The Lumen Christi Institute hosted world-renowned Orthodox theologian Father John Behr for a three-day ecumenical program that led into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, observed each year from Jan. 18-25.
Father Behr is the director of the master of theology program at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and the Father Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics. He recently accepted an appointment by Queen Elizabeth II to the Regius Professor of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where he will begin this summer.
The first day of Father Behr’s program included a one-hour public lecture on the theme, “Becoming Human in the Light of the Gospel of John.” Students, clergy, and laity from a number of Christian churches, including Bishop Paul Gassios of the Diocese of the Midwest of the Orthodox Church in America, gathered in Breasted Hall of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Jan. 16.
Father Behr drew on two of his recent books for his lecture, Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image (2013) and John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel (2019).
The patristics scholar began by citing St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote in a letter to the Romans that they must not impede his martyrdom, for in his suffering and death, he “shall become a human being…(and) follow the example of the passion of my God.” In this way, St. Ignatius says, he shall truly live.
Father Behr said the martyr echoes the message of the Gospel of John: that a human being finds his true perfection by participating in the paschal death of Christ.
He said the divine project of creating a perfect human being, which begins in Genesis, culminates in the words Jesus pronounces on the cross, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). The Greek word the evangelist uses, which has been translated into English as “finished,” connotes completion or perfection.
He explained how these words of Christ in John’s Gospel are in direct reference and response to the words God speaks in Genesis, “Let us make a human being” (Gn 1:26). The human being is the only aspect of creation that comes into existence with a subjunctive phrase, rather than with the imperative, “Let it be,” which God speaks as regards the rest of creation.
the martyr echoes the message of the Gospel of John: that a human being finds his true perfection by participating in the paschal death of Christ.
Christ’s words on the cross are not, as often interpreted, a reference to the completion of Jesus’ earthly life or mission. Rather, they respond to the divine project of the human being, created in the beginning by the Father and accomplished by the Son through the crucifixion. Whereas Adam is the starting point of what it is to be human, Jesus Christ is the fullness of what it is to be human, Father Behr said.
He concluded by sharing his assertion that Jesus Christ defines what it is to be human, so that being human is to voluntarily take up the cross and to live a life of self-sacrificial love for one’s neighbor. Christ depicts both what it is to be God and what it is to be human “by dying as a human being” on the cross, he said.
In one’s voluntary self-sacrificial love for the other, “Christ is born, inviting all to come to the fullness of the stature of the humanity of Christ being his Body,” he said.
The following day, Father Behr gave a three-hour master class on Maximus the Confessor to about 20 graduate students and invited guests at Gavin House.
The discussion focused on questions of Christian anthropology and asceticism. Using the texts of Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, Father Behr discussed the paradoxical question, “Why in Adam are we made male and female, and in Christ there is neither male nor female?”
He led participants through two patristic texts that deal specifically with this question: Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominiis opificio and Maximus the Confessor’s “Ambiguum 41”. For the former, he used a new translation that he is currently preparing for publication.
He underlined that Gregory’s text has been largely misunderstood as saying that the physical division of male and female was not intended from the beginning, but was a concession in light of the fall. In this way, sexual division functioned as a “Plan B” after the lapse of Adam and Eve. Father Behr contrasted this view with his own reading of the text. He divided De hominiis opificio into two parts: the first, he said, describes the glory and nature of the human being made in the image of God, and the second considers how humanity reflects this image of God as male and female.
Father Behr then referred to Maximus’s text, which discusses a difficult passage from Gregory the Theologian’s “Oration 39,” in which Christ is said to “institute natures afresh.” Maximus introduces five divisions of being in response to Gregory: created and uncreated nature; intelligible and perceptible nature; heaven and earth; paradise and the inhabited world; the division of male and female.
Maximus contends that the vocation of the human being is to unite these divisions, yet human beings have failed to do so. However, Christ fulfills this vocation of “instituting natures afresh”; he overcomes these divisions through his salvific activity as a human being and uniting them in himself. Father Behr concluded by advocating for a close reading of patristic texts as essential for contemporary theology.
The final day in the series, Jan. 18, gathered faculty from across the United States, including the University of Chicago, Fordham, Marquette, Villanova, and Notre Dame, to discuss Father Behr’s recent book, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel.
Margaret M. Mitchell, a professor in the University of Chicago Divinity School, offered a positive review of the 416-page book, calling it “fantastic for its close reading of the Gospel according to John and its astoundingly broad purview and intent.”
She discussed at length Father Behr’s concern throughout the book that the Incarnation should not be considered simply as “an episode in the biography of the Word,” but rather that Christology must depart from the economy of Jesus’ revelation as man.
A robust conversation ensued regarding Mitchell’s presentation, which included a questioning of Father Behr’s heavy claim that John is the theologian of the Pascha of Christ. “Is not Paul the first theologian of the Pascha?” she asked.
Jean-Luc Marion, a professor and Catholic philosopher at the University of Chicago Divinity School, also offered a positive evaluation of the book’s critical theological content. He then followed up with comments on Father Behr’s use of the work of the late French philosopher Michel Henry, whom Marion considered a personal friend.
Marion spoke of how Henry converted to Christianity later in life, inspiring Henry to publish three books, drawing from the Gospel of John: I am the Truth, Incarnation, and The Word of Christ. Henry showed how the body and the flesh of the human being possess a phenomenality that has both invisible and visible characteristics, said Marion.
For Henry, when Christ says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he is manifesting an internal, invisible, real truth about himself, and it is in the earthly life of Christ that the flesh of Jesus manifests the Word of God, explained Marion.
The daylong faculty colloquium concluded with Vespers, led by St. Makarios Orthodox Mission in Hyde Park.