Learning to see the world aright
by Ken Myers
Norman Wirzba’s book Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022) was the occasion for my fourth interview with him (on Volume 157). Where his earlier books have discussed theologies of Creation, farming, and food, this latest book applied those theoretical concerns to the question of spiritual practices.
Wirzba reminds his readers that the word “theory” is at root about a way of seeing things, which (if we are living deliberately) transforms our actions as well as our thoughts. In a chapter titled “Learning to See,” Wirzba writes:
“[I]t is important to underscore that ancient philosophy, and the ‘science’ it made possible, were first and foremost about the advocacy for a way of life and the disciplines that enabled its practitioners to live well (however that was conceived). Theoria, the way of seeing being recommended by a philosophical school, was inextricably connected to an ethos or practical way of being in the world. To the extent that one’s picture of the world did not help people live better lives, one ceased being genuinely philosophical. The whole point in serious contemplation of the world was to effect self-transformation, which meant that an ethos was accompanied by an askesis, a form of asceticism or personal discipline that aligned the life of the wisdom seeker with the truth of the world. Theoria, ethos, and askesis were inextricably intertwined and influenced each other in important ways.”
A few pages later, Wirzba introduces some ideas from Maximus the Confessor, who was born in Palestine in around 580, and whose theology accentuated the cosmic scope of redemption.
“Jesus is not simply a moral teacher. In his embodied life and way of being, Jesus shows what it practically takes for creatures to live the abundant life God has wanted them to live all along. His miracles, rather than being an interruption of the laws of nature, are acts of liberation that free people from the destructive bondages of demon possession, hunger, illness, alienation, and death. Jesus is the complete, embodied realization of life’s possibility as a way of love. To see him is to see the divine love that created the heavens and the earth. To participate in his life is to take on his point of view and thus to see everything in a completely new way. As Paul would put it, to be ‘in Christ’ means that we no longer see others from a human point of view: ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
“To proclaim Jesus as creator is, therefore, to open up a new understanding of the world as the place of God’s ongoing, redemptive work. It is to see each creature as blessed by God and each person as a child of God. Jesus, in other words, is for Christians the interpretive lens that enables them to see everything in terms of a new framework of significance and meaning. To participate in his ethos is to see every creature and every place as a sacred gift.
“It took many years to develop the insight that in Jesus Christ a new way of seeing the world came into being. One particularly important place, however, was in monastic and mystical traditions that stressed ascetical disciplines as a way for people to share in the divine life and the divine way of seeing reality. As one example, I will focus on the seventh-century Byzantine monk Maximus the Confessor because it is in him that we find a Christian theoria developed in a rigorous and fruitful manner.
“Maximus says that with Jesus ‘a wholly new way of being [kainoterou tropou] human appeared. God has made us like himself, and allowed us to participate in the very things that are most characteristic of his goodness.’ Christ is the center of the universe and the gate through which true and complete life moves because in him we find the definitive, embodied expression of the divine love that is life’s beginning, sustenance, and end. As John’s prologue put it, all creatures came into being through Jesus, who is the divine Logos. ‘All of Maximus’ thinking about the created world comes under the economy of the incarnation of the Word, which is the entrance of the God beyond being into being.’ [quotation from Joshua Lollar, To See into the Life of Things: The Contemplation of Nature in Maximus the Confessor and his Predecessors (Thessaloniki: Brepols Publishers, 2013) 262.] The remarkable thing is that Jesus invites people to participate in God’s way of being and to be, as John’s gospel put it, the friends of God (John 15:15).
“For Maximus it was of utmost importance that both divine and creaturely natures were fully affirmed and respected in their union in Christ. Jesus shows that becoming human does not denigrate divinity, nor does being divine obliterate creatureliness. He also shows that in their coming together a new mode of life or tropos (in Greek) becomes possible in this world. Lars Thunberg provides a helpful analogy for thinking about this dynamic coming together: ‘It is a union which can be characterized as similar to that between fire and iron. Iron glows in fire but remains what it is in itself. In one and the same hypostasis iron and fire are found together, but the piece of iron effects exactly that which is in accordance with its own nature as well as that which belongs to both — i.e., it glows, but in a way that is proper to iron alone.’ Union without confusion, interpenetration yet distinctness — these are each important to remember because the path of salvation (what Greek theologians often described as theosis, a creature’s participation in the life of God) means that creatureliness is never denied, destroyed, or left behind. Rather, what happens is that distinctly human life is lifted up into the divine life, where it realizes its full potential. Because Jesus is at once fully human and fully divine, he can lead people into the perfect realization of their humanity.
“The task of Christians as followers of Christ is to help fellow creatures move into the fullness of their life in God. They are, as Paul put it, to be ‘ministers of reconciliation’ in the world (2 Corinthians 5:18). But to do this Christians must learn to see the world as God sees it. They need the proper theoria. For Maximus, having the proper theoria means learning to see creatures in their relation to Christ. Using his technical language, people must learn to see how the logos that defines each creature is related to the divine Logos made incarnate in Christ. Why? Because if creatures are created through and have their being in Christ, then their lives are at their best when they exist in ways that resonate with his way of being.
“Logos is a Greek term that is notoriously difficult to pin down because of its wide usage in ancient philosophical and spiritual contexts. As employed by Maximus, however, it is fairly clear that it refers to something like the dynamic principle of order and coherence that enables each creature to be the unique being that it is. To know a creature’s logos, in other words, is to know its capacities and potential. To say that Christ is the eternal Logos continuously and intimately present to each particular created logos is to say several things. First, no creature is the source of its own life. It depends on the power of God to sustain it in its being. Second, no creature is complete in itself. All creatures are created to be in relationship with others, drawing their daily nurture and help from them. When creatures properly receive and give help, the webs of creation are strengthened. The trouble, however, is that sometimes creatures are prevented from realizing their potential. Their logos, which enables them to express their unique capacities, is frustrated by (alienating, fragmenting, or violating) ways of being that bring harm rather than healing, deprivation rather than nurture. To say that a creature is prevented from achieving its potential is also to say that its logos is being derailed, distorted, or denied. Third, if creatures are to maximally realize the potential that is unique to their logos, they need to live in ways that lead into ever-greater communion with God and fellow creatures. This is what Jesus does with his tropos or mode of life. He models the ways of being that produce abundant life. The task of creatures is to participate (in ways appropriate to their natures) in his way of life by bringing their tropos as closely into alignment as possible with his tropos. The moment when full alignment is achieved is also the moment when God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).”