In recent posts I have contrasted morality with ontological, as well as existential, etc. I’ve had comments here and elsewhere in which people stumbled over the terms. The distinction offered is not a private matter. Orthodox theologians for better than a century have struggled to make these points as being utterly necessary to the life of the Orthodox faith. The following is a small article of mine that tries to do some of the same. In a nutshell: morality is “life according to rules or reasonable philosophies.” The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian life. Rather the word ontological is more proper: it means have to do with the very being of someone – their essence. What we need is not a change in behavior (morality) but a change in who we are (ontology). Christ came to change us, not reform us.
Morality does not use Orthodox means – it’s all in the “head.” It is rules. Ontological change requires that our very being or existence (thus the word existential) be united with Christ, His life becomes our life and thus we live a new life. Once this fundamental approach is understood, so we can begin to under the mysteries of the Church and the true character of our life in Christ. Thus this article – a meager thing meant to be of some help.
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 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 not creatures 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 existence that 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 30 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 twelve 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.