John Behr: Dying to Live? Or How to Become a Human Being?

John Behr: Dying to Live? Or How to Become a Human Being? August 9, 2018

by Fr. John Behr, Fr. Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics, Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary; Metropolitan Kallistos Chair of Orthodox Theology, Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam

This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College. The entire set of posts can be found here.

One of the most striking statements regarding what it is to be human, and certainly the most challenging, was penned by Ignatius of Antioch while being taken from Syria to Rome to be martyred there early in the second century. On route he wrote a letter to the Christians at Rome imploring them not to impede his martyrdom, telling them: ‘Birth pangs are upon me. Suffer me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to die. … Allow me to receive the pure light; when I shall have arrived there, I will be a human being—allow me to follow the example of the passion of my God’ (Letter to the Romans, 6). He is not yet born, not yet living, not yet human! Only through his martyrdom, he holds, will he be born into life as a human being.

The background for his belief is clearly the gospel, and specifically the Gospel according to John and the way it differs from the Synoptics, the Gospels according Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In their Gospels, the disciples do not really know who Christ is (apart from Peter’s confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, the exception which proves the rule, for he immediately tries to stop Christ going to his Passion), until after the resurrection, when the Scriptures are opened by the risen Christ, who, ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’, in particular that it was ‘necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory’ (Luke 24:27-8). John, however, in the very first chapter of his Gospel has Philip telling Nathanael, ‘we have found him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote’, followed by a string of titles—Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel—only to have Christ promise something more: ‘You will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1:45-51).

This apocalyptic vision is finally granted when Christ is on the cross. In the Gospel according to John, Christ’s final words on the cross were ‘it is finished’ (19:30), meaning not that his life has come to an end, but rather that the work of God is completed and perfected. What is brought to perfection in this way is indicated, unwittingly, by Pilate a few verses earlier, ‘Behold the human being’ (19:5 – ‘Son of Man’ is another way of saying ‘human being’, but now with greater depths of meaning).

John, as is clear from the opening words of his Gospel (1:1, ‘In the beginning…’) is inviting us to understand his Gospel by referring back to Genesis (1:1, ‘In the beginning…’). When now turning back to Genesis, we can observe something that we might not have noticed before. In the creation poem of Genesis 1, God speaks everything into existence:  ‘Let there be light … a firmament … let the earth bring forth living creatures’ (Gen. 1:3-25). This divine ‘fiat’—‘let it be’—is sufficient to bring all these creatures into existence: ‘and it was so … and it was good’. But, then, having declared all these things into existence by a word alone, setting the stage, as it were, God, not with an imperative but a subjunctive, announces: ‘Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen. 1:26). This is the only thing about which God specifically deliberates; it is his divine purpose and resolve. And it is this that is brought to conclusion in Christ—the first true human being, the image of God (cf. Col. 1:15)—and then in those who, such as Ignatius, follow him.

This means, then, that the particular project of God, to create a human being in his image and likeness, is not accomplished simply by a divine fiat, then and there; it depends, rather, upon the fiat of Christ, and those like Ignatius who also, in Christ, give their own ‘let it be’. We are the ones addressed by God when he says ‘let us make a human being in our image’!

This is such an unusual way of thinking that it requires us to step back for moment. Are we not already human beings? Don’t we come into the world as such? But this really depends what one means by a ‘human being’. If, suppose, one means a being who can walk and talk, well, a new-born infant can do neither and this is not because of any imperfection in the limbs and tongue; it requires exercise to learn how to walk and talk, and lots of falling down (and being bruised) or misspeaking in the process. On the other hand, if, taking our lead from Christ, we were to say that to be human is to live by laying down our own life in love for our neighbor, well, this requires not only physical or intellectual growth but growth in virtue, a long paedeia or formation, again involving many missteps, but ones by which we learn; as Jeremiah puts it: ‘your own apostasy shall teach you’ (2:19). It is in this sense that Paul can say that Adam was a ‘type of the one to come’, a preliminary sketch of Christ himself (Rom. 5:14), and that Irenaeus of Lyons can speak of Adam and Eve as being but children in paradise (Against the Heresies 3.22.4, Demonstration, 12-14).

Just like John, Paul also understands the words of Genesis in the light of Christ and us in the light of both. Following his comments will lead us further into the apparently paradoxical words of Ignatius with which we started, that only through his martyrdom will he be born into life as a human being. Drawing upon the second account of creation in Genesis 2, Paul contrasts Adam, who was animated by a breath of life, and Christ, as the life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15). We are, each and every one of us, animated by a breath of life. And the fundamental characteristic of a breath is that it expires—we will die!

Moreover, we have no choice about it. ‘No one asked me if I wanted to be born’, complains Kirillov in Dostoyevsky’s The Demons. We have been thrown into a world in which, whatever we do, we will die. The primary characteristics of our existence, as given to us, are necessity and mortality: we are as good as dead already! And our reaction to this, from the beginning, is to try to preserve our so-called life, by trying to make ourselves secure. But, as Christ points out, if you try to preserve your life (psyche) you will lose it—no matter what we do—but, on the other hand, if we lose it, for his sake, for our neighbor, for the gospel and the kingdom, we will gain it, or, more accurately, beget life (cf. Luke 17:33, ζωογονήσει). Or as Paul puts it, ‘what you sow does not come to life unless it dies’ (1 Cor. 15:36).

If, then, our initial state as we come into this world is one of necessity and mortality, what Christ opens up to us is the possibility of using this mortality, voluntarily, to change the ground of our existence into freedom and self-sacrificial love, which is nothing less than the very existence of God himself. Through using our breath, not to preserve our own so-called life, but to live for the other in a Christ-like self-sacrificial manner, we will already begin to live a life which cannot be touched by death, because it has been entered upon through death; death is now turned inside out, and becomes the entry into life. It is in this way that Ignatius can say that only now, on his way to martyrdom, are the birth pangs upon him as he is about to be born into life as a human being. It is of such martyrs that Irenaeus wrote his beautiful line: ‘the glory of God is a living human being, and the life of the human being is to see God’ (Against the Heresies 4.20.7).

We can now begin to see why Ignatius’ words are such a challenge to us today. We have suggested that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way he dies as a human being, simultaneously revealing what it is to be human. Christian theology does not start (as so much popular God-talk does) with an idea of what it is to be God, apart from his revelation in Christ, and what it is to be human, also independently of Christ, and then try to bring the two together. Such would be a non-Christian ‘god’, and indeed an inhuman god! Rather, Christian theology looks to the one Christ, revealing himself paradigmatically through the event of the Passion (meaning the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and even Pentecost together), to understand the truth about God and about the human being, together, in one.

But if this is so—that Christ does indeed show us what it is to be God in the way he dies as a human being—then the ‘disappearance’ of death from Western culture over the last century or so, which has been frequently commented on, has further and more profound significance. By the ‘disappearance’ of death, I do not of course mean that we no longer die, but rather the troubling eradication of the presence of the dying and the dead from our living space. Instead of death happening at home, with the dying one cared for by family and neighbors, who then tend to her or his body till she or he can be commended to God and entrusted to the earth, death has now become largely consigned to the hospital, where ‘life’ is preserved as long as possible, and when it becomes unfeasible the ‘life-support’ machine is switched off, with the family allowed a brief period of mourning with the corpse before it is handed over to the mortician, culminating in a ceremony at which the corpse is increasingly not present (having already been disposed of) but the past ‘life’ of the departed celebrated. In a very real sense, we today live as hedonists (as if this life in the body as we know it is what it is all about) and die as Platonists (the chains of the body now being removed and disposed of, so that we can, unfettered by the reality of the corpse, celebrate the past ‘life’ of the person), all of which displays a very ambiguous attitude towards our embodiment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the greatest change in the history of the human race: everyone, everywhere, from time immemorial had to deal with death in an immediate, familial, manner until its industrialization over the course of the twentieth century.

If it is true that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way he dies as a human being, and in this way also shows us what it is to be human, revealing what it is to which we are called by giving our own ‘Let it be!’, then this ‘disappearance’ of death is truly a predicament. If we don’t ‘see’ death, we will have no sense (or a very different, neurotic, sense) of finitude, transience, and transcendence; our horizons will be limited to this so-called ‘life’, even while we try to turn a blind eye to its mortality, and accept a restricted notion of freedom. If we don’t ‘see’ death today then, bluntly, we will not see God, and we will not see the transcendence of voluntary self-sacrificial love to which we are called. But, as Hervé Juvin puts it, in the concluding sentence of his fascinating and provocative book: ‘Alone, the body remembers that it is finite; alone, it roots us in its limits, our last frontier (for how long?); and even if—especially if—it forgets, the body alone still prevents us from being God to ourselves and others’ (The Coming of the Body [New York: Verso], 177). Developments in modern science, such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology, as adopted and promulgated by a transhumanist fantasy, might offer an extension or enhancement of that for which we long, but might they at the same time sell us short!

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