'Being' and 'non-being'
in Christ

by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

The problem of 'being' and 'non being', known from the History of Philosophy, is the most basic question of Plato. Approximately the same problem was expressed dramatically by Shakespeare with the familiar phrase "To be or not to be". The exclamation of the French surrealist A. Rimbaud "I am someone else" bears witness to an incandescent 'ecstasy' of an unprecedented 'alchemy'. And G. Xenopoulos satirised the problem with the theatrical work "I am not me".

Parallel to these indicative testimonies in classical literature - both the older and the new - there is also the archetypal figure of Ulysses who, when asked about his identity, responded completely apophatically by saying he was "no one".

If we analyse each of the above cases, we shall see that, together, they present us with a wondrous gamut of the natural person's philosophical, psychological and even sociological questioning.

In Plato, the problem is presented with almost metaphysical agony, a matter of life or death. Yet because this agony is not indifferent to our moral behaviour, but rather influences it directly, we are not entitled to call this simply a philosophical problem.

In Shakespeare, the question expresses an intense moral and social vigilance in the form of a dilemma within the framework of aesthetic play writing.

In A. Rimbaud we have, more than existential agony, a totally new form of aesthetic compunction or poetic magic, the power of which "dismantles all the senses". This is the "new bearing", which is said to have been introduced to poetry by Rimbaud.

In Xenopoulos, the problem does not go beyond the witty tragicality of social farce.

As for the Homeric "no one", it is clear that we have here a device of the cunning Ulysses, to rid himself from the outset of every notion of responsibility for his actions.

In the field of Biblical Revelation, namely the Old and New Testament, the same question of 'being' and 'non being' is by no means unknown. However, the meaning given to this differs from the already mentioned secular instances, as much as the sun differs from the earth.

The concept of 'chance' has no place in Biblical cosmology and anthropology, and 'vanity' therefore has no place either (the book of Ecclesiastes is a special case, but this is not the time to comment upon it).

Since everything was created by God "out of nothing", and indeed 'very good', then it is self-evident that even the last mustard seed has its place and value - which is non-negotiable - in the whole plan of the divine economy. And if this is true for inanimate objects, how much more so for intellectual and spiritual beings, ie. angels and human beings.

God created both categories of personal beings (angels and human beings) in order to "collaborate" in the salvation of the world. That is why angels are on the one hand defined in theology as "liturgical spirits sent for service". The human, on the other hand, by developing "according to the measure of the gift of Christ" (Ephes. 4:7) is shown forth as "a chosen vessel" (Acts 9:15) and "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1).

The notion precisely of "person", revealed by the Trinitarian God Himself as the most characteristic 'mode of existence' of divine life, is almost identical to the notion of kenosis, or 'self-emptying'. Even the inner Trinitarian life, which is infinite love and communion - called "interpenetration" by the Fathers - between the three divine Persons, is expressed only as 'kenosis'. However, this self-emptying does not mean reduction or bankruptcy. Precisely the opposite, kenosis is the abundance of love and power and life.

The most characteristic and sublime archetype for us is the Son and Word of God, about whom the Apostle Paul writes the following unprecedented words, which at first glance appear to be scandalous, being 'incompatible' with the conception of divinity at that time. St. Paul said, "Though He was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on the Cross. Therefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name" (Phil. 2:6-9).

From this supremely unique example of Christ Himself, the true measure of being in God is derived.

If the "will of the Father" is the highest 'due', ie. the determinant power for life and death, then even the Son, who is "of one essence with the Father", justly has no greater possibility of expressing the divine essence than to continually fulfil "the will of the Father". For this reason He said unreservedly: "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to complete His work" (John 4:34).

Just as in the initial establishment of all things, at the point of Creation, everything is made and co-exists from the moment that the founding word of God is pronounced - as an expression of the divine will ("God said, and it was so") - so it is subsequently, in the whole course of the divine economy, that being in Christ necessarily presupposes the fulfilment of the divine will.

If the entire Creation came "out of nothing" through the divine will alone, then it is only natural that this is maintained in existence again only through the will of the Father. This is not only expressed by the Son, but also fulfilled in the Holy Spirit, through all works of the seven-day Creation. This is precisely why the early Fathers of the Church called the Son and Word of God the "arm" of the Father.

The Apostle Paul originally saw the direct causal relationship between the divine will and existence in Christ as a general form of good will of God towards the whole creation. This is why he emphasises what a great benefaction it was for God to call "into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom. 4:17).

St. Paul however narrows that general benefaction to human beings in particular, and indeed to his own self. The more his earthly journey draws to a close, the more he feels that to be 'spent' does not mean that he is 'reduced', but rather that he 'increases' in Christ. He recognizes that, just as the outer man 'decays', the inner man is 'built up'. And when he has 'emptied' himself completely, he will exclaim almost doxologically: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).

All the Saints of the Church saw the struggle of completion in this way, from the solitary Hermits and Stylites, to the most tortured martyrs. For it does not matter whether you 'empty' the futility of the fallen world silently, drop by drop from your personal life, or whether you become a burnt offering through a martyr's death. In fact, the first is probably more difficult, as it demands a new decision for obedience and sacrifice at each moment of your earthly life. Perhaps Malaparte was not wrong when he said, "it is easier to sacrifice your life than your self!"

At any rate, the example of St. John the Forerunner is similar to that of the Apostle Paul, who was made worthy of seeing his corruptible life 'assimilated' completely by Christ.

We read concerning him in the Acts of the Apostles, "As John was finishing his work, he said, 'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet' "(Acts 13:25).

We should note especially the phrase "as he was finishing...", which means that he makes the correlation of his life with Christ - as St. Paul does - not at the beginning, nor upon the further development of his work, but at the end, namely the greatest climax of his life.

It is at this vital point that worldly existence can be radically differentiated from existence in Christ. The secular person considers the 'fulfilment' of work, that is to say the completion of the journey, to be the most appropriate and convenient time to claim praise and self-attestation. The one who struggles in Christ, upon reaching the highest conquest, sees himself precisely then as being 'empty' of himself, and hastens to confess the words "not I". For this reason, the Saints never spoke of their own "feats" or "achievements", but only of their "sufferings", and in fact considered themselves privileged if they were eventually able to be characterised as those who "suffered the divine".

from Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 21(10), October 1999
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia

Return to homepage (framed) | Return to homepage (no frames) | Return to home page