I wasn’t sure how to title this post. One part of me wanted to say, “It’s really all ontological,” but that would lose half my readers in the maze of theological/philosophical vocabulary. I also thought about entitling it, “It’s not what you do but what you are,” and that might have been better than what I chose. My podcast this weekend on Ancient Faith Radio will also touch on this same subject.
And the subject is this: the moral life is not about the moral life – it’s really about a matter of life or death. This is the great crisis that passes some people by while others are confronted with it square on. If you read about the life of Dostoevsky the writer, you discover that his entire life’s work really flows from a near-death experience courtesy of the Tsar. Arrested for involvement with a “revolutionary” group, he was sentenced to death. The Tsar really only wanted to teach a lesson, so, at the last minute, death sentences were commuted to a few years in Siberia’s prisons. And I mean at the last minute. Dostoevsky was standing in line for the firing squad when a rider from the Tsar showed up with the commuted sentence. He described the scene in a letter to his brother some twenty years after the event. It also shows up in veiled scenes in his novels. But standing at the abyss of death he saw the world completely transformed. Time seemed to stand still and the utter value and beauty of life flooded his awareness. The result, in time, was an Orthodox Christian Dostoevsky, who grasped the Church’s teaching on the true nature of the moral life (of life itself) like no other novelist in history.
I would have to take a reader back to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, to find anywhere near the clarity of our human predicament.
We saw in the last chapter that, because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? (2.6)
Of course, the answer to St. Athanasius’ question is the incarnation of the Word of God and the entire economy of our salvation. But it is how he frames the question that is of importance here.
Man…was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.
It is this realization that the nature of sin at work in us is not a compilation of bad test grades, a gradual legal debt being incurred by our bad actions, but, in fact, a movement away from God and a verging on non-existence: that is key. Our problem is not moral (as in keeping laws); our problem is that we stand on the edge of an abyss of non-being (from which we came). Only the free gift of life in Christ stands between us and non-being. Who cares about our legal status? We’re talking about existence!
That is the realization which struck Dostoevsky, and it is the proper realization to strike every Christian, if he or she is to be struck in the Orthodox manner. For myself, I came early to this realization through a collection of family tragedies that included the death of loved ones and the murder of another relative very close to me – all in the tenth year of my life. I was a premature existentialist. One who found the moralistic bromides of cultural protestantism absolutely insufficient.
The mystery of the Church (which I first encountered among Episcopalians) came close. And I spent twenty-eight years among them. But during that time I began to discover St. Athanasius and the tradition of the Orthodox Church (Dostoevsky included) and eventually my heart carried me to the place where the answers were stated most clearly and unabashedly. That is, I came to the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I still think of this daily, as I contemplate my sins. I think of it daily as I serve as a priest and hear confessions. It is not the legal peccadilloes that we share in our confessions, but the evidence of death and decay at work in our heart. At every moment we stand at the edge of the abyss, and Christ alone pulls us back and draws us towards the fullness of being.
And so my title: “It’s really all about being.” It’s just that serious – but also just that saving. Our relationship with Christ is securing for us an existence that is beyond corruption and death. The healing we experience is no mere legal absolution of our sins, but the healing of our very being.
At the core of my heart I cry: “I do not want to die – but to live – and to live in the image and likeness of God!” And for that heart’s cry, Christ was born.