22 July 2010

Human Passion: Enemy or Friend?

Patrick Comerford and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this afternoon

Patrick Comerford

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware was our lecturer again this afternoon at the summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. In his second lecture today, Metropolitan Kallistos addressed the topic: “Human Passion: Enemy or Friend?”

He asked whether passions are necessarily a bad thing. Passions are mentioned only three times in the New Testament, and always by the Apostle Paul, who speaks of them in the context of the misuse of sexuality, greed and bad desires (see Romans 1: 26; Colossians 3: 5; and I Thessalonians 4: 4-5), although desires are not always bad for him.

Illustrating the need to be correct and accurate in giving Biblical references, he told the story of a priest who once wanted to send a telegram congratulating a woman who was getting married. He wanted to use a Biblical quotation and chose the verse: “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4: 18). Unwisely, he decided to cut down the cost of the telegram to the wedding by merely sending the Biblical reference. However, the Post Office missed the number I and sent a message saying: John 4: 18. She looked up the reference, and read the words of Christ to the Samaritan woman at the well: “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Patristic and philosophical thinking on the Passions

We went on to look at what the Greek Fathers had to say on the passions, and their philosophical background in early Hellenism. There were two philosophical views of passion. The first was the Stoic view, represented by Zeno, who saw passion in negative terms. Zeno calls passion “an excessive, unbalanced impulse.” Passion is a feeling or energy that has got out of control, that is disobedient to reason, that is contrary to nature. So, the Stoics saw the Passions as diseases.

On the other hand, Aristotle saw the passions as neither virtues nor vices, but as neutral impulses. Pathos includes not just physical desire or anger, but also includes friendship, courage and joy.

Plato is similar. In the Dialogues, the charioteer has two horses. The chariot driver represents reason and the pious part of the soul, but he has two horses or forces to harness: the first is noble and well-behaved, representing the higher impulses, such as courage; the impulses of the spirited part of the soul, represented by the second horse or force, are disorderly and ill-trained, denoting the lower desires such as the sexual desires. The charioteer has to control both, and this requires proper balance and harmony. The passions give us the vital energies that enable us to move. Reason needs both the desires and the passions to get moving. The Platonic writings even talk about blessed passion.

Most of the Greek Fathers are negative about the passions, taking the Stoic view of the passions. He referred to the way Clement of Alexandria repeats Zeno’s definition of pathos as an excessive impulse that is disobedient to reason and contrary to nature. The aim of the Christian is to reach apatheia, which does not mean apathy or indifference, but is a state of spiritual freedom where we are not dominated or controlled by these passions, replacing bad energy with good energy.

Evagrius of Pontius in the late fourth century follows Clement in seeing the passions in negative terms, linking them with the demons. He lists eight evil thoughts, demons or passions, which became the source of the western doctrine of the seven deadly sins. Evagrius seeks purification from the passions, but links dispassion with love, and so is not simply negative. “When you have ceased to lust, then you can begin to love.”

In the Macarian Homilies, Macarius agrees with Evagrius when it comes to the passions.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa has a similar view of pathos. The passions are not an original part of human nature. Pathos has no place in the divine image and likeness, but reflects our fallen state. He sees the passions as bestial irrationality, reducing the human person to the level of the brute beats. But he allows that passions may sometimes be turned to good use, and his more affirmative view shows that the inflouence of Aristotle is beginning to come in.

This negative view has continued in the majority thinking in Orthodoxy, he said. He referred to the Romanian theologian, Dimitriu Staniloae for whom passion is an exclusive concern with self and infinite attachment to finite things, and who says there can be no virtue where there is passion.

Sidney Sussex College seen from Green Street this afternoon, with the top of Garden Court, where I am staying, and the spire of All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane, rising above the buildings of Chapel Court (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A minority view

But he said he did not necessarily accept majority views, and referred to the inscription Bertrand Russell’s grandmother wrote on the Bible she gave to him: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23: 2).

Among the minority viewpoints, he referred to was Abba Isaias (died ca 491), who lived in Palestine; he discusses a series of qualities, including desire, zeal (or jealousy), anger, hatred, and pride, which most people regard as passions. For Abba Isaias, all these things are in accordance with nature, a natural part of our personhood as created by God. He says anger is not in itself evil; what matters is the way in which it is used, and what you do with your anger.

We should feel anger with the demons. The focus should not be on repressing passions but on redirecting them. Jealousy is not entirely evil, for it is said in Scripture that God is a jealous God. The other meaning of the word in Greek is zeal or ardour. This has a negative form when we are jealous of other people, but can be positive when we are zealous and enthusiastic for others.

We are loved by God, and must not to hate what God loves. So we can use pride to have a proper self-image and self-worth, for we are created in the image and likeness of God. Pride can have a good use in driving back the demons of self-despair. There is a proper sense of self-love and self-esteem. Abba Isaias says all the passions can be turned to good use.

Theoderet of Cyrus, in The Healing of Hellenic Maladies, says passions such as desire and anger can be positive. Without desire, there is no longing for divine things, no appetite for food and drink or what he calls lawful procreation. Without these passions, we would die from anorexia and humanity would become extinct. Anger can act as a restraint on our desire for things that are despicable and impure.

He found parallels in the rabbinic tradition, which speaks of the evil impulse or yetzer ha-ra (Genesis 6: 5) as created and implanted by God, giving us the impulse of challenge, without which we would lack direction.

Maximos the Confessor, who is sometimes negative about the passions, also speaks of “the blessed passion of divine love.” Love for Maximos is a passion. He says that the passions are not just reprehensible, but can be praiseworthy. Desire and anger mingle together and can correct each other and produce virtue.

In the later Byzantine period, Saint Gregory Palamas (right) speaks of divine and blessed passions. Our aim is not the death of passions but their redirection.

But, Metropolitan Kallistos asked, did Christ have passions?

If the passions are neutral and not sinful, then Christ did have our passions, he said. Saint John of Damascus says Christ assumes only the natural and blameless passions. He points out that Christ was subject to hunger, thirst, weariness and the fear of death.

He says this is not just a linguistic point. The way we use words influences the way we view reality. Surely it makes a difference whether we say we mortify or transfigure the passions. Do we eradicate or educate, destroy or redirect? He would much prefer the approach that says transfigure, and that is the approach he uses in pastoral care and in the sacrament of confession.

He concluded by quoting the poet John Donne, who said in his A Litany: “That our affections kill us not nor die” (John Donne, A Litany, XXVII).

Participants in the IOCS Summer School in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this afternoon

Earlier this afternoon, I took time out to have coffee in Michaelhouse with the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, who has been chaplain of Sidney Sussex for the past four years and who was recently appointed Dean. I don’t know if pleasure counts as one of the passions, it was appositive pleasure to hear the news of his new role.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

1 comment:

dannyiselin said...

I take no brief for those who curry favor with the Othodox, whether for legitimatization of their own church (which Orthodoxy like Roman Catholicism denies is a true church) or for eccumenical buddying up. Orthodoxy will, like Orthodox Jews, appeal first to tradition for theological authority befor the Bible. Been with them, became one of them, returned to classical Anglicanism with a grateful passion.