Plato and Fr. Schmemann: Vanquishing Death

 

 

In one of the most living books I have read, Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, one can find a powerful critique to a today largely accepted religious perspective, in which people wait for a future place of eternal rest.

“To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an “other world” which looks like a cemetery (“eternal rest”) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to “dispose” every day of thousand of corpses and to get excited about a “just society” and to be happy!—this is the fall of man” (Schmemann, For the Life of the World 100).

The lines above need to be understood in a context. For Fr. Schmemann—following the orthodox tradition—sickness and death are not naturally part of this world, but they were brought about through man’s refusal to offer back to God that which was offered to him as means for communion with God, the world itself. Thus, the task of the Church as the body of Christ is to restore this world to its original meaning, to reconcile the world with God, so to render life to it once again. Caring for the world is overcoming death—the life lived in sin and corruption. And so, the primary task of the Church is its healing ministry.  But healing cannot have as purpose eternal rest. Such a religious outlook, as Fr. Schmemann defines it, can only fall into admitting that disease is the “normal” state of man (101), and so there is no point of salvation: if this state is my normal state, why would I need to be saved from it? Overcoming sickness and death are both in view of the Eucharist: we overcome sickness and death in becoming members of the body of Christ by offering back that which was freely given to us.[1] Instead of consuming the world, we nourish ourselves with it in thanksgiving.

It may well be that, as Fr. Schmemann suggests, the modern view of the world is connected with a certain Platonic perspective, in which the things of this world have significance and have being only through participation in a higher reality. Even more, as Plato seems to suggest in the Phaedo—dialogue that Fr. Schmemann mentions as well—death is something good; it is pursued because only in death one may find connection with the genuine reality. Thus, we wait for death so that we can pass onto another world, one in which we have understanding. But we may find even in Plato a suggestion that the natural world can be experienced even in this life. When Plato says that philosophy is preparation for death and dying, he looks at the world as it appears to him, already corrupted and in a state of disease. It is dying to the diseased self that philosophy is for Plato, and so a return to the natural state of one’s being. Plato does not mention death only, so just a state, but also a process; death is not something toward which we go, but something that we experience daily. This means for Plato that philosophy helps one die to oneself every moment of one’s life until one finds full death which is equated with life. Dying to oneself means rejecting false opinions, the gods of each one of us.

Of course, we do not speak of the same death and dying (sickness) in the Church. However, if sickness and death are brought upon us by ourselves because instead of offering back that which was given to us as stewards we desired it for our own consumption, then the sacraments of the Church restore health and life through annihilating sickness and death (in Platonic language, that would mean the death of sickness and of death).

These thoughts may be considered a suggestion that Plato’s philosophy can be rescued if not interpreted in its literal sense. But the previous lines are not merely about Plato; they also emphasize a possible perspective beyond the usual two-worlds understanding of reality which is often the characteristic of modern religious thought. As Fr. Schmemann says in the quote from where this discussion started, the creation of God is this, the one in which we live. The kingdom is not waiting for us after death. The kingdom is waiting for us after the death of our sin—after the death of our old self in baptism and the birth of Christ in us.[3]The sacraments of the Church bring this restoration of the world that was given to us to be a sacrament—and the restoration of us as genuine members of the world.

And so the task of the Church is not to “help” the faithful to deal with the reality that life on earth is ephemeral, to make its members feel good about their choices, to assuage the presence of death, but rather to vanquish it. In both the rites of healing and of funerals the conquering of death is suggested for in both of them we have the remembrance of the Resurrection (see also Paul Meyendorff, Anointing of the Sick). Christ has vanquished death, and in His victory stands our victory. When we live His life we also live His conquering of death and sickness, because when we live His life we are restored to our status of priests of the Lord’s creation. Thus, as Fr. Schmemann says, “the purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth” (99). In Christianity, peace with death is not possible; death is that which is to be destroyed.

*

Fr. Arsenie Boca, a Romanian priest who spent many years in the Communist prisons and is considered a saint in the part of the world from where I come, says: “Many believe that everything ends with the tomb. A Christian however writes on the cross that stays at his head, I am looking for the resurrection of the dead. The faithful does not fear death for it was vanquished by Jesus. Man was reborn in Jesus. From now, death is no longer the punishment given to creation, but the punishment given to sin. Behold how much life there is in our daily cross, how much life the week of our passion that is our entire life… Living in Christ is rising from the dead. Glory to Your Resurrection, the beginning of our resurrection.”[4]


[1] All these comments are inspired by Schmemann’s understanding of man as priest: “the world was created as the ‘matter,’ the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created the priest of this cosmic sacrament.”
[3] In the same sense, for Plato philosophy is preparation for death and dying because it prepares you for life (genuine knowledge) while you are still here, in the death of false opinions.

[4] The quote is taken from Cuvinte Vii (Living Words in English).

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About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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