To produce something new is always a gamble, and God’s creation of man in His image and after His likeness involved a certain degree of risk. It was not that He risked introducing an element of instability or shock into His Eternal Being but that to give man god-like freedom shut the door against predestination in any form. Man is at full liberty to determine himself negatively in relation to God- even to enter into conflict with Him. As infinite love, the Heavenly Father cannot abandon man whom He created for eternity, in order to impact to him His divine plenitude. He lives with us our human tragedy. We appreciate this risk, so breath-taking in its majesty, when we contemplate the life of Christ on earth.
After long study of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel I discovered a partial analogy in the fresco with my conception of the Creation of the world. Look at Christ in the fresco, at the gesture He is making. Like some prize champion He hurls into the abyss all who have dared to oppose Him. The whole vast surface teems with people and angels trembling with fright. Suspended in some cosmic expanse, all are engrossed less with their own plight than with the wrath of Christ. He is in the centre and His anger is terrible. This, to be sure, is not how I see Christ. Michelangelo possessed great genius but not for liturgical subjects.
Let us reconstruct the fresco. Christ, naturally, must be in the centre, but a different Christ more in keeping with the revelation that we have of Him: Christ immensely powerful with the power of unassuming love. He is not a vindictive gesture. In creating us as free beings, He anticipated the likelihood, perhaps the inevitability, of the tragedy of the fall of man. Summoning us from the darkness of non-being, His fateful gesture flings us into the secret realms of cosmic life. ‘In all places and fulfilling all things,’ He stays for ever close to us. He loves us in spite of our senseless behaviour. He calls to us, is always ready to respond to our cries for help and guide our fragile steps through all the obstacles that lie in our path. He respects us as on a par with Him. His ultimate idea for us is to see us in eternity verily His equals, His friends and brothers, the sons of the Father. He strives for this, He longs for it. This is our Christ, and as Man He sat on the right hand of the Father.
In the beginning God creates our spirit as pure potential. What follows does not depend altogether on Him. Man is free to disagree, even to resist Him. A situation arises in which we ourselves determine our eternal future- always, of course, in relation to Him: without Him, we should not exist. And if we seek a hallowed eternity which essentially appertains to Him alone, then our every action, all our creative activity, must most certainly proceed not separately from Him but together with Him and in Him.
Born as pure potential, our spirit must go on to actualise our being as hypostasis. We need to grow, and this growth is linked with pain and suffering. However strange it may seem, suffering is imperative for the preservation of life created from nothing. If animals did not feel hunger, they would never make any effort to find food but would simply lie down and die. Similarly, acute discomfort compels primitive man to look for nourishment. Then, as he advances towards rational cognition, suffering discloses to his contemplative mind both his own imperfection and that of the world around him. This forces him to recognise the necessity for a new form of creative effort to perfect life in all its manifestations. Later, he will arrive at a certain perception of Supreme Being which will inspire his soul to seek for better knowledge of Him. And so on, until he realises that this Primordial Being, Whom apprehension first caused him to esteem, does not refuse congress with him; and in the light of this contact death is seen as an absurdity, the very possibility of which must be found against relentlessly. And history has shown that many of those who waged this war with unflagging energy, even while they were still here on earth in spirit beheld the eternal kingdom of the Living God, and passed from death to unending life in the Light of Divine Being.
Let us consider again the dramatic gesture of ‘our’ Christ casting man whom He has created free, like a wonderful seed, into the world prepared for him. The movement is that of a sower throwing seed into the earth that has been ploughed and made ready.
The foundation-stone of our Christian theology is the revelation: ‘In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life’ (John 1.1, 3, 4). But contemporary science postulates that in the beginning was hydrogen, and from this atom, by an evolutionary process over milliards of years, everything else developed. The scientific principle- the objectification of the cosmos together with objective knowledge- is applicable only where the laws of nature prevail absolutely. It is not clear on what basis many scientists reject the possibility of other forms of being- of free, non-determined being. We know that Primordial Being lies outside the preserves of science, which can tell us nothing even of the meaning of our existence.
At all events, with both schools of thought, which differ so radically from each other, we notice two opposite tendencies in the human soul. Those on the one hand who abhor the, to them pointless, suffering associated with life on earth and, by extension, dislike existence in general, feel strangely drawn to the mysterious all-pervading quiescence of non-being. Others try to follow Christ; to dominate our earthly frailty and attain divine eternity, employing in their efforts to penetrate more profoundly into the secrets of unoriginate Being methods which may seem intolerably absurd. ‘Not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life’ (2 Cor. 5.4) - the opposite of the philosophy and ascetic theory of divestment of being.
We Christians accept the wondrous gift of life with thanks-giving. Called by Christ, we strive for the fullest possible knowledge of the Primary Source of all that exists. From our birth onwards we gradually grow and enter into possession of being. Christ is for us ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14.6). With Him our path lies through a great and intricate spiritual culture: we traverse cosmic chasms, more often with much suffering but not seldom in rapture as understanding increases. For a while the growing process is bound up with our physical body; but the time soon comes when, liberated from terrestrial chains, mind and spirit can continue their progress towards the Heavenly Father. We know that He loves us and because of this love reveals Himself to us without limit. It may still be only partly but we know that in Him is our immortality; in Him we shall arrive at everlasting Truth. He will grant us the indescribable joy of sharing in the very Act of the Divine creation of the world. We hunger for complete unity in Him. He is Light, Beauty, Wisdom, Love. He gives the noblest meaning to our life and the bliss of boundless gnosis.
The kind of personal being that we received at our birth- being as potentiality which we have in part already realised- could never develop from the hydrogen atom, in however many myriad years and whatever miraculous and unforeseen ‘hazards’ might happen. The ontological distance is too vast between the atom state of material being and that state of being which we already possess and which we are certain will be perfected and fulfilled.
It is natural that as Christians we should be exploring together in the perspective of the Gospel emphasis on our personal relationship with God. When the Holy Spirit by taking up His abode in us accords us to live the love commanded of us by Christ, we know in our bones that this is the only normal state for our immortal spirit; that in this state we comprehend the divine universality of Christ and His precepts. This is the Truth, the like of which leaves no room for doubt in heart or mind. It is the salvation taught us by the Church. (I speak now not of the ethical but of the ontological content of the Gospel.) This love is essentially a Divine Act, the power of which never diminishes but continues eternally in its plenitude.
When He took on our nature in its fallen state Christ, the Logos of the Father, restored it as it was and is for ever in the creative will of the Father. The incarnation of the only-begotten Son is the manifestation of the Divine in our form of being. Now is revealed the mystery of the way to salvation.
O GOD the Father Who art ever blessed;
Who hast called us to eternal glory in Jesus Christ,
Christ without sin, Who bore the sins of the world,
And laid His life on the cross that we might live for ever;
Who in the weakness of human flesh
made manifest the image of Thy perfection-
We beseech Thee, Father all-Holy,
fill us from on high with Thy strength,
that we may follow in His steps.
Make us like in goodness to Thy Son
in this proud, inconstant age,
that the way of Thy Truth suffer no blasphemy
because of our untruth,
nor be profaned by the sons of the adversary.
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 3: The Risk in Creation. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.