The Sunday before last, our priest delivered a really great homily that I still find myself thinking about and that I think speaks to many issues and problems in the world today.
Now I will likely mis-remember and use different (incorrect?) terminology, but hopefully I can capture the main point. In essence, he related to us the Patristic idea that humankind is made up of three components: the flesh or our earthly nature, the intellect or spirit, and the nous (that which connects us to God). It should be noted that some Fathers did not distinguish between the latter two, and furthermore it should be noted that we must not assume that humankind has more than one nature or that we can be described as having some sort of inherent schizophrenia. Humankind's physical and spiritual natures are one - making us THE unique link between the unseen and the seen. And you can think of these components as a pyramid with our flesh forming the base and our nous the pinnacle. And the orientation of this pyramid is indicative of the influence over our will and subsequent actions with the top of the pyramid executing the most influence. In the Fall, this pyramid's natural orientation was overturned such that the nous is now at the bottom and the flesh on top.
Our practices during Lent can be seen as a specialized and intensified effort to right our pyramids back into their proper orientation by denying the flesh in favor of the nous. We eat less and we pray more. Hopefully what we gain in the end is CHANGE. Some degree of progress such that we rather naturally act differently with our wills now more properly ordered.
I think this really helps in explaining why we Orthodox do what we do, but something further occurred to me in the last day or so that I think has more extensive social implications.
We live in an age in which more and more people are rejecting any notion that would suggest that human nature is composed of anything other than than flesh. We are, in their worldview, nothing besides highly evolved largely hairless chimpanzees. The faithful of this flock look to biology as the sole authoritative source of information on our nature and they adore data such as the oft venerated and taken out for procession belief about the amount of identical DNA sequences we share with our chimp "cousins." This philosophy is bent on bringing man utterly and literally down to earth, snuffing out any heavenly reach we may think we possess. We are no more or less than any other organism on earth except in whatever biological distinctions may be identified by means of the scientific method. And while we may to some degree scoff at all of this, or even think I am exaggerating (let me assure you that I am not), we should seriously consider the extensive implications of this philosophy which is unquestionably gaining broader appeal everyday.
Last Wednesday night during Pre-sanctified (and many other times in Orthodox hymnography as I recall) we sang a verse that compares human behavior in a state of sin to the behavior of animals:In my foolishness I became like the senseless beasts, stripped of all Divine Grace.
We Christians have this odd notion that possessing a spirit and nous, we may be expected to behave uniquely amongst our animal brethren. But what can we expect from the behavior of the human-animal? Well, let us consider a few things: we certainly cannot expect human-animals to do much in the way of sexual abstinence. Therefore: Don't bother trying to teach or support abstinence in the education of our children. Instead we must assume they will have sex as all animals do, without much in the way of restraint. We should lower our expectations of kids and anticipate they will do whatever feels good, because this is what animals are expected to do. And not just kids.
Young adults will clearly engage in a great deal of premarital sex. After all, they are of prime evolutionary breeding age and their genes drive them to fulfill this biological passion. We cannot expect them to do otherwise. However, we also don't want the burden of children (the biological drive for mother or fatherhood is apparently overtaken by other biological passions for which I am sure evolutionary psychologists can explain to us the reasoning) and so abortion becomes birth control and the acquisition of other birth control products suddenly becomes a human rights issue - all because prime breeding stock animals cannot be expected to not breed even while they strive not to breed in the process of breeding. Get it?
Catholic priests and other celibate clergy or monastics are an oddity to the holders of this human-animal philosophy. These believers do revel greatly in the failings of abstainers to keep their vows, though, as it stands as a data point in support for their worldview. I've actually found that some human-animal proponents deny that this lifestyle of abstinence is even possible and that none of them are actually managing the unnatural feat.Oddly the faithful human-animals draw the line at things like rape or pedophilia. Here suddenly there is a decidedly non-animal moral code. They would of course see this as an artifact attributable to intelligence and socio/biological evolution. In other words, all the rape victims in the world sure are lucky we happened to evolved such that we mostly think rape or molestation distasteful. The golden rule for the human-animal is that there can be no inherent right or wrong. (For my part, explanations of how such things as morality might have evolved in us have no more scientific basis that anything in my religion.)For the human-animal sex is, not surprisingly, nothing all that special. I once had someone ask incredulously: "You don't think there is anything sacred about sex, do you?" In other words, surely I must see that even in my worldview of a triune human nature, sex belonged solely to the flesh side of things alone. Curious perception and one not all that surprising given the puritanically perception people ascribe to Christianity. Naturally, I responded by suggesting that the whole point of us humans being made up of the triune nature that I believe us to be, is to bring a deeper and more sacred meaning to all that some would suggest our flesh does for its own selfish gratification.
I'm not one to instantly suggest that society is on a downward spiral towards absolute depravity or that these days are morally far worse than any other days in history. The dynamics simply aren't that simple. In some ways things are better and in others they are not, but I do think that the growing secular philosophy of who we are is having and will have profound effects as I've noted above with regards to sex. But there is another area I've been thinking about and that is unusual contexts in which we are seeing more and more violence.
Of course, violence has been around since Cain and Abel and as I mentioned before I don't think our age is more or less violent necessarily than any other age. But I do want to consider an unusual rash of violence that I think is all too common today, but was largely unheard of in the past - even within the time of my short life. Recently, a young girl was shot here locally when a boy brought a gun to school because he apparently planned to run away and felt he'd need protection. This was sadly unique in that the boy did not come to school with the gun in order to pour out his rage on classmates. And, the fact that this is unusual can be demonstrated by an disheartening fact I learned from a news article that noted that the school where this happened regularly has "raging gunman on campus" (my paraphrase) lock-down drills. I was astonished to hear this, but probably should not have been given the epidemic of such violence. In fact as I write this I just received a news flash about a gunman on a college campus in New York. When I was in school (even through college) we had earthquake and fire drills, but campus rampage shooting drills were unheard of, as were the horrible events themselves.
And another example would be how the phrase "going postal" recently.entered our vocabulary. Indeed nowadays it can be dowright deadly to fire or discipline employees! And for the love of God, don't cut someone off on a busy freeway for fear of experiencing another new and exciting term: "road rage."
These events, as do far too many things, get politicized. For some it is the fault of guns and their availability. For others it is too much violence seen on TV and movies. And some perhaps would suggest the fault is found in gluten or vaccines. I don't think any of these are to blame and the all faith given to government to solve the problem is terribly short-sighted. There is something sinister at work in the human heart and no government law or policy is going to be able to thwart it. I'd like to suggest that we are, by default, teaching ourselves to be nilhlists and hedonists as we are made aware of our new anthropology being preached to us.
As animals, should we be surprised when we lash out like animals who feel cornered? Family and friends reject them, the self-defining job is lost, the wife leaves....BOOM...the nuclear option makes sense to the senseless animal who is trapped. What's left to lose? What moral code would stop me from doing to them what I feel they have done to me? Or for what cause should I not smite those who surround and oppress me...there is no way out...no hope. The only two choices for an animal in perceived distress: fight or flee. Fight, since flee is not a perceived option. For many people who lash out in these horrible ways, I often wonder if most everything of value in the human-animal hierarchy of important things has been lost to them and there is no amount of soothing "I'm okay; you're okay" PC ointment to change the facts we have learned. John Lennon was right...above us there is only sky...and we needn't "imagine" too hard to see what lessons our children are learning. They are not stupid. You cannot tell them they are naked chimpanzees (show them a documentary of a chimp dashing a baby chimp on a rock and then eating its brains because it suspected it wasn't his progeny) and then ask the children to hold hands and sing a song of diversity and utopia without them eventually seeing the absurdity.
On a positive note (and back to our priest's homily), in Lent we have the chance to experience the sacred and to embrace it. To right our pyramid and live a life that stands as a witness to the full potential of human nature which does indeed reach out to the heavens. We among all of earth's inhabitants gaze skyward and wonder what it is all about. Amidst all the horrors in this world (oh yes indeed we can be as awful as the chimp - often worse), we also shine a beacon of love and truth. Our humble Lenten efforts are not going to change the great culture war between theists and atheists or liberals and conservatives, but it will make a huge difference to the people with whom we come into contact. If we truly believe that our potential is far greater than the human-animalists would have us believe, instead of arguing with them, why don't we funnel our energy into seeking that full potential which is in Christ our Lord. Such is the purpose of Lent, I think.