What the Christian East can remind the European West
Identifying ourselves as God’s Creatures
Western and Eastern European thought have just begun to find a meeting point. Just a few years more than a decade have passed since the fall of the Berlin wall; quite a lot of work has been done for the economic approach of the two lungs of Europe and of course still a lot has to be done.
Cultural confrontation and meeting, on the contrary, is starting with great difficulty, which proves that time needed by culture is longer than that needed by the market; and yet when building a home for the European citizen it will not be of secondary importance to understand this man who both in the good way and the bad way has left his imprint practically all over the Earth.
Who is this man and what does he carry with him? What are his most profound dreams, that too often disappear in the confusion of consumer society induced needs? If the social system can be considered as the outfit humanity shows; its achievements, its self-understanding and its dignity, do we, in Europe, have the true measures of man?
As approaching the path towards the union, are we tailoring a suit which will perfectly fit or instead one that will make us look clumsy and awkward because we have not taken in account the leading actor, Man?
The anthropological, philosophical and theological thought which developed in Eastern Europe and particularly during the twentieth century, can contribute the western reflection upon Man and above all recall what seems to have been forgotten, which is, Man is Creature.
The observations I want to make are simply to show why reconsidering this perspective Creator-Creature is so important for anthropology. Along the discourse I am delivering, I feel in dept with those many others who have better than me, given and still give a contribution to revealing the hidden treasures in the anthropological perspective.
Technological progress has enabled man to stride towards a better knowledge of the cosmos , of nature and of mans own physicity.
The reverse of the medal is that progress has also brought up new problems, such as biotechnology and genetic manipulation , which need a human and not technological answer. There is a point in which it is inevitable to ask oneself not only “how to do”, but “why do” a certain thing, in order to evaluate if it actually should or should not be done.
The West has a series of ethical questions in its agenda and still does not know how to resolve them, as, a certain act is considered good for some and bad for others; and when it comes to ethics to choose the mathematical mean is not a possible criterion.
We can then begin with Solov’ëv’s suggestion according to which any further progress in history cannot be but a progress achieved by man. Humanity’s progress is a question of inner life and not technology. Only a greater awareness of what man is, can lead to a wiser and therefore better management of what – in terms of means and opportunities – is at his disposition. We must spare no efforts to achieve a more profound understanding of man’s inner life; and to use the words of the partistic thought, we need a more careful understanding of the heart.
It is on man’s heart that life and death perpetually clash.
Religious and philosophical beliefs unceasingly do their utmost to supply an interpretation to this conflict which everyone has inside; it is certainly an important issue, because the aim is to understand and help understand where life and death stand , so as to focus one’s attention on one and not on the other.
The principal issue is therefore what makes man be a living being. What is life, this is the underlying question, the hub of a number of other questions: how defend and promote life at a social, political and legal level and so forth.
To be what one is, has since the dawn of philosophy been the first step towards life. In the Greek mentality “Know thyself!” was not meant to be an inducement to acquire acknowledgement, to be erudite but turn one’s attention to the human being: according to Socrates to know right means to do right, to know oneself is to do, to fulfil oneself not in an indefinite length of time but today.
Living the present
Man is interested in being alive today, without the anxiety about tomorrow, in being concentrated on the moment. Nietzsche, recalling the Heraclitean image of the child playing dice, prophetically describes Man who is on the threshold of the Third Milleneum constantly seeking an intensive and at the same time light-hearted life, without considering the consequences of his games.
Is such light-heartedness possible?
Man who desires an intense today must take yesterday and tomorrow – which often flaw serenity – in account. Life is connected to the passing of time. Saint Augistine tells us that we ourselves, right in the depth, are those who create time.
Now let’s analyse time starting from man, focusing our attention on what is most familiar to us.
For the man who lives in the history, the present, is what exists nevertheless both past and future exist in him too. Past is seen in the general forms of regret (if only things were as they once were!) and remorse (if only it hadn’t been like that!); similarly future is seen in the forms of hope (let’s hope thing will be …) or fear (let’s hope it will not be …). This is but a banal schematisation, on which the first philosophers had already lingered over,
Now, what we want to focus our attention on, is the extent up to which man lives in the past and in the future and how instead he lives his present. The answer to this question can be easily given at a personal level: what portion of our day is used to plan and think our future or digging up our past?
In other words, how much time do we spend far from what we are, which is, from our present, the only time we actually have the power to change? We could almost affirm, that considering the time we spend wandering in the past, which we cannot change, and that spent in a future which is not, is altogether time spent in the illusion of living, a time without life. It is like wandering in lands we have no power on because these are lands were we are not.
So, the problem seems to be: try to remain in the present.
Already the Greek philosophy sensed the importance of this question and proposed various solutions, starting form the stoic apathy. In more recent times the European philosophy has rediscovered the question through Nietzsche’s impetuous proclamations ad the reappearance of the Eternal return theory. But throughout the twentieth century the philosophy itself observed the substantial inefficiency of the different “realisations”: no new theory, no mental deception can tame our desires which make us get where we are not. It brings us in the past, where we wish things had gone differently and then it makes us wander in the future, lulling our hope that what we want will happen; our wishes mix all these elements and return to us in our dreams, even in day dreams.
Thanks to Freud, the West discovered – sometimes unpleasantly – how great our living is outside ourselves: there is an Es which overtops the Ego, up to the point that following Lacan we are ready to resign, affirming that actually who lives is the Es not the Ego. Our life is entirely outside our being, it is there where we are not. Our life is principally in the places where life is not. So, we are dead.
The great tragedy of the western anthropology, of the so called post-modern age, is that they sound the same as the knelling of the bells.
And still, we have to be grateful to the twentieth century for the traces it has left behind for us: never before had man reflected upon man, even though, according to Heidegger’s remark, he has learnt less.
Never before had man sensed the grandness and beauty of life, wishing it would outburst (This to cite Nietzsche). Never before had man had to admit having followed paths of inauthenticity and death, in seeking life.
To live is living within the present: this is the problem the western philosophy has sensed, but has not got the key to resolve. The western man in the act of wanting a full and intense life had the presumption to decide by himself what life was and simply ended up in Auschwitz.
Why, even having the words to effectively describe the human condition, the twentieth century was not able to lead to paths of progress for the human race, paths of authentic life?
The underlying question is – nearly an “original sin” – is that the man of the twentieth century seeks the answers on life in himself and even when, he understands that the answer comes as a gift, he does not find the words to tell who actually handed this gift.
This is the “dramma of the atheistic humanism”, to use Henri de Lubac’s words, and Maritain rightly affirms that the real tragedy is the man wants to be self-sufficient.
The twentieth century does not miss questions or profound desires: what is missing is an interlocutor and therefore man loses sight of himself in a soliloquy and Maritain had already pointed out the masters of this. Some had recalled, nearly retorting against Heidegger, that man is non only a dasein in a mute relation, but because of his ontological nature man both listens and answers. Despite this the twentieth century man of the west seams to have lost his word, and together the capacity to have relationships: he has forgotten he is a creature and part of a Creator’s plan.
The anthropological-existential problem, which I believe is dramatically standing out, is exactly to recognise oneself as creature, and therefor also to question oneself – as suggested by Jolana Poláková – : “Are we still interested in a faith given by God?”
Through recognising one’s own status
To recognise oneself as creature means to question oneself about faith in a God who is creator. It does not mean go deeply into the question in order to justify faith or to prove the existence of God. It instead means to restructure anthropology starting from a Creator/creature relationship. It means to choose the theological anthropology prospective, which is just one of the possible anthropological choices; it is not necessary to prove it through logic, but through experience. All this may frighten, but actually it is a simple statement of fact: every anthropology comes from the experience and the perception man has of himself and of the surrounding world and therefore is something simultaneously reflected and experienced. An armchair anthropology is sitting room chat and nothing more.
Therefore, to affirm that anthropology must be proved by experience is simply to say that anthropology is to discuss about man made of flesh and blood.
A theological anthropology starts out from the experiences of men and women in flesh and blood who have based their lifes on a relationship with a God creator who discloses to man through Jesus Christ and so doing reveals man to man.
The great contribution of the oriental religious-philosophical thought is exactly in starting by recognising the original relationship between God and Man, the Creator and the creature. This path is not unknown by the West but rather forgotten. The Christian Orient is – as we could say – better trained and can smooth the way in this particular historical era in which there are great changes for the European peoples.
The Christian West too has sensed the importance of taking up this prospective again, especially by taking part in the discussions among the various humanisms which have confronted throughout the twentieth century. Moreover it has many times stressed that a Christian humanism cannot be but Christ-centred, and even an anthropology without a revelation – without Christ, we could say – remains incomplete. But these are partisan intuitions, which developed within the Christian theology, while for the West it is difficult to link philosophy and theology.
Vladimir Solov’ëv’s thought is a very interesting avant-garde in the theological anthropology. We can find in this Russian philosopher a genuine philosophical spur towards a complete understanding, the same understanding Pavel Florenskij will establish as the “feeling the en kai polla ” ; the Lessons of the Divinehumanity form an emblematic document which contains a number of starting points for a reasoning that reminds – considering the present – the well known apophthegm of the Greek Fathers according to which “God became man so that man could become God”.
I will leave Solov’ëv in the background referring to him only sporadically. I would rather go ahead suggesting how a theological anthropology – which starts its reasoning from the recognition of the relationship Creator-creature – can fruitfully implant in the twentieth century questions and particularly in the above mentioned question: “How live the present?”.
Rewrite an anthropology starting from the relationship between Creator- creature is to resume the Imago Dei theme. As Gregory of Nissa teaches, man is man – which is man according to God’s plan, the image – up to the extent he remains in God. But what does actually “remain in God” means? A theological anthropology, speaking to the present, has the aim to philosophically translate expressions that for a contemplative are immediately understandable.
This duty, which is to acculturate, is part of the anthropological reasoning.
“Remain in God” give us the idea that we can also go somewhere else. This elsewhere is exactly very far from God, so that the enormous basic distinction proposed by the anthropology on the relationship between Creator-creature is that between an existence which is either God-bound or looking elsewhere. The anthropology which looks elsewhere is very well represented during the twentieth century. Above, I have described all this in a dramatic way, concluding that the Marxist man, the Psychoanalysis man and the atheistic Existentialism man has perfectly described himself in seeking life within the paths of death.
So, if “elsewhere” is death, because it is an inauthentic life, a vain life in places which are not, remaining in God should in a specular way be life, an authentic existence, in places in which one exists; in other words be present to oneself, living in the present. It consists in, quoting Solov’ëv, “showing the meaning of man in the general link of really existing.”
Again we have the question of time, of the relationship with the past and the future which continuously bursts into the present, dragging man from himself towards unreal worlds; there is herein, the question of en kai polla bearing the sufferance, of the profound desire to being one and only, and instead discover to being as many projected in unreal world. To be far from oneself is like to be many.
If to live is to be in the present, the path can only be that of remaining in the present. Live in the present looking towards God, and so recognise the basic relationship between Creator and Creature, therefore live in God’s present. Live eternally.
In order to give an anthropological importance to this reasoning it will be useful to at least outline how to organise the question – which remains – the dispersion in the past and the future. In other words it is necessary to understand that “make a good use of one’s time means to live every moment with a tension towards the eternal”. So a different relationship has to be created between what has been and what may happen; Remembrance will have to be experienced as Memory and expecting as Trust. So if the past leads us far from the present, to remember is to start an inverse movement which is bring what was to the present, interpreting it within the relationship between Creator and Creature.
If the future leads us far from the present to trust is to bring back our desires and hopes to today delivering it in the hands of the Creator.
Bringing one’s whole life in the present is not possible merely counting on the natural forces we have been given and the humanity’s experience that tries to solve alone these tensions is experience of death. Actually “remaining in God” is to place in God man’s natural tensions and it is crossing the threshold of eternity. When man reflects in God, he is bound towards God and recognising himself as a creature lives God’s eternity. The preoccupation of time and time itself with its past and its future uncertainty, becomes a precious connection to maintain the relationship. But “remaining in God” is not an ideal, a philosophical achievement, it is not what you obtain through ascetic practice: it is first of all a gift.
This is the real scandal for philosophy, and yet most of the philosophical and anthropological reasoning reaches this point: there is at the origin an unexplainable gratuitousness. Coming across such gratuitousness, finding it within one’s personal history – remembrance – and expecting it in the future – entrust – is what the Bernanos parish priest says before dying after a not particularly heroic and exciting life “really all is grace”.
According to what I have up to now said, Man is not characterised by the hearing of a “Sein” which reveals itself and then disappears in a vague “Lichtung”. Man is actually “dialogue” with God; and this God is recognised as “Abba, Father”.
To recognise one’s condition is to take the first step towards a more profound acknowledgment of one’s truth, to know the truth about man also means possessing a secure criterion to distinguish and resolve the ethical problems that burden the present times.
All this seams extremely problematic to the western philosophy, an even though the philosopher as a man is fascinated by the Creator who discloses the truth on himself and on the whole world, but as a rational creature (or as Florenskij would say ratiocinative) he thinks he is not able to speak about such an argument so he come to the conclusion that “one must keep quiet rather than speak of something unknown”.
The Russian religious thought, especially in the ontological and anthropological implications, is on a completely different wave. One can speak about all this. This does not mean one can say anything, or that speaking about it is to experience it. But there are words to tell the mystery and to explain it also in a philosophical way, or to say, according to human research of wisdom; and once more this will not mean disclose the mystery, but lead the demanding Man towards the Creator-creature relationship instead of bringing him to withdraw into oneself, in that land of unauthenticity – and therefore of non-life – point where much of the present philosophical reasoning brings.
Remaining in the anthropological reasoning, which are the words the Eastern thought can help us discover?
This are the words that during the centuries had meditated and presented the figure of Christ. If the grandness of Man consist in being the Imago Dei, and if the Creator reveled himself in an historical man whose name was Jesus of Nazareth, then all we can say about Man, we can only say it in Christ. According to Solov’ëv, the philosophical thought has to point out – as it is possible – the “Divineumanity”. The anthropological reasoning has to integrate revelation and rational knowledge: this task is really the most urgent for philosophy.
All this is actually difficult for the western philosophy. As Thomas Spidlik remarks, recalling Pavel Evdokimov, the eastern spirituality is ontological whereas the western spirituality is moral. This means that the latter gives more importance to “good deeds” instead of spiritual life.
The West has developed the idea that the route of the faith in Christ is principally existential slavery. This idea comes out from seeing so many “doing-centred” Christian lives.
The Eastern religious thought proposes a different way, the ontological one. Before making conclusion on “doing” one must make remembrance of what one is. But to make remembrance is not a mere mental operation, it is a liturgical act. The man who celebrates precedes the man who reflects just like the Creator who gives himself precedes the creature who raises his hand in thanksgiving.
This is the prospective of the “vseedinstvo”, one cannot “say Man” without “saying God” and vice versa, “say God without “saying Man”.
So, to recollect my initial observation, we could say that the Eastern religious thought can really be a precious forerunner of an anthropological reasoning using the both lungs.
It can be so because it helps the Christian West make remembrance of its origins, orienting its study towards that heritage which is the wisdom of the Fathers.
It can be so because it shows a way of thinking that combines philosophy and theology and through this reveals that the separation, typical of the West, is not necessary.
Finally, it can be so because it teaches us to set the reasoning on man in direct connection with that on God; which is approaching an organic an not a mechanic comprehension of reality.
This is what I wanted to underline recalling the need to recover the Creator-creature relationship prospective.
In all this reasoning we must not forget that if the East seams to offer great richness of thought is probably because the West is again setting the fundamental questions and is slowly regaining the awareness that “Two are the paths one leads to life and one leads to death and large is the difference between these two paths.”
(Istituto Internazionale Jacques Maritain)