Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
September 22nd, 2016 by Joel Watts

the emergence of the soul’s freedom

Symeon the New Theologian

Symeon the New Theologian (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would you believe that every now and then I get into an argument on Facebook? And the more so when I mention I don’t believe in Free Will. Yes, there is free choice, but choice can only be made when we are handed decisions. Fr. John would tend to agree — or, rather, I agree with him that there is no natural freedom. We are born in such a state as to remove freedom.

St. Symeon places freedom’s antithesis into the realm of the passions (i.e., lusts) we inherit as sinful humans (do not think original sin). Freedom, then, slowly comes to us as the Holy Spirit “rips away” those passions and supplies us with medicine:

This activity, which is exercised by the fulfilling of the commandments, washes away—what a marvel!—every stain from the soul. It expels every passion and every evil lust, by which I mean not only those of the body but also of the world. Thus a man will be set free in soul from every earthly desire, and that not only from physical bonds—it is as when one puts off a garment and is completely stripped. Rightly so, for the soul is first stripped of its insensitivity, which God’s apostle calls a “veil,” that “lies on the hearts” of the unbelieving Jews (2 Cor. 3:15), but not on theirs alone. Even now everyone who does not practice the commandments of the new [covenant of] grace with all his might and with a fervent heart has such a veil lying on the understanding of his heart and he cannot be lifted up to the height of “the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). Then, just as he who has been physically stripped naked sees the wounds of his body, so he who has been stripped spiritually may clearly see the passions that cling to his soul, such as ambition, avarice, rancor, hatred of his brethren, envy, jealousy, contentiousness (cf. Phil. 1:15), and all the rest. So he applies the commandments to them as medicines, and trials as cautery, and is humbled and sorrowful, and fervently seeks God’s help. He clearly sees the grace of the Holy Spirit coming to him and tearing all these [passions] away from him one after the other and eliminating them until it has entirely freed his soul from them all. The coming of the Paraclete grants freedom to the soul, not merely in part, but completely and totally. Not only does it expel the passions mentioned above, but also all boredom, carelessness, slackness, and ignorance, all forgetfulness, gluttony, and love of pleasure. Thus it renews and restores a man both spiritually and physically, so that such a person seems to be clothed, not with a corruptible and gross body (cf. Wis. 9:15), but with one that is spiritual (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44) and immaterial and even now ready for the rapture (cf. 1 Thess. 4:17). These are not the only effects the Spirit’s grace works in him; it does not even permit such a man to see the objects of sense, but instead makes him, while he sees, to be as though he did not see with the [physical] sense. For whenever the mind is united to the objects of intellect it finds itself entirely beyond the realm of sense, even though it appears to be looking at sensible objects.1

The Spirit is the “setting right” of our perception — which every theologian and most counselors will tell you, is the key to being healed internally of past wounds.

  1. St Symeon, Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses (ed. Richard J. Payne; trans. C. J. de Catanzaro; The Classics of Western Spirituality; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 188–189.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

3 Responses to “the emergence of the soul’s freedom”
  1. If I have ever heard a distinction between free will and free choices in theology I do not recall it. At first glance it seems useful for keeping before us the truth that our natural state is “slavery to sin and death” and only in Christ are we truly free. It is certainly an effective expression of Wesley, but never heard it as denial of free will. Worth meditating on. Think it will preach. But is it a useful enough distinction to rewrite a catechism?
    (I have encountered the concept in secular philosophies but never bothered to pursue it. Animals make choices, computers make choices, but can either of them be said to have free will? One secular path suggests that at the big bang it was determined from available finite choices that I would type this today. I know that’s not your point but it’s the reason I never pursued this as a useful distinction.)

  2. Relating to Joel’s latest post,
    “A monastic community in the UMC”,
    When I first heard the title, I though “resembling (as in seclusion or ascetic simplicity) life in a monastery”… Don’t think I like it. There’s already enough issues in the UMC without introducing that. (Ascetic clergy – probably won’t fly).

    However, after seeing your comments on this post,
    “denial of free will”, that might be a good description of the “monastic” in the post…not “monk” living, but simply “good” living, instead of “bad” living.

    Another line of thinking in your comment, “One secular path suggests that at the big bang it was determined”… I tend to like that in relating to the previous. OK, a reach in analogy. But, quantum states determined by our boundary conditions… boundary conditions = denial of free will. Puts us in a certain energy state that we can either call good. Or bad. Depending on our level of denial of free will.

    OK, a little flaky, but I like the concept. Monastic – denial of free will by our own free will. Better than Monastic – living in a monastary, eating small amounts of fruit and nuts, avoiding the opposite sex, but brewing beer and wine for other people, but not for my use.

    • St. Symeon preferred the fruit and nut approach.

      And I should say, analogy only (poor, but fun to think about). Any resemblance of religion and free will to quantum physics is purely coincidental.

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