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Kirill (Gundyaev), patr. God’s plan for man and free will (Address to the International Theological Conference “Eschatological Teaching of the Church”, Moscow, November 14, 2005)
FOR MAN AND FREEWILL
Address to the International Theological Conference ‘Eschatological
teaching of the Church’, Moscow, November 14, 2005.
Discussion of contemporary socio-political issues largely devolves around the concept of freedom. In order to join this debate in a meaningful fashion, it important for us to understand this concept, one which is fundamental to human existence, in the light of the Orthodox tradition. On this basis we will then able to evaluate the various interpretations of freedom in modern political thought and in derivative ideologies.
In my view, a clear and concise Christian approach to the problem of freedom is expressed by Fyodor Dostoevsky who states, in The Brothers Karamazov that ‘the devil wrestles with God, but his battlefield is people’s hearts’.This sentence from the pen of the great Russian writer expresses, as we shall see, the very essence of the traditional Eastern Christian perspective on this issue, as well as placing the question of human will into an eschatological perspective. Indeed, in this confrontation between good and evil, man’s right of self-determination becomes a decisive factor in the destiny of creation.
Indeed the Orthodox patristic tradition talks no so much about freedom as such, but about human will. Following this custom, we will first consider the concept of will, in order to be then able to draw conclusions about the concept of freedom. The true meaning of the concept of will was disclosed at the Incarnation.
It was the Word made flesh that revealed what man is intended to be in his perfect state, what his will should be, and what his freedom consists of. It is therefore not surprising that the Orthodox understanding of human will was formulated in the context of the theological disputes concerning the wills of Christ, which took place in the seventh century and resulted in condemnation by the Sixth Ecumenical Council of the false teaching on the absence of human will in Christ.
What, then, is the human will in terms of the Incarnation? Will is an integral and immanent part of human nature. Without it, man cannot be considered a rational creature. In both the ancient philosophical tradition and in classical Christian theology, this notion has been inseparably linked with the category of the intellect, what the ancients called nous, the most important part of the human being, which, according to the ancient philosophers and the Fathers of the Church, distinguishes man from the rest of the universe, placing him on the highest level of the visible world.
It is the human will that is involved in the most terrible tragedy in history - the Fall. Wishing to taste the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, man allowed sin to enter his nature. Sin in the first place affected the human will, via which decay and death entered the human race. That is why the human will, which the Word took upon himself by becoming flesh, is vital to salvation from sin.This idea we find in Saint Maximus the Confessor: ‘If Adam partook willingly, then the will is the first part of us to have been subjected to passion. If, as they (the Monothelites) say, the Word, on becoming incarnate, did not take on human will with human nature, then I am not freed from sin. And if I have not been freed from sin, I am not saved, because that which is not apprehended is not saved.’ (Dispute with Pyrrhus').
Sin acts in fallen human nature, and its action begins with the human will, which is the first to be subjected to its influence. Sin can dominate a person’s will, but not destroy it. This was the main point of disagreement between the Orthodox theologians and the Monothelite heretics in the seventh century. The latter insisted that
Christ had no human will, because the will had been destroyed by sin and turned into evil. It deserved only to be rejected, and could not be accepted by Christ as part of His human nature. The Monothelites’ error was to identify the will and sin, with the will indissolubly dominated by sin. For Orthodoxy, the will, although prone to sin, remains part of human nature created by God. Not the essence of the will has undergone malignant change, but its focus. In Christ the human will has, if you will permit me the expression, been refocused on the will of God, with both now moving in one and the same direction. It is important to note that man himself could not change the evil direction of his will - this required the divine intervention through the Son of God becoming man and hypostatically uniting human nature, including the will, with the divine nature.
In this way the will becomes a primary element in the healing of human nature from sin.With the Incarnation the human will become a channel, no longer of sin, but of grace. Just as once through the will sin came into human nature, so through it, with the Incarnation, came the salvation of man. In line with this thought are the words of the eminent Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky: ‘If the will of the Son is identical with the will of the Father, then human will, which has become the will of the Word, is indeed His own will, and in this His own will is contained the whole mystery of our salvation’ (Dogmatic Theology').
In Christ, man’s will is totally aligned with the will of God. Throughout his entire life on earth, the God-man revealed the single thrust of his two wills. This was especially manifest in the agony of Gethsemane. Christ’s struggle in Gethsemane has proved a stumbling block for many. Lots of people have been unable to accept that Christ’s prayer in the Garden manifested His human will. Many have argued that Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane was merely pursuing didactic goals and wanted to demonstrate once again his human nature. But for us Orthodox it is important to understand that in the Garden of Gethsemane Christ showed not only his human nature, but also his human will, which remained subordinate
to the will of God, even though the human will naturally seeks life and avoids death.Thus, in Gethsemane, Christ as a man showed his full and unconditional submission to the Divine will.
What does this Divine will consist of? In the patristic tradition, founded in Scripture, God’s will is called God’s plan for man, which also encompasses the moral and spiritual standards that God gave man in his commandments.Thus, the psalmist says: ‘I delight to do Thy will, O my God, yea,Thy law is within my heart’ (Psalm 40:8). Elsewhere the prophet David asks of God: ‘Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God’ (Psalm 143:10). Thus, the will of God in the biblical tradition, as taken over by the Church Fathers, receives a value similar to the modern notion of moral standards which a person should strive for in order to be saved from sin.
The will of God together with the will of man are the two most important preconditions for salvation. Salvation requires the human will to be in tune with the will of God. In the patristic tradition this concordance of wills is often called synergy, i.e. cooperation between man and God. Already Origen affirmed this synergy of God and our own effort as a prerequisite for progress in bodily and spiritual virtues in his commentarieson the Psalms. This idea is picked up by many Fathers, including St. Basil the Great (as in his Letter 227 and in the Dialogues on the Psalms) and by St.John Damascene (as in The Life ofValaam and Joasaph).
However, the patristic tradition talks of the synergy of man, not only with God, but also with the forces of evil. Whenever a man does evil, he is not acting in isolation, but the devil is acting with him. That is, an evil act is always committed in synergy, as is a good one, but this time the synergy is not with God, but with his opponent.This idea we find enounced, in particular, in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata.
In this way the human will finds itself between two wills - the divine and diabolic. The task of man is to bring our will into harmony with the will of God, and in any event not allow it to align with the will of evil forces. The direction of a person’s will depends on that person himself. Man’s ability to direct his will towards
good or evil is referred to in contemporary language as freedom. In patristic theology, this ability is referred to with Greek terms like proairesis (disposition) and autexousion (self-determination).This ability is discussed in detail in the treatise ‘Syntagma to a politician’, attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria. Even if researchers question the authorship of this work, it accurately expresses the Orthodox vision of human freedom: ‘It is on the disposition (proairesis) that depend the punishment and honours (that man receives). (Salvation) requires as much human will and desire as it does the cooperation (synergia) of God - if one is absent, the other will also be slow in coming.’ For the author of the Syntagma, man’s ability for self-determination (autexousion), or rather to direct his will towards good or evil is ineradicable and a guarantee of freedom. This freedom is given to him for him in order always to choose good: ‘Our freedom of self-determination (autexousion) is a gift that cannot be forced or corrupted. We have received it in order to move in two directions: good and bad. Nothing of what God has given us for our use is evil, because everything that is from God is very good. The only thing that is wrong is our abuse of our capacity of self-determination. For this reason, evil lies not in eating, but in gluttony; not in procreation, but fornication, not in the use of wine, but in drunkenness, not in money but in avarice, not in glory, but vanity. In everything we do, it is important to make correct use of what we have been given by God, avoiding all abuse. In so doing, we set ourselves above evil and become partakers in virtue.’
The ability to determine our own lives - or freedom - is God’s gift, which should not be refused. But we must not abuse this gift, which has been given to us for a good purpose, not only to make choices, but to choose the good, the will of God. Freedom, as understood in the patristic tradition, demarcates that space which falls under the responsibility of man and which no external force, good nor evil, can penetrate without his permission. It is entirely up to each individual to decide whom he allows into this area of his liberty, whom he allows to operate - or more accurately, co-operate - in it: God or the devil.
Man’s ability to determine the direction of his will is an important feature of his nature, according him a place of high dignity. Nevertheless, it is not in the ability to choose between good and evil that the highest value of freedom lies, but in the choice of the good, the readiness to allow divine grace into the personal space of human freedom, to give room to God in human life. This affirmation is based on the apostolic tradition of the understanding of freedom. An especially detailed development of the theology of freedom can be found in the writings of St. Paul. Its essence is expressed in the well-known phrase from the Epistle to the Galatians: ‘For, brethren, you have been called into liberty; only use not liberty as an occasion to the flesh, but in love serve one another’ (Galatians 5:13).
Thus, the attainment of salvation and deification as the main goals of the Christian life depends on man’s aligning his will with that of God. Moreover man can choose the good will of God only freely. If he makes this choice by force, it loses its moral value. Thus, the directing of his will towards good and freedom are essential factors in man’s salvation. However, despite the fact that these ideas were developed in Christian theology as early as the early centuries of the first millennium, their assimilation into the social and political life of the Christian peoples were the subject of serious conflicts and debates. From the fourth century onwards we start to see in public life a conviction that the moral development of man can be achieved through political means. In all likelihood, this was associated with an optimistic understanding of the possibilities of earthly institutions to correct the human soul. For example, St. Augustine, who in his diocese was warring against the Donatist schism, wrote: ‘I succumbed to the facts. Bishops pelted me examples, not only of individual persons, but of entire cities, previously dominated by Donatism and in which Orthodoxy now reigns. Especially notable in this regard is my own city, the residents of which used to be mainly Donatists, and which now under the influence of the emperor has turned to Orthodoxy and with such hatred towards the Donatists, that one cannot believe that the city was ever Donatist.’ This case of the use of political power in overcoming Donatism il-
lustrates the dominance at the time, both in the West and the East, of a particular image of the role of government in the maintenance of morality.
Let us briefly consider how this idea developed in Western Europe, since the forms of church and social life that arose here were later to play a crucial role in the emergence and formation of ideas emphasizing the importance of human freedom. Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century, the Roman Church remained the only cohesive organization in the ‘post-Roman’ area to preserve the continuity of the previous great state. In the political turmoil that prevailed in the former Western empire for several centuries, the Roman Church gradually took upon itself the functions of a state institution. This ultimately led to the creation of the Papal States in the eighth century and to the emergence of the ideology that justified the rule of ecclesiastical authority in political matters. Under the so-called concept of the ‘two swords’, the Roman Church started to use the mechanisms of government to organize its internal life: to impose taxes, to defend its rights against the secular authorities by force, to conduct campaigns of conquest, to regulate the private lives of its flock through terrestrial mechanisms. In the twelfth century it created the Inquisition that in the eighteenth century turned into a punitive tool against dissent.
Representatives of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and later revolutionary leaders put forward the idea of freedom in a secularized form, giving it an anti-Catholic and anti-Christian character, because for them the Catholic Church was the pillar of regimes they considered tyrannical. If the Reformation remained within the scope of Christian values, the subsequent movements for freedom, as a rule, rejected an important part of the Christian message on freedom - that of moral responsibility before God. The result has been a falling into the other extreme - that of the absolutisation of personal freedom.
On the East the situation differed from the Western norm of Church-State relations, in a manner more consistent with the pa-
tristic conception of man.The key document of this approach is the sixth novella of Emperor Justinian, resulting from the codification of Roman law undertaken under that emperor in the mid-sixth century. In this document kingship and priesthood are viewed as two equal gifts of God. This statement leaves little room for the dispute, which raged for centuries in the West, as to who is superior, Church or State, and who must obey whom. In the East the idea of a balance between the two institutions was formulated. According to the sixth novella, the task of the State is to ensure the implementation of God’s law in public life and the protection of the faith.The Church is responsible for spiritual matters and supports the State in carrying out its functions. The underlying idea here is of a certain degree of autonomy of both Church and State, but at the same time of mutual support.
In Byzantium the patriarch had a special right of ‘lamentations’, that is of pleading the cause of disenfranchised people in front of the authorities. Inevitably the history of Byzantium is uneven in this respect. Not every patriarch or cleric dared take issue with the emperor or powerful dignitaries. Indeed, it is difficult to point to any era in which the ideal of harmonious and symphonic relations between Church and State was implemented in full. However, the concept itself of an equilibrium between State power and the authority of the Church always existed in Byzantium.
With the adoption of Christianity, Rus and Russia relied on the Byzantine model of Church-State relations. As in Byzantium, so to in Russia, real national tragedies have come about whenever the one or the other side has sought to bring the other under its thumb.We recall here both Ivan the Terrible’s attempt to subjugate the Church to the State and the activities of Patriarch Nikon, who sought to elevate the role of the Church and its primate in the country’s political life to excessive levels. Both paths proved disastrous for the Church and for society. However, these violations of the principle of symphony were associated with particular historical figures, but did not signify rejection by Russia of the concept itself. A radical change in the life of the nation did take place, however, with the
rejection in principle of this norm in the early eighteenth century, and the borrowing of the Protestant model of Church-State relations, subordinating the Church to the State. From then on we witness an increasing gap between the Church and society, the Church and the intelligentsia, the Church and the political elite. The State, having lost the counterweight of an independent Church, gradually develops an extensive mechanism of enforcement and regulation, which suppresses individual liberty.
By importing alien models of Church-State relations onto its soil, Russia created conditions for the spread of the same shortcomings of social life that were typical ofWestern Europe. On this followed, quite naturally, the perpetration of Enlightenment and revolutionary ideas and the absolutisation of individual liberty.
In the twentieth century, both in the West and in Russia, we witnessed a further development of liberalism, and in a very dangerous direction, with the idea of freedom promoted solely in the direction of freedom of choice, and hence of the possibility to choose in favour of evil. This led to a radical rejection of the normative significance of tradition, especially religious tradition, and to the absolute right of an individual to determine what is good and what is evil. In practice, this absolutisation turned into moral and axiological relativism, as found its clearest expression in the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century, with the place of the individual taken by the political party and its leader, and in post-modern individualism, where individual liberty from the moral norms of tradition is supported at the legislative level.
Today people talk about freedom as never before. But it is today that we are seeing the development of processes that pose a threat to personal freedom. Considering freedom to be the highest value, the state and the international community impose as law socio-political norms which are contrary to the life of believers who belong to traditional religions. On the one hand, no one encroaches on another person’s privacy, but at the societal level believers are increasingly being forced to accept a norm of life that is contrary to their beliefs. Soon, this may lead to a situation in which a Christian or any other
believer will be unable to hold many socially important positions and undertake many activities because they will be required to do things that cannot be done without betraying their faith and without committing sin.
The most striking example of the possibility of such a scenario was recently demonstrated at European Union level, where the European Parliament rejected the candidacy of Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione as Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs of the European Commission because of his expressed aversion to homosexuality as a norm of interpersonal relations. Another case involved a former mayor of New York, Mr. Giuliani. In formulating his position on abortion, even when he was mayor of an American metropolis, he said that as a Christian he was against abortion, but as mayor he had to support it, because this was the will of the majority of the city’s residents.
Can a Christian be active in the public sphere, if the fact of his occupying a post in government, business and community organizations requires actions that are inconsistent with his religious beliefs? Norms prescribing such actions are emerging today in many countries around the world. Similar steps are also being taken at the international level. Russia, and other countries in which the Russian Church carries out its mission, will tomorrow be required to adopt and implement these rules being adopted in Western countries today.
Another problem now is that a mechanism of control is gradually being developed over the activities of the individual at both national and international level. We introduce new methods of identification which involve the collection and storage of data on people’s individual personality traits, consumption patterns and income. All this is connected with the desire to curb illegal migration, crime, terrorism, and also regulate the collection of taxes. In short, the development of control in this area is intended to ensure compliance with legal requirements. But against the background of the introduction of international norms and national legislation that are contrary to moral norms, believers are beginning to ask a
totally logical question: ‘Will not one fine day these controls be used to verify implementation of these norms?’And if today people can express their disagreement with legislation that is contrary to their faith, then tomorrow their observance of these rules will monitored by means of increasingly sophisticated systems of control.
Aware of all these problems and their importance for the fate of Christianity and the Church, the Russian Orthodox Church believes, as expressed in its document The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, that Christians should not retreat into their own enclosed circle. Such a retreat does not contribute to the mission of the Church, called by its Saviour to preach the Word of God to the whole earth.The Church has therefore continued to be present in the modern world and to witness to its position. At the same time, however, it is important for its members to be aware of their otherness in relation to the world in which they live and work. Following this logic, the Russian Church is actively developing its relations with the state, society and international organizations such as the European Union, Council of Europe, the United Nations and others.
Two millennia of Christian history show that the conflicts and clashes that took place in the socio-political sphere of the Christian nations, took place within the framework of Christian values, even if at times the adherents of one party to the conflict lost or denied their connection with Christianity. Freedom and morality are two categories of patristic anthropology. But just as important is the way these two categories are inextricably linked in patristic understanding. Absolutisation of either one of these categories at the expense of the other inevitably leads to public tragedies.
What the Orthodox Church is preaching today is an insistence on the interdependence and interrelation of these two categories in the spirit of patristic theology. Indeed, the human right to life, to fair trial, to work and the like are important elements of public and political life, because they are based on Christian ideas. But equally important are the observance of moral principles and their proper reflection in the development of law and policy. In bearing
this message to the modern world the Orthodox Church can draw on a broad coalition of traditional Christian churches, traditional religions and conservative social movements.
In conclusion, I would stress just how important the moral choices of contemporary humanity are for the future of the world. Man’s choice always contains an eschatological perspective, because on whether he takes the path of life or death depend the course of human history and its ultimate outcome. From Revelation we know that at the end of human history, the Antichrist will reign and the establishment of his kingdom will be possible only because people choose evil over good. Each of us, choosing evil, hastens the arrival of the Antichrist, and by staying true to the good, prevents him from prevailing. Of course, the crown of human history is not the kingdom of the Antichrist, but the glorious coming of Christ and the universal resurrection of the dead. Christ’s second coming of Christ will be the fulfilment of the aspirations of all those who in life sought to do good and avoid evil, those who chose God’s will and not that of the devil, who did not abuse their freedom, but used it purposefully, that is, co-operating with the good will of God.
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