Friday, June 18, 2004

Human Progress

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, is considered one of the primary apologists against gnosticism near the end of the second century. The following is from Against Heresies;

Here, some may raise an objection. "Could not God have made humanity perfect from the beginning?" Yet one must know that all things are possible for God, who is always the same and uncreated. But created things, and all who have their beginning of being in the course of time are necessarily inferior to the one who created them. Things which have recently come into being cannot be eternal; and, not being eternal, they fall short of perfection for that very reason. And being newly created they are therefore childish and immature, and not yet fully prepared for an adult life. And so, just as the mother is able to offer food to an infant, but the infant is not yet able to receive food unsuited to its age. In the same way, God, for his part, could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity was not capable of receiving it, being nothing more than an infant.
...not being eternal, they fall short of perfection...How do we define eternity? One way might be to say it is that which has no beginning and no end; no past and no future. In some ways, "eternal" is similar to anamnesis, the concept that in the Eucharist, we are not simply holding a memorial of some past event, but are bringing the past into the present. Eternity might be said to be containing all time within the present moment.

Humans, being limited, finite creatures, have a need to separate reality into categories of past, present and future. We could not contain full revelation of all knowledge all at once; we would blow a fuse. Knowledge is parceled out to us. We are bombarded with so much stimuli every moment. To keep from overloading, we only respond to a small part of this input. That which we identify as previous knowledge we set aside in order to be receptive to new information. Both past experience and present insight help us to anticipate future revelations. And so growth occurs; we progress from being created in the image of God towards being in the likeness of God; towards, to a limited degree, perfection, as the knowledge derived from revelation gives us a glimpse of the eternal; that in which all times are contained.

The implications of this are rather astounding. The Augustinian explanation of the fall, original sin and the existence of evil simply does not fit into this view. Humanity was not created perfect, and then fell. The only way that might be the case is if you consider that at the moment of creation, a human is perfect, within that moment. But as time begins passing, and the human is bombarded with input, and cannot keep up with this steady stream of new revelations, the human becomes less than perfect.

Irenaeus seems to be suggesting that it was God's plan all along to allow us to grow into an awareness of morality through experience (Irenaeus refers to this as "soul-making). Instead of denying that God created evil, as Augustine does, Irenaeus suggests that evil was necessary to allow us to differentiate between what is good, and what is evil.

As Irenaeus writes in another chapter;

Now it was necessary that man should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord.
If we understand human nature to be marked by original sin, and progression towards perfection is not possible, that is exactly how the history of humanity will play out. Even if we suggest that through baptism original sin is washed away ( a horrid teaching, don't you think? From this came the idea that unbaptized babies went to hell), once the idea is planted in our minds that we are born with a fatal flaw, our will to push on towards the glory of God is greatly diminished.

If we see ourselves as growing into the full stature of Christ (or as Irenaeus would say, "from image into likeness"), not just individually, but as a species, maybe we could break this cycle of repeating the same evils and creating the same manifestations of suffering over and over and over again.

Shall we continue to perceive the revelation of God to be primarily about the depravity of humanity, or shall we choose to see our relationship with God to be a constant movement towards glory?

J

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