I would like if I may to take up a few categories which belong to the mystery and the fact of createdness.
First of all, the fact of being created implies that we are willed by God and this at first, from the first moment, establishes between us and God who created us a relationship. God had no need to posit face to face with Himself any other being. And yet, by an act of will He commands us to be and He involves not only our destiny but, if I may put it that way, His destiny, because any being called out of naught into existence becomes a presence for ever, a companion of God for all eternity. The fact that we are willed by God is essential because therein lies all our security, all our hope, all the joy of existence. We have not evolved out of circumstances; we are not necessary to God; we are not an accident of being. God chose to call us into being, and this is already in a germinal, incipient way a relationship of love – and when I say in a germinal and incipient way it is not because God’s love is only incipient but because we have got to grow from the fact of existence into the reality of being, of life and into the mystery of love which is more than simple communion with God – which is sharing God’s life, becoming partakers of the divine nature. So, at the basis of our existence there is an offer by God, an offer of companionship forever, and of love.
Is this the only way in which we are related to God? First of all let me say that we are not related to God in any generic way: we have no roots in Him by nature; we are not of His substance; we are not necessary for His existence, and the act of creation as it appears from the Bible is creation out of naught.
Now, this ‘naught’, I believe, should be understood a little bit better than if usually is. When we think of naught, very often we imagine God surrounded by naught – perhaps not you who are theologically more evolved – but a great many people, if you ask them concretely how they understand it, will say they see God on His throne, then a vast space of void out of which can emerge people, things, etc., at the command of God. This is no naught, because there is not such a thing as God in the centre and nothing around and then the nothing being populated gradually by all sorts of things! Naught is not such a thinning down of existence and of matter that it becomes imperceptible; this is not naught, it is nullity. It is not naught as radical absence – it is naught in a comparative and relative sense of lack of concreteness, of density, of presence; but that is already a sort of presence. This is not the naught out of which we are created. The naught of which the Bible speaks is a radical absence, a situation in which the creature which now exists, simply was not and could not be unless God had chosen to command it to be. Before all creation there is the unimpaired plenitude, the unimpaired fullness of the divine presence, self-sufficient and self-contained. The act of creation posits something that was not at all and would never have evolved by its own powers. This means two things: on the one hand that we depend absolutely on God and on the other hand that being or not being necessary to God we are independent of Him in a strange way. That I want to elucidate a little bit.
God is in no need of us; if He creates us, it is an act of free will and free love; this gives us concreteness and reality. If we were necessary to God, however valuable we would be, we would be only a very poor shadow of His existence. If we were some sort of emanation of God, however glorious an emanation, God would be infinitely more glorious and even our light would be nothing but a shadow. If we were connected with God either by necessity or by a generic link, we would be nothing compared to our origin. What makes our greatness – because man is great – is not our origin in nature, it is the love of God that calls us into being and that appals us. This is true even in human relationships. A person acquires .fullness of being, fullness of presence, when he is loved. Speaking of us, with regard to God, we are nothing; and yet, the value which God assigns us is the life, the suffering and the death of His only begotten Son. This is our real value. But this real value is not rooted in what we are but in the love of God for us. We are worthy of all this because we are so much loved that God gave His only begotten Son to the end that the world might be saved. And so our situation is both absolutely secure and totally precarious. As far as we are in ourselves, we are barely coming out of non-existence and our very existence is precarious, transitory. As far as we are loved by God, we cannot fall back into non-being because we are called into eternal companionship within the love of God. If we think of ourselves then, we may either find immense inspiration and joy in this fact of having no roots of necessity in God or else we may feel utterly depressed. Remember the first Beatitude: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. Poverty we possess by nature. We have nothing which is ours. We have been called out of naught and we have no roots even in naught, because naught is naught. We are given life which is already participation in something dynamic and concrete, which exists only in God. We are endowed with a body, with a heart, with a mind, with a will, with innumerable possibilities, and yet, when we think of them, we are in possession of none. We cannot protect anything we possess against decay or disappearance. Our life comes to an end and however we cling to it, we cannot retain it. Our health is at the mercy of the slightest accident. The greatest mind may be quenched by a tiny vessel bursting within its brain. At the moment when we wish to give to someone all our sympathy, all our love, all our understanding and concern, we discover that our heart is cold and incapable of stirring. We wish to do good and we do evil. And so, all we are, or we imagine we are, we are only in a borrowed way, as a gift. Nothing we are is ours. Nothing we possess is ours. And if we stop at this point, which is the very point of creation as it were, continuing throughout our lives and throughout the destiny of mankind, and of the created world, we can come to utter despair. What is there? – what am I? when nothing is mine? when I am at the mercy of all that surrounds me, all there is within me, and God above! And yet, the Lord says : ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, because we can make sense of this poverty in other terms, which are terms of joy and of meaning. If we do not possess what we have, then whatever we have at every moment, at every split second of our lives, is a gift and a sign of divine concern and divine love. And then, the very precariousness of our possession becomes the most precious possession we have. If I could say that my body, my soul, my heart, my mind, anything I have or anything I am is mine, it would be taken out of the relationship between God and me. If I am aware that nothing is mine, and yet, look: I live! I am! I think! I feel! I have a body and a soul! I have a surrounding and a destiny! and all this is a concrete act of God, then we can say: my joy is full and fulfilled. Then, really, poverty becomes blessedness – because poverty, united with this richness of destiny and of being, means that God continues to love actively, concretely, intelligently, in an elaborate and subtle way. This is one of the essential things about our createdness as being willed, and our createdness out of naught of which we continue to possess this quality; nothing is ours. We exist only, as Philaret of Moscow put it in the nineteenth century, as people standing on the will of God between two immense gulfs. Below the gulf of nothingness out of which the creative word of God has called us and above, around, everywhere indeed around us, the depth of the divine reality in which we are already at the moment we are called into being and into which we are called to grow deeper and deeper until we truly and really become partakers of the divine nature, God’s by participation, the sons of the eternal Father. This is the first thing I wanted to mention.
The second point is that together with the first creature that appears, together with the first event that starts a train of events, of change, of becoming – time appears. And time is one of the essential categories of history and of human life. Time and createdness are correlative; time and becoming are correlative, and time must be saved and redeemed. It is a precious category: it is not simply a road on which we walk, which has no meaning. It has meaning, because time and becoming are inseparably one. Yet we are called into something that outgrows time and supersedes time. That is eternity. But we must be aware that eternity is not an endless line of time; it is not time that will have no end; it is not time that will have expanded to a measure which is not our measure. It is something profoundly different. You will remember Christ standing face to face with Pilate: ‘What is truth?’ said Pilate; and Christ gave no answer, because to Pilate He had no answer to give. He had given an answer to His disciples when He said, ‘I am the Truth, I am the Way, I am Life’. The truth is not something – it is some One. In the same terms one can say that eternity is not something – it is some One. We are called to a depth of communion with God which is eternal life. Christ says this – that eternal life is to know God. It is not a category of being, a new form of way, a new dimension in time. It is God Himself and the divine reality shared and lived in. In a certain sense one may say that time, as we think of it, as something that develops and within which things change and move, is not destroyed by eternity, but becomes profoundly different. If we imagine that eternal life is an increasing going into the depth of God, an increasing unfolding of the mystery of God before us, an increasing sharing in this mystery, objectively speaking, time as movement continues. But time as a sense of a lapsing moment disappears in a communion which is an eternal ‘now’. In the same way in which one can be in motion and yet in complete stillness, time may have disappeared in one way, while it continues in the other.
Lastly, the category of dependence and of freedom. We depend on God and we are free. Yet, I am impressed more and more by the fact that our notion of freedom seems to be so contradictory or, so often, so naive. When a person tells another: ‘Why don’t you achieve what you want? Why don’t you become what you are called to become? Aren’t you free to choose?’ that person says something which is infinitely naive and unrealistic. It is not enough to will or to wish. On the other hand, if we speak of being determined and unable to become or to do, we are also falling short of something essentially true.
The first thing I believe we must remember here is that the freedom of the created being is not identical with the freedom of God, if we speak of the present situation before the fulfillment of all things. God’s freedom is unconditioned. He is and He is Freedom itself, as He is Eternity, and Truth, and Life, and Reality. Our freedom is a conditioned one: a freedom which is so conditioned that at times it seems not to exist. The first limitation is at the very outset of the created being. Without our agreement or consent God commanded us to be, and we are not free not to be. We cannot return to naught. Damnation is not a return to naught. Falling out into outer darkness is not return to naught. It is continuing to exist, while ceasing to be alive. The act of creation, the command given by God that we should be, is the first limitation of our freedom and does not allow us to step back or out of it. Freedom is given us. Yet we know that at the end of our private, individual life, as well as at the end of history when everything will be wound up, we will stand under judgment. We are not free to do what Ivan Karamazov wanted to do: to give back to God his ticket for life and say : ‘I contract out and I go’. We are not free to say to God: ‘The life you have imagined, planned and willed is not the life I want; keep it and I go my way’, because there is no way. ‘I am the Way’, and there is no other. There is an outer darkness, but there is no way within this darkness. So again, our freedom is limited (at the very conclusion of things) – at the very end of things by the fact that whatever we think of God’s act of creation, we will stand and be answerable, both for what we have made of life and, if you want to put it that way, for God’s decision to create us. We have got to face it: there are two forces, God and us inseparable, and there is no way out of it.
Thirdly, all that is our life, our very being, our body, soul and the rest, even the circumstances which surround us, in the form of other created beings, are also God-given data. All this line between the command of God ‘Be!’ and the question of God, ‘What have you made of your being?’ is also determined within certain limits. And so, if I may put it in a way in which I did put it once in a broadcast to Russia, we find ourselves like a maybug in a glass. On every side there is limitation. There is a bottom to the glass, there is one side and the other. Where is our freedom, then? To move about like this, is that freedom? Hardly, even if the glass is big, even if you cannot imagine its limits. It is limited, and there is no freedom if there is even a possible limit, however far. One may console oneself by saying what one does often say, that freedom is the ability to choose, to choose right and left, up and down. Is that freedom? Is that the freedom of a normal being? Is it real freedom to stand between good and evil and waver? Is it normal, healthy, sane, to stand between death and life and waver? Is it the mark of an unimpaired being to see God and Satan and not to know which one I choose? This form of freedom is not freedom, essentially. It is the freedom of the fallen creature which does not know how to go straight to Truth, to Life, to God, and hesitates. The freedom of choice is already a mark of the fall. It is not freedom.
Now let me say shortly something about freedom by taking up three words which, I believe, give us a way out of determination, a way out of this prison of life. The first is the Latin word libertas, liberty. The word means the state of a child born free in a free family. The liber is a free-born child as contrasted with the puer, the little slave, what in the colonies one calls ‘a boy’, whatever his age. Within this relationship of a family of free people and a free-born child, the child is brought up to be free, to be in possession of self and goods. And the will of his father is not an outer compulsion, a limitation, it is the limit towards which tends the expansion of all the child’s abilities and capabilities. He is taught to be free, himself. This is true in our relationship with God. God does not create us enslaved. He is the supremely free One who calls us to be as free as He is Himself by teaching us how one is free. Originally, in the Covenant with Adam, a covenant of mutual love and trust, later, by the various covenants which limit the arbitrary and destroyed freedom of man in order to give it a new shape and a new direction. Khomyakov, a Russian writer of the nineteenth century, says : ‘The will of God is freedom for the angels and the saints. It is the law for those who are in the process of becoming. It is the curse of the devils, the same will of God’.
Then another word, the Russian word svoboda which means ‘freedom’. This word svoboda also means ‘being one self, one’s real self’. That follows from what I have said about liberty. God has created us that we should be our real selves, that is, in the perfect image of the Son of God; to reach the full stature of Christ. It is not a limitation; it is an ultimate expansion. Finally, if I may make bold to say something about the English word ‘freedom’ you can find in an etymological dictionary that ‘free’ comes from an old English word which means ‘beloved’. ‘My free’ meant ‘my love’, my beloved. And here is the last term in this system of relationships, in this way in which human experience has expressed this reality. It is a relationship with God which is that of a child with his father and not of a slave, a relationship in which God’s will tends to make us what we truly are in the measure of God Himself, Incarnate and also the Beloved of God. Obedience then does not appear to us as submission, as subjection, it appears to us as the creative attitude of one who listens intently to a voice which alone can tell him what he truly is, which can truly lead him into becoming what he is called to be; who can tell him how he can cease to be a created, compact, heavy being in order to become the man from heaven. This is the way up; the three sides are limited: one way only remains. Man can grow into this freedom of God by becoming what Christ is and at that point we discover that ultimately we can find our way only to the extent to which God reveals, and to the extent to which we listen. Scripture tells us that in the Kingdom of God each of us will receive a white stone with a name written on it; a name known only to God and to the one who receives it – this represents the unique relationship that exists between every person and his God, a relationship which is too deep for any other being to perceive or to understand, and a depth in us which is so deep, so great, that none but God can plumb it. A name – not the name by which we are known, but the name by which we were called out of naught into being and into eternal companionship with God, into the mystery of our Christ-likeness. This Name which sums up in one word, one unspeakable word, what we are, is the key of our very being, the root and the corner stone of our being. This is our final relatedness with God. As mysterious as Him, in the image and likeness of the One who is both knowable and unknowable, revealed and beyond revelation. Our depth is beyond human gaze. Our depth can be plumbed only by the deep eyes of God. Here are the various categories of being which I wanted to set before you.
Publushed: SOBORNOST, Series 4, №10, Winter-Spring 1964, p.p. 551-557