Thursday, January 31, 2013

Holy Art Thou, Immortal!

Ours is a civilization driven by fear. It seems that the fear of death is the root of all fears. The belief that God is immortal has the power to save us from this fear. What follows is an explanation of how this is possible. 

After asserting that God is holy and almighty, the third assertion in the trisagion is that God is immortal. Following the previous statements, this statement implies that God alone is immortal. St. Paul asserts, "God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal" (I Tim 6:15-16). Neither is this statement an objective description about God, for nothing can be stated positively about God. That God is immortal means that all beings other than God are mortal.

Actually God is not a being among beings. God is The Being. Belonging to a unique category, God transcends all beings. Gregory of Nyssa and other eastern fathers used the adjective "infinite" to speak about God. Infinite means not finite or limited. All beings are limited by time and by space. God cannot be limited by time or space because they exist within God. By mortal we mean "any being limited by time". Not being limited by time, God does not have a beginning or an end. However, being limited by time, all beings have beginning and end.

God, who is immortal, has a special relationship with all beings, that are mortal. It is stated in John's Gospel that God alone has life in himself (5:26). The beings do not have life in themselves. This is similar to the relation between Sun and moon. The Sun has light in itself, but the moon doesn't. The light of moon is really the light of Sun reflected. Because God alone has life in himself, the life of all the beings is nothing but an expression of God's life. All the beings live with God's life.

This idea is further illustrated with the the way Adam is created in the second chapter of Genesis. God breathes His life to his nostrils, and Adam becomes a living being. Adam is thus an expression of God's life. When God's life enters Adam, he lives; when the life returns to God, Adam dies.

"for dust you are and to dust you will return." Gen 3:19

"the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it." Eccl. 12:7
This is true about all beings.

"When you take away their breath they die and return to their dust." Psalm 104: 29

St. Paul illustrates this idea with his own example:
"It is not I that lives but Christ lives in me" Gal 2:20
It looks like to others that Paul lives, but the truth is that Paul has never been alive. It is really Christ (God) who lives in Paul. This is true about all beings. All beings appear to have their own independent existence; however, the truth is that all beings depend on God for their existence. No being exists apart from The Being. Every being is an expression of The Being.

The primary role of the Holy Spirit is stated in the Nicene creed as the life-giver of all beings. All living beings receive their life from God.
What does it mean to us?
All beings are the expressions of God's life. Though the degree and the kind of the expression varies from being to being, no being can claim to have any independence of God, The Being. This awareness should make all human beings stand together in unity supporting one another.  There cannot be any discrimination of any kind. This awareness should also help the humanity to live in concord with the rest of the world, protecting the world rather than exploiting it.

The awareness that God alone is immortal has the power to wipe away any fear of death from human hearts. Fear of death is the root of all fears. If we have life in ourselves, we begin our existence at birth, and we cease to exist at death. But if we don't have life in ourselves, we don't begin at our birth, nor do we end with our death. Though we appear to have birth and death, we really have no birth or death. If death is real, we will be scared of it. But if death is a mere appearance, it cannot scare us. If we have never had birth, how can we die?

This gives us two possibilities: We can live a life of victory without any fear of death or we can live a miserable life fearing death every moment. A victorious life is founded on the faith that the life we live is truly God's life, and so we are truly immortal. A miserable life is founded on the superficial knowledge that the life we live is our own, which makes us mortal.

A victorious life without fearing death is often called in our scriptures eternal life, or abundant life, or simply life. A miserable existence fearing death is also called death. This death is metaphorical compared to the other, which is literal. John, the apostle, speaks about eternal life as opposed to eternal damnation. Eternal damnation is an existence driven by the fear of death. Eternal life, on the other hand, is a life driven by love-- care for others.

Adam had the option to eat from the tree of life or of death. He ate from the tree of death and he died. It was a metaphorical death-- a miserable existence in fear. The tree of death was a kind of knowledge, and the tree of life also seems to be a kind of knowledge. One kind of knowledge results in a victorious existence, but another kind of knowledge results in a miserable existence. The knowledge (faith) that our life is one with God's life results in a victorious existence. The knowledge that our life is independent of God's life results in a miserable existence

Jesus talked about two choices: We can live our life along the path of life or along the path of death. Jesus had the firm conviction that his life was one with God's life, which made him live a fearless life. His life was driven by love, not by fear.  

The word death has both a literal and a metaphorical sense. The most commonly used meaning is its literal sense, which is the natural death. All beings in time-limit have this death. The word death also has a metaphorical meaning-- a miserable existence. One can be metaphorically dead even while literally alive. As St.Paul says: "she that lives in pleasure is dead while she lives." I Timothy. 5:6

Death (literal) is not treated as a problem in any authentic religious tradition. Death is as natural as birth. A being with birth will also have death. However, death in its metaphorical sense is treated as an enemy. It is a miserable existence rooted in fear without realizing the truth about our existence.

The word life is used to mean two different things in our discussion here. I am taking the freedom to explain the difference using Malayalam, my own native language. It has two different words for life-- jeevan and jeevitham.
  • The energy that keeps us alive. (jeevan)  as in "God gives us life."
  • The expression of this energy (jeevitham) as in "The life we live."
God is the source of jeevan, that keeps all living beings alive. No living being has jeevan of its own. Jeevan of God is expressed as jeevitham of the living beings. Conscious beings like us have the option of two kinds of jeevitham: victorious or miserable. Jeevan can be known only through its expressions-- the jeevitham of various beings. The whole world may be considered as one living being. But it is a mortal being that depends on God for its jeevan.

The question of what will happen to us after we die may be considered along with this. It is generally believed in the eastern religions that all living beings reincarnate- that is, they keep on living in the world in different forms. But it is generally believed in the Abrahamic religions that human beings resurrect, and then they continue to exist forever.  Both of these traditions affirm that death is not the end, and so we don't need to fear it. However, whether we reincarnate or resurrect, we exist within time limit, and we remain an expression of God's life. So, neither reincarnation nor resurrection makes us immortal.

We are not immortal in ourselves. God alone is immortal. Knowing this much makes us live in fear of death. It seems that our civilization is driven by the fear of death. We  need to know the relation between the immortal God and the mortal beings in order to overcome the fear of death. Once we realize that we don't have life in ourselves, and that our life is the same as God's life, we will be fearless, and we will be driven forward with love. We identify ourselves with the immortal life of God rather than with one of its temporary expressions. 

1 comment:

Thomas Varghese said...

This is a good thought provoking article. The example of sun and moon for the Life giving to the beings is a very clear one. I appreciate John for this post.