Orthodox Personhood, Sin and Salvation

Before one understand morality from an Orthodox point of view, one must first understand how Orthodoxy views the person, sin and salvation. In The Freedom of Morality, Christos Yannaras says:

The person is the hypostasis of the human essence or nature. He sums up in his existence the universality of human nature, but at the same time surpasses it, because his mode of existence is freedom and distinctiveness.

This mode of existence which is personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man, making man a partaker in being. It is not as nature that man constitutes an image of God: it is not because he has natural attributes in common with God, or analogous to His. Man constitutes an image of God as an ontological hypostasis free from space, time and natural necessity….

Personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man. It is the mode of existence shared by God and man, the ethos of trinitarian life imprinted upon the human being. In the Orthodox Church and its theology, we study man as an image of God, not God as the image of man exalted into an absolute. The revelation of the personal God in history manifests to us the truth about man, his ethos and the nobility of his descent.

…In the historical revelation of God, we study true personal existence free from any constraint — from the constraint imposed on man by his own nature after his fall, which was the free subjection of his personal distinctiveness to the necessities and dictates of nature individuality…

In other words, it our free will and our relationship to God which defines us in the Orthodox church. Before the Fall, man was free from the exaggerated expression of our passions — greed, pride, selfishness, ego, etc. — and those passions were directed towards growing closer to God, growing more and more like Him. Our end was to reach theosis or deification, to unite our will, thoughts and actions to those of God and to become as like him as is possible.

God gave us free will however, and with it came the possibility to deviate from the course which God had created us for. The “original sin” was when man used his free will in just such a way; to pursue something other than the will of God.

Sin, in Orthodoxy, is not some concrete act, nor is it something that can be defined into laws, rules or regulations. The Greek word for sin, and the word which appeared in the New Testament, is”amartias,” which is defined as missing the mark:

The patristic tradition insists on this interpretation of sin as failure and “missing the mark,” as the loss of that “end” or aim which for human nature is its existential self-transcendence, taking it into the limitless realm of personal distinctiveness and freedom.

There is nothing God’s creation which is hypostatically  and naturally evil, not even the devil himself. Sin is failure, a failure as to existence and life: it is the failure of persons to realize their existential “end,” to confirm and conserve the uniqueness of their hypostasis through love.

To sin then is to not attempt to live up to our full potential in Christ, to not live in the manner which God created us for and to not attempt to correct the distorted image of God which we bear. This sin is understood to be a result of the breaking away of our will from the will of God in order to focus on our own individual needs and wants.

In the West, repentance is largely seen as a recognition of guilt, and this view comes from the legalistic, juridical view of sin which was developed in this part of the world. This isn’t the way that it was originally — and continues to be in the Orthodox East — seen. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia” and it translates into “change of mind.” This is so much more than just a change of attitude; it refers to a complete change in a persons way of thought, in their outlook.

Repentance is the recognition that  man’s self-sufficiency is inadequate; it is a search for the life which is realized in personal relationship with God, a thirst for personal communion with Him.

Repentance does not mean simply the “improvement” or even “perfection” of individual behavior and individual psychological feelings, or the strengthening of the individual will. All these can come about while a man still remains a prisoner in his autonomous individuality, unable to love or to participate in the communion of love which is true life. Repentance is a change in our mode of existence: man cease to trust in his own individuality. He realizes that existing as an individual, even a virtuous individual, does not save him from corruption and death, from his agonizing existential thirst for life.

Repentance then isn’t asking God to forgive us for acting “badly” and vowing that we will live “better lives,” it is recognizing that the way we have been living is focusing on ourselves and then trying to fundamentally alter our world-view. Our salvation comes through this whole-hearted attempt to live the way which God wants for us, which we were created for. Salvation comes from recognizing that our individual efforts are not enough, that our individuality is a lie told to us by the world and that is symptom of a mis-directed will.

This is what I’m learning as I read through this amazing book. I’ll continue to post my thoughts and reactions and hope to read some of yours as well!

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