Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Holy Mountain

Mount Athos, 'the mountain of divine ascent', described as 'the highest place on earth' by Metropolitan Nikolaos, is unquestionably one of the most remarkable, unworldly, monastic, ascetic and uplifting areas of the world, 'yet its highest peak is humility'. The way of life, the peninsula's characteristics, and every detail is based upon the essential virtue of humility, with its exaltation flowing from this. 


Though nowadays, through media, we are able to see vigils, processions, even feasts or talks taking place within the Athonite Peninsula, it is important to remember the majority of monastics living on the Holy Mountain do so insignificantly; with minimal recognition,  yet lead a life filled with repentance and unceasing prayer incorporating the entire world, in stillness and isolation. The uniqueness of Athos is found here; rather than in its richness and popularity. The monk's endless offering to God on behalf of all, in peacefulness, tranquility and humility, in a natural environment is where the Holy Mountain can claim its otherness in comparison to the rest of the world. For through humility, Mount Athos can indeed be known and experienced as 'the highest place on earth.'




Monday, 28 December 2015

Apostle Stephen the Protomartyr

Saint Stephen, related to the Apostle Paul, was an early Christian convert from among the Hellenistic Jews. He was one of the first seven deacons to be ordained by the Apostles, serving the Church in Jerusalem. Known as 'the starting point of the martyrs,' Stephen was taken outside Jerusalem's walls and stoned to death. Saint Paul was in fact present, and the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Theologian witnessed his martyrdom from a nearby hill. The Holy Spirit worked through the Archdeacon Stephen in powerful ways, enabling him to perform miracles, and boldly confess the true faith in Christ.

Initially, Stephen's body was left at the location of his death, however Gamaliel, a teacher of the Apostles Barnabas and Paul, took the body to be properly buried. His burial place was soon forgotten, until 415 when Gamaliel appeared to a priest (fr Lucian) revealing to him the place of his burial. Father Lucian found the Apostles relics, which produced a sweet fragrance and were then taken to Jerusalem, where many were healed through their sanctity.

The Saint, as well as being commemorated on December the 27th, is also remembered on January the 4th, the Synaxis of the seventy Apostles. This holy servant of God, reminds us of the importance of boldness of faith, obediently sharing the Gospel with authority and humility. His speech, leading to his martyrdom, is centred on the teaching that God is not only present within one temple, but is everywhere. It also emphasises Jesus Christ's fulfilment of the law given to Moses. His love for God and neighbour was apparent, in his forgiveness towards those who persecuted him, as well as his voluntary death in the name of Christ; 'the way, the truth and the life.' (John 14:6) May the Apostle and Archdeacon Stephen confidently guide us, along with the ever-shining star of Bethlehem, towards the 'Sun of righteousness,' our eternal God.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Joy of Christmas

'Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.' (Luke 2:10)

As Christmas day passes, the world is offered an opportunity to reflect upon the importance of joy in our lives. Students return home and are united with their families, people exchange wishes, gifts, share food and wine, and dedicate time for one another in order to celebrate this unique and festive day. Following particularly distressing and painful moments throughout the year; with terrorism, war and instability at the forefront of the world's affairs, the festive season offers glimmers of hope, unity and reconciliation. 



Though many choose to remain ignorant or are unaware, this day of joy is not founded on trees, reindeer and consumerism; but on God becoming man - the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This self-sacrifical act of love; God descending among us, offering and sharing His eternal joy and peace, is the very source of Christmas' everlasting celebratory spirit. Christmas, through its message and witness to the truth, offers humanity the only solution to our disastrous problems. The notions of giving to others, sharing, and rejoicing are not coincidentally practiced on this day, but are grounded on the very foundation of this feast. God becomes man not to punish us, or remind us of our mistakes and errors, but to unite with us in communion. The coming together at a Christmas table, the sharing of the food, and the setting aside of differences is nothing less than a very small taste of this universal and cosmic reality of God's presence among us. We should however, realise that in order for us to live our daily lives in peace, with 'good will toward men' (Luke 2:14) we must warmly accept Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, into our hearts and homes, bearing and sharing His self-sacrifical love continually. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, reminds us that peace and joy only come from God, and we are invited, especially on this day celebrating His birth and offering to us, to freely choose this way of life, distancing ourselves from the catastrophic traps of self-gain, discrimination and pride; all sources of evil. Instead, as the Ecumenical Patriarch's encyclical suggests, we are urged by our 'Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace,' (Is 9:6) humbly born in a stable, as a refugee Himself, to coexist with one another in harmony and joy, imitating Him, 'the Light of the World.' (John 8:12) 

Merry Christmas! 

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Soul for Aquinas and St Augustine

For Saint Augustine of Hippo, ensoulment is the basis of all life, and is directly linked to man's intellect. 'I see nothing else besides the soul, except God, in which I believe intellect to exist,' he writes. The soul also distinguishes animate from inanimate. Our senses are a result of the soul's existence, and this, for him, proves the immortality of the soul:

 'Do you think that he who does not live, can perceive and feel? It cannot be. It results then, that the soul lives ever.... 'Nor has it power to exercise sense, unless it lives. Therefore the soul always lives.'

At the time of physical death, Augustine confirms that 'the soul may be conducted out of the body unharmed, and guided to a place where it cannot be extinguished.' 

Science is eternal for Augustine - for what exists and is unchangeable must be eternal. Nothing in which an eternal thing exists, can be non-eternal or mortal. When we reason it cannot be the body, as when the mind thinks in contrast to bodily desires and needs it can turn away and reject them. He agues that nothing pertaining to the body is eternal, therefore cannot help the eternal mind, striving to understand beyond time and material. Without science, one simply cannot reason, for thought is 'right reasoning moving from the certain to the investigation of the uncertain.' Science is the knowledge of all things; and this proves, for Augustine, that the human mind and soul always lives. 

Over the course of his writings, Augustine does make a slight, yet important change to his views on the soul. Initially, the emphasis is on reason, and the soul ruling the human body. However, latterly, he places more importance on the unity of the body and soul; believing that the human being consists of a rational soul, controlling the body. He writes, the 'soul which has a body does not make two persons, but one human being.' Therefore there is a clear understanding of psychosomatic unity. He does continuously remain true to his platonic understanding of forms, where abstract ideas reside. There is evidently a clear distinction between material and immaterial substances; body and soul.

Thomas Aquinas, held similar views regarding the separable body and soul; material and immaterial. He does however take an Aristotelian viewpoint,with the idea of the soul being able to be abstractly separate from the body. For Aquinas, one argument in favour of the soul's immortality is the fact we can think abstractly about ideas out-with or beyond material substances around us. This is, for him, evidence of the soul being able to exist without attachment to the material world.  Aquinas argues that the soul, being a spiritual and immaterial entity, does not depend on matter and can exist separately from the body. He believes that human existence, in its perfect and ideal form, is in the dual nature of body and soul which relates to his belief in the resurrection. 

To conclude, although Aquinas discusses the sole from a different (Aristotelian) perspective, he certainly uses Augustinian theology in order to argue for the immortality and vitalness of the God-given soul. He offers Saint Augustine's understanding of the soul's nature, as 'the first principle of life of those things which live: for we call living things animate and those things which have no life, inanimate.' 



Sources:
Melanie Dorn, Augustine v Aquinas, in 'atanystreetcorner.wordpress.com.'
Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part Questions 75-76.
Augustine, Soliloquies, Book II.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Body



This short piece will introduce key views on the body, in accordance with Christian writers; such as Saint Augustine (and his influence on reformed theologians such as Calvin), Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and the well received 'Theology of the Body' written by Pope John Paul II. The post will argue that the body is indeed holy, created by God as a gift to man for the means of glorification and unification with Him.

For Saint Augustine, the body is always treated in the context of a comparison with the soul. The dialectical polarities of soul-body, immortal-mortal, rational-irrational are rhetorical antithesis; giving us a clear picture of Augustine's model of man's structure. Fr R.J O'Connell argues that his anthropology is centred on the view that 'the soul is the man' (an opinion repeated from Plotinus) and 'the body is an instrument.. put at our service for a certain time.' For St Augustine, 'the highest good of the body is not its desires, nor absence of pain, nor its strength, not its beauty.. but indeed, the soul.' 'The very presence of the soul offers the body all that which excels.. namely, life.' So, as psychosomatic human beings, we cannot physically live without our souls. The soul gives necessary life to the body. Significantly,  Augustine had suggested that the resurrected body would be entirely spiritual. In his reconsiderations however, he modifies this view to suggest that corruptibility would not be a feature of the resurrected body, whereas the substance of the flesh would survive. These developments towards a more positive perception of embodiment occurred during the early 5th century. Also in this period, Augustine begins to re-evaluate the relation between body and soul. Augustine had affirmed in 'On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis' that the created nature of the soul means that it wishes to be in a body “just as it is natural for us to wish to live.” (Gen. lit. 7. 27.38). By the final book, he concludes that the disembodied human soul is incapable of enjoying the vision of God, where it remains separate from the human body.
Augustine latterly acknowledges that the source of evil is not matter, or the human body, but rather a movement of the will.  For Augustine, the Fall represented “a fracture of the original unity and harmony between body and soul that characterised the first human beings.” For Augustine, sin had immediate effects on the body. At the moment of their sin, Adam and Eve experienced what Augustine called the “concupiscence of the flesh”. In turn, this caused the first humans to feel ashamed of their nakedness. The bodies of Adam and Eve now became subject to disease and death. They also became subject to sexual desire, which Augustine viewed as evil.

 The idea that the soul is inherently more valuable than the body is associated with Augustine, who seemed to stand against all that is material, particularly the baseness of sex. Peter Brown has pointed out that it was not so much the body itself that was problematic for Saint Augustine, but rather he stressed the body's tendency to need discipline or control. 

Asceticism is very important in regards to the Christian understanding of the human body. For Augustine, asceticism and productive suffering for Christ is 'the fruit of love, not of insensibility.' So, through our struggle and strive for the holy, the body can be used purely for the good. The reason for our need of asceticism is due to the tremendous energy contained in the body - an energy which must be retained and made available for the Spirit. Saint Augustine therefore stresses the fact that we are called to bond the body's activities within the whole human being. As the body is quite literally included in salvation, the Christian cannot avoid the difficult task of integrating his or her sexuality; but rather use this gift in our task of glorifying, and uniting with our great God and Saviour. For many this is of course offering our sexuality to marriage, and to the creation of a family; where as for others it is totally sacrificed for God, transforming this energy into prayer, writing, and generally offering our time and efforts to Christ's body.  It is vital to remember we are eternally 'members of Christ,' and not merely 'as spirits.' (1 Cor 6:15) This is why Saint Paul rhetorically asks, 'shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitution? Never!'

Influenced by Augustine, John Calvin unfortunately picked out the cynical and negative aspects of his theology - leading to the view of the body as the primary source of human wickedness. According to Calvin, the body, as 'the prison of the soul'  prevents us from recognising God. Even though the act of sex is a clear act of love between spouses, and leads to new life and the building of the family, Calvin views it as a shameful act. One of the only positive attitudes we find in his writings on the body, is the fact he agrees with it providing opportunity for obedience (as well as offering the opportunity for the sinful inclinations of the flesh). 

Pope John Paul II, gave a series of lectures between 1979 and 1984 titled 'Theology of the Body.' He interestingly delves into the writings of Kant, Descartes and other philosophers in order to share a balanced reflection on the creation of man (as male and female) as a sexual being. He concludes that the body can never be reduced to mere matter, and is capable of 'making visible what is invisible' as Christopher West writes, reviewing the Papal lectures. 'The body is created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God and thus to be a sign of it.' Therefore the human body is in fact an expression of God's love, purpose and mystery. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts granted to man is to bring life to this world, through the unity of two persons in loving communion. Pope John's culmination of his 'Theology of the Body' refers to the relation between agape and eros. Through the mystery of the incarnate person and the biblical analogy of spousal love, John Paul's catechesis highlights God's plan for human life - from origin to eschaton. 

Saint Gregory of Nyssa emphasises the body's holiness, and God-given sovereignty as 'man's form is upright, and extends aloft towards heaven.' The very upright structure of man's body marks the fact that the human being is truly bound to God's Kingdom, and his whole life should be one leading to His eternal glory and union with his Creator. This follows the Scriptural teaching of Saint Paul - that the body is indeed the temple of the Holy Spirit, so we are therefore called to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). The Lord's will is the sanctification of both our bodies and souls, so that we may completely unite with Him. For this, we need to struggle for self-control, abstinence, humility, and primarily honour and respect for God's holy creation of the human body. I think it is important we remember that the imago dei incorporates the body - as it makes reference to the human person as a whole. For our Lord to affirm that we are indeed created in His image (Gen 1:27), means that the body is fundamentally good, and holy. We are fallen and imperfect, but Christ, perfect man and perfect God offers us the opportunity to give our whole selves; body and soul, eternally to Christ our God. 



Sources:
- Miles, Augustine on the Body.
- John Paul II, Theology of the Body.
- Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man.

- R.J. O'Connell, St Augustine's Early Theory of Man.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Transhumanism

Transhumanists consider our species' integration with technology as an extension of the creative tools used by our ancestors, as they are seen to have built the first steps towards the advancement of human knowledge, ability and discovery. Their claim is that humanity has continued to develop both physiologically and intellectually through biological, social and technological evolution. 

The technological advances of our day would be unthinkable to previous generations. As a geeky plane-spotter, I significantly remember my father reminding me of my grandfather's amazement, gazing up at the sky in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus, wondering what on earth this 'big bird' was; of course it was an aircraft. The question is, how far does technology have to take humanity? The issue lies in the fact that transhumanists often strive for a transhuman, even post-human phase of existence, in which humans are in control of their own evolution. In such a phase, natural evolution would be replaced with deliberate change - with the desire to go beyond our human means, into a new technological realm of existence. We currently live in a world of pacemakers, retinal implants, and various other technological advances; but many would argue that the transhumanist movement awaits the day we are able to transfer our mind to a computer, so that we live on after the bodily death. This rather concerning concept is, in my opinion, a secular way of trying to defeat death. A method trying to overcome death through technology, and without God, Our Creator and true defeater of death, is disastrous and impossible.

Likewise, the desire and thirst for human development without any clear end, meaning, or purpose, can be catastrophic as it is centred on self gain, supremacy, and lacks the very objective of human existence; love. Love, the greatest virtue (1 Cor 13:13), and fulfilment of the law (Rom 13:10) binds God and man together in relationship; and only through this communal, personal relationship can man achieve his full potential and complete development. God 'so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son.. not to condemn, but to save the world.' (John 3:16, 12:47) Although the development of technology is undoubtedly beneficial, the Christian faith highlights that man's destiny cannot be met without Christ - our renewer, saviour and Lord. St Athanasius the Great writes: 'God has been pleased to bring down His own wisdom to creatures so that what has come to be may also be wise.' Humanity's wisdom is God's; it is Christ. As Panayiotis Nellas writes 'For as our own reason (logos) is an image of the true Logos of the Son of God, so the wisdom that has been created in us, whereby we possess the power to know and to think, is likewise an image of His true Wisdom; and so by virtue of our human wisdom we are capable of receiving the Wisdom of the Creator.' 

The human being can only achieve true wisdom, knowledge, development and fulfilment of his potential through our Archetype, the incarnate Logos. Nellas tells us that 'the fathers stress deification is union with Christ, because it is precisely union with the Archetype which leads man to his fulfilment.' Returning back to our topic, transhumanism promotes an unjust, unrealistic, unnatural desire to oppose the unavoidable human processes and realities of pain, bodily and mental imperfections, and physical death. The movement is in favour of ideologies such as Abolitionism (based upon a perceived obligation to eliminate any suffering or imperfections) and immortalism (radical life extension and immortality through the means of technology). 

Founded by Julian Huxley in 1927, Transhumanism proposes that human nature is capable of transcending itself as a species. Like Christianity, it at least respects the intrinsic dignity of the human person, and its goal is, as we have seen, to push the human race to the highest possible point; however its desire has no clear and secure path, purpose or meaning - and realistically it is impossible for man to transcend himself, with his own limited capabilities. Matthew Zaro Fisher for example, in 'More Human than the Human' argues that transhumanism can be compared to Hesychasm, due to the similar concept of transcendance. This is an absurd comparison. One has to do with the soul, with man's relationship with God, indeed transcending cares of this world, offering prayer and ones whole life to Christ. On the other hand, we have a movement based upon technological advancements, created by the human mind (therefore not transcending humanity, but still being very much part of this world). It may improve our human capabilities or distort our natural behaviour and environment (depending on the use of the particular technology) but will not in any way transcend our human existence and condition. The human being is in control, and this means there is no room for trusting God, acquiring His grace, and distorts our mission in the world, as carriers of His eternal and boundless love. 

The 'better world,' hoped for by transhumanists, unrealistically opposes Christ's promise of His eternal and everlasting Kingdom, of which our life on earth is a foretaste, of this joy to come. We grow in wisdom and in love towards our end and fulfilment of human life, not by intellectual advancements of the human brain, but by delving into the heart within us, (1 Cor 3:16) in communion with one another.


Monday, 7 December 2015

The Christology of the Sixth Ecumenical Council - Tackling Monothelitism

In Saint John's Gospel, we find Christ stating that He has given His disciples a share in God's glory, and the opportunity of union with Him (John 17:22-23). Saint Paul also tells us that Christ shares in our poverty, that we may share in the riches of His divinity (2 Cor 8:9). In order for us to truly unite with God, sharing in His glory, it follows that we must be deified. Saint Athanasius famously summed up the purpose of the Incarnation, by writing 'God became human that we might be made god.' If this theosis (complete union with God) is possible, Jesus Christ must therefore be both fully God, and fully man. Only God, the Creator of all, can save humanity; and to participate in and with Him in communion, He must also be truly human. 

Each heresy faced by the Church undermines some part of this essential affirmation. Each holy council defends this truth; and the Sixth council is no exception. In this instance, the Church was faced with monothelitism - the idea that Jesus has only one will. Scripture alone makes it abundantly clear that our Saviour indeed has distinct wills - both a human and a divine (John 6:38, Luke 22:42). Monothelitism was an attempt to make a compromise with the Monophysites. The heresy claimed that although Christ had two natures, He nevertheless acted as God alone; not as a human. In other words, His divine nature made all the decisions and His human nature simply carried these decisions out. 

The Sixth Ecumenical Council thus had to affirm that Christ has two natures with two activities. As God, He works miracles, Rises from the dead and ascends into Heaven; and as Man, performs ordinary acts of daily life. The important point, is that each nature exercises its own free will. Each has a specific task to perform, and they do so without working against each other. Of course, the two distinct natures (and related to them, activities) are united in the one divine Person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

One might argue that the Council, in order to anathemise the heresy, yet incorporate monothelitists back into the Church, offered a position that was 'merely monothelitist' in disguise. Before we make a concluding reply to this claim, let us analyse the context of the Council, the people involved, and its affirmations:

Sergius, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople between 610-638, created a Christological formula in order to please both the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. ( See http://alexis-florides.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/the-fifth-council-553.html  ) He insists, in his 'Ecthesis,' that the Lord has two natures incarnated within a single will. Although Emperor Heraclius (who had been supported by Sergius in the past) was hesitant to sign off Sergius' work, he eventually approved it in 638; thus defining monothelitism as the official, imperial doctrine of the Christian faith. This of course sparked great controversy, before, and following its official implementation. Sergius in fact passed away in 638, however at the time of the Ecumenical Council, Macarius I (Patriarch of Antioch from 656-681) represented the monotheletist position. He was condemned, with the rejection of the heresy being widely accepted by the Church's universal hierarchy, and a letter was read on behalf of Pope Agatho asserting the Church's traditional belief that Christ has two wills; divine and human.

This was not a sudden change in position by the Church; quite the contrary. This had been a brewing issue within theological circles, and the Sixth Ecumenical Council can be seen as the culmination of the clear, Orthodox, affirmation of doctrine. We are able to see a number of examples of Hierarchs within the Church declaring themselves in opposition to the heretical ecthesis, and in particular the monothelestic writings of Pope Honorius, whose teachings were anathemised. The Bishops of Cyprus, independent of any Patriarch, held a synod on the 29th May 643, against the ecthesis - leading to their release of a letter sharing their concern on the matter. Similarly, in 646, the Bishops of Africa held a council, with the primates of Numidia, Byzacene and Mauritania sending a joint complaint to Pope Theodore of Rome. So, with the clear, divinely inspired, desire to overthrow such ideas, the Council took place under the reign of Saint Constantine the New in 680. As we have already highlighted, the Council's main affirmation was that Christ has both a divine will, and a human will; thus the heresy of monothelitism denies the human will, and nature of the Lord. The Council states that 'Jesus Christ possesses two energies and two wills' but 'the human will is in subjection to his divine and all-powerful will.' This is where one might question whether or not this undermines Christ's human nature, as monothelitism does. It is important to note that this subjection of the human will to His divine will is a willing subjection; it voluntarily follows the divine will. Thus, in no way does this affirmation undermine the human will; but rather clarifies the two, and explains the relation between them. 


To conclude, the Sixth Ecumenical Council confirms that the doctrine of Christ's two natures and wills is indeed 'in accordance with the true faith and with the Apostolic teachings' as written in its declaration, and therefore monothelitism must not be accepted and should be condemned by the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church - the body of our Lord and Saviour. Claims about the Council's affirmation being merely monothelitism in disguise are simply invalid; as the Church makes its doctrine abundantly clear regarding the two wills, following the belief in Jesus Christ's two natures. 

Main Sources:
 - Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997) 
 - Catholic Encyclopedia