What is Christianity? Likeness to God as far as is possible for human nature. —St. Basil the Great
St Basil the Great, a saint in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, is one of the three Cappadocian Fathers who was a key figure in developing early Christian theology. On The Human Condition is a collection of his writings that refer to the fall of humanity, the cause of evil, and how Christians should relate to one another within their communities.
Culture is a side effect of the fall
[St Basil] believes further that much of human culture as we know it has arisen as a way of managing the physical weakness and material scarcity that were not present in paradise. This begins with houses to provide shelter and includes agriculture, manufacturing, technology, commerce and the arts. Basil does not consider these things bad; rather, he acknowledges their necessity but considers them morally neutral and denies that they possess ultimate or permanent value. They belong to the present life, which will come to an end. The prospect of God’s overwhelming judgment dwarfs their seeming importance when compared with the truly lasting goods, love for God and neighbor and practice of virtues and good works.
The stronger your faith becomes, the less attached you will be to the culture, which will pass away at the end of human history. The only culture that I find valuable and not obviously demonic is that which stems directly from Christianity—iconography, hymns, monasticism, forms of prayer, Orthodox-inspired writings (e.g., Fyodor Dostoevsky), traditional Christian clothing, church architecture, stories from the lives of the Saints, and so on. A quick perusal of modern culture, on the other hand, is a shortcut to revealing all that is not God, a bombardment of your senses of all that is truly ugly, a grotesque artifact to dull the spirit and pave the way for the Antichrist to be accepted without question.
Do you have a Jewish conception of God?
Do not diminish the Great One in a Jewish way. Do not enclose God in bodily concepts, nor circumscribe him according to your own mind. He is incomprehensible in greatness. Consider what a great thing is, and add to the greatness more than you have conceived, and to the more add more, and be persuaded that your thought does not reach boundless things. Do not conceive a shape; God is understood from his power, from the simplicity of his nature, not greatness in size. He is everywhere and surpasses all; and he is intangible, invisible, who indeed escapes your grasp. He is not circumscribed by size, nor encompassed by a shape, nor measured by power, nor enclosed by time, nor bounded by limits. Nothing is with God as it is with us.
One of my stumbling blocks was trying to conceptualize God and understand what He is able to do and how He does it. This caused me much inner tension since I was essentially trying to build a box around God that limited His powers. Since then I have come to the simple truth that God is God, and because He is God, there is absolutely nothing He cannot do (besides committing evil). I am sure that He can trace a single atom from the beginning of history to the end, and give you an accounting of where that atom was at any unique point in time you declare, and in what atomic energy state and position it was in, because such a feat seems to me eminently easier than creating human beings from nothing.
You are a slave in body only
Suppose “you were called as a slave” [1 Cor 7.21]. Why do you lament your slavery in the body? Why do you not consider great the sovereignty given you by God, that you have reason as master of the passions? When you see your master being a slave to pleasure, while you yourself are a slave only in body, know that you are a slave in name only. He has the name of master, but he has established his slavery by deed. You see him joining with a prostitute, but you despise her. How are you not master of your passion, while your master is slave of the pleasures you have trodden beneath yourself?
Those who are richer and more powerful than you are also greater slaves than you. They are addicted to wealth, luxury, and fulfilling their passions while you, a faithful Christian, have separated yourself from this world in anticipation of the world to come. In my past, I was a slave to every passion under the sun, yet deceived in thinking that I was free, while today I am a slave to God’s will, in the sense that I want to be what He intended me to be when He created me, free of the bondage of sin and sensuality. You could put my body in a COVID-19 quarantine cage but that would change only my bodily state, not my duty before God or my understanding of Him.
How to treat others
If you become a hater of evil, free of rancor, not remembering yesterday’s enmity; if you become brother-loving and compassionate, you are like God. If you forgive your enemy from your heart, you are like God. If as God is toward you, the sinner, you become the same toward the brother who has wronged you, by your good will from your heart toward your neighbor, you are like God.
That reminds me of the story of the lazy monk:
There is [the] story of a monk who lacked discipline. He was not a bad person, but quite lazy and not at all reliable. The other monks were frequently annoyed with him. While this lazy monk was on his death bed, the other brothers came to visit him. They were surprised to see him in such good spirits. “Are you not concerned,” they asked him, “that God’s judgment will come upon you harshly for living such a lax life as a monk?”
He smiled and did not deny that he was far from exemplary, but he had one key defense, “Our Lord said, ‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned.’ I have never judged a man for anything he has done. Rather I have looked upon all with simplicity and love.” The brothers were speechless at his response and realized that though they had good works, they had neglected this crucial aspect of the spiritual life. The simple monk died in peace and went to Paradise, and all of the brothers were edified.
A “loophole” to heaven is not to judge others, but I challenge you to go even a single day without doing so.
Worldly delights are a consolation
For since we fell away from the true delight that was in paradise, we invented adulterated delicacies for ourselves. And since we no longer see the tree of life, nor do we pride ourselves in that beauty, there have been given to us for our enjoyment cooks and bakers, and various pastries and aromas, and such things console us in our banishment from there.
Do not fear evil rulers
Have you seen someone conceited, clothed in bright colored raiment, his hand bearing a ring, its setting holding a precious stone, and he is conceited about this? He wears cloth of silk, possesses household servants with long golden hair, and struts too elaborately, wearing gold armlets, seated on a silver throne; walking haughtily, thinking proudly, speaking loftily to the crowd of servants, flatterers in his train, before an extravagant table, before the greetings of all who approach him in the public square, some rising from their seats, some going forth to meet him, some escorting him, some carrying staffs to provide security. When you see these rulers, preceded by a herald with an uplifted voice, when you see them terrorizing one and torturing another, confiscating this one’s property and delivering that one to death, do not fear what you see, do not be dismayed by those who command that these things happen, do not let your imagination astound you. Take to heart that God molded the human being, dust from the earth. If he is something else, fear him, but if he is dust from the earth, despise him.
What will happen at death to the rulers of today who have gone mad with power? Since they came from the dust like you, from the same Creator as you, they will be judged like you, yet much more harshly since all authority on the earth is God-given, and must be used in accordance to His will. May they repent before their end, but until then, we will have to endure the great evil and wickedness they subject us to.
God allows Satan to exist for our benefit
Accordingly, the devil has remained as our opponent because of the fall that came upon us due to his abuse long ago. So the Lord has planned for us wrestling with him so that we would wrestle through obedience and triumph over the adversary. If only he had not set out to become a devil but remained at the post at which in the beginning he was stationed by the Commander! But since he became a rebel, he is an enemy of God, and also an enemy of the human being who has come into existence according to the image of God. For on this account he hates humankind, because he also fights against God, and he hates us both as belonging to the Master and as likenesses of God. Therefore we were joined in battle against his wickedness as a training exercise for our souls by the one who plans human affairs with wisdom and foreknowledge, as a physician uses the viper’s poison to make medicines for healing.
Satan is inexorably linked to free will. If there is free will, there is the will to choose evil, and so there will be a creature who is the greatest of evil that acts as a god for evildoers. The great evildoer of the world is Satan, and even if he were eradicated, the next demon in line would take his place, and those who want to continue to do evil would not lack the imagination or motivating energy to do so.
Do not repay evil with evil
From the very beginning let us stop the evil, removing the anger from our souls by every contrivance. For thus we could excise the greatest number of evils together with this passion, since it is a kind of root and source. Has someone abused you? Bless him. Has he struck you? Endure it. Does he spit on you and regard you as nothing? Then accept this thought about yourself, that you were taken from the earth, and you will return to the earth again [Gen 3.19]. For one who applies this concept to himself beforehand, will find all dishonor to be less than the truth. For thus indeed you will provide your enemy no means of revenge, you will show yourself invulnerable to the abuse, and you will procure for yourself a great crown of perseverance…
Suppose [someone] calls you a poor laborer. If he speaks truly, admit the truth; but if he lies, what are his words to you? Neither be filled with conceit about praise that goes beyond the truth, nor be aggravated over insults that do not apply to you. Do you not see how arrows naturally pierce through hard and rigid objects, but their force is blunted by soft and yielding objects? Consider indeed that the power of abuse is of the same kind. One who resists it receives it into himself, while one who yields and withdraws dissolves by his gentleness of character the wickedness brought against him.
I ignore Christians in the world who advocate for revenge, violence, and the purchase of a large armament of weapons. While there is a time for self-defense (and prayer for our armed forces against foreign and internal threats), I do not have the discernment to know whether to act violently in order to make the world a “better” place. I’m not hoping or wishing for this world to become better, and do not aim to make it materially better for others. Instead, the weapons I carry every day are the truth and a prayer rope, and from my perspective, they have done much more to aid souls than any piece of forged metal I can wield with my hands.
Do not live alone
And if indeed we all, who share in the one hope of our calling [Eph 4.4], are one body, having Christ as head, and are each members of one another [1 Cor 12.12], if we are not fitted together in the Holy Spirit to join in concord into one body, but each of us chooses the solitary life, we will not serve the common good with coordinated planning according to God’s good pleasure, but fulfill our own passions for self-indulgence. When we are split off and dived, how can we preserve the relationship and service of the members to each other, or our submission toward our head, that is Christ?
For how will [the solitary man] manifest his humility, since he has nobody beside whom he can show himself more humble? How will he manifest his compassion, since he has cut himself off from the community of many? How will he train himself in longsuffering when nobody opposes his wishes?
For see, the Lord in exceeding compassion did not find it sufficient to teach only by word, but so as to transmit to us precisely and visibly the pattern of humility in the perfection of love, he himself girded himself and washed the feet of the disciples. Whom, then, will you wash? Whom will you serve? In relationship to whom will you be the last, you who spend life by yourself?
One of the most consistent pieces of advice I’ve received since getting baptized in the Orthodox Church is not to live alone. Satan will make easy work of me, and my experience in a mountain crackhouse confirms that the demons step up their attacks against you when you are alone.
Overall, On The Human Condition by St Basil the Great was dense but not an especially difficult read, offering great spiritual and theological insights. I recommend it if you want to know the teachings of a preeminent early Church Father.