Friday, 31 March 2006

The Human Condition

We have been reflecting on the human condition. What is the human condition? It's nature can be seen in this, that the Incarnate Word of God was willingly crucified out of love for man. Now these are the usual theological words, but what do they mean? First of all, crucifixion is not just death, but a terrible, gruesome death. Why would someone willingly undergo such a gruesome death for someone else? This is not a matter of a sentimental meditation on the Cross: what we have to confront is the human condition that would require such a thing as the Crucifixion, and the love that would be willing to subject itself to such a Crucifixion.

Moreover, we also have to confront the fact that many people who reject Christianity would deny that the Crucifixion was anything other—if it really happened—than a very exaggerated response to human suffering. In the West since the Enlightenment, especially nowadays in liberal areas of the West, there is an attempt to persuade oneself and others of a different interpretation of the human condition. We once saw an article on a fellow who was at the forefront of the movement in Oregon to legalize suicide. The article, published by the alumni office of a local college, treated suicide as a mystical experience, much as Thomas Mann treats the death of Goethe in Death in Venice as a mystical experience. This advocate of suicide, who himself eventually committed suicide, was presented as a hero, as a man who not only had the courage of his convictions but who proceeded to a mystical experience: suicide.

There is much suffering in the human condition. Some post-Enlightenment approaches to the human condition would deny this and pose that life is fun while it lasts, and that after the fun stops, then there is nothing. When the fun stops, we proceed to the mystical experience of suicide. After that, there is silence and a merging of the soul with the vaguely defined pantheistic godhead. The human condition is a matter of a good job, good consumer goods, and fun, fun, fun, according to the particular appetites we have, until we get tired and can no longer have fun. Then we say goodbye to our loved ones and get on with it.

But is this the human condition?

A woman has a son; he is ill. She spends the night with him in the hospital sleeping by his bed on some chairs. A cleaning lady in the hospital tells us that it is only with the help of God, in whom she fervently believes, that she can get through life, because life is difficult. She remarks that God 'roasts us' so that we come to understand what life is all about. Another lady doing menial tasks has a face radiating joy. We ask her where that joy comes from. She replies: 'From the Good God.' We say: 'But we don't have that joy.' She replies: 'You have it, but you don't show it; I show my joy.' These people not only have faith and joy, but they can talk about God in a wise, intelligent fashion. These are the forgotten people, the poor in spirit, the meek who shall inherit the earth.

Buddhism also speaks about the human condition, in the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is suffering. That is how the Buddha perceived the human condition. Buddhism in its higher forms speaks of compassion, and a very important title of the Buddha is 'The Compassionate One'. However, the question arises of the difference between the Orthodox perception of the human condition and the Buddhist perception of the human condition; and the difference between Buddhist compassion and Christian compassion.

We can see in this way the difference in perceptions of the human condition: when Jesus started to preach, he proclaimed: 'Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.' However, in Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, the cause of suffering is ignorance. In Christianity, the fundamental truth is not that life is suffering, but that suffering is ultimately caused by sin. Hence, where Buddhism sees the root cause of the human condition as ignorance, Christianity sees its root cause as sin. In Christianity, it is the Fall of Adam in Paradise, and the personal sin of each person, that defines the human condition.

That explains the difference between Buddhist and Christian prescriptions for the human condition. Buddhism essentially aims for a state of consciousness through meditation that negates the ignorance that is the root cause of the human condition; this is 'enlightenment'. Christianity, however, especially Orthodox Christianity, aims for reconciliation to God; this is both a moral and a contemplative reconciliation to God.

At the level of contemplation, Orthodox Christian contemplation is quite different from Buddhist contemplation: Buddhist contemplation aims for a state of consciousness in which the ego is extinguished; Orthodox contemplation aims for the divinization (theosis) of the person, a return to the state of Adam in Paradise, the fullness of the image of God.

At the level of moral reconciliation to God, which in Orthodoxy is the presupposition of contemplative reconciliation or union with God, what we call divinization (theosis), there enters in the Crucifixion of Christ. Christ became sin so that we might be freed from sin. We cannot ourselves by our own efforts free ourselves from sin, from the human condition. This happens only by the grace of Jesus Christ. This is true even of Christian contemplation: the Christian contemplative awaits the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, freely given as a gift by Jesus Christ, which illumines his mind. This Christian dynamic is completely different from Buddhism's approach to the root cause of the human condition.

Let us look at Buddhist and at Christian compassion. Although St Paul teaches us that we are to make love our aim, compassion does not play the central role in Christianity that it does in Buddhism. It might be said that God, and his son Jesus Christ, are more important to the Orthodox Christian than the cultivation of compassion. However, as the Orthodox Christian progresses spiritually, he cannot ignore the spiritual dimension of love for others: although the first commandment is to love God with all our heart, the second commandment is to love our neighbour as ourself, and the third commandment is to love our brother as Jesus Christ has loved us.

In Orthodoxy, this love is not sentimental. It is spiritual. Because of that, the cultivation of this love and its ripening are very difficult: the very heart and soul of the Orthodox Christian must open out to the suffering of others; but this can only come about if the Orthodox Christian has suffered much himself. There is no other way. In Buddhism, compassion is the outcome of meditative states which are centred not in the depths of the heart, but in the head. Hence, Buddhist compassion does not have the same central 'from the depths of the soul' character that Christian compassion has. It is the outcome of contemplation in the Buddhist understanding of the term.

From the above considerations we can see that Buddhist and Christian asceticism each have a different character. Buddhist asceticism is to support Buddhist contemplation. Orthodox Christian asceticism is to cleanse the whole soul, the whole person from the passions, and to lead him to the operation of the parts of his soul according to nature, as Adam was in Paradise. This is consummated in Orthodox Christian contemplation.

There is no serious Christian ascetic that would dismiss the Cross of Jesus Christ as irrelevant to his asceticism, to his purification. It is through the Cross of Christ that we are purified in Baptism and subsequently purified in ascesis. It is by the free Grace of him who bore our sins on the Cross and our illnesses by the lashes on his back that we are able to restore to its Archetypal beauty the human condition in ourselves.

Finally, the difference in the Buddhist and Orthodox Christian treatment of the human condition can be seen in the reception of the Holy Spirit by the Orthodox Christian. The Dalai Lama once asked Thomas Merton if, when Christians became monks, they received a spirit. Certainly. They receive an increase of the grace of the Holy Spirit that they received in Christian Baptism. But here is a subtle point: while Buddhists are peaceable persons, the spirit they receive is not the spirit of Jesus Christ. They have no connection to the Cross of Jesus Christ, to the Crucifixion. On the spiritual level, their approach to the human condition is founded on a completely other spirit.

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