Tuesday, August 16, 2005

In whom we live, and move, and have our being

In St. Athanasius' De Incarnatione, he uses the concept of nature in an unsettling way. We are used to thinking of "nature" as something permanent. Your cat has cat nature, and will remain a cat, and isn't in imminent danger of becoming a dog. But Athanasius speaks of nature differently. If God created everything out of nothing, then everything really is made out of nothing, and therefore is by nature nothing. Thus, humans naturally tend to nothing, and sin just leaves us back in our true nature.

I am sure that this is perfectly obscure. Let me explain. God is Being, the source of the existence of all things, and is in fact the only thing that has real existence in the most absolute sense. God exists, has existed, and will exist, so much so that his name is "I am." He is the only one who has a permanent nature, since everything else depends on the divine will in order to exist. We all exist at God's pleasure. "God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption," says Athanasius. It is more than that--not only are we to live forever, but we are to partake in God himself: "For God has not only made us out of nothing; but He gave us freely, by the Grace of the Word, a life in correspondence with God." We are partakers in the divine nature, as 2 Peter says. By nature, we are nothing, but by gift, we are Godlike.

What happens when we sin? When we reject the gift? Athanasius repeats the answer that the Christian faith gives: death comes when we reject the gift. But this death is not something imposed by God, as an arbitrary punishment, but is instead the ordinary fate of anything created. Out of nothing, back to nothing. "For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time." Death is only natural!

I wax Thomistic for a moment to note that this seems to conflict with the Christian understanding of human nature, which is that it is perfected in Christ. Jesus is the true human, the true representative of human nature, the cause and end of our existence. But I don't think it conflicts, as long as we are careful to distinguish different meanings of nature. Athanasius uses nature here to mean that which an entity has of itself. Later writers use nature to refer to the destiny willed by God. This second sense is the meaning behind natural law, which is the rational creatures participation in the eternal law of the world, which law includes the transcendent destiny of the human being.


Andrew B. Magergut said...

Interesting find. But mind you, it seems to me our creation ex nihilo is largely based on Philo, yet Philo who was clearly monistic never conceived of Nothing as something outside divine mind. Thus, a merger with Nothing would simply amount to a return to something primordial and essentially divine, almost hindu type of merger, except that in hindu cosmology, roughly speaking, it would be deemed as this ideal, desired state of release or moksha as opposed to our imagery of doom and annihilation.

Brother Sebastian said...

Since we are eternal beings, I don't think we become Nothing so much as we are left with Nothing. This resonates with the image of Hell as a place where there is nothing at all except one's self. The sad thing is that it is the logical outcome of individualism and rationalism, in which the Nothing is sought as the "place" where one has total control, knowledge, etc.. Since this is the mindset of our contemporary culture, it is a very important post because we need constant reminding that we have Nothing without Christ and that we called to put on his Nature.

It immediately reminded me of a chapter in Orthodoxy by Chesterton that I'm working through (entitled The Maniac), which refers to rationalism and individualism.
There is a sceptic far more terrible than he who believes that everything began in matter. It is possible to meet the sceptic who believes that everything began in himself. He doubts not the existence of angels or devils, but the existence of men and cows. For him his own friends are a mythology made up by himself. He created his own father and his own mother. This horrible fancy has in it something decidedly attractive to the somewhat mystical egoism of our day. That publisher who thought that men would get on if they believed in themselves, those seekers after the Superman who are always looking for him in the looking-glass, those writers who talk about impressing their personalities instead of creating life for the world, all these people have really only an inch between them and this awful emptiness. Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother's face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, "He believes in himself. [Emphasis mine]

It also reminds me of the image of Hell described by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce
"All Hell is smaller than one small pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.

Andrew B. Magergut said...

eternal beings? wait a sec, i was taught in the catechism that since we are fallen creatures we were mortal both in this world and spiritually.. or is it no longer the case since vatican 2?

Brother Sebastian said...

Sorry if "eternal beings" is sloppy language. The Cathechism shows 366
The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.(Cf. Gen 2:8)
My meaning is that we have an eternal life, since our souls are immortal.