An Analysis of the Place
and Role of the Human Race in the Cosmos,
in relation to God and the Historical World, in the thought of St. Gregory of Nyssa
NewDelhi/Kottayam: Sophia Publications, 1982
"There is no Christian way of understanding reality in a totally secular sense, as if Man and the World were the only two realities with which we have to deal. But then it is equally disastrous of Christians to think that we can conceive of a God who is concerned only about our souls and has no relationships to the Creation. It would be fatal for us to go on oscillating between an otherworldly mysticism that ignores the reality and significance of humanity’s sinful existence in history and a secular humanism that ignores the ground and source of the being of ourselves and the cosmos. Humanity itself becomes distorted and prone to self-destruction when it ignores either pole. Christianity, if it is to be alive in this time, should find a proper perspective of reality that takes both poles adequately into account."
Table of Contents
Cosmic Man - An Overview
Renison College, University of Waterloo
The author of this beautiful book is a churchman, a scholar, and a monk. These roles are uniquely combined in a man of deep faith and intellectual daring. While this combination is unusual today, it is a human type that the Orthodox tradition has nurtured over the centuries. Paulos Mar Gregorios is the Metropolitan of Delhi and the North in the Syrian Orthodox Church of India, the Principal of the Orthodox Seminary in Kottayam, Kerala, a past Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches and one of its current Presidents. His distinguished career as a churchman and scholar is marked by an abiding passion for justice between nations, an openness to dialogue with people of different faiths and intellectual commitments, and a deep encounter with technological civilization. The culmination of these concerns is this book - a searching exploration of the very foundations of human existence. Allow me to trace its most significant elements.
This remarkable study by Paulos Mar Gregorios - monk, scholar, and churchman - brings an important new voice to contemporary theological discussion in North America. For too long the North American discussion has been dominated by Protestant, and more recently, Catholic voices. But that situation has begun to change in recent decades. And in this study we have a new voice, a Syrian Orthodox and Eastern voice, joining that small band of Orthodox voices, most notably G. Florovsky, A. Schmemann, and John Meyendorff, that has contributed so significantly to making the Christian conversation in North America more truly ecumenical. One aspect of that Orthodox contribution, discernible here too, is the conviction of the enduring relevance of the great thinkers of the tradition, in this case, Gregory of Nyssa, to the contemporary world. With Metropolitan Mar Gregorios skillful handling of texts and lucid exposition of their content, Gregory of Nyssa becomes our contemporary.
The importance of the Metropolitan’s contribution should not, however, be construed as limited to the narrow theological discussions among experts. His concern is broader and more audacious. He seeks, through his study of Gregory of Nyssa, to engage our technological civilization in an argument concerning underlying assumptions about humanity. Facing the technological civilization of our time, he writes, “It would be fatal for us.......... to go on oscillating between........ an otherworldly mysticism..... and a secular humanism that ignores the ground and source of the being of ourselves and the cosmos.” Thus he challenges our technological civilization to reconsider the ontological questions we have ignored. He wishes to engage us all -- scientists, humanists, modern men and women -- in a fundamental inquiry concerning the most basic question of all: humanity’s relationship to “the source and ground of its being.” Here Gregory of Nyssa is his guide, and, according to Metropolitan Mar Gregorios, he could be ours as well.
The third aspect of this study worth noting here is its unapologetic philosophical character. As Metropolitan Gregorios states at the outset of his study, he aims to “analyze the problem of human existence” between the two poles of “God and creation.” This aim is not, however, armchair philosophy nor the philosophical approach dominant in the academy today. It is rather, as the ancients knew, a quest for wisdom, for understanding ourselves with depth so that our lives might gain orientation and direction. This love of wisdom -- the root meaning of philosophy -- is everywhere apparent in these pages and reflects Metropolitan Gregorios’ deep roots within his Orthodox and Indian traditions. As a monk his life has unfolded in the depths of a vital faith and within a still vital spiritual culture. These roots are evident in his study. Yet Metropolitan Mar Gregorios is not unfamiliar with Western philosophy and culture. Important aspects of his education were undertaken in North America, he has traveled widely with the World Council of Churches, and he acted as a principle force behind the important conference on “Faith, Science, and the Future” held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) in 1979. Thus it is an informed contemporary, deeply concerned about the path of our technological civilization, that he has turned to the fundamental questions of human life, in the hope that we might all find direction.
In Cosmic Man, The Divine Presence, then, you will find not an easy book but an important one. As Paulos Mar Gregorios leads us through the intricacies of Gregory of Nyssa’a insights, he is seeking to lead us into the divine presence in our cosmic humanity.
The Cosmic Code & The Cosmic Man
The title refers to two books published in the eighties. The Cosmic Code is a book written by Heinz R. Pagels, the associate professor of Theoretical Physics at the Rockfeller University, and The Cosmic Man is a book written by Paulos Mar Gregorios, the principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary in India. The two books are considered here together not only because they are similar in their titles but also because the themes they deal with are complementary.
The Cosmic Code
“I think the universe is a message written in a code, and the scientists’ job is to decipher that code,” Dr Pagels writes. The book deals with the incredible progress of physicists in revealing the nature of the universe. Our age is witnessing a revolution in Physics, which has radically altered our world view. The revolution began with the theory of relativity by Albert Einstein, and the quantum theory by several eminent physicists of our time.
Just two decades ago, the steady state model of the universe was maintained widely. According to this model, the universe has no beginning and no end. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, thought of the universe in this way. This model has been replaced by the standard big bang model in our own time. According to this model, the entire universe originated in an enormous explosion. All matter was once concentrated into a very hot soup of quarks, leptons, and gluons. This soup expanded rapidly and exploded. Then it cooled down, enabling nuclei, then atoms, and finally galaxies, stars and planets to condense out of it. This explosion is still going on. It has been observed that the universe is expanding.
Where did the primordial soup of quarks, leptons and gluons come from? Dr Pagels answers this question without the slightest doubt -- from vacuum. What is vacuum? The modern quantum theory has a surprisingly novel idea about vacuum, that vacuum is not empty. The vacuum actually consists of particles and antiparticles being spontaneously created and annihilated. Space looks empty only because this great creation and destruction take place over such short times and distances. Everything that ever existed or can exist is already potentially there in the nothingness of space. A quantum that goes in and out of reality is called a virtual quantum. It could become a real quantum, an actual particle, only if it had sufficient energy to do so.
Hence, the modern physics is sure of what the material universe is made of and how it originated. Has it got anything to say about what will happen to the universe ultimately? It says that the universe will go back to where it came from -- to vacuum.
The discovery of modern Physics is very exciting indeed. However, Dr. Pagels warns us against an easy -going optimism. The discovery of the cosmic code is a major challenge to our civilization according to him. It can annihilate us or give us a better existence. Dr. Pagels prescribes the way to face the challenge as follows,
“The challenge to our civilization which has come from our knowledge of the cosmic energies must be met by the creation of a moral and political order which will accommodate these forces or we shall be destroyed”.Dr. Pagels thinks that both knowledge and faith are indispensable for healthy existence.
“Our capacity for fulfillment comes only through faith and feelings. But our capacity for survival must come from reason and knowledge. They are different resources of human life. Both impulses live inside each of us; but a fruitful coexistence sometimes breaks down, and the result is an incomplete person."Unfortunately, people often deviate to extreme attitudes. Knowledge without faith, faith without knowledge -- both are extremities. Dr pagels is especially concerned with the latter kind of extremity. As an example he tells about a poet he happened to meet. She belonged to a community which rejected the use of machines. She wore handmaid dress, and wrote with quills. The poet explained the reason for her behavior as follows:
A demonic spirit inimical to humanity came upon the earth 300 years ago. It captured the best minds among the scientists, philosophers and political leaders. Soon the monsters of science, technology and industrialism were loose upon the land.Dr. Pagels thinks that the problem is really misunderstanding.
“People like this poet see reason as the tool of the devil, an instrument for the destruction of life and simple faith. They see the scientist as a destroyer of the free human spirit, while the scientist sees the poet's allies as blind to the material requirements of human survival.”He further says,
''Science is not the enemy of the humanity but one of the deepest expressions of the human desire to realize the vision of infinite knowledge”. “But, knowledge must be tempered with justice, a sense of moral life and our capacity for love and community”.
“Loaded with categories like original sin and supernatural, the baggage accumulated through centuries of alienation from the authentic tradition, theologians have lost the ability to see straight, and to look at the profundity of a thinker like Gregory, who does not operate within that framework.”Nevertheless, Mar Gregorios doesn't advocate a slavish adoption of the structural perspective of Gregory of Nyssa.
“Our own cosmology will have to be much more sophisticated than Gregory's because we know much more about the structure of the universe, of matter and energy, of cells and life, and of sub-atomic particles than Gregory could know in his time.”Gregory's cosmology consists of God, man, and the world. Man is a part of the world, which exists within the limits of time and space. However, God exists beyond all such limits. Therefore, God exists without any change although the world goes on changing. As God exists beyond the limits of time and space, God is incomprehensible to man. Human thought and language are limited to what exists within the limits of time and space.
Gregory makes a distinction between the ousia and energia of God. The ousia (essence) of God is totally incomprehensible to us. The world depends upon the energia (operation) of God for its existence. It is from non-being, which merely appears to exist, that God, the true being, has brought the world into existence.
According to the western Christian thought, which originated in Augustine, the essence of man is his sinful nature. Man is originally sinner. Gregory cannot agree with this idea. If man is sinner by nature, how can he be blamed for doing sin? According to Gregory, the essence of man is nothing but the essence of God. Man is the visible image of the invisible God. The original and the image differ in that the original is self-existent and remains unchanging whereas the image depends upon the original, and moves from beginning to end. Man is absolutely free as God is free. However, man is in a state of growing-- growing upto the perfection of God. As man is in need of growth, he is immature. Immaturity often makes man misuse his freedom. This is what Gregory calls evil or sin. Whatever in our attitude and behavior that hinders the perpetual growth towards the perfection of God is evil.
It is the whole of humanity at every place and time that is the visible image of God. As mankind is a part of the world, and the image of God, mankind has a mediating role -- between God and world.
What is history? Gregory would say that it is the kindergarten of mankind. When chronos (time) ends, aion (created eternity) begins. The whole of humanity in all time and place will be co-present there. Life in history is like a seed of corn. The seed dies and the plant comes out. The shape and size of a full grown plant cannot be predicted from the shape and size of its seed.
Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios repeatedly asserts that we need a new science and technology that gives central place to mankind, as mediator between God and world. He further asserts that we need a new politics, a new economics, and a new social education. Mar Gregorios concludes the book saying that cosmic man becomes the divine presence in creation by a transformation of individuals, societies and of the whole of humanity.
The lines of thought presented in these two books are major contributions to laying a strong foundation to a new civilization. Can there be a new civilization without science? This is the question Dr. Pagels answers. His answer is an emphatic 'No’. Science is basic to the existence of the humanity. Along with that Dr.Pagels also sees the possibility of misusing science. He tries to make it clear that the problem is not in science itself but in the absence of right faith and morality. The solution to the problem is not to avoid the use of science, but to use it properly. Dr Pagels strongly advocates the co-existence of science and faith. One without the other is fatal to mankind.
Mar Gregorios takes these issues and goes to the root of the matters. He is never tired of saying that we need a new science-- a science based on faith in the centrality of Mankind, a science based on faith in the existence of God. He digs deep down into fourth century to put a strong basis to the new civilization.
The thought of Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century philosopher, has become astoundingly relevant in our age of quantum physics. That the world has come out of vacuum is basic to Gregory's thought. It is from non-being that the world is brought into existence by God, the true being. As Mar Gregorios says, our own Cosmology must be more sophisticated than that of Gregory because we have a much better knowledge of the world as revealed to us by science. According to the modern Quantum Physics, the world exists at two levels-- the world made of virtual quanta (vacuum), and the world made of real quanta (material world). The latter exists within time and space, whereas the former exists unaffected by time or space. Our visible world of real quanta came out of the invisible world of virtual quanta. We have to think of how we can put together the new knowledge brought to us by science and Gregory's cosmology. Can we equate the vacuum, made of virtual quanta, to Gregory's non-being? Gregory says that non-being is a kind of existence that doesn’t really exist, but only appears to exist.
These questions make us aware that the attempt to put a strong foundation to a new civilization has only started. The major part of the work is yet to be done. Let scholars from every cultural background ask the basic questions of existence, and dig deep down to discover hidden treasures just as Mar Gregorios has done.