I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
St. Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003). Pp. 188. Paperback $16.00.
On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ has become one of my top favorite books because St. Maximus has a holistic view of salvation. In the American context – the one in which I live – the predominate view of salvation is that one “accepts” Jesus as Lord and is, consequently, saved. This view is based on an idea of original sin that declares us guilty in an imaginary courtroom, but if we submit ourselves to Christ, his sacrificial crucifixion pays our debts and we are able to “go to heaven.” This entire view, however, is foreign to ancient eastern Christianity and the Orthodox Church. St. Maximus’s view is that salvation is about union with God; one which is so intimate that we aren’t just “saved,” but we actually participate in the life of God. I believe this is a much-needed corrective to the Christian American’s view of salvation.
St. Maximus is, by no means, original. He stands on the shoulders of esteemed theologians who came before him, especially St. Gregory of Nazianzus. What he does do, is articulate theology in a very precise way, which includes using Greek philosophical argumentation; however, even this is borrowed from earlier Christian theologians – such as Origen – rather than directly from Greek philosophers. So, St. Maximus isn’t even innovative in this way, but rather he clarifies misinterpretations.
St. Maximus argues that ideally we are born, have movement towards God through our lifetime, and then come to find rest in God (salvation, deification, theosis). However, instead of moving towards God (contemplating God), humanity turned to move away from God (contemplating material things, or the world) instead. At this point, St. Maximus has a very interesting understanding of death, pain, and suffering. He says God introduced them into the world to show us that our contemplation of material things was flawed and not life-giving. Our pain, suffering, and eventual death are to get our attention so that we would turn again to God, the only one who gives life.
However, our fall introduces a vicious cycle into human existence. Our contemplation of material things is a search for sensual pleasure (as opposed to spiritual pleasure), which includes sexual gratification. Of course, this sort of pleasure brings about a birth that can only end in death. It seems that St. Maximus envisions that had humanity not fallen in the garden, our birth would not come about through sexual pleasure; however, he doesn’t elaborate on what a “spiritual” birth would have looked like in a pre-fallen world. Thus, pleasure, birth, and death become an unending cycle.
The solution and the plan for salvation is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. St. Maximus very clearly articulates that when Jesus became man, humanity was infused with divinity. This action recreates, or renews, our human nature. Because Christ was not born though sensual passion, he breaks the cycle of pleasure, birth, and death. Yet, because he does die, and this death is unjust, his death has the affect of triumphing over death. We, as Christians, are now given the opportunity to be reborn (baptism), and because this birth is also not the result of sensual pleasure, but rather spiritual contemplation, it unites us to Christ, and allows us to participate in the life of God. This is our second birth.
This union with God is salvation. Christ gives us the opportunity to turn our attention away from the contemplation of material things, and again towards the contemplation of God. In short, Christ shows us how to move towards God so that we can experience our third birth: resurrection. Thus, St. Maximus is able to say, “hence the whole man, as the object of divine action, is divinized by being made God by the grace of God who became man.” In short, being saved is much more than submitting to a master (Lord); rather it’s about synergistic union with God.
This book is one of the more, if not most, difficult books of the Popular Patristic series. However, it does include an excellent introduction that helps one pull St. Maximus’s theology together. Though it can be difficult working your way through this volume, I believe the payoff is priceless. This is well worth the read.