RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF EUROPEANS

ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS[1]

by Bishop Athenagoras (Peckstadt) of Sinope
(Ecumenical Patriarchate) — Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church ot the European Union

 

Introduction

The current world situation looks threatening. Socialism appears to have collapsed and the western world is going through a spiritual and moral crisis. Nationalism and racism are on the increase again, and looking dangerous. A number of scientific and technological breakthroughs have been made, but at the same time they are causing us fear and concern. Never before has the need been so great to give meaning to life. Change is occurring at a breakneck pace, obliging man to ask himself: why? There is a hunger today: a hunger for food in the Third World, but a hunger for love and meaning everywhere. The world is threatened with extinction: not only by war, but also by meaninglessness, boredom and a lack of hope. Drugs, eroticism and politics will not provide the answer.

So allow me to answer using quite theological language and a quite ecclesiastical background. This is the way in which I think that we, the Orthodox Christians, see the whole question of the rights and responsibilities of man, for Europeans are, above all, like every human citizen of this world, men. My humble contribution to this Symposium is not an address presenting first the rights and then, separately, the responsibilities of men. When we speak of the rights and responsibilities of Europeans, we speak of their way of life. I will give you the Orthodox point of view concerning this way of life, starting with a few words on the very origin of all human beings: the God of the Holy Trinity.

 

Distinction between God and the world

The Holy Trinity is Life and the Source of Life. Depending on the strength of humans, God is accessible to their life, their work and their struggle to overcome evil and to rise to higher degrees of perfection. But this eternal relationship between the persons of the Holy Trinity is understood as a shared action. It is in fact a communion of love. The incarnation of the Word is the work of the Divine Will, with the consent of the Father, with the Son as protagonist and with the synergy of the Holy Spirit. The Divine Trinity thus acts as a union.

 

Man should follow the example of the Holy Trinity

If human beings, as the image of God, want to be faithful to their real being, they must seek to reflect the communion and otherness which exist in the Holy Trinity. This was asserted by Metropolitan John Zizioulas[2], a contemporary Orthodox theologian whose opinion is valued, at the Orthodox Congress of Western Europe held in Blankenberg, Belgium, a few years ago. He went on to say that "the relationship within God between communion and otherness is the model of both ecclesiology and anthropology. (…) The uniqueness or unity of God is also expressed by this inviolable Christian communion (koinonia) which exists between the three Persons and which means that otherness does not threaten unity, but is on the contrary a vital precondition for unity. (…) Father, Son and Spirit are all names indicating a relationship. None of the Persons would be different if they were not related to the Others".[3]

All unification and all difference arise from the Trinity. Faith in the Trinity also commits us to social work in every domain, in both close and distant relations, whether it is a question of a particular neighbour or social structures. The social is sacramental for us, as stressed by Saint John Chrysostom when he showed that the sacrament of the brother was an essential extension of the sacrament of the altar. We say that our brother is our life, and our brother is each neighbour, without distinction.

The Trinity is therefore the source of inspiration for every cultural and social action of Christians – our entire struggle against misery, injustice, sickness and all the forms of death that plague our civilisation. Our struggle for human rights and for human dignity is conducted in the name of the Trinity. Because each person is an icon of God, and each member of the human race, even the guiltiest, is infinitely precious in the eyes of God.

 

Man is hungry

The late and renowned Father Alexander Schmemann started his book entitled Pour la vie du monde[4] by borrowing a statement from the German materialist philosopher Feuerbach, "man is what he eats". Long before Feuerbach, the Bible provided the same definition of man. Father Alexander Schmemann goes on to say that there is a biblical history of creation. Man is presented to us above all as a being who is hungry. The whole world is his food. He must eat to live. He must integrate the world into his body, assimilate it and make of it his flesh and blood. He truly is what he eats. And the whole world is presented to us as the table of a universal banquet offered to man. This image of the banquet, which continues throughout the Bible, is the very image of life. It is the image of life at creation and at the end, and also when it is in full bloom … "so that you can eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom …"[5]

Father Alexander invites us to reflect on and answer this question: "What life are we speaking about? What life are we announcing when as Christians we confess that Christ died to save the world?".[6]

There are, generally speaking, two answers to this question. According to Father Alexander, there are those for whom life means the religious life. But there are also those for whom "to save the world" means, quite simply, "to ensure a better life for the world".

Man is what he eats. But what does he eat, and why ? Both answers, that by Feuerbach and that by his opponents, were given in the context of the same fundamental opposition between the spiritual and the material.

But the Holy Gospel also start with man as a being who is hungry, with man who is what he eats. In the Bible, however, the food which man eats and the world he must consume to live, is given to him by God and is given to him as communion with God. Everything that exists is a gift from God to man, and exists only so that man can know God and to make man’s life a communion with God. Behind all the hungers in our lives, there is God. All desire is desire for Him. Of course all creation depends on food, and what precisely makes the position of man in the universe unique is that he is the only one asked to thank God for the food and life he receives from Him. Thanking God is, in the Bible, not a religious or cultural act, but a very way of life.

Thus the only natural (and not supernatural) reaction by man to whom God has given this blessed and sanctified world is to thank God in return, to express gratitude to Him and to see the world as God sees it. All the rational, spiritual and other qualities of man which distinguish him from other creatures have their source and ultimate blossoming in his power to thank God and to know, so to speak, the meaning of the hunger and thirst which constitute his life.

 

Communion

Man as a creation in the image and likeness of God can live and enhance his existence only in relation to and in communion with God. What he is and all that he has have meaning only in the context of this communion. All his strength and capacity exist only to guide him towards his archetype: We were given reason so that we could get to know Christ, desire so that we could run towards Him, and memory so that we would remember Him. He was in fact the archetype for our creation.[7]

And all that exists and is available to us is there so that we can know God and make our life a communion with God.[8] The world and the things of the world are there as signs of the presence (Parousia) of God and as references for man vis-à-vis his Creator.

The value of man, which is in fact the foundation for his rights, is therefore found in his position as a being created in the image and likeness of God. This position is, for us, the essential basis for human rights. Human dignity is found in the relationship with the archetype, Christ. He is the measurement of all things human and divine.

 

Need to live the human/divine perspective more intensely

In the message from the Orthodox Primates meeting in Constantinople in 1992, we read that: "the 20th century can be regarded as a century of great achievements in terms of finding out about the universe and of subjecting creation to the human will. During this century both the strength and the weakness of human beings were perceived. Following these achievements, nobody is any longer in doubt about the fact that man’s domination of his environment does not necessarily lead to happiness and the fullness of life. Thus man should have learnt that scientific and technological progress that is far from God becomes an instrument of destruction for nature and society. This is particularly obvious in the wake of the collapse of communism.

Parallel with this collapse we must acknowledge the failure of all the anthropocentric ideologies which, over this century, created a spiritual vacuum and existential insecurity in people and which led some to seek salvation in religious and semi-religious movements, or in sects or quasi-idolatrous attachment to the material values of this world. All the proselytism in vogue today is a manifestation rather than a solution to the profound crisis in the contemporary world. (…).

Thus in society the privileges and power as a result of rapid technological and scientific progress are being accumulated by only one section of humanity, exacerbating the misery of others and creating the conditions for unrest and even wars (…).

There is also a growing risk of jeopardising man’s survival as a free person created “in the image and likeness of God”. Genetic developments, which are certainly capable of contributing enormously to combating disease, can also transform human beings into a thing, an object that is controlled and directed by those who have the power to do so.

The Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clément, said a few years ago that "Western Europe is now uniting with difficulty and anxiety. It has no great vision of the future and no grand ideal save that, it would appear, of protecting the rich against the "threat" of "invasion" by the peoples of the south. And also against the upheavals in Eastern Europe for, despite cultural similarities, European money is cautious"![9] The duty of Christians (and this is also the Orthodox point of view) is to breathe new life into European integration, from a human/divine perspective. It is a time when God is revealed in man, and man in God!

To solve the problems of our times and our society, we must give precedence to personal creativity and sympathy in human relations within society. This is a revolutionary way of life. "A revolution that will permit the free and joyously consented sacrifice of unbridled consumption and productivity requirements, and a return to the communion of life within the lives of people".[10]

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1st (Constantinople) said in this respect "that it was absurd to think that Orthodox Christianity was opposed to the West. It considers (like many Western citizens, particularly Christians, do) that the West accords excessive importance to material progress, progress which is often harmful to the spiritual life of man. The spiritual treasures of the Orthodox religion are for all. The Orthodox Church feels jointly responsible for the formation of a united Europe. It fully believes in a Christian Europe …".[11] But in addition, he recommended recently "that we, the Orthodox Christians, have something we want to say to Western man: we want to bear witness to this spirituality which comes to us from the Church Fathers, from the Fathers of the desert, from our Liturgy, from the luminous and peaceful beauty of our chants and from our icons, and which also comes to us from this very special ethos through which we regard existence".[12]

 

Ethos

From the Orthodox point of view, the way of life is summarised in the Beatitudes.

Thirty years ago the great Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, of blessed memory, spoke to one of those close to him of the poor in spirit. He considered that these were people who had ceased to see their own ‘self’ as the centre of the world (whether the individual self or the collective self), and saw the centre of the world instead in God and in their neighbour. They were dispossessed of everything, even perhaps of themselves. And each instant they received their knowledge of the existence of God, as grace. "To fight war effectively, and to combat evil, we must internalise war and conquer evil within ourselves. We must engage in the toughest war of all – the war against ourselves. And there is a lot of nationalism in the self! We must arrive at a point when we can lay down our weapons".[13]

Patriarch Athenagoras continued, with very significant words: "I have engaged in this war. For years and years. It was terrible. But now I am disarmed, I have given up the will to be right and to justify myself by discrediting others. I am no longer on my guard, jealously straining to hold on to my wealth. I welcome and I share. I do not stick to my ideas and projects. If I am presented with better ones, I accept them without regret. Or rather, not better ones, but good ones. I have, you know, renounced comparisons… What is good, real and true, wherever it is, is always better in my view. That is why I am no longer afraid. When you no longer have anything, you are no longer afraid. Who can then separate us from the love of Christ?"[14]

Similarly, in the Gospel, justice means resurrection. It means combating social and cultural inequalities. This justice is respect, friendship, and communion...

There are also mercy and peace: the word mercy means feeling at one with the other and entering into his suffering, for I am responsible. As Europeans we must take this responsibility seriously. It is unacceptable that only 20% of the world population should consume 80% of its products, while 80% live in dreadful situations. We must share with our brothers and sisters throughout the world ! Since man exists only in relation to something, we must become peace-makers.

 

The Holy Spirit helps us

In the West, Christianity has often been presented as obedience to law and authority, so that liberty seems like a revolt against an oppressive Church or even a tyrannical God. For the Orthodox world, the Spirit is also the source of freedom. The Holy Spirit is this breath from God which makes man the image of God. It is our freedom. When the Church is aware of the position of the Holy Spirit, then the very life of the Church becomes a source of freedom. It is the duty of the Orthodox church to remind the West of it, because freedom has all too often been manifested in the West against the Church, whereas through the gift of the Holy Spirit it is the very source of real freedom.

Similarly, the Church is the source of integrity. The spiritual dimension is not a domain that is separate from the rest of life. The Spirit is the light which illuminates all flesh and comprises all of human reality. Thus if we receive the Holy Spirit, it is all our life, all our intelligence and all our body, and all matter which are made beautiful by the Holy Spirit, becoming a new creation. This is exactly what is found in icons. Iconography represents the beauty of creation renewed by the light of the Holy Spirit.

Thus we understand the most important responsibility of man: to transfigure and renew the world, in other words to create a new world. This is what distinguishes man from beasts. This is the icon of God in man.

 

Conclusion

Man generally limits his perspective to the immediacy of the world and sees the world and the things of the world as absolute values. He thus harms his real existence and creates problems for himself in his personal and social life that are impossible to solve. Only by going beyond earthly restrictions can he find satisfaction in the eternal desire of man. And it is only by going beyond the problems that torment his existence that some kind of solution can be found.[15]

In the Orthodox Church the Divine Liturgy is chanted when preparing for the celebration of the mystery: Let us leave behind all the cares of the world. It is true that most people live in anxiety, perhaps to forget about death. For them time is interwoven with anxiety. It must not be forgotten, however, that every instant that passes, and hence that kills, can, if we receive it from God, become an instant of resurrection. The past lives in us. The bad past, full of separation and violence, persists in us and nourishes fear and hatred. That is why we must let God erase the bad past. The good takes place within the Kingdom: it is the communion of saints which protects and enlightens our present.

We cannot decide the future. It is in God. We only know that in our lives, as in history, the Resurrection will have the last say. That is why we have no fear: we have turned towards God, placing absolute trust in Him regarding future events.

Notes

[1] These comments by Bishop Athenagoras Peckstadt (Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church to the European Union) were presented at a Colloquium organised by the European Commission’s Forward Studies Unit in cooperation with the Screening Committee from the initiative on A soul for Europe: Ethics and Spirituality, with the theme: CITIZENSHIP – RIGHTS AND DUTIES (31 January 2000).

[2] ZIZIOULAS, J., (Pergamon Metropolitan), Communion et altérité (Communion and otherness), SOP N°184, p. 27.

[3] Ibid., p. 27-28.

[4] SCHMEMANN, A., Pour la vie du monde (To save the life of the world), Paris, 1969.

[5] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[6] Ibid., pp. 10.

[7] CABASILAS, N., On the Life of Christ (in Greek), 6, PG150, 680A.

[8] SCHMEMANN, A., Pour la vie du monde (To save the life of the world), Paris, 1969.

[9] CLEMENT, O., La vérité vous rendra libre. Entretiens avec le Patriarche Œcuménique Bartholomée Ier (The truth will set you free. Talks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomy 1st), Paris, 1996, p. 228.

[10] Ibid., p. 229.

[11] Ibid. p. 219.

[12] Ibid. p. 221.

[13] CLEMENT, O., Dialogues avec le Patriarche Athénagoras, Paris, 1969, p. 183.

[14] Ibid., p. 183.

[15] MANTZARIDIS, G., Orthodox Spiritual Life (in Greek), Thessaloniki,1993, p.133.

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