Mere Morality

mere-moralityWhat makes an action moral? I use the word to describe something done in an effort to conform to a rule, a law, or a principle. It is a matter of the will and a matter of effort. All societies require some form of moral behavior. If there were no such behavior, life would be unpredictable, unstable, and quite dangerous. Governments encourage some form of morality (it is the sole purpose of laws). Most religions also endorse a code or moral rule.

Having said all of that – I want to be clear that I do not suggest that people engage in immorality. However…

Morality is not the province of Christianity, nor is the Kingdom of God a matter of moral effort. I have written elsewhere that “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good…He died in order to make dead men live.”

The work of the Holy Spirit in the human life involves the true transformation of the Person. We are not commanded to behave, but to become.

This same principle runs throughout the sacraments of the Church. And the pattern of the sacraments is the pattern of our salvation. Baptism is not a matter of behavior (mere obedience to a command). Baptism is a true union with Christ in His death and resurrection.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2Co 5:17)

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal 6:15)

The waters of Baptism become the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Eucharist is not a new behavior for bread and wine, but a new reality is revealed: they become the true Body and Blood of Christ. We do not eat and drink as a moral act, or a memorial. We eat the true Body and drink the true Blood in order to live.

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. (Joh 6:53-55)

There is within our culture a constant pull towards a moral model. The demand that others conform to an external rule, and the drive to force the same on ourselves, is a distraction that draws us away from the truth of our lives. We fail in our repeated moral attempts and secretly upbraid ourselves. With others we become consumed by anger. And both are driven by the pool of shame that failure generates.

But the nature of our life-problem is not failure to behave correctly. Were there to be someone who always acted in a proper moral manner – they would still be as sick as everyone around them. The sinlessness of Christ does not describe His unfailing conformity to the Jewish Law. It is rather His utter integrity with the Father – He is one with the Father and nothing ever severs that relationship.

Moral performance does not secure our union with God.

Christ on the mount of Transfiguration is what the truly “moral” man looks like. Our goal is not conformity to a standard, but life from the dead.

We are able to make “moral” judgments. Societies legislate morality (for this is the sole concern of the law). The good order of a culture is largely measured by its general conformity to its moral code. But this conformity is not the goal of the Christian faith. We have something far greater in mind.

I have noted a tendency among some to treat the Church’s concern for the environment as a moral goal (which is entirely appropriate). But some have confused this moral goal as somehow of a piece with the true goal of the transfiguration of creation. If every scintilla of pollution ceased at this very moment and the climate stabilized for the remainder of our planet’s existence, nothing relevant to the Kingdom of God would have been established. For our goal is not a moral planet (expressed in our stewardship). The proclamation of the gospel is that God has a goal and a purpose in all creation that transcends every moral effort of humanity. The created will be united with the uncreated.  This will not be a measure of its environment but the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Some are troubled (I’ve noticed) when such statements are made, fearing that they lessen the moral demands for stewardship of the environment. That may be, though it is not my intent (and thus not the intent of properly stated theology). But the gift of God is inexorable – not depending on human action. That Christ makes bread to be His body is not therefore a moral demand for better baking (though we should present the finest work of human hands at His altar).

The transformation of creation is the promise of a good God in the face of all human failure and of a creation “made subject to futility.” None of us can predict what the outcome of human habitation of our planet will be. We may yet be so silenced that any comment from the Church on the topic will be unheard. The seas may turn into wormwood and the planet breathe poison as in the earliest days of its formation. I think it completely likely that the planet will reflect the bankruptcy of mankind in every way.

But the transformation will come. That is a gospel promise.

We shall be changed. Everything shall be changed. And that’s the moral of this story.

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All articles are by Fr. Stephen Freeman unless otherwise noted. Fr. Stephen is Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN.

Comments

  1. mary benton says

    Much to think about here, Fr. Stephen. But, before I ponder further, I wanted to seek clarification.

    “Morality is not the provence of Christianity” (I assume this is a typo and you mean “province”, as in domain or responsibility?)

    I think I am following the overall direction of your article and am certainly not disagreeing with it. However, I might be more inclined to say that the goal of Christianity goes far beyond mere moral behavior.

    “We are not commanded to behave…” It seems to me that we are, in the Ten Commandments, for example, and in many of the teachings of Jesus, e.g. “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

    However, we would be gravely mistaken if we thought that was all that was involved. Or that we could follow these commands through mere effort, as we might follow traffic laws. And this is where transformation comes in.

    Am I understanding the basic premise? Or still on the wrong boat?