We have received a very interesting email from a person named Jean Gove’. Here is the email:
I have come across your blog and have read enough to come to respect your erudition and your broad-mindedness. I can describe myself primarily as a seeker since I still have not settled anywhere securely, although there is always an undeniable attraction pulling me towards an essential Christianity and I have become especially attracted to the Orthodox Tradition.
I have a number of theological problems some of which have surfaced upon a cursory reading of Orthodox doctrine but for now I will stick to the topic of the human soul.
The problem arises from a comparison of Gnosticism and Christianity and the realization that one of the basic differences between the two is that Gnosticism treats the human soul as eternal, and in fact as sharing completely in the essence of God from which it emerged and to which it must eventually return. Christianity on the other hand describes the human soul primarily as a creation of God with no existence prior to the human body in which the soul is embodied.
While the accusation of dualism is usually laid at the Gnostic’s doorstep, the Gnostic doctrine actually resolves itself in a monistic world-view, where everything and everyone is God. On the other hand, it is Christianity that retains the eternal dualism of Creator and created.
At this point, a number of branching problems emerge in my mind:
- Since God is described as spirit, is the human soul something essentially different from spirit and from God?
- If the soul has no existence prior to the human body to which it is joined, how can its eternity in the future be described? The soul continues to exist forever but has had a beginning. Isn't this a logical impossibility, in that something that has a beginning cannot be eternal? Has there been any discussion of this question in Orthodox theology?
- How is the embodiment of the soul best explained? Gnosticism explains it by treating the body as an entrapment of the eternal divine soul, which must free itself from the body to return to the Divine. For Christianity, the case must be that God fully intended for each human being to exist as an embodied soul or ensouled body. Why then do Christians believe in an afterlife (Heaven) where the soul alone continues to exist while the body dies? Wouldn’t a more consistent belief place its hope in an eternal re-embodiment, and in fact consider death, the separation of body and soul, as the evil resulting from the Fall? I know Orthodoxy does consider death as the main result of the Fall but I don't know what its position on Heaven is, or whether there is a position on an eternal re-embodiment. Or is there another explanation to which I am blind?
Eagerly awaiting discussion.
The issues being raised are in what is called ‘anthropology’. Now of course there is a social science taught at university which is called ‘anthropology’ but there is an older philosophical and theological discipline called ‘anthropology’ which studies the nature of man as understood in Christianity or in any other religion, or even in non-religious philosophical systems. What Jean Gove’ is doing is raising issues in anthropology, or to put it another way, in the way that Christianity and non-Christian belief systems view man and his place in the universe. Needless to say there are many different anthropologies. Indeed, a clever philosopher of the social sciences would study the philosophical anthropology underlying any particular ‘scientific anthropology’. But let us turn to Mr. Gove’’s questions.
The first issue is this:
The problem arises from a comparison of Gnosticism and Christianity and the realization that one of the basic differences between the two is that Gnosticism treats the human soul as eternal, and in fact as sharing completely in the essence of God from which it emerged and to which it must eventually return.
We had to dust off our handbook of philosophy to check up on Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a label applied to a very complex family of disparate, although related, beliefs that arose in the region stretching from present-day Iran to Syria to Egypt to Greece at about the time that Christianity itself developed. These beliefs competed with Christianity until about the 4th Century, when, we might say, Christianity won. One of the key elements of these Gnostic beliefs was that the innermost part of the human soul was a part of the highest God. Through a very complex chain of events involving demigods and similar, this bit of God has become imprisoned in the human body in an essentially evil material creation, precisely the creation that we experience in our daily lives: the sky, the sun and so on. Indeed, the demiurge which created the evil creation that we humans are imprisoned in was the God of the Old Testament, considered to be a very low god on the celestial totem-pole and an evil one at that. A very complex salvation narrative ensues that involves outwitting the God of the Old Testament to free the divine spark in the soul of man so that it might traverse the very complex celestial hierarchy until that spark of the divine in the human soul reaches the unitary divine far above the God of the Old Testament and the Creation that we know. The primary means to accomplish this return to the unitary divine is gnosis, or knowledge. This seems to have comprised both a proclamation of the truth of the matter and means to overcome the problem, including special magical formulas to pass from one degree in the hierarchy of being to a higher degree.
One of the Gnostic systems was Manichaeism, which held St Augustine before he became Christian. The founder of Manichaeism, the Iranian Manes, taught that the Buddha was one of the messengers of the unitary divine, along with Zoroaster (remember Iran), Jesus and himself. The gnosis that is the means to escape this imprisonment in this body and this creation has structural similarities to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism—the content is quite different, certainly, but the combination of a statement of the problem and the means to solve the problem is reminiscent of Buddhism. Of course we have no idea whether that is in fact a result of the influence of Buddha on Manes.
Moreover, for those who are up on their history of religion, there was a dualist religion in ancient Iran. This religion posited two eternal principles of good and evil in permanent conflict. Manichaeism and some other related Gnostic systems reflect their origins in Iran in showing aspects of this dualism. This is particularly true of Manes’ system, which is consciously dualist, positing eternal opposed principles of Light and Darkness.
Let us now look at Jean Gove’’s assertion:
While the accusation of dualism is usually laid at the Gnostic’s doorstep, the Gnostic doctrine actually resolves itself in a monistic world-view, where everything and everyone is God.
We are not experts but we would think that the accusation of dualism might have much, although perhaps not everything, to do with the historically dualist strains in Gnosticism that arose from Iranian influences.
Would Gnostic systems that do not show this Iranian dualistic strand be truly monistic? Since the demigods are in some fashion parts of the original divine unity, on that level yes. But these gods do wicked things, culminating in the creation of the present Creation, which is unremittingly evil. For the goal of the divine part of the human soul is to escape its imprisonment in the present evil body in the present evil Creation to return to the unitary divine. On this level, an assertion of monism seems forced.
Of course, one can see that a major philosophical problem in Gnosticism is the explanation of how the original unitary God comes to be divided up into a number of lesser gods on successively lower planes of being, which gods show a remarkable propensity to act wickedly, until we get to the God of the Old Testament who creates the world we know in order to trap the divine in us so that it cannot return to the unitary divine. For the whole Gnostic drama is understood to arise because the divine spark in man should not have separated from the original unitary God—that was the result of wickedness and deceit in high places that culminates in the creation of this world by the God of the Old Testament.
Now we strongly doubt that today Gnosticism in its various historical forms would seriously attract anyone. However, although Jean Gove’ doesn’t mention it, there is a philosophical tradition of Neo-Platonist mysticism founded by Plotinus which has much the same structure as Gnosticism but without the heavy-handed mythological apparatus. In Plotinus’ Enneads, there is a simplified hierarchy of degrees of being generated by emanations from higher degree to lower degree, starting with the One and ending with man. Man’s task is again to return to the degree of being from which his innermost self came forth. However, Plotinus, who conducted polemics against Gnosticism, treated the Creation we live in as good. In Plotinus, man’s return to his home is accomplished by what we might call meditative or contemplative practices. There is nothing Christian about Plotinus’ system; it is a development of Plato’s thought.
Let us now look at how Mr. Gove’ contrasts Christianity with Gnosticism.
Christianity on the other hand describes the human soul primarily as a creation of God with no existence prior to the human body in which the soul is embodied.
On the other hand, it is Christianity that retains the eternal dualism of Creator and created.
Usually when philosophers speak about theories of or beliefs in God, they divide those beliefs into two main strands of the immanence and transcendence of God. Let us first look at the immanence of God.
In theories of the immanence of God, God is somehow present in the material world, which might even be of the same substance as God. The classical expression of the immanent God is found in Hinduism in the Vedanta of Shankara , although Hinduism is an extremely broad religion that contains very many strands of belief and theological speculation, some of which are diametrically opposed: there are transcendent strands in some schools of Hindu thought. The immanence of God is one of the elements of some forms of Hindu yoga: since man is of the same substance of God, and since the material creation is an illusion (maya) it is a matter of man surpassing illusion to realize his godliness.
Another strand of belief in the immanence of God is the systems such as Taoism, where the universe is a primordial unity that resolves into two complementary principles, yin and yang. These two principles are associated with the female and male respectively, but the concepts are raised to the status of universal principles. Moreover, as this famous symbol shows
when the yin has reached its apogee it turns into the yang and vice versa. That is the explanation of the dots in the tear drops. The tear drop is yin or yang but contains the seed of the complementary principle within. The circle around the two tear drops represents the primordial unity of universe. Now it is somewhat forced to introduce a concept of God into this system since the basic Taoist system doesn’t foresee God as we might understand that concept in the West. However, since Taoism plays the role of a religion for its adherents, we can take it as a doctrine of the immanence of God.
Some aspects of this doctrine of the immanence of God and of two complementary universal principles are to be found in Buddhism. We certainly are not experts in Buddhism, which is very complex both philosophically and in its social and cultural manifestations. Moreover, Buddhism does not treat of an over-arching God. However, one of the Buddhist sutras makes the very bald assertion: “All is Void and Void is all.” This sutra is one of the doctrinal bases of Mahayana Buddhism. If the Void plays the role in Buddhism that God plays in theist religions, then after a fashion one can see an immanent God here. Moreover, in Tibetan Buddhism the theological basis of tantric yoga is the treatment of the male and female as the two basic principles in the universe.
We can see that religious systems which posit an immanent God or First Principle tend to treat ordinary Creation as we know it as impermanent, as a mask of the really real or as a door to the really real. And while we would not want to identify the immanence of God with philosophical monism, the two concepts would in the history of ideas often be found together. For example, there is one strand of Tibetan Buddhism which is a monist mentalism—everything is mind. We would infer that the Void is pure undifferentiated mind.
Let us now look at the doctrine of the transcendence of God. This doctrine is usually associated with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of these three religions has a somewhat different understanding of the transcendence of God.
The main issues with a transcendent God are the relation between God and his Creation, the relation between man and Creation, the relation between man and God and how man can know the transcendent God.
In the three religions just mentioned God created the universe that we know out of nothing. This is to be distinguished from Aristotle or even Plato, who both posited a sort of pre-existing stuff without shape or form (called by Aristotle matter) upon which the creator of the universe imposes form to make matter into the various concrete objects we discover in the universe. In the three religions this universe is not illusory. The reality of Creation is particularly strong in Judaism, which emphasizes the devout Jew’s role in doing something in this concrete world. In all three religions, the Creation is considered to be good. The key statement is that in Genesis: “And God saw all that he had created and it was good.”
Let us now continue with Christianity. Man holds a special place in the Creation. As the Greek Fathers of the Church point out, although in the case of the rest of Creation God merely spoke a word (“God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”) in the case of man God himself fashioned Adam out of the dust of the earth and then breathed into Adam a “breathe of life”—which is taken by the Fathers to denote the spiritual identity of man, unique in all Creation. St Gregory the Theologian develops the theme that man was to be the connecting link between the material and angelic creations.
Further, God created man in his own image and likeness. These terms ‘image of God’ and ‘likeness to God’ play a very important role in the Greek patristic tradition. In the Greek Fathers the image of God is located in the nous or mind of man, which in the West would be taken to be the created spirit of man, the highest part of his soul. The fact that the spirit of man is in the image of God gives man his dignity as the crown of Creation and also gives him the possibility of knowing God. However, the fact that the spirit of man is finite and created makes man different from God. The Cappadocian Fathers, especially St Gregory of Nyssa, deal with these issues.
The likeness to God the Greek fathers take to refer to the virtue that man had at his creation—virtue as an adornment conferred by God as Grace, not as the mere keeping of rules. Although Fathers such as St John of Damascus teach that man was a spiritual infant at his creation, they agree that man was full of virtue at his creation. Moreover, this virtue was such that man was able to talk to God face to face. St John of Damascus asserts that Adam and Eve did not eat physical food in the Garden of Eden since they were nurtured by the contemplation of God himself.
Man was created with free will. The Fathers of the Church universally locate the explanation of evil in free will. To test man’s free will, God gave Adam and Eve a commandment, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Despite being in the image and likeness of God, Adam and Eve could obey or disobey God. They were neither robots nor the playthings of Fate. But Eve was tempted.
It is important to grasp the patristic understanding of the temptation story of the Garden of Eden. Before the visible Creation was made by God, God made the angelic creation. And all the angelic creation was good. But the angels, who also have nous, also had free will. And one angel led a rebellion in Heaven: Satan, Lucifer, the Devil. He and those angels who followed him were cast out of Heaven and became the demons which exist with one foot in the material creation and one foot out. These demons have lost all likeness to God and all connection to God except for continuance in being, for in Christian theology all that exists is maintained in being by God himself. However, the demons did not lose the intelligence which their possession of nous conferred on them. They are not stupid. It was the Devil which used the serpent to tempt Eve. The Fathers teach that the only thing the demons can do to man is tempt him: they cannot force him to do anything. (The ascetic writers do develop the theme that continued sin leads to addiction to that sin.)
So Eve is tempted and falls and leads Adam to fall. Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden. It is important to grasp how the Fathers understand this. In being cast out of the Garden, Adam and Eve lose their likeness to God—the virtues they had, including their ability to contemplate God. However, they retain the image of God although it has been distorted. This is a less radical view than either that of St. Augustine or that of his Calvinist descendants: both taught a more complete corruption of human nature by the sin of the Fall.
Thenceforth we have the whole sorry story of human history. However, although God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden, thus making them die spiritually, he did not forsake man. Over time, God reveals himself to man according to man’s now greatly diminished ability to cognize God directly. Ultimately, God reveals that he is a Trinity of Three Persons. The Greek Fathers consistently identify the God of the Old Testament with the First Person of the Trinity, the Father. They also make the Father the principle of unity of the Trinity, in distinction to the West, which following Augustine treats the substance of God as the principle of unity of the Trinity.
God’s interventions in man’s life culminate in his sending the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God, to take on flesh as the son of Mary of Nazareth, betrothed to Joseph of the line of David. The Word of God made flesh is a man like us in all things but sin called Jesus who, as St John the Baptist teaches his own disciples, is the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’
To do this, Jesus dies on the Cross and is resurrected on the third day. On the 40th day he ascends into Heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father (this is taken to refer to the humanity of Christ, since the Word of God is always united to the Father).
On the 50th day, Jesus sends the Third Person of the Holy Trinity to his disciples. This is the Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father (you can see that the Father is the principle of unity).
Part of the Christian message is that Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. This is an event in time but the date is unknown to all but the Father. The dead will be resurrected with their bodies and will be judged by Jesus in the Last Judgement. Those who have done good will enter into eternal life; those who have done evil will depart into eternal fire. In either case man will have resumed his natural state, which is that of an embodied soul. The saved, however, will be embodied souls that have been glorified by the Holy Spirit. For just as Jesus when he was resurrected wasn’t just an ordinary man who had come back from the dead, so the resurrected will not be just ordinary men, but like Adam and Eve were before the Fall, and even more glorified by the Grace of God.
It is important to understand the work of the Holy Spirit. When a person is baptized with an Orthodox Baptism, then the Holy Spirit cleanses the nous, the created spirit of man, from the Devil and all influences of the Devil. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit restores the image of God in man to what it was before the Fall. The Holy Spirit then adds some likeness to God to the man. However, this is not the complete likeness. The task for the baptized Christian is to work as a member of the Church in a synergy with God the Holy Spirit to restore the likeness to God in full. This is God’s test of the free will of every Christian. Not only does God give Grace but he leaves room for the Christian to express his own free will either for or against the will of God.
As St Diadochos puts it, the final stage in the restoration of the likeness is the divine love conferred on the person in a vision of light. This constitutes a mystical experience of God conferring on the person the ability to love others with a Christ-like Gospel love. This final stage has a number of names in Orthodoxy: divinization, adoption as son, resurrection before the general resurrection, theology. It is the state of great Christian saints such as St Seraphim of Sarov. In Orthodox theology, it is understood that the uncreated Grace of the Holy Spirit permeates body and soul of the divinized person in such a way that the likeness to God is attained.
We can see that although there is an essential duality between Creator and created in Orthodox theology, there is a possibility of real mystical knowledge of and communion with the Creator through the Grace of God because man is created in the image of God.
However, even the saints die. As Mr. Gove’ points out, the fact of human death is a consequence of the Fall which happens even to the baptized Christian. When a man dies, there is a personal judgement which is not final until the Last Judgement. The soul of the good man goes to Heaven (Heaven is where God is) while the soul of the bad man goes to Hell (Hell is where the demons are). However, this is incomplete. The full adoption of the good as sons and daughters of the Most High will not take place until the General Resurrection—for Mr. Gove’ is quite right: in Christianity only an embodied soul is complete. Moreover, the condemnation of the bad after death is also not complete and awaits the Last Judgement. Until then, the souls of the bad can be helped, sometimes in very dramatic ways, by the prayers of those still on earth. But a bad person is resurrected with his body just as the just are and appears before Christ, who separates the sheep from the goats. Christ’s criterion in the Last Judgement? Whether we have shown mercy.
After the General Resurrection, the saved will be as the angels in Heaven. This does not mean disembodied, but means ‘without bodily passion’. And the saved will continue eternally, as will those in Hell. There is also an expectation that Heaven and earth will be renewed at the Last Judgement.
We are left with one final issue:
If the soul has no existence prior to the human body to which it is joined, how can its eternity in the future be described? The soul continues to exist forever but has had a beginning. Isn't this a logical impossibility, in that something that has a beginning cannot be eternal? Has there been any discussion of this question in Orthodox theology?
Mr. Gove’ is bringing forward an Aristotelian argument, that something that has had a beginning must ultimately have an end. But although the Catholic Church became quite Aristotelian in the Middle Ages through the work of Thomas Aquinas, even Thomas Aquinas made some alterations to Aristotle to preserve Christian doctrine. More generally, the Orthodox Church is not as Aristotelian, although some great Orthodox saints are Aristotelians. The Orthodox Church more carefully subordinates philosophy to the data of Revelation, treating the mystical experience of God as the highest form of theology.
The main way for Mr. Gove’ to look at the problem of the eternity of the soul is to see that Aristotle posited an eternal universe subject to certain basic metaphysical principles which imply the doctrine that Mr. Gove’ is alluding to, that what begins in time must ultimately end in time. Christianity is a revealed religion which might use one or another philosophical system to assist it in understanding Revelation but without subordinating the data of Revelation to that philosophical system. It is certainly clearly revealed in the New Testament that souls continue to exist infinitely into the future after their creation, and after the General Resurrection with their resurrected bodies. It is a matter of Orthodox dogma that the soul is created at conception.