God became man so that man can become God. While theologians should recognize this famous saying of St Athanasius, it might confuse the non-theologian. What does it mean? How can man become God? Isn’t this the lie of Satan? God is immortal, humanity is mortal. God became man to make mortal man immortal “For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality,” St Athanasius, On the Incarnation in NPNF2-4(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1994), ch. 54-3. Through the incarnation we partake of the incorruptible nature of God. We experience and participate in the divine life, in eternal life. What God is by nature, we experience through grace.
In its fashion, St Athanasius’s dictum expresses the central thesis of Christianity: the incarnation. When ones realize the radical nature of the incarnation and all that it implies, one realizes that matter matters. God establishes our salvation through matter. God has taken a body for himself and has become one with the physical universe. It is through his physical form in the incarnation that the Son of God transfigures the universe, changing its corruptible, limited form, into a new, incorrupt, form. This transformation was begun at the resurrection of Christ and will find its fulfillment in the eschaton. For Christians, the sacraments instituted by Christ provide the means by which they partake of this transformation; they are fed the flesh and blood of Christ to render their own flesh and blood immortal. “And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies,” Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses in ANF1(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing), V-2.2.
When early Christians encountered skeptics of the resurrection, be it from pagan or Gnostic critics, they emphasized and reemphasized the good of the earth and the physical form we have. The world was created good. We were created to be physical entities. To be pure spirits is to be something less than what we are; just as when one loses an arm or a leg one feels the loss, so too the soul feels a loss, a real, noticeable loss, when it it loses the whole body. Of course, the reverse is also true. The body should not be taken care of at the exclusion of the soul. The two are to be treated together, just as they will exist together in eternity. “For if the whole nature of men in general is composed of an immortal soul and a body which was fitted to it in the creation, and if neither to the nature of the soul by itself, nor to the nature of the body separately, has God assigned such a creation or such a life and entire course of existence as this, but to men compounded of the two, in order that they may, when they have passed through their present existence, arrive at one common end, with the same elements of which they are composed at their birth and during life, it unavoidably follows, since one living-being is formed from the two, experiencing whatever the soul experiences and whatever the body experiences, doing and performing whatever requires the judgment of the senses or of the reason, that the whole series of these things must be referred to some one end, in order that they all, and by means of all,-namely, man’s creation, man’s nature, man’s life, man’s doings and sufferings, his course of existence, and the end suitable to his nature,-may concur in one harmony and the same common experience. But if there is some one harmony and community of experience belonging to the whole being, whether of the things which spring from the soul or of those which are accomplished by means of the body, the end for all these must also be one. And the end will be in strictness one, if the being whose end that end is remains the same in its constitution; and the being will be exactly the same, if all those things of which the being consists as parts are the same,” Athenagoras, On the Resurrection of the Dead in ANF2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing), XV.
Sadly, an apathy to things of the world, to things of the flesh, has remained in Christendom despite orthodox Christian doctrine. People are interested in the salvation of their soul but neglect the body. Others might be interested in their soul and body, but still neglect their responsibility to the world. Monasticism, for all its greatness, has had to wrestle with these temptations since its inception. Some monks have given in to it, some have not. Many outsiders who look to the monastic tradition get confused and think the lesson of monasticism is that an excess of bodily mortifications is the way of salvation. It isn’t. This is not to say there should be no fasting or bodily mortifications, but rather, such practices should be used for the restoration of the integral harmony between body and soul and not for the denouncement of material creation. “The higher the Christian ascetic ascends on his path to the heavenly land, the brighter his inner eye shines, the deeper the Holy Spirit descends into his heart – the more clearly then will he see the inner, aboslutely valuable core of creation, the more intensely then will pity for the prodigal child of God burn in his soul. And when the spirit descends upon the saints in their highest flight of prayers, they shone with blindly radiant love for creation. The Mother of Heaven Herself told one of her chosen that ‘to be a monk is to devote oneself to prayer for the whole world’,” Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 216. Authenetic monasticism always leads to a deep, passionate love for the world because it leads one to see the world with the desire God has for it. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
The concerned Christian will note that many of their fellow Christians do not have such love for the world. Some, sadly, even hate it. It is not surprising that a non-Christian would find much to hate: they see the world only in its fallen modality. But Christians should know better. “Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. To think such things is Manichaeism. Only that which does not have its source in God is despicable – that which is our own invention, our willful choice to disregard the law of God – namely, sin,” St John of Damascus, On the Divine Images. Trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), I.16. Christians know the world is the work of God. Any disrespect for the world ultimately is disrespect for its creator. It is telling God that he didn’t know what he was doing. But one must be careful. The world, and all its material contents are good. Recognizing this, one should not disregard spiritual realities and spiritual needs. Any rejection of the material world for the spirit or any rejection of the spirit for the material world undermines the integral order of creation. One who does either has fallen for Gnostic dualism. “The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see ‘body’ and ‘spirit’, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies. trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 5. Thus, authentic Christian spirituality must be holistic, integrating the physical world with the spiritual world. Christian praxis must include care for the earth. Any pitting of the needs of the earth against the needs of the soul is merely a Gnostic spirituality masquerading itself as Christian.
Gnosticism is the earliest Christian heresy. Its influence continues even to this day and age. Christian teaching does not reject all Gnostic ideas; it rejects Gnosticism’s unbalanced approach to the world. Authentic Christianity follows the incarnation and works for the restoration, not the rejection of, the world. It understands that it cannot be done by us alone but must be done with the grace of God in and through Christ. Christ unites all things in himself, and divisions in the world will find themselves overcome in Christ. This should not be seen as a rejection of differentiation, as if the world should become a monistic point. Rather it as an overcoming of the ontological duality which the fall tried to impart to the world. “With us and through us he encompasses the whole creation through its intermediaries and the extremities through their own parts. He binds himself each with the other, tightly and indissolubly, paradise and the inhabited world, heaven and earth, things sensible and things intelligible, since he possesses like us sense and soul and mind, by which, as parts, he assimilates himself by each of the extremities to what is universally akin to each . . .“Maximus the Confessor, Difficulty 41 in Maximus the Confessor. Trans and intro by Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 1312A. Gnosticism makes relative, logical distinctions as ontological and creates cosmological division as a way to overcome the problems encountered in a fallen universe. Christianity, on the other hand, seeks to halt the divisions of nature, seeing divisiveness as a result of the fall; it works for universal reintegration and cosmic unity as the goal of salvation. Which of the two do you work for?