a perpetual increase in sharing and maturing thorough the uncreated glory of God. Human life was designed to participate forever in this Divine light and life. Therefore, within Eastern thought, to contemplate what it means to become fully human is to contemplate motion toward God, an ascension with God, and in a mystical eschatological sense (both prior to and after the incarnation and resurrection) to anticipate eternal life through the promised life of the Son of God, thereby sharing increasingly in that glory both now and forever.
We might, however, do better than most Western forensic notions of restoring human “nature” by considering that God identifies our nature as being fully human only when it is penetrated wholly, body and soul, by the glory of the resurrection of Jesus, our savior, who himself was “plan A”, so to speak, and not an addendum to God’s predestined plan for human glory. In other words, it is favorable to perceive that all human life from the very beginning was created with the potential for infinite maturation in likeness with God, and is called to choose that life as freely as God offers it, to make his own life subsist in that deepest reality, and in such choosing, discover the presence of, and enter into communion with his Creator, now and forever.
At this point it may be suggested that this Eastern trajectory of thought is not helpful or accurate to the “facts” of holy Scripture, for human nature is, allegedly, demonstrably “evil.” Evil, within such a presumptuous framework of language, is considered a “thing” attached to or infused with nature, permeating its essence. But from within the variety of Eastern Catholic perspectives, “evil” is not an attribute of nature, or even “natural” per se. “Evil” is the way we humans, made as God’s image and after God’s likeness, describe a product of choice, a choice relating with human life that has the capacity to participate and mature in the Divine life, both now and forever. “Evil” can also be considered sociologically as an inclination of will contrary to the Divine will, an inclination subject toward that which is not, as apposed to God, who is the very ground and source of all being itself (i.e. what “is”). The “evil” which Christians are prone to describe in their daily lives is woven throughout the narratives of holy Scriptures, and is revealed in a variety of ways through creation as well, but especially and dramatically in the Torah as transgression of participation in the Divine life.
To speak of the world or God’s creation as being evil in an ontological sense is another byproduct of misunderstanding or misusing the language of evil “nature”. Referring to the world as evil, and not merely an evil “age” or generation, is simply mistaken. However, to describe human “nature” as “evil” is even more problematic, for it disregards the various and punctiliar stages of “Adamic” life recorded throughout the Scriptures that have clearly detached from participation in the Divine life, and instead have (unfortunately) co-opted the Scriptural participatory narrative with an overly generalized and all-pervasive “nature” that, after the Fall, could never have received God, nor can still, except by super-added grace. By this historical co-opting, “being evil” (at least, forensically) is assumed to be the truth everywhere and at all times (at least, for those who are not, theoretically, “forensically” united with God). For both Paul and Eastern Catholic Christianity, we find something very different. We find participation in the Divine life as essential to understanding the history of humanity and the gloriously cosmic restoration of human life through the promised incarnation and resurrection.
All of creation, Paul says, has been subjected unwillingly to the corruption of humanity for whom it had been created, and such was decided by God “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20). Such “corruption”, according to Paul, indicates this created capacity of all human beings that we’ve been describing from the beginning. Corruption is as equally holistic in Paul’s thought as glorification is. Corruption, therefore, describes not only the definitive end of this mortal existence, i.e. eternal death and non-being, but also the disordered desires that accompany a mind fixated on the flesh—a mind enveloped within mortal existence in such a way that it is distanced enough from communion with eternal glory, and thereby hostile to God, and because of such cannot submit to God’s instruction and thereby please Him (Rom. 8:6-8). Nevertheless, through the promised incarnation, human “nature” has been, and continues to be, restored holistically.
One might then ask, ‘What are we to do with the statements of Paul and other Scriptures that seem to describe all of humanity fixated on the flesh?’ The answer to that question is actually quite simple: take them seriously, and interpret them within their own limited historical context. Historically, it would have been impossible and counterproductive for Paul to presume omniscience for all, especially the “nature” of all, for his letters clearly reflect a limited knowledge base, which allows for both human free will and Divine intervention. Paul seems, rather, to be interested in describing the generation in which he lived, that generation within the “last days” of the Old Covenant administration. He comments frequently about first century Israel’s antiChristian activities being thoroughly corrupt, so much so that Jesus promised to come and destroy their idolatrous temple to bring about peace for the world and allow salvation for all through such terrible judgments. That generation, according to Paul, was even worse than previous generations of Israel’s history that also had corrupted themselves and been judged by the Lord. But not all generations had become thoroughly corrupt. The Scriptures clearly teach cycles of reform. Not perfect reform, but blessed reform, to be sure; and such reform always necessitated drawing near to the Lord in his holy House, and fixating their minds on the things of God’s Spirit, drawing near to Him who worked miracles and wonders in their midst, Who secured the promise of future resurrection from the dead-ones for them. Such a hope was surely taught, but sadly faded away in numerous generations as the people increasingly fell away again and again into the bondage of fleshly corruption. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, reverses such misfortunes, primarily through his actual resurrection from the dead-ones and the subsequent outpouring of his Holy Spirit. After Pentecost, quite literally the whole world began to change.
The Old Covenant had begun to become obsolete, and thereby was ready to vanish away, the promised “end” of which occurred in AD 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, as well as Hades and its power over death, leaving only the New Covenant administration of eternal life in Christ. Under the New Covenant, all nations are being drawn into the hope which is ultimately contained in the resurrected life of Christ alone. Under the new Covenant, all nations are being drawn into the Body of Christ, in which absolute assurance of salvation is found, and participation in the Divine life is manifest. Outside of Christ and his Body there is no absolute assurance, only relative assurance, filled with doubts and plagued with autonomous reasoning. However confident one’s own faith or hope in “afterlife” might be, it is most assuredly subject to scrutiny apart from participation in the embodied life of Christ’s Body. For God did not pour out his Spirit in the first century in order to produce a copy of himself in paperback. Rather, it was to produce living epistles read by all men. The deposit of faith and life in Christ is contained in the pillar and ground of the truth: the Church (1 Tim 3:15). That doesn’t mean that all human beings discovered outside of the Christian Church cannot or will not ultimately be saved by Jesus and granted eternal life. What it means is that all human beings outside of the Church can only be saved by Jesus, for he alone is the first fruit of resurrection, the absolute assurance of which is received through participation in the Divine life of his Body, the Church. Most unfortunate, however, are those generations in which human beings seek the Church for absolute assurance and yet find absolute confusion and corruption. Such is, sadly, a reality as well; and such corruption will be judged by Jesus in history, leaving the many tender mercies of our God to be granted unto those outside, and not inside, such assemblies.
Much more needs to be said about that, but most importantly it must be clearly stated that the Christian Church is the pillar and foundation of God’s truth revealed to mankind. All human beings, even those outside the Church, have the capacity to receive God and become fully human in union with him. However, with that said, it’s a sad and obvious gamble to remain outside the Body of Christ (even when it seems as if every visible and accessible Christian assembly is thoroughly corrupt), for such a description entails fixation upon life in the flesh, including a false, imaginary, and misleading view away from the Divine life, which ends in death, and not toward life in the Spirit of God who raises the dead, or even the Son of God who became man and was raised and vindicated, who sits enthroned in the heavens, thereby securing life eternal for mankind.
It is through such activity—living with hope and absolute assurance in the Divine Life—that mankind collectively learns to share in the glory of God, and ascend the ladder of Divinity. Through holiness, the light and life of God permeates the darkness of every domain, of every generation. Such was not possible prior to Pentecost, for it is at Pentecost that the light of eternal life—resurrection life—began to penetrate and illumine the pitch-blackness of Israel’s story and the gloomy shadows across the world. Prior to Pentecost there was only hope that somehow, some way, God would grant eternal life with Him. The so-called underworld of Hades, Sheol, etc. was all that was known and anticipated. However, after Pentecost there was absolute assurance of future resurrection and vindication for all who died in Christ, because God had become man, had died, and was raised from the dead-ones for them. Moreover, in AD 70, the resurrection of all the saints from Hades had been fulfilled. After AD 70 the actualization of eternal life in Christ meant that after their mortal bodies had faded away, their participation in the kingdom of God would be secured. The hope that the Christian Church teaches is not that human beings get to escape “this world” into the next, only to magically wake up on some final day along with all the dead-ones of history and finally escape the despair of mortality forever. They do escape upon death, but not this world. They escape this age, this generation, yet they continue to live in and with this world, in this kingdom of God where heaven and earth have already joined under the New Covenant, being active in its continual renewal and reform, assisting all of human life in its motion toward God as it was originally created to be. In Christ the great reversal has begun. The dynamics of human “nature”, including its image and likeness, are being restored in union with God, sharing in the glory that it was created to become, both now and forever.