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How We Got Here

August 29, 2012

Since we’ve spent such a great deal of effort and so much time describing the various remedies and strategies for the maladaptive thoughts and behavior with which we are afflicted, it may be helpful to pause for a moment and reflect upon the broader context within which mental and spiritual illnesses manifest themselves.   Such remedies and strategies can only be fully effective if we understand the origins and the characteristics of the illness from which we suffer.  This methodology is employed in my book Ancient Christian Wisdom and is the starting point for later discussions and comparisons between the ancient fathers and the world of cognitive therapy.  Unlike the nihilistic philosophy that is so pervasive in our contemporary culture, the Orthodox worldview posits a definitive cause and effect relationship between our original illness and its destructive effects in our lives and contemporary culture.  This causal relationship, however, is not simply a matter of faith; it has also been observed in day-to-day life by the saints who have discovered what is meant by health, how the original illness of sin has brought destruction to their lives and the lives of others, and most importantly how the life in Christ brings wholeness, health, and peace. Nihilism also claims to be based on observation, but it is a solipsistic observation about sickness alone by those who are sick. And despite its philosophical pretensions, it also espouses belief, belief in the absurdity of human existence.  This absurdity becomes a “free pass” to think, feel, and believe in a way that provides the maximum pleasure to the individual, even if that pleasure is transitory.  It’s a philosophy that espouses a “nothing-matters-so-anything-goes” style of living.  Yet, even from a purely empirical, rationalistic assessment, such a philosophy only causes more pain and more suffering, because we are, like it or not, interconnected and without living for my brother I can’t really live for myself and my own pleasure.  In other words, it’s a lie that is incapable of providing even the temporary relief it promises.  This is precisely the reason why a re-examination of the ancient Christian worldview is particularly apt in a culture that continues to drift further away from its traditional moorings.

   This Christian worldview is described in my book as follows, “The tragedy of the present world can only be understood theologically by considering the second half of the Genesis story that describes how the misuse of human reason and freedom radically altered creation.  The sacred history of the fall forms a second phenomenological layer over the Christian understanding of humanity and the universe in its pristine state.  At its root, the fall is a sundering of a connection inherent in man’s creation in the image of God:  namely, the relationship between the created and the uncreated realm.  Given that humanity was created ex nihilo, the very core of human life changes with an alteration in man’s relationship to the fount of all being, the uncreated God.  Instead of following the natural, positive, and dynamic path of the remembrance of their Maker, obedience to their Lord, friendship with their Provider, and development into the likeness of God with the support of the healing and life-giving divine energies, Adam and Eve chose the unnatural, negative, and descriptive path of forgetfulness, disobedience, enmity, alienation, emptiness, and death by separating themselves from the Giver of life.”

This passage describes what Christians have come to understand as the ancestral sin, a condition in which humanity was weakened by broken communion with God, by fear of death and corruption, as well as by increased susceptibility to temptation’s wiles. The Old Testament prophets pointed towards a healing of that condition by calling the Chosen People to renew that communion with God through a life of covenant and in the hope of a Messiah Who could vanquish both death and corruption.  However, the above passage also witnesses to the philosophical turn away from God that has characterized our culture since Descartes’ cogito ergo sum.  This philosophical turn is characterized by radical doubt that rationally concludes that man is the measure of all things. Doubt rather the trust, my mind rather than God’s revelation, pride rather than humility become the new self-erected signposts to help man grope about in his darkened world.  Rather than a remembrance of God, this worldview emphasizes man’s capacity to make his own logical conclusions about himself, his fellow man, and the world around him.  Human history is witness to the devastating effects of such a turn.  In chapter 2, I note, “The wrong choice of the ancestral sin was not just a detour from the journey toward perfection.  It was a dead-end characterized by a deluded state of irrationality and pride in which man disregarded the very boundaries separating the created from the uncreated realm.  Although the divine image was not erased by the fall, it was darkened, thereby permitting human reason to grow indolent and lose its ability to clearly see the things of God.  Instead of being directed toward the Giver of Light, human reason turned with blind selfishness toward creation and fell under the shadowy influence of the imagination that encouraged all manner of illusion, prejudice, superstition, and idolatry to grow freely.  As a result of separation from God, human beings became more vulnerable to the devil’s influence as they became intimately acquainted with corruption, sickness, and death, foes that human freedom and reason could not overcome.”

So, to the contemporary man whose bond with God has become tenuous, the world does appear to be absurd.  Nihilism reigns not because it reflects the true state of things but because man has turned inward and away from God searching for answers that are nowhere to be found apart from a sound remembrance of God.  In order for any cure to be effective, the diagnosis must be accurate. And when the illness is inherent in the mind, the cure must come from an outside source. The most perfect source, confirmed throughout the ages, is the good news revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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