Reflecting on yesterday’s post, I thought it worthwhile to share these thoughts again on the nature of our salvation. It offers a short summary of the difference between a moral and an existential understanding of the Christian faith and why the difference matters. Indeed, as I look through my writings I know this is a recurring theme. It recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world.
The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).
I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.
1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.
2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.
3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.
So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)
Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.
My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.
I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.
The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.
It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.
The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are notcreatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.
One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)
This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”
The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existencethat has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”
And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.
In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.
Photo: From a hike in Zion National Park.
Father- I truly enjoyed that.It spoke to me on a non-verbal level answering and affirming at the same time.Thankyou for your musings.May God richly bless your ministry to his sheep.
“And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are”.
Thank you for this post Father. One thing that comes in mind is what our priest told us. If we live everyday as if we will be dying tomorrow what kind of feeling that will be…
We have been baptized into his death to live as the children of the resurrection. We should nourish this life with the food of immortality.
Great Father! This is a great blessing for me personally! This article is like peeling off my old way of viewing the nature of things! And I love the part of ‘try hard to be good or to do what we thing God wants”, that is very typical. Some days ago, I received this beautiful advice from my friend:
“All you have to do is follow closely behind Him, and you will begin to change into His image, as you do what you see Him doing.”
Thanks! Bless me, Father!
oops, forgive me some of my spelling errors, Father!
*Great, Father* and think*
Great encouragement Father Stephen. I what you are saying here is very similar to the Reformed/Calvinistic view of things. We are not bad because we do bad things but we do bad things because we are bad. We need a new heart more than anything. Moreover, we need Christ more than anything. It is interesting that Calvin thought the most necessary part of salvation was union with Christ too.
Justin- Now if we can only get calvinists to see this!
Another excellent article Father !
Don’t stop this much needed Ministry !
And just because you don’t hear from everyone, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been read, remembered & acted upon either !!
God Bless !
Thank you for re-posting this. Can you tell me where I can read more about this:
“It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. ”
I am studying the 17th Century right now and am realizing the emperical shift in understanding reality. It seems that this pre-Enlightment change would also be contributing to the focus on morality over existance. Any thoughts on this or reading suggestions would be quite welcome.
FYI – so far A. Louth’s _Discerning the Mystery_ has been the closest I have found to an examination of this shift/what to do about it. His understanding of allegory and a return to Tradition seem intergral to what you are also discussing.
Thank you for your writing. Please continue to pray for us!
Ron – “Justin- Now if we can only get calvinists to see this!” Of course the same could be said of the Orthodox.
“Very similar” – Justin. Being careful not to be contentious, I must say my nearly 25 years as a Reformed Calvinist it is profoundly dissimiliar to the Orthodox Tradition. Both in theology and (consequently) practice. Concepts such as predestination, the nature of the Church and divine simplicity (to name but a few, there are many others) were developed and are understood in ways foreign to Orthodoxy. I mean to say this not to be antagonistic (and I certainly don’t expect any protestant to agree). One has to become Orthodox to discover these many differences (some subtle I must admit, but nonetheless of great import) and the impact they have on our lives. It is our understanding of the nature things that indeed make a world of difference. Thank you Fr. Stephen for once again pointing this out to us.
“We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die.”
Thank you, Father, for clarifying this again.
Fr Stephen, thank you. Your blog, with its wisdom, has been a blessing in my life.
“We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand.”
Fr. Stephen, Would you be so kind as to clarify this. You simply state that we are not creatures of choice and then go on to say that we “do” indeed choose, just that we are not always aware of how and why we make certain choices. I would agree that the matter is complex but it still seems that we are creatures that choose even if not aware of everything beyond the surface level. Do we not “Choose” to participate in “Grace”? Are you also saying that we are not fully responsible for our choices by having a limited ability to choose? Please forgive me, I would just like to see how these two sentences fit together. Thanks, Stephen W
We did not choose to be born, for instance, thus we are not creatures of choice, but of gift. So much of our life is not the product of choice or decision – much that is quite important. Father Alexander Schmemann put it this way: “The Spiritual life consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.” Certainly our dealing is a matter of choice and decision (to a large extent) but what we have to work with often is not. We “chose” grace, and yet even grace makes the choice possible (not pre-determined, but possible). Choice and decision are important, but they are simply aspects of our lives. Unless I do something really stupid, I won’t have a lot of choice over the timing and manner of my death. We chose to have children, but I did not “choose” my children – they were all gifts from God for which I was given a measure of stewardship. I “chose” to become Orthodox, but Orthodoxy is not the product of my choice. Thus my decision is a yielding and what I receive is a gift which is greater than I am and is molding and shaping me in ways I could not have foreseen nor chosen. God is great and we are small. His gifts are so far greater than our ability to understand that “choice” and “decision” have to be seen as perhaps not as great as our culture tends to make them. They are important, indeed. But our lives are simply so much greater.
Father Steven, since you are in Tenessee, are you familiar with this?
Yes, I am familiar with him and have met him. He does good work, as far as I know.
Thankyou ever-so for your words !