From the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Touchstone

 

Man Completed by Alison Sailer Bennett

Man Completed

Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image
by John Behr
St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2013
(136 pages, $26.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Alison Sailer Bennett

Becoming Human is Orthodox Christian anthropology in the form of a concise meditation. Since Fr. John Behr is an Orthodox theologian and writer, his audience is very likely Orthodox, although the book can certainly speak to almost any lay Christian with an interest in Christian anthropology and a regard for early Christian theologians.

Behr's purpose is to cultivate unhurried and deliberate reflection on what it means to be human, using quotations and images to foster a literary experience similar to that evoked by the medieval manuscript. Behr endorses nothing alien to Orthodox theology; rather, he presents a fresh articulation of Orthodox theology for modern ears. He helps connect the dots on what has always been present in Christian anthropology without straying from the Tradition.

Behr challenges readers to think innovatively about the profound significance of Christ's death for human salvation. He freely draws from the entire Tradition, including Scripture, liturgy, and the theologians of the Church, such as Maximus the Confessor, Origen, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Augustine, and Tertullian. He emphasizes, provocatively, that death is the beginning of life. "Death is the only unavoidable part of life. It is the only thing I can be sure of, and, thus, the only thing which I must contemplate." Death offers an educational tool about human weakness that no other human experience can offer. This might sound dualistic if Behr were arguing that we need pain to appreciate pleasure, but Irenaeus explains that death is the strongest argument to convince us of our need for God within our fallen state. It is above all an existential argument.

Behr goes even further than this. Not only does death teach us about our need for God, death itself can be sacramental. We often forget that not only must we "die to ourselves" spiritually by harnessing our wills to Christ's will, but our actual, physical death can be the beginning of life. Baptism sanctifies death by giving us the grace to follow Christ from mortality into immortality. By freely dying, Christ enabled us to transform passive suffering into active suffering. Just as martyrs have used their physical deaths to enter the kingdom of God, so all persons can use death as an entry point in their salvation. No one chooses death, but we can choose how to die, either in a helpless or a deliberate fashion, based on how we choose to live. If we have learned how to offer up ourselves to God during life, death can be Eucharistic.

Humanity Fully Realized

Perhaps the most compelling theme in Behr's book is that human beings are the only creatures who are not fully themselves at the moment of creation. After each act of creating animals and plants, God said "it was good," but only at the moment of Christ's sacrificial death on the cross did he say about man, "it is finished." In other words, Christ was the first person to become fully human because he commended his spirit to the will of God. Mary as the new Eve was the first human to receive the gospel, and Christ as the new Adam was the first human to complete the work of the gospel. Therefore, the rest of us must participate in the process of our humanization by offering up ourselves to God as Mary did, so that we can all become fully human in Christ.

Behr focuses on the work of Maximus the Confessor, who writes about another key difference between man and the rest of creation. Not only are human beings existentially incomplete at the moment of creation, they need each other to fully realize their humanity. The purpose of gender and sexuality is to experience "otherness," so that in the context of marriage, men and women can truly die to themselves in order to become one flesh, just as they must die to themselves in order to become one with Christ. By participating in this smaller martyrdom, we learn how to participate in the bigger martyrdom. Thus, marriage humanizes men and women.

This is also where both St. Maximus and Behr can easily be misunderstood. Maximus writes that, whereas animals can assume only sexuality, human beings are unique in that they can assume both sexuality and gender. According to Maximus, male and female are impassioned modes of men and women that fade after we have acquired the ascetic kind of dispassion attained by saints. Behr, however, makes it clear that while gender is a means to an end, sexuality does not disappear in the process of humanization. Men and women are still men and women in the image of God. Maximus's point is that our focus should be on our oneness in Christ rather than on our existence as male and female.

A Book for Treasure Hunters

Behr is an eloquent writer, but the tone of his other writings sometimes comes across as detached, and in this book he could not entirely escape his natural style. Meditative writing should draw the reader into a personal encounter with the subject matter or the author himself in addition to providing the reader with creative space for reflection. The latter is certainly present in this book, but not always the former. Yet the book works as a meditation because every reading and rereading unveils new gems.

Becoming Human is a book for anyone with a heart and mind open to digging for treasure. As Behr puts it, to the extent that we follow Christ in his journey, he returns in us. This is what it means to become human. 

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