A Gift from the East

December 1, 2000

 

If the most distinctive doctrine of Christianity is the "Incarnation" the belief that God has taken on a human nature in Jesus of Nazareth then the central task of Christian theology has been to explain not only how but why this is so. A number of answers have been suggested, but historically two explanations in particular have dominated the scene.

One of these, most characteristic of Western Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) has been based mostly on St. Augustine's interpretation of a passage in the Epistle to the Romans (beginning at 5:12). From what St. Paul seems to have intended to be simply a contrast between the universal salvation won by Christ to the universal disaster visited upon the human race by the sin of Adam, there was developed an elaborate theology of "Original Sin" that had everyone headed straight to hell unless "justified" by Christ's "saving grace".

The other answer, most characteristic of Eastern (particularly Orthodox) Christianity, based on a passage in the Second Epistle of Peter (1:4) and developed by a whole host of the eastern church "Fathers" (theologians), emphasizes the "divinization" of humanity the transformation of our human nature so as to share in the divine nature itself. This "theopoiesis" or "theosis" (to use the Greek terms) was first of all accomplished through the act of God's own divine "Word" (God the Son) assuming our human nature.

In contrast to this Eastern theme, our Western Christian over-emphasis on the story of Adam and Eve and the original sin seems to have saddled us with a pathological view of human nature, and in turn, led to a theology of "atonement" where, in its most distorted form, God was seen as an angry Father whose outrage could only be pacified by the bloody death of his Son. All this may lend itself to a kind of a revivalistic approach that leads to quick conversions, but, in the long run, too often tends to alienate both those both those inside and outside the Christian fold. Especially today, for those of a more scientific outlook, how explain death (something that affects all living creatures) entering the world only because of the sin of Adam and Eve? Or how appeal to those of a more humanistic frame of mind, with the insistence that human nature, due to the original sin, is entirely and irretrievably corrupt!

Not that the Eastern Christians have ignored the inherited weaknesses of our human nature, but for them the "corruption" is primarily death itself. They see death not so much the result of sin, but the other way around, with sin, for the most part, being seen as the by-product of our natural fear of death. The selfishness revealed by sinful conduct (whether it be greediness, lustfulness, gluttony, or whatever) is seen as, for the most part, motivated by our fear, whether conscious our unconscious, to let go of ourselves, and to place our destiny beyond death into the hands of God. Eliminate this fear by the prospect of sharing God's own immortality and you have already gone a long way in destroying the power of sin!

Perhaps this explains why for Eastern Christians, it is not the feast of the Nativity (the birth of Christ or "Christmas") that is the big holiday for this time of the year, but rather the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th on our western calendar the "Twelfth Day of Christmas") the feast that celebrates Christ's "appearance" or revelation to the whole world of the promise of eternal life.

So maybe even while we continue to sing in our carols (if we haven't worn them all out by starting way too early, weeks before Christmas) about how God has "rescued us from Satan's power when we had gone astray" we need, perhaps even more, to continue the celebration by rejoicing in the ancient belief (as did even St. Augustine westerner though he was) once held by East and West alike, that "God became human that humans might become God!"