What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

Posted: November 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I almost always enjoy listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko, but I’ve especially liked his podcast series on The Names of Jesus. Names remain important today. The names by which I am known certainly describe me in the minds of others. But in the ancient world, the power of names was much more widely recognized than it is today. And Jesus has many, many names in the Holy Scriptures. In this week’s podcast, Jesus – The Life, Fr. Hopko explores the name Jesus gave himself as the Life. My thoughts mostly riff off one thought in the podcast, but it’s well worth your time to listen to it in its entirety.

At one point in the podcast Fr. Thomas mentions that we are not spirits whom God places in bodies. We did not exist before we were conceived and we were not created to have any sort of existence apart from our bodies. We are the embodied eikons of God within creation, not spiritual beings. There already are spiritual persons in creation who do not have the same sort of physical bodies that we have. The Holy Scriptures call them angels (or demons for those who oppose God).

Fr. Hopko was specifically refuting Platonism, something Bishop Tom Wright also does fairly frequently. Platonism held that the spirit was eternal and had always existed. In Platonism, a spirit has a body for a time, but that body is not who you truly are as a human being. After death, your spirit is freed from your body and might have the opportunity to join the “Happy Philosophers” eternally in a purely spiritual existence. That perception of reality does not even intersect the Christian perspective of reality, yet has infiltrated it again and again over the centuries in one form or another.

I’m not particularly interested myself in the flesh/spirit dichotomy of Platonism and never have been. However, I realized as I was listening that to the extent I begin to think of spirit as eternal, I remain drawn to the Eastern non-Christian aspect of my formation. While I can’t say I ever fully embraced it (or anything else) before I was eventually drawn into Christianity, I do remember the attraction the Hindu perspective on reality held for me. Oddly, now that I’ve been shaped within Christianity, I would probably lean more toward Buddhism than Hinduism were I to rebound or drift in the direction of another world religion. I say “oddly” because in my younger days I didn’t find any flavor of Buddhism particularly attractive at all.

However, both Buddhism and Hinduism deal with spirit as eternal in a much richer and fuller way than either Platonism or the strains of Christianity influenced by something like that perspective. Whether it’s the Happy Philosophers or an eternal ‘spiritual’ existence in ‘heaven’ adoring God, both perspectives share the same fatal flaw. They are deeply existentially boring. I can think of no better word for it. Whatever else might be said about them, Buddhism and Hinduism are not boring. They are both deep and rich.

The sad thing is that Christianity actually has a lens into the heart of reality that is deeper and richer than anything I’ve ever encountered. It has the most profound things to say about what it means to be human and alive. And yet that lens seems to have often been buried so deep it’s impossible to see. And that shallow perspective has no legs to stand either against materialism on the one hand (we are just bodies) and the ancient Eastern religions on the other (all is actually spirit).

As Christians, we say that we are neither spirits that have a body nor bodies that have a spirit. We living souls, body and spirit, inextricably interwoven, interlaced, and sharing the same substance in a profound way. Ironically, as our scientific knowledge grows, we find our knowledge of the ways our bodies impact who we are growing at an exponential rate. But this is not a victory for the materialists, somehow proving that there is no such things as ‘spirit‘. No. It’s actually an affirmation of the Christian story of what it means to be a human being.

As we see in Jesus, the death of the eikon grieves God with a heartbreaking grief. Standing before the tomb of Lazarus, even knowing that he is about to raise him, the Word is deeply troubled, is disturbed, is angry at the violation of death, and weeps the tears of God. But God is our only source of life and as we participate in the sin of humanity (of the ‘adam‘) we turn from our life and seek a non-existence we can never actually achieve. This is the wonder of the Incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God, joins his nature to that of humanity so that he might bring Life to us. Our life is now hid with Christ in God. How amazing is that?

But the life we have remains an embodied spiritual life. And we retain a function and purpose within creation as the eikons of God. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The deepest mystery is not what happens in the fully realized Kingdom, when the veil between God’s reality and our own is dropped and we see things as they truly are. No, to me the strangest mystery is how God preserves our conscious existence between the time we die and the time we are all resurrected. There are a few scattered hints in the Holy Scriptures, but they are mostly silent on that point. Of course, we also have the witness of centuries of interaction between the Church and the reposed saints to affirm that we are preserved and remain active in some sense. But the whole thing is something of a mystery.

However, for Christians, the death of the eikon, of the human being, is always an abomination, as it is to God. Death is not a release. It is not a sweet journey home. It is something that even God grieves and acted in the most amazing way to defeat on our behalf. Yes, to be apart from the body is to be with Christ, which is far better, one of the few things our Scriptures tell us. And certainly, to be with the particular God we see in Christ is certainly better. But death itself? Still a great wrong, not something good itself. And we deeply wrong people when we tell them it is for the best or that they should rejoice for their reposed loved one. Death is ugly and wrong and we know that to the core of our being.

Either that’s what Christianity proclaims about reality and what it means to be human or it deserves to die out as a world religion.


One Comment on “What Does It Mean To Be Alive?”

  1. 1 Scott Morizot said at 11:36 am on November 20th, 2009:

    New at Faith & Food: What Does It Mean To Be Alive? https://faithandfood.morizot.net/2009/11/20/what-does-it-mean-to-be-alive/