Book information: John Behr, Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013).
According to the forward of Becoming Human,
This book reflects upon various dimensions and implications of the astounding fact that Christ shows us what it is to be God by the way he dies as a human being and, in so doing, simultaneously shows us what it is to be a human being, freely choosing to ground our life and existence in the self-sacrificial love that is God’s.
Overall, the book succeeds. Fr. John Behr, an Orthodox priest, patristics scholar, and dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, ably weaves together (in beautiful prose) insights from his substantial study of the fathers with a focus on the heart of the Gospel: the transformative power of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, my review cannot be wholly positive, as the book’s layout actually proved to be quite distracting on my reading. “The layout of the texts,” the forward continues, “reflects the movement of thought unfolded in the sentences, with some words and quotations emphasized visually by means of different and larger font.” Further, “The continuous text of each chapter … is complemented by offset quotations, in a different color, and images, echoing or elucidating aspects of the reflection.” While this is not all bad, the fragmenting of sentences, with the goal of encouraging the reader to be more thoughtful, actually got in the way of my absorbing the whole of each sentence for what it was. The book, after all, is prose and not poetry. Perhaps this perception just witnesses to my own woefully uncultured intellect, but I will try to demonstrate what I mean.
Beautiful reflections on the mystery of redemption are mysteriously broken into jarring fragments. For example:
What it is to be God and what it is to be
human remain the same, but the miracle is
. is now revealed together in one
and, therefore, also through each other:
. mortality is not a property of God,
. creating life is not a property of humans,
. but Christ has brought both together,
conquering death by his death and in this
very act conferring life immortal.
Now, some of these fragments seem to follow a certain logic—viz., accentuating natural pauses in the sentence’s punctuation—but others do not follow this pattern at all, breaking the sentence between “each” and “is,” for example.
It is as if someone had the idea that The Great Gatsby would be more beautiful if written in sentence diagrams without full knowledge of how to diagram a sentence. The idea itself is wrongheaded in the first place and made worse by the poor execution. The artificial breaks, to me at least, led to reading all end-of-line breaks as breaks in the sentences (which they are not) and ultimately gave the prose a robotic rhythm it otherwise would not have had. Again, perhaps I’m just a barbarian (ethnically, I actually am), but the book is the worse for it.
This really is unfortunate because the content of the book and the style of composition are otherwise wonderful. Despite what I see as a major flaw in the layout, I still must highly recommend the book. Heavily inspired by St. Irenaeus’s famous line that “the glory of God is a living human being,” Behr illustrates how this reality is revealed only and perfectly through the incarnation. An academic thesis that the Gospel of John is, inter alia, a reflection on the making of man leads him to deep insight into Christ’s word from the cross, “it is finished.”
The creation of humanity in Genesis is “the only thing that is not followed by the words ‘and it was so.’” As St. Irenaeus puts it, “The work of God is the fashioning of the human being.” This, to Behr, is the real meaning of “it is finished”: the glory of God revealed in the living man, for whom the cross is exaltation and whose death is the victory of life. “Christ, as human,” writes Behr, “completes what he himself, as God, has predetermined to take place.” He continues, “If this is the case, then we have yet to become human—and, as St. Ignatius testifies so resoundingly, we only and finally do so by following Christ through our own martyria, our own witness and confession of him.”
Behr’s assertion here that “we have yet to become human” is grounded in the patristic and Orthodox distinction between the image and likeness of God. We are made in the image but made to grow in the likeness. Though human by nature, we “become human” through continually dying and rising with Christ in the sacraments and asceticism, ever passing “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18) in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, in order to truly “become human,” we must become by grace what God is by nature.
What this thesis amounts to is that the Gospel offers to us a new perspective on life and death, a new way—the only real way—to be “a living human being.” “In fact,” writes Behr, “death is the only unavoidable part of life. It is the only thing which I can be sure of, and, thus, the only thing which I must contemplate.” Certainly, the desert fathers, Philokalia authors, and other great luminaries of the spiritual life would wholeheartedly agree. “Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods,” writes St. John Climacus, “so the thought of death is the most essential of all works.”
And what does this contemplation reveal? Among other answers, Behr writes,
Now … in the light of Christ’s victory over death, death is revealed to be “the last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26). We can now understand that men and women don’t simply die as a neutral biological fact; they die by having turned away from their Creator, their only source of life. Our turning away, our apostasy, our falling into death is not simply something that happened at the beginning of time—someone else’s fault! It is something that each of us struggles with constantly in this life.
Egoism, then, understood as the belief that “we are actually sufficient unto ourselves, that we have life in ourselves,” proves to be the way of death and a manifestation of death in the present. When we turn away from God and towards ourselves, we turn away from the source of all life, embracing an existential emptiness.
Yet in Christ a new “use” of death is revealed: “Turned inside-out, death now becomes the means whereby the creature returns to God, and, in fact, is fashioned by God as a living human being.” When we die to ourselves, to our egoism and fictitious self-sufficiency, to our blindness to our own and others’ mortality, then death becomes the path to life. “It was by his death—” writes Behr,
That most human of actions, and the only thing that we have in common from the beginning of the world onwards, and an action which expresses all the weakness and the impotence of our created nature—by this, and nothing less, has Christ shown himself to be God.
And it is this to which Jesus calls each and every human being, to the extent that one is able, to “deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).