Sunday, March 28, 2010

Humanity in God's Image

I've been having the feeling, over the last few entries, that I'm indulging my propensity towards broad strokes and sketches, so not really getting into the nitty-gritty of how to proceed in learning from the Fathers. Part of the reason for that was that I was taking a break from cracking my head directly on the fathers- a break that I, from time to time, do need. While the Church Fathers are my teachers, they are not always easy to understand and I do need breaks to read 'easier' historical or secondary books. However, after a nice break and a trip to Palm Springs, I felt better able to crack a Church Father this week- this time it's the Saint Vladimir Seminary's St. Basil the Great, On the Human Condition.

This particular collection includes several of St. Basil's homilies or treatises on humanity including a very interesting one that I just finished today on man's creation according to the image of God. I should note from the outset that, as the introduction discusses, St. Basil and most other Fathers were rather shy about describing humanity as the image of God- this is reserved for Christ alone, but rather describes them as being made 'according to the image of God'. The distinction is subtle, but it puts humanity at one small remove from God, which, I think, makes sense. However much we are promised that we can be divinized, we aren't yet and it makes sense- transcendental sense, to emphasis that we aren't there yet and we certainly weren't there when we were first created. There is a distinction between creator and created, after all.

I think what particularly interests me is St. Basil's explanation about what it means for humanity to be 'according to God's image'. He states that it is not the body that is in God's image- that is, it isn't that God created humanity in his physical image which brings with it the corollary of a corporeal body for God (Discourse on Humanity 1,5). Instead, he suggests that it is humanity's rational mind- defined as the real, inner person (Discourse on Humanity, 1,7). I'm particularly interested with this section because my impulse is to pull away because this smacks rather heavily of a Platonic rejection of the body with all that entails. I recognize this as a modern prejudice, but I wonder how much it is a legitimate caution or a serious mis-reading. I honestly don't know, although I wonder if it some nuance is being lost in translation or if I'm being unusually dense.

What I will say is that I would be mentioning these passages out of context, if I didn't hasten to add that Basil, earlier in this homily, referred to the human body as a wondrous act of God (Discourse on Humanity, 1,2). Based on the medical knowledge of the day, Basil wonders at the brilliance of the structures and workings of the human body and sees in it a testimony to God's care in creating us. Yet, this is the body which he seems to reject later on as not being in God's image. So, you can see why I'm a little puzzled.

Mind you, the next homily in the series helps clarify this point a little by offering the paradox that humanity is both nothing (made of dust) and great (God molded the human being) (Discourse on Humanity, 2,2). Well, clarified might be a slight exaggeration, but, at least, it poses the paradox which allows St. Basil to see the body as wondrous and without worth. It also points out that this paradox is biblical (Genesis 2,7) as well. And who says a little paradox can hurt anyone?

Yet, what I worry about is the disconnection of body from soul/mind implicit in this discussion. I worry that it hurts the Incarnation in that it suggests the body isn't worth resurrection. That could lead somebody to question the bodily resurrection. I worry about how it affects our relationship with the material world around us- also, created by God and pronounced God- because, if the body, the material isn't worthwhile, why should we care about this Earth and how we should be stewards of it? Yet, is St. Basil saying this or is it generations of bad theology that I'm reacting to? I wonder.

So, what do you think? One of the important things about the Fathers is that speak differently to us and, while that is bracing when we need to be called back to sound teaching, the two thousand year gap between us can produce real confusion and misunderstanding. One way to look at is that, with that extra couple thousand years of experience, we can see where their mistakes lead. Another way is that we've had that long to make even worse mistakes. The difficulty of my conversation with the Fathers is that we are coming from different places and times, so it is difficult to discern who is right and who is wrong.



Weekend Fisher said...

I'm skeptical of the way in which "the image of God" has been framed the various writers I've read. It just seems to have so little to do with the Biblical text. I'm glad you mentioned it, though, since I've been meaning to post on that for awhile.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Suburbanbanshee said...

Um... I think it's quite understandable to emphasize, in the Greek and Roman world, that God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Trinity are eternal spirit beings, and not running around shaped like humans, making whoopie with the comely maidens.

Also in the Middle Eastern and Persian world, for that matter.

mjjhoskin said...

Not having read this book, I could be out in left field. However, it sounds like St. Basil is saying that the body, although good and worthy as part of God's creation, is NOT what makes us "according to God's image", for God is Spirit and thus incorporeal (to imagine God with a body is to commit Anthrophomorphism, the dangers from which see John Cassian, Conference 10).

Second, when God curses the man in the garden, the man is told that he is but dust and to dust he shall return. Thus, even if creation is good, it is so far removed from the Creator that its goodness is incidental to His. He is transcendent and almighty. It is the paradox of creation that compared to God, we are as nothing, yet since we are created by Him, we therefore have great worth.

Phil Snider said...

Thanks, your comment do help. I've found that the trick with the Fathers is to remember to remain teachable. I don't have to get everything and, God knows, modern prejudices can sometimes distort what the Fathers are saying. I find that, before I get to decide whether a Father is right or not, I need to shut up and listen. That was what I was trying to work out in this post.