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Chapter II -- 7

Let us go through this one more time. St Macrina speaks of the various impulses that are found among the animals. Man must have sense-perception to have mind (nous). This is a necessary fact for material living beings. But to get sense-perception, man must, as it were, also take the rest of the animal nature (the various impulses which are joined to sense-perception in the irrational animal). The association of the soul that St Macrina refers to is the partnership of mind (nous) with sense-perception and with those things in the irrational animal that are allied to sense-perception. To get mind (nous), man must take up the animal nature as a basis for his mental faculties.

As St Macrina pointed out earlier, those things which are joined to sense-perception in the irrational animal are those things which are analysed by opposites such as fear and anger. As she remarks, in man these are called passions (pathe).

St Macrina has given a complete account of man’s passions based on Aristotle. But she stops not at all. She makes an extremely significant point. These things (the passions) do not of themselves fill human life with evil. For, given that God created man, God would have responsibility for man’s vices from the fact that the causes of the trespasses would then have been laid down with nature.

St Macrina is analysing the relation between the passions (pathe) and moral responsibility—a very important matter since the popularization of Freudian psychology.

St Macrina says that if the passions by themselves filled human life with evil, then, since they are in man by virtue of his creation, God would have responsibility for man’s vices. This is a reductio ad absurdum: what is implied is that man would then have no moral responsibility since he would then trespass by necessity.

Now, there are people today who say this, and reject Christian moral responsibility on the grounds that the drives that a man succumbs to are implanted in him by his nature and that he cannot do otherwise. This is usually the argument advanced in the West today against one or another aspect of traditional Biblical—Christian—morality.

Before we turn to St Macrina’s analysis of why this is not so, let us look at a parallel point: the relation between what St Macrina is saying and the theory of evolution. St Gregory and St Macrina died before 400. They were devout Orthodox Christians of the late Classical Age. Darwin (1809–1882) was born 1400 years after St Gregory and St Macrina died. St Gregory and St Macrina knew nothing about any theory of Darwin.[1] However, the compatibility of what St Macrina says—this is not an artefact of our translation but really there—and modern theories of biology is striking.[2]

Now, in regard to responsibility, moral choice and modern theories of innate drives which govern man’s behaviour, St Macrina has a very important point. It is the use of the drive by the man in the deliberate exercise of his free will that determines whether the drive becomes a tool in man of virtue or of vice.

St Macrina has again begun by asserting that the passions are not part of man’s true nature and ended by asserting that the passions are not completely bad, that they have good aspects, here according to the deliberate choice of the Christian.

Strangely enough—as it might appear—this point about the deliberate choice of the Christian is fundamental to the psychology of the Jesus Prayer as it is prayed orally, mentally or even in the heart. It corresponds to our observation that a very great part of the practice of prayer of the heart is the rebuttal of temptation in order to keep the commandments to love God and one’s neighbour.

St Macrina uses the excellent metaphor of the iron moulded by the artisan: the iron is moulded towards whatever the consideration or judgement of the artisan who is executing the work would wish, becoming either a sword or an agricultural implement.

Earlier, in connection with the use of the Prayer of Jesus, we referred to innate structures of the human soul, taken in reference both to God and to the body, and alluded to the use of mantras in Hinduism and Buddhism, and even to the use of zikr in Sufism. Here we have an answer to the claim that all these methods are equivalent: it is the judgement or consideration of him who executes the work that determines whether the iron will become a sword or a ploughshare. Similarly, there may be innate structures that support the use of a mantra in Buddhism or of the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox Church: that is the iron, these innate structures. But it is the judgement or consideration of him who executes the work that determines what will become of the iron: this is the Orthodox Faith, the Hindu belief system, the Buddhist belief system, the Sufi belief system. These differ. And what is made of the iron differs according to the judgement of him who executes the work: what is made of the Jesus Prayer, the mantra of Hinduism, the mantra of Buddhism, the zikr of Sufism, depends on the judgement—the faith, the belief system—of him who prays the Jesus Prayer, uses the mantra and so on. Hence, to say that all religions are the same, that they all lead to the same result, that they all do the same things to the same innate structures, is to say that all iron implements are the same, that they differ only in shape according to the culture of the artisan. The intention, belief and judgement of the artisan play their role however, and that is the difference among the religions of mankind.

Moreover, here we have a very strong doctrine of Christian responsibility. As we have pointed out, since Freud—at least in the popular mind—there has been a tendency to diminish the role of conscious, deliberate choice and to emphasize the determinative role of innate drives (id impulses) in human behaviour. If one adds the genetic substrate, then one begins to view man as an irrational animal who cannot choose to do well. We cannot here address the very difficult issue of the relation between Christian psychology and modern theories of abnormal psychology, which are many and various and not in agreement the one with the other on fundamental points. We can only surmise that a psychology is deficient which ignores St Macrina’s fundamental point: it is what the person chooses to do with his situation that determines the moral content of his chosen behaviour. It is only in the relatively rare instances that the person is quite disturbed that he or she completely lacks the capacity for moral choice. We would imagine that certain genetically based illnesses fit this criterion, but not all mental illnesses, especially when appropriate medication is taken, prevent moral choice and moral behaviour.

When we discuss Evagrius in Volume II, we will be faced with a discussion of certain kinds of abnormal behaviour or experiences on the part of certain ascetics—some very serious and graphically described by Evagrius. We will then discuss the connection between traditional Christian theories of demonic possession and modern psychological theories. However, until then, it is well to bear in mind that Christian psychology is moral. Questions of moral responsibility, of trespass, of sin, of guilt, of responsibility, of the causes of sin have always entered into Christian morality, here taken as a psychological system. This is not to suggest that Christian mysticism is a bleak affair of rules on what to do and what to avoid—the Songs of Songs is taken by St Gregory himself as the height of mysticism; and the Songs of Songs is a bridal song of union with a Beloved by a bride, who is the soul; and St Hesychios likens the Hesychast to one who insatiably aspires to God until he reaches the Seraphim, the highest and most illumined order of angels.

But this marriage of the bride with the Beloved is built on a foundation of Christian morality; and this moral orientation enters intimately into the mystical ascent.

This is the structure of Christianity, and it is a misreading of Orthodox mysticism to develop an antinomian freeness in one’s ascent towards the Beloved.

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[1] Or even, indeed, about any theory of spiritual evolution such as is associated with the name of Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955).

[2] Concerning Teilhard de Chardin’s theories, however, it must be remarked that St Macrina, following Scripture, has man created according to the image of God; there is no automatic upward aspiration of a spiritualized material creation towards divine things after the manner of Teilhard de Chardin.


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