Friday, May 4, 2012

Freedom, evil, human responsibility and God (Fr Alexander Men)

A few months ago on this blog I shared some extracts from the writings of the late Father Alexander Men (1935-1990). Following are two segments of an interview he gave to an American broadcaster dealing with the uniqueness of Jesus, and the problem of evil and human responsibility.

Father Men was an influential parish priest in Russia who wrote, lectured widely, and eventually appeared on radio and television, becoming a nationally known figure. He started the first Russian Sunday school as soon as the communist persecution ceased, established a university, made a film, and started volunteer work at a children's hospital. He reached out to Christian communities of different traditions. He personally baptized thousands, and though he had a huge following of ordinary people he was called “the apostle to the intellectuals.”

He was assassinated in 1990.

You can go to a website dedicated to him HERE. Of particular note is the article by Irina Yaziova We are Moving into an Age of Love summarising his life and work.

. . . it seems to me that nothing proves the uniqueness of Christianity, nothing except one thing alone, namely, Jesus Christ. For I’m convinced that each of the founders of the world religions speaks truth to us.

Let’s remember what they said. Buddha said that he had achieved a state of absolute detachment after prolonged and difficult exercises. Can we believe him? Yes, of course we can. He was a great man and this was his achievement.

The Greek philosophers spoke of the intellectual difficulty of attaining the idea of God and of the spiritual world.

This is true.

Or Muhammad, who said that before God he felt himself to be as nothing, that God took him and revealed himself to him and that before God he felt he was nothing more than a gnat. Can we believe him? Of course we can.

But alone among all these teachers is one who speaks in his own person as if for God himself: But I say to you (Matt. 5:22 ff.), or as John has it: I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Not one of the great teachers of the world’s religions ever said anything like that. That then is the only occasion in history when God revealed himself through a real person in some absolute fullness. This is the event we have in the Gospels.

Jesus, the preacher of morals - this is a historic myth. They would not have crucified him for just that alone. Jesus, the self-proclaimed Messiah? Why then did they not crucify Bar Cochba who also called himself messiah? And there were plenty of false messiahs. What was it in Jesus that aroused such love and such hatred? I am the door, he said, the door to eternity (John 10:9). It seems to me that everything that is valuable in Christianity is valuable only because it is from Christ. What is not from Christ could as well belong to Islam or Buddhism.

Every religion is a path towards God, a conjecture about God, a human approach to God. It is a vector pointing upwards from below.

But the coming of Christ is the answer, a vector coming from heaven towards us. On the one hand, an event situated in history, on the other hand, something quite outside history. That’s why Christianity is unique, because Christ is unique. That’s my answer to the question.

 * * * * * * * * * * *

The fact of the matter is that there is moral evil and there is the physical imperfection of the world—they are rather different things. 

The physical imperfection of the world is a result of the fact that the world is being created, that it is not finalized, not completed. I very much like what the German poet Novalis, who was a romantic and a mystic, said, namely that humanity is the messiah of nature. 

Human beings do in fact occupy a special place in nature. We can believe the Bible that we are called to bring about a special spiritual transformation of nature; and that all creation groans in travail, as Paul says, awaiting the revelation of the children of God, that is, of us, people (Rom. 8:21-22). We ought to be influencing nature, but instead we are destroying it. 

But then why did people defy God’s will and so become the carriers of evil? To explain this completely and rationally means explaining the principle of darkness, giving grounds for it rationally, and justifying it. 

The urge towards evil is itself an irrational impulse born out of freedom. I can’t of course now go into the thinking of the great Russian philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, and his idea that freedom is something concealed from us in the divine nature and is eternal. It’s something we can’t comprehend, but one thing is sure, and that is that if people have been given freedom by God then we have also been given the possibility of opposing God and of taking a different path. 

If people had no possibility of choosing their own path, then their freedom would be like Soviet elections as they used to be when they offered you one candidate and called it a choice. If God had given us freedom and said here is your only path and you can’t take another, then that would not be freedom. We would be like rigidly programmed robots, androids. Human beings would not then be made in the image and likeness of the Creator, but they would be the Creator’s playthings.

Consequently, God sent his likeness into the world to meet whatever might come so that human beings might carry on creating the world and reveal their many gifts in the world. Hence our supreme status as human beings. We have to answer for our actions, and so we can’t expect at every moment that someone from on high will give us a tug on the leash. Moses said: I lay before you the paths of good and evil, life and death. Choose life. (Deut. 30:15). Choose what is good. This you see is freedom, two paths. 

And when people say to me what about the war and was God watching, I answer, my friends, he wasn’t ‘watching’ at all. He warned us long ago what it would all lead to. If people opened their Bible, they would see what happens when human beings are abused, when spirituality is denied, what the results of materialism are. Everything that happened, let us say in Berlin and in Moscow, God had warned us about. When it all happened according to the scriptures (and indeed everything did happen according to the scriptures!), then people say: ‘But where was God?’ God is just there where God has always been. He has always given us warning. 

It’s another matter when people reject responsibility…But we must not forget that human beings are very tightly bound together. There is a law which we conventionally call the ‘law of solidarity’. 

How do you pass on to your child your knowledge, your physical features, character traits, your faith? Only thanks to this law of solidarity, by which people are linked together and enabled to pass on these things. But given that the channel exists, we must act responsibly towards it because it can also pass on evil. Someone, say, who is an alcoholic can pass on their pathological genetic structure to their innocent child. This only adds to that person’s responsibilities. 

We are not in a nursery school, we are in life, life with all its rigours… 

Dostoevsky gives a frightening example in The Brothers Karamazov: when [a landowner’s] dogs were let loose on a child…One of my friends wrote to me from prison reflecting on this theme: that God was there. He was present when several dozen grown men, baptized Christians, with crosses round their necks, knowing something of God’s law, did not try to save the child but set the dogs on him at the impulse, the whim of the landowner.

This happened through human choice, and not because of some mindless force… 

Our conversation is taking place in the last decade of the twentieth century, when many things are changing before our very eyes, when, here in the Soviet Union, the word ‘religion’ no longer scares anyone but everyone talks about it warmly. There are many changes in the attitude to religion and to believers in particular, and to Christ.


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