“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.
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?”