Holism, Dynamism, and Integration: The Anthropological Thinking of Panayiotis Nellas

by Doru Costache

The anthropological thinking of Panayiotis Nellas is as normative to me as that of Father Dumitru Stăniloae—the Romanian theologian through whom I made first contact with the traditional, ecclesial, and complex message of the great Greek scholar. The approaches of the two men to the mystery of human existence are virtually identical. Both theologians were in fact of the same noble, neopatristic, breed and so likeminded in their perception of patristic tradition as continuous, living, and meaningful, ever-faithful to past wisdom yet always dynamic in its articulation of the saving truth within various cultural circumstances. In what follows I map the anthropological thinking of Nellas illustrated by his salient work, Deification in Christ, focusing on the complexity, holistic dynamism, and integration of theology and science in the representation of humankind. I propose that these aspects precisely represent a crucial contribution, typical for a patristic mindset and relevant to contemporary issues.

A complex anthropology

Equally challenged by the naturalistic penchants of contemporary secular thinking and the outmoded theological view of the human being as a psychosomatically structured object, Nellas opposes to all ideological sideways a theocentric, christological, and iconic anthropology informed by the patristic tradition and attentive to the cultural trends of our time. For him, the human being configured in the image of Christ—the authentic Image of God—is an “image of the Image” and as such constitutes a theological mystery which resists all reductionism. It is an “iconic ontology” which takes the divine Archetype as the ultimate point of reference for human existence and conditions the comprehension of the latter by a transcendent vantage point. This entails a theological broadening of perspective in anthropology, whose consequences are significant.

The adoption of a more comprehensive frame of reference, namely, that of a theocentric humanism, presupposes the reappraisal of human nature and by way of generalisation created nature as a whole. Against all radical dualism (such as the cartesian rift separating the subject and the object, the person and the nature, the mind and the body) human nature is neither a voiceless object, deprived of qualitative parameters, nor a static being, inexorably confined to unchanging rules. It is work in progress, at once dynamic and purposeful, existentially flexible and theologically meaningful. This double quality is paramount for our experience. Given its theological or iconic dimension, the human being—which consists of person and nature or rather is a “person who reveals nature and makes it concrete”—has to listen to the deepest inner voice encoded within its genes, which calls it to push forward, specifically to undertake gradual changes that culminate in a divine transformation. From beginning to end, human existence represents an ongoing metamorphosis. The process of transformation has begun, complexly, with the creation of the human being out of the stuff of the earth, which God reconfigured both theologically and iconically. Nellas emphasises this aspect by way of an interpretive paraphrase of Genesis 2:7. In his words,

Created matter, the “dust of the earth,” was thus organised for the first time theologically; the material creation acquired a form and structure in the image of God; life on earth became conscious, free and personal.

Moulded by the fire of divine energy, created matter, which has already been organised into a cosmos, advanced towards humanisation and, in becoming human nature, revealed the transformative forces operating at the heart of reality. In turn, and consequently, being interiorly marked by the same metamorphic principle our nature is conditioned to replicate the foundational experience referred to in the above passage, summoning humankind to operate in a similar fashion—specifically to act within the world in a godlike manner by furthering the anthropic transformation of the universe. Human creativity is part of this process. Anticipated by the making of humankind out of the stuff of the earth, the anthropic metamorphosis of the cosmos is foremost possible due to the equally iconic nature of the universe.

The aspect of anthropic transformation of the cosmos notwithstanding, for Nellas the destination of humankind transcends any accomplishment possible within the confines of nature. Due to its theological parameters the human being is called to actualise its potential godlikeness into an existential status without equivalent in the current circumstances of the created universe—“to attain the wonderful mode of life of […] [the] archetype.” More precisely, and in the words of the author, “having been created ‘in the image’ of the infinite God, [the human being] […] is called […] to transcend the limited boundaries of creation and to become infinite.” Nellas describes this culminating experience in paradoxical terms. When it reaches this blessed goal, the human person experiences temporality as well as timelessness—boundaries, insofar as it remains human and created, and limitlessness, insofar as it participates in the divine life and appropriates divine features. In so doing, the human being experiences a theanthropic existence, which amounts to its full christification or the attainment of perfect likeness to Christ, the archetype of perfect humankind. Foreshadowed by the virtuous life, christified existence ultimately refers to the life of the human person in Christ and with Christ. Thus, whilst it constitutes the original intention of God for humankind, deification or christification becomes reality within the existential circumstances of the salvation wrought by Christ.

Christification is not the only existential avenue which the human person can take. Intelligent and free, the latter is likewise able to choose the opposite of God’s intention and so change direction and objectives. Nellas comprehensively describes the dramatic ambivalence of the human being—its oscillations between good and evil, holiness and passionate life, natural and unnatural, theonomy and autonomy, the “divine image” and the “garments of skin,” rationality and irrationality, theomorphism and zoomorphism. These existential oscillations, which sometimes amount to traumatic events, primarily depend on the choices of the human person, which is able to move in either direction. However, what makes these oscillations register existentially is the metamorphic dynamism of nature, discussed above. The latter aspect entails no negative connotations. For instance, the same metamorphism, which makes possible our disfigurement, plays a major role in the redressal of fallen humankind, nature responding to Christ’s salvific treatment by healing from the traumas of sin and regaining normality. On this note, I briefly turn to the better known soteriological aspect. Nellas believes that there is no way of articulating a complete Christian anthropology without the restorative activity of the Saviour, and thus soteriology. It is through the agency of Christ that our rationality is retrieved and the iconic potential of human existence becomes once again theocentrically active. To decipher the human mystery one has to consider therefore not only the condition of Adam before and after the fall. Instead, one must contemplate the new pathway that Christ has inaugurated for humankind— an existential status which becomes generally available through sacramental participation in Christ. Soteriology and the sacraments go hand in hand within ecclesial anthropology. That said, the soteriological and sacramental dimensions do not represent the end of the road. Given the synergetic understanding of salvation in Orthodox tradition, Nellas affirms that whilst initiated by the Lord our christification requires human contribution—a corresponding cast of mind, acquired through conversion, and the exercise of one’s will through virtuous and prayerful living.

To summarise, Nellas’ representation of the human being is complex, multilayered, and paradoxical. It refers at once to humankind’s Archetype, the Logos incarnate, and the natural origin of our species in the matter of this world; the iconic condition and metamorphic dynamism of human existence; the various existential possibilities which depend on free choice; humankind’s restored normality through Christ’s salvific economy and sacramental regeneration; the task to push the human family as well as the entire cosmos to a rich state of complex unity, through virtuous living, in accordance with the intention of God; and finally the participation of renewed humankind in the boundlessness of the divine existence. On these notes, I turn to the holistic aspect, which wraps up together all of the above.

A holistic anthropology

In his own words, Nellas searches for the “complementary dimensions of an orthodox, that is to say healthy, structure of man.” Noteworthy are the two adjectives, “complementary” and “healthy,” by which the author seems to convey that Orthodox anthropology is necessarily comprehensive, paradoxical, endowed with a profound existential significance, and pointing to an unparalleled normality in the current state of humankind’s sickness and confusion. In what follows I briefly focus on the complementary dimension, which is the distinctive feature of an integrative, holistic framework.

Human ontology comprises aspects that to the many disciplinary perspectives of our times, which operate outside the theological framework of patristic anthropology, seem irreconcilable. Nellas believes that, given their experience with God and therefore the theological vantage point they adopted, it is the Church Fathers, particularly those of the Byzantine tradition, who have explored the human experience in all its complexity and amplitude, bridging those aspects and discerningly diagnosing a wide range of human states, from the heights of holiness to the chasms of sinfulness—“what man’s nature is like when it maintains its bond with God and what happens when it breaks this bond.” This achievement was possible due to the fact that within their theological framework the Fathers have incorporated the available data provided by the disciplines of those days, achieving a profound and comprehensive anthropological synthesis. As a result, for them the human being was at once an animal that became whatever it ate and produced, a being that led a social, political, and rational life, and likewise, or rather more so, an animal which has received the commandment to become god. To them, the human being was “simultaneously earthly and heavenly, transient and eternal, visible and invisible, truly and in fact a ‘deified animal’.” Drawing on the Fathers, Nellas presents the human mystery holistically—in anatomical cross-section and as a dynamic or teleological overview. Here is the first description.

The human being is at the same time person and nature, characterised fundamentally by the mystery of love, which inwardly impels persons to a natural communion; he is conscious personal existence in time; he is an indissoluble psychosomatic unity with unfathomable psychic depths; he is free, sovereign, creative, rational, scientific, and so on.

The human being is a multifaceted being, existing on two existential levels, namely, of personhood and nature—a psychosomatic being, self-aware, social, and endowed with the aptitudes to enquire, know, and innovate. One could recognise here descriptors pertaining to a number of fields, from cultural anthropology to psychology and sociology. It is as though, faithful to his programme of articulating a holistic anthropology, Nellas could not part ways with any known depiction of the human experience—an anthropological symmetrical of his sketch of the “catholic ecclesiological perspective” as at once christological, pneumatological, and cosmological. This comprehensive description constitutes a great lesson for contemporary theological anthropology, which should broaden its scope to integrate data from a range of disciplines in order to map the human mystery, the way the Byzantine Fathers have approached this mystery within the parameters of ancient culture. The second description, which we have partially encountered above, goes as follows.

…man, having been created ‘in the image’ of the infinite God, is called by his own nature—and this is precisely the sense of ‘in the image’ from this point of view—to transcend the limited boundaries of creation and to become infinite.

The passage points out that the complex structure of the human being, person and nature, is not a given, a static reality. Our nature, bearing the archetypal signature of Christ, God’s incarnate Logos, calls us to a destination which transcends nature. Listening to this call, the human person accomplishes the leap above the ontological gap in order to experience the divine life. I have addressed this matter in the previous section. The reason for my return to it here is to point out that Nellas offers in this passage a dynamic outlook of human existence and proposes, implicitly, that an exhaustive description of the human being is of necessity impossible in its current transitional state. The only full description of the human being is teleological and eschatological—one that takes in consideration the ultimate form of the human experience, christomorphic and theanthropic, whose signs can be deciphered only on the holy faces of the saints. This dynamic anthropology is christologically and hagiologically conditioned.

In short, Nellas’ holistic anthropology represents the human mystery as complex and fulfilled by way of a dynamic process whose end is the participation in the divine life. An important aspect pertaining to this anthropological dynamism is the incorporation of diverse information. To this aspect I must now turn.

At the crossroads of theology and science

Drawing on his holistic mindset, Nellas displays a commitment to bridge science and theology in his articulation of contemporary Orthodox anthropology. Often he illustrates this commitment indirectly, by pointing to the outcomes of integrating the two perspectives. For instance, he posits that the first human being was brought into existence “out of preexisting biological life” and that the human being restored in Christ as “new creation” emerges “out of the preexisting biological being of man.” This statement, which echoes the dynamic outlook discussed above, is a transparent allusion to the modern theory of evolution—granted, rendered as a metamorphic process which progresses from generic biology to human biology and then to a spiritually regenerated human existence. The reference to the human being’s emergence “out of preexisting biological life” is symptomatic for this integrated narrative, revealing a grafting of evolutionary theory onto Nellas’ rigorously theological anthropology.

The presuppositions of this approach are outlined much earlier in the book here considered. Nellas maintains, for instance, that the theory of evolution cannot harm Orthodox anthropology since the latter is founded on the conviction that the origin, the truth, and the fulfilment of humankind are in Christ, its Archetype. According to him, scientific anthropology studies the external aspects of a process which, when perceived from the inside, amounts to the human person’s movement from being “in the image” to union with the Image—a process which ultimately transcends biology. Dealing with the external layers of human existence, scientific analysis cannot obscure its theological core, its reference to the Archetype, the way an analysis of the materials used for the making of a holy icon does not affect its relationship with the original it depicts. It appears that Nellas reiterates here in anthropological key the assertions of Vladimir Lossky about Christian cosmology. Our author returns to this understanding a few pages later in a clearer manner. In his words,

Our understanding of humanity is not determined simply by the process of change which is observed in the matter of the image, but, without this first aspect being overlooked, our viewpoint is extended and understood primarily in terms of an evolution or raising up of the image to the Archetype. The evolution of the image thus surpasses the bounds of creation […] and reaches infinity. Evolution in this way is understood in all its dimensions—not only in those which are determined by scientific observation—and is given its true and full value.

Here, our author expresses the conviction that the theological core of ecclesial anthropology remains independent from any scientific representation and analysis of human morphology. This view leads him, surprisingly, to the understanding that, the way the Byzantine Fathers have contemplated this morphology by the means of the then available sciences, a traditional theologian of today could rephrase the theological message of ecclesial anthropology by way of any contemporary cultural idiom, including that of evolutionary theory—if that idiom facilitates the accurate and efficient transmission of the ecclesial message. One notices, furthermore, that, when he highlights that evolution and the “process of change” are not overlooked, Nellas goes beyond asserting the independence of the ecclesial anthropology from any scientific representation of the human being. Far from denying their confluence, he actually brings to an harmonious synthesis the internal and external dimensions of human existence and, together with these, theological anthropology and scientific anthropology. Indeed, Nellas affirms that there is an obvious similarity between theological anthropology and “the most profound conclusions of modern anthropological research.” This understanding is consistent with his conviction concerning the necessity to integrate data from the various sciences in order to reach a better understanding of the human mystery as depicted by traditional anthropology. This conviction relates to his point that one of the tasks of the human being marked by the divine Logos is to grow in scientific knowledge. Perhaps unexpectedly, it seems that what facilitates the convergence of various perspectives within Christian anthropology is the fact that, deriving from the mystery of its Archetype, the human mystery transcends any unilateral definition—such as those current in various contemporary disciplines, each of which approach human existence in ways that usually are at variance with those of other fields of study. True, one could take this to suggest the superiority of theological anthropology. In fact, Nellas just shows that precisely given the theological core of the human experience the integration of various perspectives is not only possible, but necessary. This conclusion is apologetically significant, bringing to the fore the theological dimension within contemporary anthropology without allowing for the dramatic counterpoints between ‘creationists’ and ‘evolutionists’ that poison current debates. Nevertheless, the final message of this excerpt—and that of the entire book—is that whether theologically, scientifically or complexly articulated human evolution reaches spheres of experience which elude all earthly perception.

In short, Nellas displays a deep familiarity with patristic tradition, treading the path of the saints of old who, out of an acute awareness of the need to communicate the ecclesial message in missionarily sound ways, to that end borrowed appropriate means from their cultural frameworks. Nellas translates their achievements in today’s context, by articulating ecclesial anthropology, with its innate theological dynamism, in the language of evolution. Correlatively, he manages to transfigure evolutionary theory in particular and scientific anthropology more generally by reinterpreting their data within a holistic framework—theocentric, christological, iconic, soteriological, sacramental, and spiritual. For him, by embracing the christifying mode of existence humankind, with its complexity and evolutionary dynamic, ends in christomorphism. In accomplishing this tremendous synthesis, Panayiotis Nellas proves that Orthodox tradition and its anthropological message cannot be reduced to a retrospective. To look into the past is to learn how to proceed traditionally within the current circumstances.

Acknowledgment. This version is the original of the article published in Greek translation in Σύναξη 140 (2016) 30-40. Here is a version which contains references.

27 April 2018 © AIOCS