The following commentary is my initial review of Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics by Vigen Guroian. I first read this book in 2019, but a renewed interest in the Eastern Orthodox mindset has driven me to reread these essays more carefully; recognizing that the ancient Eastern Christianity mindset, in many ways, is foreign to my Western, Americanized thinking. The Orthodox faith has, in my estimation, done a better job of preserving some of the earliest understandings of the Gospel than either the Roman Catholic or Protestant articulations. While all traditions are saturated with traditions of men, it is my hope and expectation that the Holy Spirit will challenge my personal (previously unchallenged) belief distortions to better align my thoughts to HIS thoughts and conform my ways to HIS ways. This article summarizes some of those thoughts as I proceeded through (only) the Introduction of the book and the first 3½ pages. Note that any quotes refer to phrases and sentences from those pages of the book.
The author claims that many people in our society are “starved spiritually in a desert of secularism.” This Orthodox writer contends that mainline Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism have displaced the language of holiness with the verbiage of justice, but human justice falls far short of holiness because it does not have the power to “end the deep discord of social existence or heal the wounds of sin.” “Holiness is Christ’s gift to the Church and the Church’s gift to the world.” So far, I can trck with Guroian’s contentions. He continues to address the word, liturgy. Being raised in Protestantism, I grew up with a bias against religious expressions that were filled with liturgical procedures, chanting, formal presentations, robed priests, etc. Liturgy simply refers to one who performs a public ceremony or service, derived from laos (people) + eros (that works) = liturgy. This caused me to think of my years operating Abilene Startup Community which was a performance of a public ceremony for entrepreneurs. In Orthodoxy, liturgy is primarily consigned to the service of the Holy Eucharist. Did not Jesus Himself introduce the liturgy when He told His disciples to do this in remembrance of Me?
In response to the aforementioned “desert of secularism”, Guroian thinks that Orthodox Christianity has the “muscle to be used to wrestle down the shallow secularism that permeates our culture and everywhere trivializes life.” This secular humanism drifts toward nihilism which has gained so much voice and power in our culture that the churches are replete with it, themselves. However, Christian humanism is all about conversion. Somehow, I do not think that he uses this word in the same way that I was raised using it in the context of getting someone to say some wham-bam, repeat-after-me prayer of repentance. His understanding of conversion is a calling to building “habits of VIRTUOUS living” as opposed to some new project of cultural formation. Much of the discussion in business startup theology has been around the topic of formulating a specific corporate culture, with or without the goal of virtuous living. Has this same goal been prioritized in our churches, as well? If so, has the Church made their voice “small and unimpressive” as it enters these secular arenas, trying to compete with the power of an alternate culture? On a personal level, can my individual voice be prophetic if only my behavior is prophetic? There are numerous times in the scriptures where the Lord told his prophets to speak a word which was accompanied by demonstrations – sometimes, weird demonstrations such as Isaiah preaching barefoot and naked for three years. Guroian suggests that the Church’s behavior is not prophetic because it parrots liberalism and there is nothing conversionist that addresses the deep hunger in modern people for salvation. As a non-Orthodox believer in Jesus, I’m not sure why he thinks the Orthodox Church is an exemplar of being conversionist in its approach to this world…moreso, than say, evangelicals. Is there a difference between a “Christianized culture” and a “Christian society”? The author of this book is affirmative in his belief that this is the confusion between “church and state” and between “the Kingdom of God and social order.” “Our culture has entered a phase that not only hollows out our institutions of transcendent meaning but also degrades our humanity.” Guroian wrote this quote in 2002. How prophetic it seems to be in our current age (2023) where the evidence of this hollowing out has become so in-your-face apparent over the past twenty years in America, especially. Governments, the academy, entertainment, business, on and on, have no transcendent core, choosing to advance only human-worship cloaked in rights verbiage in a vain attempt to champion so-called human dignity that disavows our imagers-of-God status. Impossible. As the popular cultures (which continue to influence the Church more than be impacted by the Church) grow further from holiness, Guroian insists that we must use the language of holiness in our everyday parlance. Bonhoffer said that the church with no mission is no church at all. Additionally, I would contend that an unarticulated mission is, indeed, that “small and unimpressive voice.”
CHAPTER 1: THE SHAPE OF ORTHODOX ETHICS
The Orthodox view on many things seem to be much more integrated than typical Western thinking which tends to segment, rank, categorize. The appeal to me, personally, is that their thinking seems to be more organic, less focused on pure rationalism. Their term, virtue ethic, is not Aristotelian right reasoning alone, but is theanthropic, (embodying deity in human form; both divine and human) using the new Adam as its marker. In other words, “it constitutes the life in Christ.” Nichola Cabasilas (14th century Byzantine theologian) says that right reasoning is not enough to embrace nor embody virtue; however, he thinks that human beings can achieve theanthropic potential which is in their nature. Aristotle’s approach to right reasoning can, then, only highlight the impossibility of becoming perfectly virtuous because that approach is absent of the transforming power of love. Right reasoning can identify the good and can even know that good should be sought after. This takes my thoughts back to the Garden where Eve, firstly, wanted to know good and evil. Once that she made the choice to have the choice, she persuaded her husband. Just as she had been seduced, so did she seduce. The snake knew good and evil, as I am persuaded that he was a divine being, using half-truths to seduce Eve via his evil temptation. He tempted her with the idea that should she choose to eat, she would be more like God. Because God is only GOOD, He alone is the source of us becoming like Him (making us theanthropic beings). Even in their Fall, there remained the promise of a seed who would be a human who embodied His deity…both, divine and human, that was capable of crushing the head of the snake. Perhaps the snake was divine, but he was not human. God’s plan was to give over to His son to be heir of all creation – heavens and the earth. Adam, the first, was not up to the task to be the ONE forever. His virtue was compromised by not remaining in the love of God via his disobedience whereas Adam, the second, was up to the task.
What about this idea of becoming more Christ-like? The Orthodox theological concept that explains the “progress of a person toward divine similitude” is called theosis. As I listen, study and read more about Orthodox thinking, it is clear that they really view salvation as a collaborative process between God and man. God has his part to do…man has his part to do. This flies in the face of typical evangelical thoughts about grace, which in many circles does not require anything from man; sometimes, not even repentance. “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not com e to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (Romans 4:13-16). “Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:19-21). Neither did Abram distrust Yahweh at the beginning of his trek in the promised land when the Lord told him that this land was designated as his inheritance, regardless of the current occupants. Abram believed God. Adam 1 was uncorrupted (but not “incorruptible”), living in a perfect state of virtue (e.g. in communion with absolute Virtue, “grace” as long as he did not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) which is what Cabasilas views as God’s end game for Adam 2. Was the first Adam afflicted with unbelief regarding the mandate to not eat of that central tree? This second Adam attained to the perfect virtue, securing us with the downpayment of the Holy Spirit embodiment at Pentecost. O, let patience have her perfect work.
In recognizing that Christ is the Godhead, man strives for him by his nature, will and thoughts. It is in our nature to seek His nature, to become more like Him. This must be in the nature of, at least, those who are of Eve’s seed. Jesus is the resting place of our human desires…the food of our thoughts. Man is not able to become God in Christ’s essence, but we are able to become gods by grace, even as we remain creatures of the human nature. When all of creation yearns for the sons of God…would not His sons be, at least, gods with a little “g”? Also, Paul confirms about Abraham: Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone,but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:22-25). Yahweh dealt with the individual, Abraham, giving him instructions to follow – walk around the promised inheritance at whatever pace and direction you choose – but examine the goodness of it all.
To any who read this article, I apologize for the disjointed and (seemingly) random scriptural references, but my sense is that they must be recorded as they have been brought to my attention, regardless of the poor writing style they might pose.
St. Maximus the Confessor wrote, “God’s Incarnation which makes man (Jesus) a god in the same measure as God Himself became a man.” Jesus, who became a man without sin, “can also deify nature” without transforming it into the Deity. This language of deification is foreign to me and my religious training, but seems to be common among Orthodox writers. After giving it some thought, is this deification not just another way of talking about the new body, the new nature, the new heavens and earth? This reminds me of the event on the Mount of Transfiguration. Was this not the forerunner evidence of a man – Jesus – being transfigured (deified) in full view of the three disciples, but not yet being fully transformed into the deity following His resurrection and ascension?
It seems to me that when the Orthodox speak of deification, it is roughly equivalent to an Evangelical speaking of sanctification. Both are processes that require a blending of flesh and spirit – a cooperation between man and God. It is the initial Incarnation of Jesus that provides the hope for this change in our human nature. “ The Incarnation also presents this theanthropic vocation as a new moral imperative, that human being strive ot imitate this Jesus Christ who is both archetype and perfect example of a deified humanity.” In our flesh, we are unable to imitate Christ perfectly as Paul confessed that he “…did not do the good he wanted, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Theosis (becoming Christ-like) is a possibility only because of the redemptive power of Jesus enabling us to cooperate with God toward deification/sanctification. The theanthropic vocation (God’s calling to put our efforts into becoming more like Christ) is viewed by Orthodox thinking as a “moral imperative.” Morality has to do with the restoration of the image of God in humankind. Imperative has to do with action, taking steps toward.
In our current society, there is seemingly little or no concern with ultimate transfiguration of man becoming a god (little “g”). The implication of being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12) stands in stark opposition to this age and its demand to transition from one human form to another. There is no vision of transforming into a transfigured, upgraded human via the power of heavenly incarnation from our Maker. Sure, there is a current transitioning cult which is demanding that they are their own makers, culminating in a degraded human – the antithesis of the more Christ-like model offered via incarnation. Is the one who determines to transition trying to fashion himself or herself into the “new Adam”? The old Adam is incapable of this transition of his/her own power. Once again, we find ourselves back in the Garden standing before the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In eating that fruit, mankind became reliant on self-will to do good, and conversely to do no evil. Ask any addict about the effectiveness of long-term change just through the application of one’s own fleshly will. Our infected nature not only has trouble consistently doing good but has trouble identifying true GOOD.
The concepts of the book further pursue a discussion on the conscience, and its role in the moral life. In my original handwritten notes, I explore some of the citations of Guroian and other writers. For the purposes of this paper, I will not try to examine those comments. As one might quip, I do not have the bandwidth to handle the topic in a thoughtful way at this time. All of these preceding notes are intended (for any reader) to stimulate some thought, provide a small introduction to some basic Orthodox terminology and concepts. My hope is that there may be something of value in return for your time to read this article. I will pursue my study of the Eastern Orthodox mindset because it intrigues me. May the Almighty grant me His Thoughts in the midst of my search so that I may know Him better…and for you.