Christos Yannaras: The Fall of Humanity into the Desperate Passion for Survival

“Man was created to become a partaker in the personal mode of existence which is the life of God,” writes Christos Yannaras—“to become a partaker in the freedom of love which is true life” (The Freedom of Morality, p. 19).

But humanity does not experience life. Death, dissolution, decay, violence and disorder—such is the human condition. Why are we so profoundly alienated from the end for which we were made? Christos Yannaras offers the classical Orthodox answer, with a modern twist. He does not invoke a mythological paradisal immortality, as did both Eastern and Latin Fathers. “Man’s nature is created and mortal,” he affirms (p. 30). It is precisely the provocation of our finitude and mortality that poses the temptation to realize existence apart from communion with God. The provocation is symbolically portrayed by the presence of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” in the Genesis story of the Garden:

This too is a tree of paradise, but it is not included in the “blessing” which God offered to man—the eating of its fruit does not constitute fellowship and relationship with God. It represents precisely the possibility for man to take his nourishment—to realize his life—not as communion with God, but unrelated to and independent of God, to feed himself only for his own preservation, for the survival of his physical individuality, for man to exist not as a person, drawing an hypostasis of life from the communion of love, but to exist as a physical individual, as an existential unit which draws the survival of its hypostasis from its own powers, its created energies and functions. (Elements of Faith, p. 77)

Hence we must understand the Lord’s prohibition (“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” [Gen 2:17]) not as moral law but, Yannaras suggests, as a “forecast and warning” (p. 78). In his compassionate care for their ultimate well-being, God warns the man and the woman that consuming the fruit of this particular tree represents nothing less than the removal of the “presuppositions of life,” necessarily involving tragic consequences:

There is a”good” and an “evil” way to realize life: this is the dilemma which is posed for the first formed people. The “evil” way advances the possibility of living from oneself, the possibility for the created thing to contain both its cause and its goal, to attain by itself, that is, equality with God and to divinize itself. But this is a lie, a false pursuit, which accepts as life the denial of life and leads undeterred to death. In the biblical picture, God wishes to dissuade man from precisely this knowledge of death—because death is a definitive knowledge and, once it is attained, it is too late to hold back its tragic consequences. (p. 78)

Once Adam and Eve have listened to the voice of the tempter and sought to find life within creation itself, their expulsion from Eden necessarily follows. They cannot undo what they have done. They have become a kind of being that is no longer capable of enjoying paradise. Yannaras interprets the fall as a descent from authentic personhood (or at least its possibility) into individuality.  By refusing the divine summons to transcend nature, humanity becomes enslaved to the physical and subjected to its necessities. “Nature,” Yannaras comments, “agrees to attempt to have life from itself” (p. 80). But the attempt can only fail. The man and the woman immediately realize their nakedness and are filled with shame:

The feeling of nakedness and the shame of nakedness are the clearest manifestation of the change which human nature undergoes in the fall: The image of God imprinted on the nature of man is made obscene and perverted (but without it being destroyed)—the image of God which is the personal mode of existence, the mode of the Trinity, of the love of persons, of the love which alone can unify the life and will and activity of nature. Personal freedom is subordinated (though never totally) to the individual need for physical self-existence, is made an instinct, an impulse, a relentless passion. And so nature is fragmented, parcelled out in individuals who live each one for himself alone, individuals treacherous to each other and opposed to the claim of life. (p. 81)

The decision of the first humans to seek life apart from communion with God has thus placed humanity in a condition from which neither they nor their descendants can recover. “The first choice of individual autonomy has irrevocably split nature,” Yannaras explains, “and condemned the will of all other human persons to be merely an individual will expressing the necessities of the fragmented nature” (Freedom, p. 31). From this point on every human being knows itself as a divided and conflicted being; each now inherits “a dynamic impulse to make itself absolute as individual autonomy” (p. 31); each is born into a world of competitive and conflicting individual wills, each claiming the nonnegotiable right and mandate of personal survival. The existential doom humanity now suffers is as terrible and inescapable as any Augustinian might hope for.

Adam and Eve and the Memory of Smoke by Samuel Bak

Yannaras approvingly quotes Sartre: “My original sin is the existence of the other.” Every person now sees “the other” as challenge, threat, and torment. The very existence of other human beings constitutes “an immediate, empirical testimony to the person’s inability to overcome the dynamic impulse towards the fragmentation of human nature into individual autonomous units: the ‘other’ is my condemnation to be the bearer of an individual or natural will for survival” (p. 32).  Fallen man even sees God as “other.”

“Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

(Go to “The God of Orthodoxy Meets the Deity of the West“)

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6 Responses to Christos Yannaras: The Fall of Humanity into the Desperate Passion for Survival

  1. brian says:

    Yannaras definitely “demythologizes” the Fall and overtly chastises Paul for his take on Eden. His excoriation of the standard stance in the Enigma of Evil is powerful. (I am at my wretched work, Father, or I would get the quote and insert it here now.) Marilyn McCord Adams has voiced a similar repudiation of the normative interpretation.

    Personally, I have some real sympathy for Yannaras and Adams, though I think one can espouse a modified version of the tradition without jettisoning the familiar teaching on the Fall. This would include a reworking of who Adam is and where and when Eden is. (One might assert, for example, that historical time as we know it is ‘always already’ fallen time and that Edenic geography includes a kind of dimensional existence unavailable to finite creatures in fallen time. The Adam before the Fall may have been ontologically different from the historical Adam afterwards. I think Bulgakov hints in this direction. Interesting thought experiment: If pre-fallen propogation would have rendered persons-in-relation without the kind of alienating individualism we experience now, would Christ’s unfallen existence have a different sensibility of the Other? Does he “always already” understand the body of the “individual” as ontologically included in his own flesh? Paul M Quay’s The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God suggests something along these lines — or I took something I read there years ago and this is what I made of it.)

    To be clear, Yannaras does not try for this kind of accomodation. He simply treats the Genesis account as a kind of allegory for the catastrophe of finding oneself in finite, ontic existence. He doesn’t simply agree with Sartre, btw, but he does credit him with significant insight, which I think is valid.

    What is somewhat ironic about Yannaras is that he repudiates much of the modern West, but his reading of nature seems to me more in keeping, in various ways, with Hobbes and Kant. The oppositional stance towards nature makes less sense from an Aristotelian or Thomist perspective. Schiller has some parallels with Yannaras in terms of the kind of dramatic, synthetic forms of freedom that he countentances. However, Schiller creatively took over some Aristotelian notions, so his account of nature is less hostile. Yet, as I said in an earlier post, the terms are used and contextualized differently, so the big picture narrative will also be told differently. Given the way Yannaras understands nature, his assertions are credible.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, I look forward to the quotation from the Enigma of Evil.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, last night I was glancing through Servais Pinckaers’s The Sources of Christian Ethics, which I read about ten years ago, in the hopes of bringing him into conversation with Yannaras. Alas, the subject is beyond me. As you might guess, he does not see the big conflict between person and nature. Could you elaborate on why Yannaras’s oppositional stance twoward nature does not make sense from an Aristotelian or Thomist stance.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, are you acquainted with Loudovikos’s critique of Zizioulas “Person Instead of Grace and Dictated Otherness“? Do his criticisms transfer over to Yannaras?


      • brian says:

        I am too mind bedraggled by drudgery to place these quote from The Enigma of Evil in proper context. They are from various places in the text, but hopefully these will serve as a further elucidation of some of Yannaras’ thoughts regarding how one should think about the Fall and the ontology of authentic Christian experience.

        The possibility that “death came into the world through one man” (Rom 5:12) – or that sexuality was the result of the “fall” of humanity; or that toil, decay, pain, and pleasure were also products of humanity’s disobedience to God’s commandments – has absolutely no verification I the reality of our known physical universe.

        That the “fall” can be pinned on an original “protoplast” couple, from whom the whole of the human race has descended and who have bequeathed the “fall” to their descendants like a disease or genetic code, is a possibility that cannot be established historically and is rationally untenable. “Disobedience” to God’s “commandment” is an act of the rational will, and if rational acts were transmitted by inheritance (according to biological necessity), the very reality of the rational subject would be nullified. Moreover, if decay, pain, and death are, for the whole human race, a consequence of the initial act of a single individual or couple – a consequence that is unavoidable, irrevocable, and irreparable, and unrelated to the individual will and responsibility of any rational subject – then it is equivalent to an irrational and sadistic existential condemnation, incompatible with the goodness of God and the character that the beauty of creation has to summon to a loving relation.

        Generations of human beings, which means hundreds of millions of personal existences, have been born and are being born leading their lives and departing from life under the shadow of a distorted, repellent version of the Church’s gospel, or they are affected by the experiences of a tormenting legalism, a perplexing intellectualism, and an armor-plated individualistic version of “Christian” values.

        Yannaras quotes Isaac the Syrian:

        Do not call God just, for his justice is not discernible in what pertains to you. And if David calls him just and upright (cf. Ps 25:8), his son revealed to us that rather he is good and kind (Luke 6:25). For he is good to the wicked and the impious. And how do you call God just, when in the passage about the wages of the laborers (Matt 20:1-16) you come across the words: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong . . . . I choose to give to this last as I give to you . . . Or is our eye evil because I am good?” Moreover, how does one call God just, when you come across him in the passage about the prodigal son, who dissipated his wealth in riotous living? All the son did was to show compunction, and the father ran and fell on the son’s neck and gave him authority over all his wealth (Luke 15:11-32). And nobody else said these things about him, that we might have any doubts about him, but his very Son; it was he who testified to these things about him.Where is the justice of God?

        Yannaras then expounds the following:

        This is one of the examples of the ecclesial mode of questioning or denouncing the juridical associations/influences that the (necessarily time-bound) language of the evangelical and apostolic texts elicit. It is an example and indication that even in the “most sacred” texts (the most respected because of their historical proximity as witnesses to the event of the epiphany of God) are not turned into idols within the Church; they are not made independent of the presupposition of experiential participation in the fact of the Church. Access to what is signified by the “sacred” texts can only be a product of being engrafted into the ecclesial body and its ascetic struggle – an individual understanding of the signifiers is not enough.

        It goes without saying that to claim there are hermeneutic gaps or even contradictions in some writers who have set out their understanding of the Church’s ontology does not imply that we are calling into question or depreciating or refuting the perspective of their writings as a whole. It means, very simply, that we are refusing to identify the Church’s gospel with a closed linguistic code that received its definitive form centuries ago and is not always open to a fuller critical understanding and clarification of its empirical expression. The conceptual/linguistic formulation of the Church’s experience, as with every real experience of relations/participation (the experience of love, of beauty, of otherness) can only remain permanently open to a fuller and more coherent expression, to a more fertile clarification or poetical/iconological outline.


  2. brian says:


    I shall expound further on various understandings of nature, but alas, on the morrow.
    Too tired, too many cats demanding my attention, etc. etc.


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