Monday, May 23, 2016

To be a human being

Thinking about rules, and about unity. We are Orthodox Christians. The world, if it hears of us, thinks that we must be loaded with rules. My Catholic friends jokingly console me when I am about to enter Holy Week because they know our services are very long, and that I’m probably fasting. These imagined sufferings, they think, are due to our super abundance of rules. We still fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.

We raised our family of four sons mostly in the Greek Orthodox Church. Our oldest spent his lonely ‘only son’ years anything but lonely as he was ‘all our eggs in one basket.’ We were Episcopalians, then, but high church, meaning, more Catholic than the pope. That was a more rule-laden religion than the Orthodoxy we encountered and joined, along with his three younger brothers, when he was fourteen.

Bottom line is, our family lived according to the rules. We never for a moment considered that there might be another possibility. Rules were the human expression of God’s orderly universe, scaled down to our minuscule size, given to us so that we could live together in love, peace, fairness, and freedom. We knew that ultimately the rules came from God, but that humans were the middlemen all the way.

Knowing that the rules we lived by were mostly man-made didn’t startle us. The God we believed in, though responsible for supernatural miracles as recounted in scripture, we nonetheless knew, mostly communicated His will to us through each other. We could tell, without thinking about it much, which rules were from God and unalterable, and which were from us and therefore changeable.

Οικονομία, oikonomía (ee-koh-no-MEE-a), a word with many meanings—the law or management of a household or family; also, God’s plan of salvation—for us had the special meaning of our ability to bend, break or even suspend a rule, if there were sufficient grounds to do so. In other words, our right to loop hole a law, though it had better be defensible. Again in other words, a right to be exercised responsibly.

Yes, our family lived, and still lives, according to the rules. Our sons knew without us telling them that we expected them to live according to the rules we taught them. They knew when they broke them, even when they broke them defiantly, that the rules weren’t going away any time soon. Now that they are adults, I know without them telling me, that they expect me to keep living according to the rules.

This is where unity comes in. As children they saw that we as parents were subject to the same rules. In starting them out as citizens with us of the Kingdom of God, we did not give them the ‘freedom’ to accept or reject the rules. We simply imposed them. As they grew up they realized that the Orthodox Church was a community, even a nation, that they belonged to, because they followed the rules.

There was a certain stability in that, which they could not only sense, but build upon. Along their way to adulthood some were obedient, some rebelled, but both ended up in the same place. Sometimes obedience can breed a kind of mindless conformity, so I was always glad to see some rebellion in them. I myself am rebellious. Rebellion for the sake of righteousness has its place even within the Church.

Both ended up in the same place, I said, without qualifying it. What place was that? The Kingdom of God, as we mature we realize, despite what we think are boundaries hedged about by rules, is actually limitless. No matter in what direction or how far you try to run, once you have lived there and eaten its food, you can never leave it because you can never find the boundaries. It is not a flat earth universe.

Again, this is where unity comes in. What we experienced, and still do, in the microcosm of humanity called Orthodoxy, is a unity that is essentially indivisible. It is its unity which makes its members human. You can be divided from it, yes, but then you are no longer human. The rules are the oikonomía that inaugurates and preserves our humanity and our unity. Without them, we are only irrational animals.

There is no such thing as a single man. In the scripture we read, ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’ and then we find that a helpmate is found for him, not from any species other than his own. Just as there can be no God that is mathematically one, there can be no man in utter solitude, no true individual. The nature of existence itself posits plurality in unity, an essential unity that is personalized by—the rules.

Now, modern society is at its existential nadir, its lowest point, a hair’s breadth from de-resolution. Why? Because it has rejected the rules in pursuit of what it calls ‘freedom.’ Rejecting the rules for the sake of this freedom has the result of destroying the essential unity of society and encouraging isolation and addiction among its members. Then, a different set of rules and a different kind of unity are imposed.

The rules we have inherited over the course of human civilization, God-given from the beginning, are the laws inherent in our human nature, initiating and preserving that unity which makes us humans. They are what define humanity itself; without them there is no humanity. They are imposed on us by human nature, itself the vehicle of God’s revelation, and not by humans acting alone or in concert.

The unity we have because of the rules gives us true freedom, freedom from fear, because by them we know ourselves, we know who the man or woman is we meet in the street, even without knowing their names. We know that they are us, that we are them, that we are each other, now free to be ourselves because we are in relationship, free to do good, and to be good, because we know what good is.

The unity that society has been imposing on us as it has been dividing us with promises and deliveries of false freedom, the ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ of the continentalists, is a fabricated unity. It stands on nothing in our nature, and it is our human nature—if we are still human—that forces us to fight it, and fight it for our survival. That fight, we find, is for the rules, and for the unity, that was ours from the start.

Nothing can be added to them, nor should be. We know the rules are true because there are so few of them, do not require being written out, or ratified by parliaments, or enforced by uncrowned kings. Following them, if we must fight to do so, we defend not only our liberty, but our humanity, and our unity is not something that we or anyone impose on us. We cannot be anything other than united.

Modern society, and we are surrounded by it, may be at its existential nadir, but we who live together according to the rules constitute a true humanity, practice a true humanism, and by the rule of ‘survival of the fittest’ cannot but predominate over its existential collapse. Unity among us is not severed along religiously denominational lines, because the rules that make us human are universal, common to all.

They don’t need anyone, least of all me, to teach them. They are simply there just as you and I are there. It’s up to us to follow them, and keep alive what it means to be a human being.

1 comment:

GretchenJoanna said...

I enjoyed reading about your family and the results of a church-oriented upbringing. Glory to God!