I am going through the pangs of being born. Sympathize with me, my brothers! Do not stand in the way of my coming to life—do not wish death on me. Do not give back to the world one who wants to be God’s; do not trick him with material things. Let me get into the clear light and manhood will be mine.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans, 6.2

My good friend Nathan (“Basil”) has produced a wonderful new film about 1) the stories of religiously unaffiliated persons or “nones” and 2) the story of how he went from being a none to finding the Orthodox Church.

You can watch the trailer above.

There is a press release here.

The film has a website, where you can request to host a screening, here.

The film’s title, Becoming Truly Human, is inspired in part by the quote from St. Ignatius about obtaining “manhood” used as the epigraph to this post. It is from his Epistle to the Romans, in which, quite shockingly to our modern sensibilities, he writes to appeal to the Christians in Rome not to try to stop his martyrdom there.

He was sentenced to death for being a Christian. According to tradition, St. Ignatius, who was second bishop of Antioch after St. Peter, was arrested in his church there for the high crime of being a Christian. He was then taken as prisoner to Rome, writing his seven surviving letters on his journey there, where he was sentenced to death by wild beast in the Colosseum.

It was this death that he told the Roman Christians not to try to prevent.

In that light, this quote — and the film — take on a whole different meaning.

The film is, in part, about religious pluralism. In particular, it is about finding meaning in a religiously pluralistic culture. Ancient Rome, despite its well-earned reputation as being religiously intolerant, was actually very religiously pluralistic. However, because the Romans’ criteria for what religions were to be tolerated required some proof of antiquity, and Christians had been expelled from the synagogues, Christianity was regarded as novel and, thus, intolerable.

There is a common vulnerability among those interviewed in the film that resonates with this. They get that what they believe — or don’t believe, as the case may be — is to some degree individualistic and, in that sense, essentially unique and novel. Ancient Christians, of course, wrote whole apologies meant to defend the antiquity of Christianity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, but existentially there is no doubt a similar anxiety between these modern nones and ancient Christians who at times worried over the dramatic consequences of simply being honest with others about their religious identity.

Thankfully, religious nones do not face literal martyrdom today, so I don’t want to draw too close of a parallel. But still, I highlight this common ground because I think it helps to make sense of Nathan’s story. Ancient Christians lived in a time where there was a (purported) free market of religion, yet nothing on offer satisfied them. If there had been demographers in ancient Rome, no doubt they wouldn’t have listed “Christian” as a valid option for survey takers. Ancient Christians, despite their membership in the institution of the Church, would have been nones in ancient Rome.

That is not all the common ground, however. St. Ignatius does make this one statement about obtaining “manhood” or humanity. But the more common theme in his letter is “get[ting] to God.” Indeed, even in this quote, he entreats his readers, “Let me get into the clear light and manhood will be mine.” From the rest of what he says, “the clear light” is clearly God himself.

The beliefs about the supernatural among those interviewed in Becoming Truly Human range from atheist to agnostic to some belief in God or, at least, a higher, transcendent reality. Some speak at times in pantheistic terms. Common to all of them, however, is a search for a deeper meaning to life than what they were presented as children, most of them coming from Christian backgrounds.

By telling his own story at the same time, Nathan draws out the implication that perhaps the Christianity many in the West know isn’t the only one on offer. Maybe instead of how to get out of hell, there is a Christianity that teaches how to “get to God.”

Finding Orthodox Christianity was certainly a turning point in my own spiritual development, but my story is different than Nathan’s in some important ways. My encounter with the Christian East, like his, came first through reading the Church fathers (at his suggestion!). But while somewhat between denominations at the time, I wasn’t really all that dissatisfied with where I was, truth be told. I wouldn’t have called myself a none. But, similar to Nathan, I found myself captivated by a Christianity I hadn’t known to have existed before, a faith which included all that was good from my upbringing and education, but something far greater: a path, a way of life, to “get to God.”

True, for St. Ignatius, getting to God is certainly a postmortem reality, in the literal sense. So much so that if being devoured by wild animals is the way to get there, he’s ready and willing to accept that.

But it would be mistaken to read St. Ignatius as only thinking in terms of the future, a mistake Becoming Truly Human does not make, I would hasten to add. The Gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ, is not just the promise of a better future, but the foretaste of that future in the present. Therein lies what I didn’t even know I was missing, what I think many nones long for far more than any assurance about the afterlife (even if one should care quite a great deal about the possibility of an afterlife). The journey is not the destination, of course, but knowing that the journey itself can be enjoyed makes all the difference in the world. In fact, it makes all the difference far beyond the world as well.

My favorite part of this film, which is artfully produced in its own right, is the ending (spoiler alert!). At the very end, just before fading to the quote above from St. Ignatius, Nathan is on the street talking with, for lack of a more precise term, normal people. They are of course unique human persons, and a few of them are abnormally gifted break dancers, but the point is that they appear to be the sort of people anyone might bump into on the streets of any city in the country. We don’t get to hear what they are saying, as music plays over the scene. But we see people enjoying the everyday, and then at Nathan’s suggestion, one by one standing in front of a background that makes them look like a saint in an icon, with a nimbus behind their heads.

The phrase, “becoming truly human,” raises lots of questions. What is “true” humanity? What does the “becoming” look like?

St. Ignatius suggests that true humanity and its becoming look like martyrdom: martyrdom for Jesus Christ, martyrdom to get to God, yes. But also martyrdom for the right to find and walk that path, martyrdom for religious freedom.

Those who read this blog regularly known that, to me, the ascetic way of life is inherently martyric. Every moment, I must learn how to put to death all that is within me — not as an end in itself but in order that every aspect of my identity might continually be raised above the limits of my humanity, in order that this finitude might embody infinity, in order that this corruptible might put on incorruption, in order that this mere human might “get to God.”

What does that look like? For normal people, of whom I generously count myself, that doesn’t look like perfection. Were we perfect now, we’d have no need for “becoming.” Rather, it means living life, whether that is being a parent or working a job or making a film or break dancing with one’s friends on the street. What’s different? The spirit with which such acts are done: as instruments of virtue, sanctification, and righteousness, and therein meaning.

Among other things, I found in the Orthodox Church a Christianity that still cares about that becoming and still knows the way to progress in it. This is not to disparage other traditions, it is only to share my story. Of course, like Nathan I want everyone else to have what I’ve found and love what I love too. But I also know that there is virtue in the everyday, and that where a person is at must be honored before one will ever entertain anything else.

I’m happy to recommend a film that so artfully understands that as well.

 

 

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