Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'And let them rule...' ~ St Basil on our creation 'according to the image of God'


Dear Parish Faithful,

I am currently reading a collection of homilies by St. Basil the Great (+379), gathered together under the title On the Human Condition, and translated by Sister Nonna Verna Harrison, an Orthodox nun who is herself a noted Patristic scholar. 

Some of the homilies are prolonged and profound theological explorations of what it means to be created "according to the image and likeness of God;" as in the first one in the collection,  "On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse I:  On that which is according to the Image."  Others are concerned with a more specific topic, such as "Homily Against Anger," and "Homily on the Words, 'Be Attentive to Yourself''." 

The blurb on the back cover succinctly captures St. Basil's style, regardless of the particular theme he is addressing:  "St. Basil the Great addresses the questions posed by the human condition with characteristic clarity, balance, and sobriety."  I would add that St. Basil invariably grounds whatever theme he is addressing in a profound knowledge and use of the Holy Scriptures.  In fact, we could say that the Father taught nothing unless it was found in the Scriptures. The great Church Fathers really knew and understood the Bible!

Where the Church Fathers really excelled was in their exegesis (interpretation) of perhaps the most important verse in the Scriptures concerning the creation of the human being. And that verse, of course, is GEN. 1:26:  "Let us make the human being according to our image and likeness."  The Fathers found this verse to be endlessly fascinating and virtually impossible to fully capture in a definitive manner.  There are always new depths and new insights into human nature that this scriptural revelation allows us to unfold when approached with "clarity, balance, and sobriety."

The first homily in the collection as mentioned above is St. Basil's wonderful and wide-ranging exploration of this essential revelation of what it means to be human.  At the beginning of his interpretation of this verse, St. Basil makes it clear that the "us" of GEN. 1:26 refers to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity who is the one Godhead in three Persons.  And he will from the start of his interpretation dispel any "unseemly fantasies" that may have been current in his times, and which may today intrude upon our minds consciously or unconsciously:

In what sense are we according to the image of God?  Let us purify ourselves of an ill-informed heart, an uneducated conception about God.  If we came into being according to the image of God, they say, God is of the same shape as ourselves; there are eyes in God and ears, a head, hands, a behind on which to sit - for it says in Scripture that God sits [Ps. 46:9) - feet with which to walk.  So is God not like this? 
Put away from your heart unseemly fantasies.  Expel from your reason things not in accord with the greatness of God.  God is without structure and simple.  Do not regard a shape in regard to him.  Do not diminish the Great One in a Jewish way.  Do not enclose God in bodily concepts, nor circumscribe him according to your own mind.
He is incomprehensible in greatness. Consider what a great thing is, and add to the greatness more than you have conceived, and to the more add more, and be persuaded that your thought does not reach boundless things.  Do not conceive a shape; God is understood from his power, from the simplicity of his nature, not greatness in size.  He is everywhere and surpasses all; and he is intangible, invisible, who indeed escapes your grasp. He is not circumscribed by size, nor encompassed by a shape, nor measured by power, nor enclosed in time, nor bounded by limits. Nothing is with God as it is with us.  (On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse I, 5)

In seeking to understand this seminal verse claiming that we are created "according to the image and likeness" of God, St. Basil is searching for what he believes is the "ruling principle" in the human being.  And he teaches that this ruling principle is "the superiority of reason."  I do not have the Greek text before me, but I believe that the word behind this is nous, and it can also be translated as "mind" or "intellect."  This is the highest aspect of the soul, and here St. Basil, as well as many of the Church Fathers, is employing the tripartite structure of the soul as found in the teaching of Plato.  The other two aspects of the soul, according to Sister Nonna's translation, would include our instinctive and emotional impulses and drives.  We will return to these aspects below.  Grappling with our psychosomatic (soul and body) structure as a human being, St. Basil writes the following:

I recognize two human beings, one the sense-perceptible, and one hidden under the sense-perceptible, invisible, the inner human.  Therefore we have an inner human being, and we are somehow double, and it is truly said that we are that which is within.  For I am what concerns the inner human being, the outer things are not me but mine.  For I am not a hand, but I am the rational part of the soul. And the hand is a limb of the human being, an instrument of the soul, and the human being is principally the soul in itself.
"Let us make the human being according to our image,"  that is, let us give him the superiority of reason.  (Discourse, I, 7)

Although this may sound dangerously dualistic, as if the superiority of the soul somehow denigrates the body, this would be an unfair reading of St. Basil's scriptural exegesis.  For elsewhere, St. Basil will speak of the wonderful structure of the body.  As Sister Nonna explains St. Basil's respect for the body: "Its beauty and ingenious structure make it a masterpiece of divine craftsmanship."  He is concentrating on the unique quality of being a human being by stressing the superiority of reason; for both animals and man have bodily powers. In fact, animals - and St. Basil refers to the lion, the leopard and other "beasts" on land as well as "flying creatures" to point out their superiority in strength and at times greater instinctual resourcefulness to human beings - can seem to possess greater powers.  But, again, "reason" is what makes the human being the crowning achievement of God's creative act, as human creativity, compassion and love flow from that higher aspect of our nature and thus make us "superior" to all of the other creatures created by God.

St. Basil was certainly the proponent of what today would be called "gender equality."  Anticipating an objection to the use of the masculine term in Greek - o anthropos "the human being" - in GEN. 1:26, "And God made the human being according to his image," St. Basil writes the following:


But that nobody may ignorantly ascribe the name of human only to the man, it adds, "Male and female he created them" (GEN. 1:27).  The woman also possesses creation according to the image of God, as indeed does the man.  The natures are alike equal in honor, the virtues are equal, the struggles equal, the judgment alike.  Let her not say, "I am weak."  The weakness is in the flesh, in the soul is the power.  Since indeed that which is according to God's image is of equal honor, let the virtue be of equal honor, the showing forth of good works.... When has the nature of man been able to match the nature of woman in patiently passing through her own life?  When has man been able to imitate the vigor of women in fastings, the love of toil in prayers, the abundance in tears, the readiness for good works?

Always with an eye on his pastoral role and responsibility when interpreting the Scriptures, and thus bringing out the moral and ethical dimension of the sacred text, St. Basil will add exhortation to interpretation when surveying the high calling of the human being made according to the image of God.  He does this when examining the scriptural blessing from God:  "And let them rule."  (GEN. 1:26)  St. Basil writes:

"And let them rule."  Not, "Let us make the human being, and let them be angry and lustful and sorrowful," for the passions are not included in the image of God, but the reason is master of the passions. ... As soon as you are made, you are also made ruler.
First the power to rule was conferred on you.  O human, you are a ruling being. And why do you serve the passions as a slave?  Why do you throw away your own dignity and become a slave of sin? For what reason do you make yourself a prisoner of the devil? You were appointed ruler of creation, and you have renounced the nobility of your own nature.

The great St. Basil will take us to task, to use that expression, because though created according to the image of God, we suffer under bondage to the passions.  He will use all of his wonderful gifts of rhetoric and persuasion to convict us of that sorry truth before he will lift us back up to our rightful place in God's creation.

To be continued ...

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