Many readers have never before heard that there is no such thing as moral progress – so I am not surprised that I have been asked to write in more depth on the topic. I will start by focusing on the question of sin itself. If we rightly understand the nature of sin and its true character, the notion of moral progress will be seen more clearly. I will begin by clarifying the difference between the notion of morality and the theological understanding of sin. They are two very different worlds.
Morality (as I use the word) is a broad term that generally describes the adherence (or lack of adherence) to a set of standards or norms for behavior. In that understanding, everybody practices some form of morality. An atheist may not believe in God, but will still have an internalized sense of right or wrong as well as a set of expectations for himself and others. There has never been a universally agreed set of moral standards. Different people, different cultures have a variety of moral understandings and ways of discussing what it means to be “moral.”
I have observed and written that most people will not progress morally. This is to say that we do not generally get better at observing whatever standards and practices we consider to be morally correct. On the whole, we are about as morally correct as we ever will be.
This differs fundamentally with what is called “sin” in theological terms. The failure to adhere to certain moral standards may have certain aspects of “sin” beneath it, but moral failings are not the same thing as sin. In the same manner, moral correctness is not at all the same thing as “righteousness.” A person could have been morally correct throughout the whole of their lifetime (theoretically) and still be mired in sin. Understanding sin will make this clear.
“Sin” is a word that is used frequently in a wrong manner. Popularly it is used either to denote moral infractions (breaking the rules), or, religiously, breaking God’s rules. Thus when someone asks, “Is it a sin to do x,y, z?” what they mean is, “Is it against God’s rules to do x,y, z?” But this is incorrect. Properly, sin is something quite distinct from the breaking of rules – St. Paul speaks of it in quite a different manner:
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Rom 7:18-20)
“Sin that dwells in me?” Obviously “breaking the rules” is not a meaning that fits this use in any possible way. Sin has a completely different meaning. We can take its meaning again from St. Paul:
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:20-23)
Here sin is something to which we can be in bondage, and whose end is death. So what is sin?
Sin is a word that describes a state of being – or, more properly, a state or process of non-being. It is a movement away from our proper existence – God’s gift to His creation. God alone has True Being – He alone is self-existing. Everything else that exists is contingent – it is utterly dependent at every moment upon God for is existence. When God created us, according to the Fathers, He gave us existence. As we grow in communion with Him we move towards well-being. His final gift for us, and that union towards which we properly move, is eternal being.
But there is an opposite to this life of grace. This is a movement towards non-existence, a movement away from God and a rejection of well-being. It is this movement that is called “sin.” We can be in bondage to it, like a leaf trapped in an eddy of water. Sin is not anything itself (for non-being has no existence). But it is described in Scripture by words such as “death” and “corruption.” Corruption or “rot” (φθορά) is an excellent word for describing sin. For it is the gradual dissolution (a dynamic movement or process) of a formerly living thing – its gradual decay into dust.
This differs strikingly from the idea of sin as the breaking of moral rules. The breaking of a rule implies only an outward error, a merely legal or forensic infraction. Nothing of substance is changed. But the Scriptures treat sin far more profoundly – it is itself a change in substance, a decay of our very being.
And here is where some creative re-thinking becomes necessary. The habits of our culture are to think of sin in moral terms. It is simple, takes very little effort, and agrees with what everyone around you thinks. But it is theologically incorrect. That is not to say that you can’t find such moralistic treatments within the writings of the Church – particularly from writings over the past several centuries. But the capture of the Church’s theology by moralism is a true captivity and not an expression of the Orthodox mind.
So how do we think of right and wrong, of spiritual growth, of salvation itself if sin is not a moral problem? We do not ignore our false choices and disordered passions (habits of behavior). But we see them as symptoms, as manifestations of a deeper process at work. The smell of a corpse is not the real problem and treating the smell is not at all the same thing as resurrection.
The work of Christ is the work of resurrection. Our life in Christ is not a matter of moral improvement – it is life from the dead. We are buried into His death – and it is a real death – complete with all that death means. But His death was not unto corruption. He destroyed corruption. Our Baptism into Christ’s death is a Baptism into incorruption, the healing of the fundamental break in our communion with God.
So what does that healing look like? Is it wrong to expect some kind of progress to be taking place?
My life experience (34 years as a priest) and reading of the Fathers and the Tradition suggest that such expectations are indeed misplaced. I puzzled over this for many years. I have come to think of our salvation as similar to the reality of the sacraments. What do you see in the Eucharist? Does the Bread and the Wine go through a progressive change? Do we see a transformation before our very eyes?
What seems to be true is that our salvation is largely hidden – sometimes even from ourselves. The Christian faith is “apocalyptic” in its very nature – it is a “revealing of that which is hidden.” The parables of filled with images of surprise: a treasure discovered, etc. Salvation has a way of just appearing. I often think of the liturgical drama in an Orthodox liturgy as imaging this very thing – thus the doors and the curtain and the “now you see it – now you don’t – now you really see it” flow of the service.
Finding our salvation means turning away from the appearance of things. It requires a deep and fundamental inward re-orientation of our lives. It requires the inward work of repentance. The moral life is lived on the surface – even atheists behave in a moral manner. When we turn towards Christ-in-us, we move beneath the surface. We begin to see how ephemeral and confused our actions are.
These actions are mostly the work of a false self, an ego that is broken and shamed and struggles frantically “to be better.” But the heart of the Christian spiritual life is not through this path of an improved ego, but through the path of “death to self,” in which we lose an existence that is not our true self, and learn an existence that is ours in Christ. But what we see is often something else. For while we are finding the truth, the other still clings to its false existence – and this is primarily what we see and what others see. The hidden work of salvation remains unseen.
It is not at all unusual in the lives of the saints for the sanctity of an individual to remain hidden until their death. This was the case for St. Nectarios of Aegina. He was dismissed by many, though seen truly by a few. But at his death, miracles began to flow from him, and suddenly the stories began to surface.
And mysteriously, it seems this hidden life is often just as hidden from the saint themselves (just as our own true life is hidden from us). I think God preserves us from the burden of this knowledge for the sake of our salvation.
Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory. (Col 3:2-4)
This is, again, the apocalyptic character of the Christian life. We are dead and our true lives are hid with Christ in God – and they will appear when He appears.
So what do we see in this life? The simple answer is clear: Christ. It is not our own improvement we search for, but Christ. Our own improvement slowly ceases to matter as we find Christ. And the more we find Him, the more clearly the false nature of the ego seems clear to us, and we can say, “I am the worst of all sinners.”
Thanks Father. When I present the Orthodox Church to non-Orthodox believers as a hospital, they marvel. So refreshing compared to all they usually hear about sin in other denominations. I’m sure you know the amazing book by Larchet, Thérapeutique des maladies spirituelles, finally available also in English. His perspective is right on target, pun unintended actually.
In case you need a refresher, I put the TOC on my blog: http://wordsandpeace.com/2013/12/25/short-eastern-orthodox-book-reviews/
Thank you so much, Father!
I have the book. It’s in my waiting to be read pile.
Again, Fr., I love this.
I have long had such thoughts, mostly thanks to the venerable Dallas Willard and his many teachings on Death to Self. The truth of these considerations are still taking hold, however.
I will not say that ethics, virtue theory, and philosophy of religion were unworthy pursuits for my graduate studies, but I will say that a degree in such topics has done little in the way of spiritual growth. This is, as you suggest, due to the weird conflation of behavioral, theoretical, and largely descriptive abstractions that at best name the mysterious side effects of a life, a reality wholly independent of our philosophical projects.
Thank you for the clear and challenging reminder.
Very helpful post, Father. I was especially struck by the paragraph I excerpted here.
The first time I began to understand this was in a brief statement on “Humans of New York”. An Orthodox priest said: “People aren’t bad, they’re sick. And sick people do bad things.”
There’s a book called “I, Zombie”, in which the experience of being a zombie is told from the point of view of various people still conscious, but trapped within a body that has its own needs and does horrific things. Some people grow to enjoy the experience; some people struggle against it; some people find that while they have no control, they can exert a subtle influence. All the while their bodies are decaying around them. This is as close as I can come to an understanding of the sin problem.
Thanks for this, though I confess I still don’t understand. In many ways, it seems like semantics. Isn’t “progress” just moving towards what we’re supposed to be – dying to self? It’s not necessary to define “progress” as “following all the rules”.
Is there any reason, in this view, for people to bother with goodness and virtue since we should instead busy ourselves with “dying to self”? True, analyzing our level of morality can cause us to focus more on self, but what are we to make of exhortations to love?
Also, the tradition that I come from most definitely does see sin as a forensic issue, not an ontological one. Father, I’ve really gotten a lot out of your critique of the problems that this creates .
Good article, Father, but I still think it is a matter of semantics. I always included everything you lay out in this article as part of the moral framework.
I don’t understand this in any definitive way, just as I don’t understand how I found the Orthodox Church, and I don’t understand the never-ending beauty of the hymns (which use melodies by now memorized) and, oh! that the Mother of God was rather suddenly “real” to me, after I had so long questioned her.
It’s true–I don’t understand. But, along with all the junk I keep doing that shows my weaknesses and decay, there is the absolute beauty of the services. I will go to confession even when, because of a kind of numbness, I don’t know what to say..I will go and mutter through it. Because of those prayers, and the incense, and candles, and the Eucharist–even the taste and fragrance of the wine, and the people in whose midst I stand.
Thank God for all of you, who ask and seek and push this heavy burden of fixing ourselves off the shoulders.
What a terrific clarifiction…! What a clear ending.
As Elder Aimilianos often repeated: “I am the absence of Him“
Thanks for this post father. I hope some exploration along these lines will find its way into your work on modernism.
I had just come across a post by Owen White (known as the ochlophobist in blogging circles) in which he claims many people (especially converts) leave Orthodoxy because “…the practices and peculiar beliefs it espouses simply do not achieve the results it asserts correspond to those right beliefs and practices.” I think your post here addresses this issue by dispelling the notion that most people who are serious and devout are going to show outward signs of theosis in what remains of their lifetimes. Your perspective would certainly head off the frustration of those who think they should be making more progress with their faith and have a picture of progress in their minds that is unlikely to manifest even after decades of faithfulness.
A question that comes to me after reading your post is do you think death and resurrection will bring a significant transformation (I have been thinking a lot about Fr. John Behr’s theological work under the theme of “becoming human” and not being spared one’s own death as a birth into a transformed life of the Kingdom). Or, might it be like Gregory of Nyssa seems to teach and the process of transformation might still be slow after death, only now the fire of Christ’s presence reveals all the hay and stubble and the process is intensified, perhaps even made more painful. There does appear to be a period between the resurrection and Final Judgment and God finally being “all in all” when Christ has put everything under his feet (which I take to mean all false things and deathward impulses are obliterated). Forgive me if this seems like an invitation to speculate endlessly. I am more interested in the idea of when being transformed into a saint (which I take as a given for every Christian) is undeniable (even if the person herself doesn’t know it has happened) from at least an outside perspective.
Finally, what do you think of Jacques Ellul’s notion regarding morality that “What is not acceptable to God is that we should decide on our own what is good and what is evil. Biblically, the good is in fact the will of God. That is all. What God decides, whatever it may be, is the good. If, then, we decide what the good is, we substitute our own will for God’s. We construct a morality when we say (and do) what is good, and it is then that we are radically sinners” (from The Subversion of Christianity)? I ask because atheists often take pride in having a clear moral code without religion and almost universally consider themselves to be “good people.” It seems like there is a sense in which being moral is not merely irrelevant to the ontological state of being mired in sin, but may actually be a condition that makes ones slavery to sin all the more pronounced.
Thank you, Father Stephen, for these last few posts, they have enlightened me immensely on this subject. We can read the Fathers and the Scriptures for years and never see what is written there so clearly! Culture clutters the mind.
Sometimes, when we are physically ill but have no glaring symptoms, we might say we are ‘one degree under’, ‘not quite on par today’, or something like that. We know we are ill, but can’t exactly describe how our symptoms are. I’ve known people who are very seriously ill, indeed on death’s doorstep, describe themselves in this way.
Spiritual illness seems very similar. Like the deep organs of the body, we are not truly aware of the soul’s inner workings, for we have no nerves there. This, perhaps, is why we need the Spiritual Doctor. We need to be observed from outside, so that by our works the state of our spirit can be diagnosed.
I have come to think of sin as “growth in the wrong direction”. If we could say that we are called to grow “upward” like a tree – toward God (the image is but imperfect but bear with it) growing upright, and strong, deeply rooted and bearing fruit. But sin is growth into every other direction but up, a refusal or rebellion against growing upward and so it grows like a creeping weed, strangling and suffocating and killing everything around it. Its own growth and survival is at the expense of other living things, and it is continually dying off leaving this matting of dead debris in its wake as it grows forever sideways, away from the light.
Need some careful clarification in one sense.
The outward signs can (sometimes), and should (in one sense at least), be glaringly obvious; but they invariably retain an ability to be ‘unseen’ all at the same time! Just, as Fr John Behr likes to say, “if you were to see Christ while sitting at a Starbucks in Jerusalem 2000 years earlier you might have not seen anything special in Him, or you might have left all behind and followed…”
Similarly encountering someone after their profound life-changing confession can manifest a palpably obvious change. Many people – though not all – might perceive and interpret it correctly. This still leaves the rest however, free to interpret it wrongly. Similarly, seeing an old man standing immovable in Church for hours, with the signs of joy, attention and compunction on his face is something outwardly ‘manifest’ (e.g.: ‘he stands for ages!’ or, ‘he wouldn’t have done that in his youth when he was living a life of sin’). But this ontological transformation and reorientation with outward signs and testaments is not a “self-progress”; let me explain: Saint Mary the Egyptian knew not that she was a sinner when she languished in her ‘addiction’, when she went into the desert however and was enveloped by the personal Light that is Christ -the only healer- she knew for the first time the true depth of her sinfulness – but this ontologically transforming knowledge wouldn’t ever be described as “I am progressing morally”, -that’s impossible- rather we could describe it as “He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease”
I have a historical question. Did Augustine believe this definition of sin? If he did, this would recast the whole original/ancestral sin debate.
Dear Fr. Stephans,
Thank you for you enlightening comments on a very difficult subject, what is sin? Difficult to today’s world because we are bombasted, indoctrinated with the official moral stance is that killing is good.
I have just watched BBC 20 episode production of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. How coincidental that this is the question posed throughout this great work, what is sin? and, happiness is to be found in the gift of life.
It seems like we have progressed to the point of being incapable of getting this, at least here in the West with our demonization of Russia and Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. Instead of going to war with Ukraine, Putin sent food and water, 200 trucks. I was so impressed with the Priest who not only blessed the trucks, but jumped into the lead truck to accompany them all the way. We, in our sad and tawdry America, have absolutely no understanding of this. So, for us, sin is a very simple thing because Americans don’t sin.
Your comment was especially helpful. Thank you. As a person who has participated in 12-step, seems to me that moral progress can be quite obvious. It’s a large part of why i came to Orthodoxy.
The only thing i don’t really understand is why we need to make such heavy weather over the word “moral.” i understand “moral” here is being given a distinctively modern definition. But even though i grew up with some modern notions, i don’t think i had such a careful, clearly modern understanding of the word “moral.” If you wanna say that saints wouldn’t be inclined to say “Hey, i’m much better at rule-keeping,” then, okay; but i guess even in my low-church evangelical upbringing, i really didn’t encounter such a clearly, reductive view of morality.
So at this point i relate to several other commentators who have mentioned semantics. But my initial response to this post and previous ones was that, well, i guess Christianity is just hopeless and despairing–Orthodox or not. All because we don’t like a word? i’m not convinced this dialectic is helpful; or at least, it doesn’t seem like the pay-off in understanding is worth the potential cost of misunderstanding.
And i would’ve been stuck with that misunderstanding if it weren’t for your comment, Dino. Seriously, thank you.
I always noted when I was studying with Hauerwas, that he refused to be considered an “ethicist.” He was a theologian. Though, truth told, he did not venture onto the ground of this article.
Being in my generation, I have not become involved in the Zombie phenomenon. But you have just given me the first explanation of why it might have a certain popularity. Theologically, we are all Zombies, on something wonderful has been birthed in us that will restore us to life. Interesting.
It is semantically always possible to speak of progress. But the word will quickly by hijacked by the culture and twisted. The more we come to understand the struggle, even in small ways, the more we will be able to love in the right way, and live in a manner that is the truth. We want real virtue, not the sham moral copy of it. Only death to self and alive in Christ can give this. Virtue has a name: Christ.
Right now, the right question has not confronted you. When it does, you’ll see that this is not semantics. And the light will come on.
I found Dino’s comment helpful as well. St. Mary of Egypt is a very poignant example. In 12-step life, the rules (morality) didn’t keep anyone sober. The 12 steps are not moral rules – they are a path of self-emptying (Let go, let God). The moral self-examination is only to diagnose symptoms, but nowhere in the program is the advice ever, “Try harder.” That is the problem with mere morality. The miracle of 12 step life is in its Higher Power, not in morality. And the Higher Power’s name is Jesus, whose humility is so profound that He even lets people call Him “Higher Power.”
Isaac, et al
I should say to all that I don’t write as I do in order to argue with Modernity, or Morality, or the West, etc. These “arguments” are only engagements with our common culture – and I engage them in the manner I do in order to teach. This is to teach good theology, as is given to us in the Tradition.
There are other teachers – and not all of them are Orthodox.
Words matter – they are what we have to work with. But we learned what “sin” is from the culture. And here, I labor and write so that we can learn it from the Tradition. One way for that to happen is in such essays as these – or, at least, they can serve as a certain catalyst.
I think of this form of writing as a cultural apophaticism – to deconstruct what we think we know (and we don’t) – in order to let the truth take its place. And if no one ever made you stop and re-examine morality you would still know nothing, etc.
There are no battles for absolute meanings here – no real semantic struggles.
I remember Owen White’s despair, viz. theosis. It was one reason he cited when he abandoned Orthodoxy. I think his real reasons were probably more complicated. But I thought the point was very apt – a false moralization of theosis that is all too common. I thought that then but said and wrote nothing. But in my own pastoring, it has served as a reminder. And now I am writing and I think it’s a very important point. I pray good things for him.
I write more later on your other questions.
I must say that I am more than a little surprised by the people who are new to the idea of progress. I have been addressing it as an idea since my senior year in high school when my history teacher introduced my to Hegel ( almost 50 years ago). In one way or another my exploration of and recognition of the weakness of the idea helped lead me to the Church.
There are many works on the philosophy of history that address and critique the idea often unfavorably. But some notes that I hope will clarify why the idea does not mesh well with Orthodox practice and belief:
Progress is not just about moral advancement or any other kind of advancement, it is a false, utopian eschatology based solely on our own efforts.
The idea of progress is often tied to technological improvements which are then wrongly imputed to the improvement of humanity. That frequently leads to the idea that to perfect human beings, we must become more like machines or that machines (artificial intelligence) will replace us as “we progress” It is inevitable don’t you see?
The idea of progress is a controlling principal when taken up by politicians who weave it into their ideology. They are the “leaders of progress”. They will take you to the promised land (that false eschatology again). It has, historically led to the state forcing people to “progress” or die. It was a prominent reason that Christians were imprisoned and tortured and killed under the Soviet Communists in Russia and the countries they controlled. In the West, consumerism has become the dominant ideological expression of progress.
Progress during the 19th century was closely associated with the philosophy of positivism and with humans as solely rational/physical beings. No God, no soul the only ‘salvation’ was in progressing. Thus the identification in some people of proper morals with salvation. Morals though are simply the cultural norms for avoiding conflict.
Despite the patina to the contrary the ideology of progress is anti-human and profoundly arrogant. In some folks it becomes a deep spiritual disease and can even lead to entertaining heretical thoughts. After all “we know better” now than “back then”
The myth of Progress is a lie created by human beings to blunt the impact of our own mortality and creature-hood and propagate the idea that we are not contingent beings but “in control” of our own destiny. The myth of Progress in all of its many forms is the epitome of worshiping the created thing more than the creator.
In Christ, there is no “back then” since He is everywhere present and fills all things. In Christ, there is no linear progression as He is the Alpha and Omega. The I AM.
Part of the difficulty we all share is trying to express multi-dimensional realities in a two dimensional language. So the word progress (and all of the ideological and cultural baggage it carries) is brought into our understanding of our interrelationship with God. The Ladder of Divine Ascent and other such works play into that as well. No matter how many rungs there are on the ladder, there are an infinite number still remaining.
In the Church, in the life of each person who has been baptized and Chrismated , the fullness of Jesus Christ lives. Our realization of that fullness is lacking. Becoming more aware is not progress, it is simply becoming more aware. It is not unusual for such increased awareness to be precipitated by moral and physical failings even disastrous ones. These rip us out of our complacency, our sense of self-reliance and our false belief that we are in control.
If we are not prepared to die, if we don’t die, we cannot know Jesus Christ.
In the spiritual life there is never a time when we are not being purified, illumined and made like God. An expression of the Trinitarian reality.
Can it not be said that morality, what is moral, can change-the morality of today is much different from the morality of the 1950’s. But Christ never changes!
Among the commenters I find myself most able to identify with those who say something like, “This no-progress concept is very difficult to wrap my mind around but something tells me that it is great wisdom.”
I believe the great struggle is: If one is not to think in terms of progress in the everyday life, how then shall we live? What is the motivation that is to get us out of bed in the morning? A very good question.
What I hear you saying overall is that our lives may indeed not outwardly change much once we absorb this teaching about sin and progress; the difference is that we will stop trying to manage it.
Our job is to empty ourselves – and continuously work to keep ourselves empty – so that Christ may fill us. We will never improve and get fixed, especially not through our own moral efforts. Instead we are in the process of dying so that Christ may live in us. Our job, through confession and fighting the passions, is to admit to all that is rotting inside us and let it go – therefore leaving ourselves quite empty.
The reason why this incenses our modern minds so much is that this process is anticlimactic. It sounds extremely depressing. Our world has taught us that we have to grab life by the tail and live it to the fullest (kick some tail?), the Christian version of this being that we have to grab death, sin and the devil by the tail and thrash them severely. But a life of just admitting our failings?!
I suspect what we have here is a threshold. Those willing to cross over it will begin to understand that the saints weren’t just a bunch of masochists simply waiting for bliss on the other side. They often talked like they were experiencing the Kingdom here and now. Having Christ live inside us isn’t just like wearing the latest fashions (looks great on the outside but still leaves us inwardly empty). It is truly life-giving and the pearl of great price. Continually viewing themselves as the chief of all sinners was a tool for staying empty so that they might continue to possess the great gift of Christ.
This is a threshold. If the rich young ruler had stepped over it, he would have then understand that not only his righteous but also his current riches were as nothing more than filthy, unmentionable rags. But this crossing is not something that can be arrived at by logic; the step must be taken in faith.
Many of us would rather cling to the filthy rags of progress because at least they give us the feeling of control. Somewhere in our hearts we know these rags of control and measuring are filthy, but at least they’re ours. No one can take that away from us! Besides, everyone else we know is doing it too.
Your words are wisdom, but they are the eye of a needle through which it is difficult to peer through, let alone enter.
What culture views as “moral” is always changing. The little comparison (the 50’s) that we ourselves can do reveals this. Christ noted this when he observed that they complained to Him,`We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’ (Mat 11:17) The larger society takes its own morality so very seriously. Christ ignored it, especially the wrong use of the Law. He obeyed His Father (“I only do those things I see my Father doing”). This is not morality, this is a life of true union.
And that life of true union runs, unchanged, through the centuries. It is Christ in us.
Thank you, Drewster. I think you are spot on.
We want to get up in the morning and get back to our delusions of progress. We have drunk deeply from the modern well of kool-aid. But when we read the actual texts of the Morning Prayers, we see something different.
Of course we don’t want to sin today – to do anything not in communion with God (or so we say). But this true conversion is both easy (as easy as failing) and hard.
I have been at the bedside of many people as they died (former hospice chaplain). It’s both easy and hard – and for the same reasons. But I’ve seen it done well – and it’s glorious. In this life – and at the end of this life.
“It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
i still feel like i can’t believe what i’m reading. There is *no* progress? That, in my experience, is patently false. In 12-step, i saw people change for the better *noticeably* and i experienced it myself. If people don’t become better or undergo healing, why be a Christian? Or more to the point, why be Orthodox instead of Protestant (where i was simply worried about having my get-out-of-hell card stamped)?
But is it not true that those in 12-step groups make progress by starting with Step One? Which basically asks a person to give up any notion of making progress before going any further? Jesus says that in order to live we must first die.
But this is not a one-time event as even the 12-step literature and experience confirms. A person has to come back to that “giving up” step again and again because we keep wanting to say “I’ll take it from here, thanks” and continue on in our own strength.
In order to make any progress, we first must accept failure. And besides, from where we stand how are we to have the first clue about what progress looks like? and towards what?
It sounds to me like you’re saying that focusing on our progress is just as much trying to keep our life of this world as anything we normally identify with that (such as holding onto wealth).
As an example, worrying about whether we broke the Sexual Conduct Code today distracts from the reality that we’re completely sinful in nature regardless of our actions, and only by emptying ourselves before Christ do we have that sinful nature changed.
Or, how about something more germane to my life, worrying about the fact that I’m commenting on a website while at work (today I did, tomorrow I won’t, so therefore tomorrow I “improved”) isn’t the important thing. Rather, the important thing is focusing on the loss of the life of this world to Christ.
In doing that, I may see some changes in my actions, but that’s not the ultimate point of following Christ.
OK….Drewster, thanks for your comment. Like many here, I just can’t seem to be able to get this (despite the fact that it seems right and I desperately wish to get it). But your post was the one that most seems to have brought me closer to getting the idea.
But I have a couple of questions for you (or Fr Stephen, or anyone else who might be able to help me).
Drewster, you wrote: “Our job is to empty ourselves – and continuously work to keep ourselves empty – so that Christ may fill us. We will never improve and get fixed, especially not through our own moral efforts. Instead we are in the process of dying so that Christ may live in us. Our job, through confession and fighting the passions, is to admit to all that is rotting inside us and let it go – therefore leaving ourselves quite empty.”
OK, but HOW do I empty myself? HOW do I work continuously to keep myself empty? HOW do I die to self so that Christ may live in me?
You also wrote: “I suspect what we have here is a threshold. Those willing to cross over it will begin to………”
And you wrote: “This is a threshold. If the rich young ruler had stepped over it…..”
Again, HOW do I step over this threshold? What do I need to do? Or, how do I need to think differently?
I’m sorry. I really wish to get this idea, but just can’t seem to understand what I need to do differently, or how I need to think differently.
I agree with you – sorry we’re misunderstanding. Of course there is progress of a sort – a healing – sobriety is very real. But, sobriety is not a result of our own efforts – in that sense of moral progress. We don’t become “better” at something. We learn to live a new kind of life. The sober life is not like the old life only without mistakes. It’s a very different kind of living. It is that different “kind” of living that I’m distinguishing here.
I found Michael Bauman comment of ‘December 9, 2014 at 9:40 am’ equally useful, as was Drewster’s…
But then you re-iterated that “If people don’t become better or undergo healing, why be a Christian?”…
I do not see this at all that way. That “He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease” is certainly progress in one sense if you so wish to call it – but, [coming back to the example of] Saint Mary of Egypt… she would have never had described it that way would she!
It is healing (something she most certainly would have agreed with); but I do not think she would –while [in the desert] seeing the profound depth of her sinfulness (both after having ceased from it’s outward manifestations while still struggling against her memories for the first 17 years, as well as after having been ontologically transformed and attained freedom from passions eventually)- term that awareness progress instead of healing.
Remember: I progress. He heals… But I am the absence of God
To clarify a little, this [ “I” progress. He heals… But “I” am the absence of God] does not mean we needn’t struggle to align our entire being with Christ. The battle is fierce, but it is God-centred rather than self-centred, joyous and thankful and hopeful rather than despondent or conceited.
I have listened to a talk on suffering recently and I got there some insights that may be useful to some.
The nun giving the talk started by quoting St. Basil the Great: ‘Pay attention to yourself, not to your things (yours, those of you, no noun used in fact) or your surroundings’. My understanding of it is that we’re somehow ‘layered’.
There is the true self, the heart, the inner self, the person, the spirit, the soul of our soul – that core of us that we don’t even know ourselves, known only to God, that very deep ‘I’ that is still, unchanged, not improvable, one that can only be emptied to make place for God and that ‘I’ can either have life by being united to/filled with God or death, movement towards non-being if it stays away from God and as we say in the prayers – “resists Your great mercy”. For this ‘I’ sin is not a matter of morals, but of life or death. The fact that we are able to zombie around for a number of years is God’s second chance to us, not a proof of a third option.
Then there are the ‘ours’ (sorry for the weird translation, can’t come up with anything better), the ‘extensions’ of that mysterious ‘I’ – everything we can put ‘my’ in front – body, soul, mind, desires, etc, that seem to be subject to improvement, whether by God’s help and grace or by stubborn effort and discipline. I guess it’s at this level that the sin manifests itself in the commonly accepted understanding – desiring and doing things that break external rules.
The last level, the surroundings don’t need any explanation, they are obvious.
On a side note, the point of the talk was that we suffer and are lamed by our suffering when we confuse the true self with its extensions or surroundings, when we identify ourselves with our desires or our careers, our bodies, our brains, our children, our you-name-it. But I made grateful use of this information to clarify in my head the confusion about the nature of sin and progress.
Father, if I’m wrong, please don’t leave me in my delusion. 🙂 Thank you.
I found the two comments from Matth to be very helpful, so I hope that Dino or Fr Stephen might comment on those two.
I’ll take a stab at this:
He must increase, I must decrease.
In my Protestant upbringing, sins were the things I DID. So if I did sin X ten times on Saturday, but then tried really hard Sunday and only did sin X eight times that day, and then tried super hard on Monday, and only did sin X six times that day….that’s progress.
But in the Orthodox world, sin isn’t so much what I DO, it’s a disease I have. So if sin is what I DO (Modern, Western), then I should try harder and measure my progress. If sin is a disease/ontological condition (Orthodox), then trying harder makes no sense. All I can do, what I must do, is cry out to God for salvation. I seek His Glory and I cry out for His mercy. I ask Him to fill me. But, as Dino said, at the same time, I still engage the struggle….I ask God for strength in the struggle. Love God, love others.
Is that even close????
Yes. And, by God’s grace, we may even see that three days later, we don’t do sin “x” at all. But we would not call this “progress.” We call it “grace.” It is Christ working in us. And Christ working in us is not some substantive sort of thing so that tomorrow I have some new stability that no longer has a problem with sin x. Sin is always at the door, as it says in Genesis. But as I live in Christ, I become able to live in freedom, as I live in Christ, but not as I progress.
This sounds subtle, perhaps, or even semantic. But the subtlety is in our own heads because when we get this wrong, we say to Christ, “Ok. I can take it from here.” And we’re back to where we started.
In the 12 steps, there is a recognition that you do not become progressively “not an addict.” If you stop living the program and working the steps, you go back – not to a gradual build up again of the addiction – but very, very shortly – back to the full blown disease and worse. So it’s not a progress – it is a living in remission – as Christ lives in me. And this until our dying breath.
My reward is not my “not doing x.” My reward is Christ.
I think that theosis is sometimes described in terms of progress because we can never exhaust God or our capacity for deification.
That theosis can be described as “progress” makes it attractive to former Evangelicals, like me, who’s Christianity had been a matter of keeping a get-out-of-hell card in the shirt pocket (as guy describes above).
Once an Evangelical is “saved” what is there left to do but personal or moral improvement? It seems like a perfectly reasonable way to proceed until our final day comes.
Father & Dino
Well, that is helpful, and i was just misunderstanding.
Though, i’m still not seeing the motivation for the strong aversion to the words “progress” or “moral.” When a patient in a hospital is recovering or getting better, that’s progress, no? If i experience God’s healing of my spiritual infirmities, that’s progress, no? And it’s moral progress–more healing from sin is better (of greater value) than less, no? If not, why not? i’m still having trouble seeing who the clear dialectical opponent is.
i would like to ask something related though: What about the view that part of the Christian ethic is eschatological?–that is, part of our responsibility is to participate in the in-breaking of Christ’s kingdom into the present world? In other words, should life as it will be in the resurrection move us to live and operate as though things have already changed? i fully admit, i got this idea entirely from reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope just a year or so before i decided to become Orthodox. i understand the view to suggest that a certain kind of progress–that Christ and Christians really can make a difference in the present world. Now, i’m wondering how Orthodox that view is.
I think they are calling it “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Orthodoxy sees therapy and theosis – but when it is understood in proper ontological terms (as a matter of our being) – it’s something very different. So, I’m writing to try and clear up the left over “moralistic” stuff.
Your question about exactly HOW do you empty yourself is an excellent one. You do this by letting go. Here is an example:
Let’s say you have a bad habit of smoking and you want to be rid of it. You thought it through and there isn’t really any question; you just need to do it. So you put a plan in place. Different things work for different people, but let’s just say you’re going cold turkey. No more cigarettes. Period.
So if you’re doing this while living a life of surrender and not basing it on progress, you will simply concentrate on not smoking anymore, putting up the good fight every time you get the urge.
The difference is you don’t rate yourself at the end of the day. You thank God for whatever measure of success you had, ask Him for help again tomorrow – and that’s it. You don’t keep score. You don’t have yourself on a chart inside your head, deciding where you’re at on kicking the habit. You simply remain faithful to your routine.
Whether you’ve stopped smoking by the end of your life or not is not the point. The point is that you sought to submit to Christ in all things, that He reside in us. He is the one who will change/resurrect/restore us to the person we were created to be, and not any of our feeble efforts.
We must take that stance always. One of the reasons for this is our incredible weakness to pride. It is what broke our connection to God in the first place, and it is often what derails us even when we’ve become “sober” in a troubled area of our life. We must never stop believing that, “It is not I, but the One who dwells in me.”
These things are difficult to put into words. I hope this helps.
There’s something to be said for living eschatologically. Though the “as though,” can easily reduce it simply a moral system (a new set of rules that I can work on doing without God). There can certainly be progress of a sort. What is at stake here – the “dialectical opponent,” is the notion of any description of our life or activity that is done or lived apart from God.
Here is God. Here is me. Here are his rules. He is me trying to do them. We could remove God, leave the rules, and nothing is changed. This is what I mean by morality.
But the truth is: Here is God. And I can only truly live in Him, by Him and through Him. Here is me living in God and God in me. His life can be manifest in me (the kingdom breaking through) and it will indeed keep the rules. But it is God in me, not just me trying to do it. This is the Christian life – not a moral life (as I use the term).
And when some describe the new American popular Christianity as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (that’s not an Orthodox term or one I’ve made up – google it), they are using morality in the same way I’m using it.
So what is the dialectical challenge – Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – in all of its guises, including when it’s sneaking its way into my personal Orthodox life. The real thing is so much better.
NT would be so much better if he had some ontology within his work. He’s very good and he asks a lot of questions that are on target (I think). But he lacks a real grounding and use of Patristic ontology (it’s a pretty Eastern thing). It’s not absent in Anglicanism, I might add. So he could come by it without being Orthodox. But if he did come it – he might begin to feel a pull to Orthodoxy that he’s never known. 🙂
It does seem to me, Father, that you are taking issue specifically with one particular conception of “progress,” and with secular notions of morality. The modern Western world tends to follow consequentialist/utilitarian ethics: the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, or the best outcome. Orthodoxy (I think) has much more in common with the older idea of virtue ethics, where the important part of morality, and moral growth, is the change made to one’s self. This idea has gone out of fashion, but it is very much a form of “morality”–albeit still not like Orthodoxy exactly. And, of course, we disagree with secular ethicists about the means of moral progress.
I find myself nodding with Drewster’s characterization, “Among the commenters I find myself most able to identify with those who say something like, ‘This no-progress concept is very difficult to wrap my mind around but something tells me that it is great wisdom.'”
Between the prior article and this one, however, I’m left with a question. What are the implications of this on what it means to make a good Confession? How do you recommend people prepare for Confession?
As a caveat, I mentioned to my Father Confessor that I wanted to ask you the question – I’m not trying to cherry pick advice from priests! 🙂
Thank you again for a most thought provoking blog!
In Christ –
I agree. I studied under Stanley Hauerwas, one of the leading virtue ethicists. He pretty much eschewed the term ethics as well as morality.
“Morality” as a term, has a long association with the meaning of “trying to obey the rules.” Church rules, social rules, etc. And many thinkers from Dostoevsky on down have written against morality as such. There’s nothing new, except that I write about it boldly and put it up front.
And it gets read and the thought is actually entertained – which is the point of writing, at least. So yes, of course there is “morality” in Orthodoxy –
I think two things make for the best preparation. First, as Archm. Zacharias suggests, pay attention to shame. What causes me shame right now. From what do I want to hide. And I uncover that a little (not everything all at once). And second, note what you have done wrong. But don’t analyze. Don’t judge. Don’t report on “progress” etc. Just confess your sin. My experience as a confessor (and as a penitent) is that our “progress” reports are really efforts to hide our shame.
If you sinned. Say so. Don’t worry about what the priest is going to think. (“I want him to know that I don’t do that every day…” etc.). No. Just say so.
He will ask questions if he needs to. The progress report approach tends to separate us from ourselves – we talk about ourselves like we were looking at somebody else. This makes us become “double-souled” in the language of Scripture. No. Own the sin. I stole. I cursed. I hated. I lied. Etc. And sit with it – don’t stare at it like you’re talking about someone else. To sit with it allows us to bear “a little of the shame.” And with that, there comes the possibility of tears. And this is a great gift of grace from God. Tears are a sign of God’s forgiveness.
I find it very interesting in the writing of the saints that they speak of God’s forgiveness in very long term ways. They are almost never forensic. They go to confession. They receive forgiveness. But then they talk about time – sometimes even years – until they knew that God had forgiven them. This is because they have this very ontological view. It’s not at all about earning or progressing. It’s something else. And we’re working on speaking about that something else.
Father, thank you so very much for your response and for your patience! I’m most grateful.
Drewster and Dino as well. Thanks!!
Oh Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a dead woman.
I am dead because only in Christ is there life, and He will be bringing it with Him when He returns, when I will either be judged with the life I have within Christ, or with death, because there is no life outside of Christ.
Thank you so much, Fr. Steve! I really appreciated this article. I too have been puzzled by the difference between the morality taught in ethics classes with the Gospel imperatives of Jesus! You did a great job here in bringing light to the question. I think C.S. Lewis was trying to do something similar in his book “The Great Divorce.” I remember one scene when a woman asks the angel, “Can she be redeemed who grumbles all the time?” He replied, “If she is a grumbler there is hope of redemption. If she has become a grumble there is no hope.” In this passage, he points to the cancerous effects of sin that can eventually reduce a soul to such slavery to the besetting sin to where the God created personality and calling has been corrupted to the point of rottenness. I wonder if this is the state of the fallen angels and of satan himself who “Was and IS NOT and is to come.” Perhaps his personality has utterly collapsed into the sin of pride. Sometimes I think of sin like a cancer. It is parasitical, has a life of its own, but that life is death and gradually, untreated, will take over the body of the sufferer until the result is death. The Lord, like a wise, loving physician, hates the cancer and loves the patient. Sin and death are evil twins.
Thanks again and glory be to God for your ministry, brother!
“Sin is a word that describes a state of being – or, more properly, a state or process of non-being. It is a movement away from our proper existence – God’s gift to His creation. ”
Doesn’t that improper “movement away from our proper existence” go against what God says is proper? How do you even know that your movement is improper without some sort of standard? So even that “movement away from proper existence” is a failure to conform to what God says is the standard and is a breaking of a rule.
Yes. You are correct. But breaking the “rule” of gravity does get you into trouble. It gets you into pain and smashedness. Gravity is not a “moral” problem except in a meaningless, metaphorical sense. The same is true of sin. Sin is not a problem about the rules. The rules describe a certain aspect of the problem. The consequence of sin is death – not simply a broken rule.
God in the Garden says, “In the day you eat of it you will surely die.” This is not at all the same as saying, “In the day you eat of it I will punish you by killing you.” Sin describes the first statement. Morality is how we misunderstand and twist the Biblical account. God did not kill them. They died. After a lot of years. But death was not “unnatural.” “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” What fails in the Fall is our union with God, through which and only through which we could have not just life, but eternal life.
When I first came into the Church, an Orthodox friend suggested I read Yannaras’ “Freedom of Morality.” Like Drewster expresses above, I had the very distinct sense that there was wisdom there, even if I couldn’t apprehend all of it at that time. I often return to that book. Yannaras comes at “morality” from a different angle as Fr Stephen, within a discussion of what “freedom” is, but with the same phronema. I see a deep connection between Fr Stephen’s writing, Y’s book, and Fr Seraphim Aldea of Mull Monastery, who spoke in a recent video about why he became a monastic. He said he wanted to quit living a life that was fake, that was nothing but masks behind masks; he wanted to live his life as his own true life. All of this involves “going down,” as Fr Sophrony taught. “Going down” isn’t “progress” – it is the continual effort to turn toward (which turning is what “repentance” means) true humility, where Christ is all.
(Have you met Fr Seraphim yet, Fr Stephen? He’s on his way back to the UK now, but if he comes back to the US, I hope you will be able to invite him to your church.)
Tim, if Christ is “the last adam” – the Ultimate Human Being – then “the standard” is how much we are like Him, in Whose image we have been created. Though he was without sin, that has nothing to do with “moral perfection” or living up to some “standard.” It’s that there was no “place” in him that had any connection with that which is the result of death or which leads to death, or restricts someone’s true freedom because of fear of any kind of death, physical or otherwise. He is/lives/embodies perfect/complete/mature Love (which comes from total freedom, and according to Y, “morality” actually works against this freedom); this love casts out any fear, and specifically is self-giving love, manifested especially toward one’s “enemies.” Hope that helps.
I think what may be confusing to those who desire to live a virtuous life is that there are plenty of writings which instruct us in how to live a virtuous life. This virtuous life, moreover, connects us to Christ, the source of all virtues (obviously). So, it seems, that the work that needs to be done is to translate “morality” into virtuous behavior, that is to say, a life in Christ. If we abandon all of the language of engaging life (i.e., virtuously), then I’m afraid that “ontological existence” really amounts to very little. I suppose one can sit in a prayer corner and wait for the Uncreated Light. I realize that this is most certainly what you’re NOT saying, but the sticking point will be translating or showing the interpenetration of the an “ontological existence” in Christ into a lived “virtuous life.” If we fail to make this move, then much of the Fathers makes no sense. How does one read, for example, _The Ladder of Divine Ascent_ without being able to understand virtuous living as being united in Christ. The very structure of the book points is in this direction.
None of my thoughts disagree with yours. I’m just nudging you to perhaps draw a line connecting the virtues and existence itself.
I had a conversation at Church this Sunday that may or may not contribute to this discussion around “progress” and “morality” and “virtue”. The person was lamenting the recent events in Ferguson, and mentioned the he himself “worked the barricades” in the 60’s. Racism was supposed to be a thing of the past by now (sidebar: I think he is wrong and that it the civil rights movement is an almost unqualified success – it was a “moral revolution” as “progress” is almost too limiting. Now, police training and tactics since the “war and drugs” and 9/11 is another thing entirely). However, as he himself noted, it’s not this or that moral improvement that matters (in society or ourselves) but Christ and our salvation in Him. No matter how we are oppressed (say, by some lack of justice in our societal circumstances or some passion or bodily disease that has laid hold of us) it has almost nothing to do with our salvation – our ontological relationship with God. I say “almost” because it does seem that it is the oppressed who have an easier time with it (rich man, etc.)
” I ask because atheists often take pride in having a clear moral code without religion and almost universally consider themselves to be “good people.” It seems like there is a sense in which being moral is not merely irrelevant to the ontological state of being mired in sin, but may actually be a condition that makes ones slavery to sin all the more pronounced.”
Isaac, I think this is true. It made me think of G.K. Chesterton’s oft repeated assertion that “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason” You could easily replace “reason” with “morality”.
Indeed, as Michael point’s out upstream, this idea of “moral progress” is unfortunately tied with some of the most murderous political schemes of the 20th century…
Thanks for your response so far. Regarding my reference to modernism, I was alluding to the work on a future book you mentioned in another thread, but I should have been clearer.
Owen’s comment certainly stuck with me in terms of having a ring of truth to it. I am not so worried about myself, but I have kids and it is disturbing to think that, according to Owen, most of the people who leave Orthodoxy that were once strident after their conversion come to a kind of conclusion that “it doesn’t work.” The intersection of my thoughts about these departures and this latest post by you has made me wonder whether priests and bishops shouldn’t be talking about this more so maybe people can adjust their expectations (which is really about getting rid of dubious ideas about sin and moral progress) before they come off the rails.
I haven’t met Fr. Seraphim yet, though we have corresponded. I watched and loved the video. In fact I thought it was one of the most succinct, forthright and authentic presentations of the spiritual life that I’d ever seen. He is wonderfully “British” (though he’s Romanian). He breathes something that I’ve encountered within the British Church. I think the holiness of Elder Sophrony is saving that island (as well as the holiness of so many hundreds of great monastics in the early years of the British Church). I truly want to meet Fr. Seraphim.
There’s always a need for good catechesis. I noticed long ago that there is a propensity (evidenced on the internet) for lots of self-created catechesis. For myself as an example: I had two graduate degrees in theology and was a published author and lecturer before converting to Orthodoxy – after a lot of years. But I did not write at all for 8 years after my conversion. At first only by an invitation. And then, when I started the blog, only with a blessing from my hierarch. And I set out to write specifically because there was so much junk on the internet and very few places where one could encounter authentic information that wasn’t reactionary or emotionally dangerous. We mix it up a bit here from time to time, but try to keep it safe. I’m sort of unecumenical on many occasions – harder than I should be.
But I’ve seen people want to start blogs while they are still catechumens. Or get tangled up in opinions, etc. It’s hard out there. “It doesn’t work,” is such a sad conclusion. Nobody ever told me that it did “work.” I became Orthodox because it is the truth. If someone doesn’t think it’s the truth, they should not convert.
Frankly, I thought the “it doesn’t work” comment was simply shallow at the time. I still do. The soil is thin and the plant doesn’t have much root.
So many great thoughts here.
I understand that morality is typically thought of as “following the rules”. And I get why that is an exercise in missing the point. But I don’t define “morality” or “progress” in that way. I’d define it as “walking on the good path” or something that speaks of the move towards wholeness. I guess for me, I just don’t have a problem of speaking of morality/ progress in the same sentence as I’d speak of death to self or theosis. They aren’t mutually exclusive to me. I get that they may be the way that they’re commonly defined though.
For what it’s worth, it has been helpful to me to understand the word “virtue” as “power.” Many translations of the story of the woman with the issue of blood read: “Someone touched Me, for I perceive that virtue has gone out from Me.”
Not earth shattering, but it provides a different connotation to the word “virtuous” or the idea of living a virtuous life. The virtue (or power) is not our own. Understood in this way, a virtuous life is one that is empowered. Or in the words of St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Whether I understand it entirely or not, one thing going for this definition of sin is that it gives a pretty clear answer to the question raised in innumerable dorm-room debates about whether it was possible for Jesus to sin. Thinking of sin as ontological rather than moral seems to me to lead to the obvious conclusion that Jesus could not have sinned. He could not become other than who he is. This is miles away from arguing over whether he could have “broken a rule.” He was not a faultless moral actor–He is the perfect union of God and Man.
I am a Lutheran reading the conversation here. Very interesting.
One person spoke about “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” – and this made me think about something that I have heard about Orthodoxy: the idea that some, in this life, can reach perfection, and be free from all sin. I have been told that this is an EO belief (I think in the Brothers Karamazov this comes out in the idea that the corpse of a particular holy man is not supposed to rot as quickly….)
“I progress. He heals… But I am the absence of God”
Someone quoted this statement from a saint above. Could someone explain a bit more what that means? I am still not even close to grasping it.
“My reward is not my “not doing x.” My reward is Christ.”
Father – on the one hand I like the way you put this. Mary over Martha! That said, with Christ as our reward is it not our joy to not only hurt our neighbors less, but to genuinely love them more – is this not the kind of love that Paul urges us to strive for? Is that not true morality and progress?
Perhaps an answer Nathan to the “absence of God” is father’s oft quoted refrain of fr. Hopko. ” We can’t know God, but we have to know Him to know that.”
Also, as may have been mentioned above, John the Baptist’s, “I must decrease but He increase,” speaks about the life of ” failure” as we decrease to our false self, Christ may then increase within us.
I think I’ve answered these sorts of points already. I’m surprised a Lutheran would be so keen to defend works. For morality and progress as they are being discussed are simply our own works. But if God should choose to cause grace to so abound in someone that their righteousness shines forth – it is incorrect (in the sense of this article) to call it progress. It is grace.
Our “progress” is found in our self-emptying. And our righteousness is “not our own.”
In loving our neighbors more, the perversity of morality and progress is that we seek to “love more” and in so doing the neighbor is lost. Morality and progress, as discussed here, are a turning of our eyes towards the self. Love is the losing of the self.
There is, of course, some paradox involved in all of this – as there is in all of the Christian life.
In the modern distortions of the self and of Christianity – true spirituality has been replaced with notions of progress and morality. As noted earlier, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is a very well-described phenomenon (described through research of the Lily Foundation and not as an Orthodox critique).
I think this (and other) cultural distortions of the faith need to be met head on. My personal experience and reading is expressed in the article. Is the cultural notion of spiritual progress not a distortion of the faith? Is the cultural Christian notion of morality not a distortion of the faith? Is there then not something to be said here?
“Is the cultural notion of spiritual progress not a distortion of the faith? Is the cultural Christian notion of morality not a distortion of the faith? Is there then not something to be said here?”
Certainly! Further, I am very sensitive to your concerns about focusing on self again, but I do not think that wanting to grow in love for God and neighbor (true morality and progress) necessarily means we will be lead to looks at ourselves in a way that is less than salutary.
All in all, it seems to me that we need to come to grips with what Paul says in the N.T. I link to the following (not my site) because it contains a nice list of Pauline passages about growth in sanctification:
Further, I am really confused about this – don’t the E.O. go as far to say that some are perfected in this life?
There is no Orthodox doctrine in the matter of perfection. It would be a matter of speculation to say such a thing (though I’ve heard it, too). But since the “excellence of the power” (literally “hyperbole of the power”) is of God and not of us – what anyone would call perfection is simply the manifestation of God – and not of ourselves.
I understand you are not a pastor nor a confessor nor do you actually shepherd souls on the path of salvation. But yes, there are very subtle distinctions to be made about where we look. Looking at the self is simply courting disaster on the left and the right.
And “coming to grips with what Paul says in the NT about sanctification, etc.” is just intellectual blather. If you would come to grips with what Paul says, then see your emptiness. Have the mind that was in Christ Jesus. This other stuff (adding verses, etc.) is just a distraction. The work is in the doing, not in the writing or citing verses.
Please understand, I’m not writing some intellectual exercise, nor am I interested in arguing passages. I’ve said what I’ve said. Take it or leave it.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Often I have a difficulty understanding the convoluted expressions that seek to explain sin and morality and how it affects me in my pilgrimage. However, I do have a few talismans that guide me.
1) “I die daily so that when I die, I won’t die.
2) In the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done…”. “Whenever I do my own will that is when I sin.
3) My focus (not progress) is only on Mentenoia, Fotus and Theosis. However I rarely get past Mentenoia.
This is where I am. I hope that I am not a stumbling block to others and I am in constant fear that I judge my brother or sister.
Thank you for your insight.
Speaking of work and progress, you once wrote about giving up anger for one Lent. How did that work out? And did that time have a lasting effect on you?
Excellent article. I just finished reading Larchet´s “Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing” with the subtitle Teachings from the Early Christian East. A good read for every one.
It was very hard (it was one Lent when I was in seminary). I certainly managed to let some things slide. But I made no progress. Nearly 40 years later I have much more understanding about anger and its roots (fear and shame mostly). That knowledge came at a price. The healing probably won’t come until I’m dead.
The progress after death (a la Nyssa) is always sort of problematic. First is the matter of time (which seems to always be in our minds when we consider progress). I would suggest that at most we could speak of a “timeless progress.” And then let that fry the brain for a while.
But I have some thoughts on the “waking up” part of dying. If I’m killed in a car wreck, all smashed up, let’s say, I do not expect to find myself smashed up in heaven. We have no trouble let that go. There are many things we carry in this life and experience as sin that are deeply rooted in the broken biology of our body (and our brains). An alcoholic, for example, can live sober, but will never in this life not be an alcoholic – the pathways of addiction in the brain do not disappear. We could not “forget” how to ride a bicycle because that knowledge, too, is a neural pathway. I cite these only as examples.
So, when I leave this body and its neural pathways, etc., behind – are these things also enmeshed in the soul? I don’t think so – or at least not in such an obstinate manner. This is part of the “hiddenness” of our salvation. There could be truly greatness of soul for someone who outwardly still seems deeply in bondage to certain things, habits, propensities, etc. Only God sees the soul (unless He grants that knowledge to someone).
But nothing of this will be clear until “that Day.” Then all things will be clear. As for now, we work in hope for that Day. I suspect that many will be surprised to see that glory that was worked in their soul. I suspect that many will be surprised that so little was worked in theirs. The First and the Last, etc.
Father et al,
I would like to bring attention to a certain notion of advancement and growth, (which does relate to virtue as mentioned in earlier commenters’ questions), which is unobjectionable. I also recall the fairly common advise to eager novices that (to put it into an equation of sorts), “virtue = time + effort + grace”.
This “progress” –if it happens- is never observed analytically though, or else it slips out the same moment, it might be marvelled at in great awe and wonder. I remember the Elder Aimilianos describing the most advanced stages of this in ‘the progression of the soul’ (towards the end), talking of when a person’s whole existence acquires an element of dispassion about it –essentially through the possession of the Spirit.
…“I no longer live for Christ lives in me”.
But the response to this realisation is invariably an even deeper humility,
like the tree that bends down due to the weight of its ripe fruit.
Does that make sense?
minor correction to the above:
I think we can observe things in others (and keep them secret) that we should never observe in ourselves. “Never praise a monk,” Fr. Zacharias says.
So immorality is a result of death,?, athanasius writes:
Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and raping filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice, all kinds of iniquities were perpetrated by all, both singly and in common. Cities were warring with cities, nations were rising against nations, and the whole earth was rent with factions and battles, while each strove to outdo the other in wickedness.
Yes. That is the meaning of the passage in St. Athanasius. All of the “from bad to worse” describes or illustrates “involved themselves in death and corruption.”
Thank you for that succinct little wisdom in your little comment!
My guess, if I may, is that when this realization of ‘what Christ has done to me’ (the transformation He has wrought, how He has “fought Amalek with a secret hand” in me) hits – through His Grace and not through the adversary’s whisperings- it is an entirely Eucharistic realisation. The almost “unendurable gratitude” one feels then is even more compunctionate than that of the burning repentance of the first stages. The tears that flow are of a different kind and the observation of ourselves as still being not like Christ (even though “it is Him Who lives in me”) – as St Symeon the New Theologian describes this, is all the more apparent. (If this ‘observation’ happens [through God’s action – not our own]– as it is close to impossible when one is entirely possessed by wonder at the Merciful Lord)
I was just posting a response to the many comments, accidentally hit some key (I know not which one) which made my response disappear. Did it? Perhaps for the better I guess. Oh well.
And the sense of reverse progress, of worsening, as the sinfulness becomes clearer and clearer in God’s Light which illumines a person all the more in his path towards union with Him, is somehow combined harmoniously with the increasing gratitude towards God for all He has (to me and to all of Adam from which I cannot now separate my being)…
correction: “gratitude towards God for all He has done”
This harmonious combination of opposites here is a description of Christ’s word to St Silouan, ‘keep thy mind in hell, and despair not’, it is an increase in both directions.
So much for moral progress
Sounds pretty contemporary, n’es pas?
This is like people who say “We don’t need change. We need transformation.” (I hope you can see how silly this is. Change and transformation are synonyms, by gum!) I see the same thing here. By narrowing the definition of morality and narrowing the definition of sin you make the second emphatically not a transgression of the first. Similarly the narrowing of the definition of morality emphatically excludes any crossover into the realm of righteousness. All to make a fine application, to be sure. But it makes very frustrating reading.
Then Ray – what does the Lily report of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” mean when it says “moralistic” that is somehow different from sin. It clearly saw a difference.
And Orthodoxy classically sees a profound difference between the proper Biblical and traditional understanding of sin and morality. But if it all seems like quibbling over words then that is what it is.
There is no narrowing of the definition of sin. It is the grounding of the definition of sin in an ontological understanding – which – as the article notes quite clearly – represents far more accurately what St. Paul was saying. And it agrees with the Classical and dogmatic teaching of Holy Orthodoxy.
But if the moralistic approach typical of much contemporary Christianity (as described in the Lily report) doesn’t really seem very different than you have drawn a conclusion that I can only think of as amazing. Perhaps you should read it a few more times and think more about it. I think you are not understanding something. And some other people do seem to understand it. I didn’t make this stuff up or invent these distinctions. There is something to be learned here if you want to learn it. If not, then just let it go. No big deal.
” Nearly 40 years later I have much more understanding about anger and its roots (fear and shame mostly).”
Anger is a passion I struggle with regularly. When I search it out, I normally come to the conclusion that it is my pride, my sense of self (or more accurately my self image and my entitlement to be treated with dignity and respect) that is being “dishonored” by others that pricks me/the passion. Another thing that has me convinced of this evaluation is that I struggle especially with the small things, the small indignities, and the things that others do that are more significant I let go of easier (at least I think I do). Question: is this merely the surface and something more akin to fear and shame lay behind what I am calling pride here? comments, opinions, suggestions… 😉
Pride is not going deep enough. There are a few “primary” emotions. Shame and fear are perhaps the deepest. Both are quickly changed – so that we don’t notice them. Their too painful in their raw state. So, shame, that feeling of exposure and embarrassment, is frequently morphed into anger. Anger is almost always a secondary emotion – it is triggered by other things. The little insults are “shaming” moments.
The way forward in this, is to “bear” the shame. To identify it, and “freeze” it for a moment. Don’t judge it. Don’t run from it. Just experience it (it’s hard to do). And as you experience it, pray. When you pray, ask God to comfort you. He will come and comfort you (He likes to comfort us). And He will help you bear the shame. And you will not need to be angry so much. The more you practice this, the easier it will become. There’s more to say on this, but that’s enough right now.
You probably don’t suffer from pride. Pride is a very secondary emotion, frankly. Look to the shame.
thank you father
after reading this i grasped the idea it is not a better life… but a NEW life
you are a real jewel in the crown of orthodoxy
Thanks for the follow up answer Father. I keep looking for an analogy or metaphor to make sense of all of this. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s metaphor of the toy soldiers that are going to be made flesh one day so being the very best toy soldier avails nothing and may make him resistant to the process of destruction and remaking that goes into becoming a creature of flesh.
I guess for now I go with Fr. Behr’s observation that in Genesis making man in the image and likeness of God does not produce an instant outcome like the other preceding fiats, and that Christ is in fact the first human to walk the earth. Our lives as Christians then are the business of repentance, which is an orientation of receptivity to allowing God to complete his work of creation in us even while we are tempted to invest ourselves into preserving those parts of ourselves that will not survive our death and resurrection (the things of the natural man in St. Paul’s language). Perhaps the saints are those most divested of the dross of natural life and so most prepared for the culminating stage of creation, where God, having completed the work of making human beings, will now tabernacle among them forever.
That’s a fine approach (Fr Behr’s) to cling to. It will make sense of the numerous words found in the Fathers concerning Man’s “gradual restoration”, [without falling into the self-preoccupation of “my progress/evolution”, and retaining one’s single-minded focus on Christ, Who is to be sought in the deep heart of the Christian].
St. Theoleptos of Philadelphia (the teacher of St Gregory Palamas) in the Philokalia, for instance, discoursing on prayer states: “Prayer restores the unity of the soul formerly divided by the passions, enabling it to dwell in God. First it removes from the soul all the disfigurements of sin, after which it inscribes within it the forms of divine beauty”
This depiction of ‘progress’, of movement, of restoration in traditional Christianity is absolutely at odds with the modern talk of progress, as exemplified in the “two-story” self-precoccupied ‘Moralistic therapeutic deism’…
“And “coming to grips with what Paul says in the NT about sanctification, etc.” is just intellectual blather. If you would come to grips with what Paul says, then see your emptiness. Have the mind that was in Christ Jesus. This other stuff (adding verses, etc.) is just a distraction. The work is in the doing, not in the writing or citing verses.
Please understand, I’m not writing some intellectual exercise, nor am I interested in arguing passages.”
Father, first of all, I think I do see my emptiness. My failure. I know effort is required and want to avoid “intellectual blather” as you say, but seek the true renewal of mind Paul speaks of. Second, I am honestly not interested in arguing passages either. I am trying to understand how you interpret those passages.
For example, when Paul says
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.” (Philippians 1:9)”
“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13)”
“[speaking of the love that they have for one another] But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10)”
“your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
To me, those verses sound like Paul is looking to help promote, “by the mercies of God” (i.e. basing these exhortations of who these believers are in Christ) growth in the Christian’s sanctification. In other words, growth in true morality, or progress. I understand that that is not your position, nor do I hope to convert you to my understanding. I am trying to understand your position – really and truly. That is what I want.
by all means I think too that
But this transformative restoration is to be understood (for lack of a more precise term) hesychastically and eschatologically. The above quoted St. Theoleptos of Philadelphia talks of the same restoration, “Prayer restores the unity of the soul formerly divided by the passions, enabling it to dwell in God. First it removes from the soul all the disfigurements of sin, after which it inscribes within it the forms of divine beauty”. The forms of divine beauty and the indwelling of God are the sole channels if that “love that abounds more and more”…
If I may reiterate once more however, that this depiction of onwards movement, of restoration (of ‘progress’, if you will) in traditional Christianity is absolutely at odds with the modern talk of progress, as exemplified in the “two-story” self-precoccupied ‘Moralistic therapeutic deism’…
I think the numerous comments above have already answered Father’s position clearly enough to make your introducing of any verses naturally make him exclaim: “nor am I interested in arguing passages.”
I believe that the love in which we are to abound is not a moral effort. It is Christ dwelling in us. And indeed that He dwell in us more richly is a proper goal. But that goal is (frustratingly) never met through moral effort. It is met only in self-emptying, as St. Paul teaches. Those verses have to be considered in light of such existential/ontological passages – or we risk turning Paul into a mere moralist, a Stoic. And he is nothing of the sort.
There is every difference between Christ in me, and me doing something myself because Christ told me to. And that difference is the whole of the gospel.
As a former Protestant evangelical now Catechumen to Orthodoxy, I’ve been reading this post for the last 3 days as well as all the wonderful comments. Like many that have already commented, I too didn’t understand but only knew deep down that there was some truth here. I just didn’t get it. At least that was that was until last night.
What led me to Orthodoxy in the first place was the reading of the saints and the fathers of the Church. These have given me such great hope, hope that I can actually experience in my life, in my body, in my whole being that which as a Protestant I’ve only been able to experience in my spirit. So with this I’ve been attending divine liturgy, my Catechumen classes, and faithfully engaging in the practices of the Church such as venerating the Icons and standing erect for an hour and a half during liturgy.
I must say that having felt real good about my progress in Orthodoxy this blog was a little troubling for me. But as I mentioned I knew there was something here, some truth to be found, something I haven’t yet understood,.So I kept coming back to it.
Last night I had a dream. In this dream I suddenly found myself in what I can only describe as a impoverished community. It was either some type of 3rd world country or a community which was striving to live amongst the chaos of some disaster aftermath. This community was very crowded and very poor. We had no running water, little food, inadequate shelter with dirt floors and no plumbing. I was stuck in this community and was living with them and it was sudden. In other words my experience was that I was suddenly thrust from my life of Christian piety into an environment that knew nothing of it.
There was no Temple, there was no beautiful Icons to venerate, there were no freeways to practice my progression in patience, there was no food delicacies to piously fast and abstain from. There were only people. Poor people. A community trying just to survive.
What really brought me to an understanding of what I believe you are communicating here father is that in this dream I found myself without any means of practicing piety. This hit me the most when in the dream I really had to go to the bathroom. In the dream I found myself frantically looking for somewhere where I could go but the community was so crowded, so impoverished that there was absolutely nowhere, no place I could go in private to relieve myself with dignity.
I began asking around, “where do you go to the bathroom, where do you go?” In this I was being stripped completely of all my piety. Finally being assisted by another member of the community I was give a receptacle of which the common community used to potty in.
What I’ve come to understand from this is that in this stripping of piety I was left only with my person, my true self. There were no occasions for external moralities, I found myself vulnerable in my true self before God and man. I must say that this was a very uncomfortable dream but I do believe it has cut to my heart the truth of what is being communicated here on this blog. Thank you so much father for writing it and thanks to everyone who like me is trying to work through it.
What an interesting dream! And this is truly a good image. So much of what passes for piety and morality are deeply attached to a middle-class existence. Monastics purposely remove themselves from that – and much (most) of the world has always lived apart from that. It is the arrogance of our “first-world” existence that makes us think in terms of progress, etc., instead of true survival. It is why a rich man can barely enter the kingdom of God.
Here in the American South, there is an expression that Someone is so poor that they “didn’t have a pot to p___ in.” What a dream!
Your comment…”There is every difference between Christ in me, and me doing something myself because Christ told me to…” I believe is exemplified in this reading from St. John. “…you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.” The disciples were constantly bumbling about trying to do things on their own, attempting to do things “for Christ.” But He was not yet in them in the person of the Holy Spirit. And of course all this changed with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Now it was Christ in them as the world was turned upside down by their ministry.
What I am beginning to realize is that each time I fail and acknowledge that failure, I am drawn closer to Jesus.
When I try to control things through anger or depression or any other way–I am further from Him.
“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”. Psalm 118.
Some days the words of the Psalm is all that gets me out the door. Sometimes I have to read the whole Psalm.
I pray to Mary daily to protect me from falling into anger, depression and despondency.
If moral effort produced spiritual progress, there would have been no need for Christ…Moses and the Law would have been sufficient. Some will add, “But Christ gives us the Holy Spirit…” without really thinking about it. God gave His Spirit to the people of Israel. The prophets spoke by the Spirit, etc. But something is quite different in Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” But people seem confused when I say that the old creation makes no progress and that the nature of the new creation cannot be described by progress.
The truth is, we really still want a moral-effort religion. A cultus that will bless our efforts and tell us that we’re doing better and that we’re not too bad, about as good as others, and that if we stick with it we’ll be better still, etc. This is not the Christian faith. This is not the Orthodox Church. Show me a Christian Church that doesn’t think like this and do about as good a job as the next one. Do not think that being Orthodox will make you a better person than a Baptist, or even a Mormon (the Mormon will win).
So what is our Orthodoxy?
If it is not about an ontological answer to an ontological problem, then we should look elsewhere. Everything that is the Orthodox Church is only rightly understood in an ontological manner. Our ecclesiology, our sacraments. Everything is about union with God – and that union is ontological (on the level of our being) and not moral (on the level of mere behavior).
And if all this is true…then what I have written here is true and worth pondering until the coin drops.
But I’ll keep writing it, this way and that, again and again. I’m not tired.
Oh, and I just ran across this. Thoughts from a wonderful Romanian monastic:
This is the authentic voice of the Orthodox faith.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This and your other recent posts have been very helpful clarifications for me in my spiritual life (and journey toward Orthodoxy). I’m very grateful for you and this blog. God’s blessings to you.
Regarding the quote from the monastic I was wondering if it is possible at all for a Christian to recognize in themselves when or if Christ has healed them in any way? It seems like you are saying, “if it seems like Christ has done nothing for you to change who you are, then rest assured He is transforming you!” I personally feel that I would be a different person than I am today if I had never sought Christ to heal me. But I guess since I thought I noticed Christ working in my life I must be wrong.
Then again, I’ve also noticed that there are some very dark things still lurking inside me that, quite frankly, verge on hatred for God. Like when I become afraid of dying, or loosing a loved one, my mind has a tendency to darken with mistrust and hatred for God for allowing such painful things. Is this really when I’m most United to Christ? It really is counter intuitive to think so.
Also, what if someday while encountering traders and loss I come to notice that I no longer harbor mistrust or hatred for God? If I notice this can I confidently say Christ has healed me? Or would that be a delusion of progress on my part?
Sorry, that’s supposed to say *tragedy* and loss.
The monastic’s insight is by no means a hard and fast principle. It is simply a way of saying that just because we see ourselves failing is not necessarily a reason to despair. Sometimes having the ability to actually see such a thing is a gift of grace. Nor is it absolutely the case that seeing what grace has done in us would be delusional. But to prevent the temptation that comes with our private sense of progress – it is best to simply give God thanks always for all things. Whether I succeed or fail, I give God thanks always for all things – for He is worthy – regardless of my own struggle.
The paradox that is typical of Orthodox teaching should be left as a paradox and not turned upside down into a logical rule. It is like St. Paul’s “When I am weak, I am strong.”
Father, isn’t this very paradoxical notion of faith that is the challenge to both our sense of self-justification and to the mind of the world that demands a linear progress to a pre-determined goal (an ideology that uses both false promises and a concomitant inculcation of fear to keep us moving on.)
Indeed. I had not thought about the linear quality of progress. I tend to think very critically about linear models, since almost nothing is actually linear (other than a line).
“The paradox that is typical of Orthodox teaching should be left as a paradox and not turned upside down into a logical rule”
– thank you!
I would appreciate hearing from you and others how best to convey these insights to children or young people. I ask this because so often the questions they ask are looking for quick, simple answers—not patient enough for nuanced discussion. For example, a young person asked me a few months ago, “Is ___ a sin?” (fill in the blank with any number of current cultural topics.) I wanted to say, “well, what is sin?”…and delve deeper into some of what you are talking about here. But, this person wanted a quick, definitive answer. I’m afraid I “hemmed and hawed” because it didn’t seem so simple to me. What would you say is a way to handle these kinds of “moral” questions that are thrown at individual Christians—and the Church as a whole?
It’s very hard to answer questions that someone isn’t asking. With children and young people, we need to give them the answers that they are actually asking. Often they just want guidance and don’t know how else to say it. I give a pretty simple answer to such questions. Yes. No. That’s a sin, etc.
It’s as they grow older and the questions become more complex that we can start having conversations. But what we want are to have the first conversations – the real theological question is about God. How do I know Him.
A conversation I sometimes work at having with adolescents and teens has to do with the “true self.” There is a deep crisis at that age (shrouded in shame). Adolescents and teens are searching for the self, often trying to hide or to invent themselves. It’s a very, very difficult time. They need to be treated with very deep respect and kindness. What I work with is helping come to know something of the path to the true self. For me, this is often part of what I do as confessor/spiritual father. I really am not sure if parents can do this – parents often have so many expectations that it’s hard for youth to let their guard down.
I preach/teach a lot about “becoming truly human.” It’s a very safe way to talk about the spiritual path without overloading it with so much religious baggage that it’s off-putting. It’s so much easier to think about becoming truly human than about becoming righteous, etc.
Sometimes I describe these things in psychological terms (such as “authentic” or “inauthentic”) simply because it’s a very easy vocabulary in our culture. It’s not sufficient to do proper theology – but I’m more interested in results than good vocabulary.
One of the reason my blog is worth reading (if it is) has to do with language. If I said everything in very classical theological terms, it would be correct, but not interesting or very useful. When I was in England this summer, I was speaking in a group to some 20-somethings. In our group I made the assertion that “there is no such thing as progress.” We even argued a little. I kept it light, but I was relentless. The next day, one of the young women said she had a sleepless night, but was convinced that what I said was correct. It was like a lightbulb for her. And she was a very articulate leader within the group I was talking to. They really began to open up and ask questions about the faith. We talked about everything – gender questions – the works. I had not known that the progress question would be such a starter. But I can see on the blog that it is so.
This latest article has had the second highest number of views of anything I’ve done. It strikes a nerve. When something works, I note it and will use it in one way or another repeatedly. It slowly allows the community of readers to build a common vocabulary and understanding. It’s a small piece of our theological conversation.
Some things – like the sexuality stuff – are going to be huge in the coming years. All young people will have questions about it and they are going to almost always think the Church is wrong. We should therefore think long and hard about why the Church is right and about how to say it. I’m working on it here. This language of morality and sin is foundational for the conversations to come.
Thank you…that was very helpful. I wish I could have listened in on that conversation with the 20’s group. There is so much confusion and despair among many young people and yet an unwillingness sometimes to explore the Way…often, I think, because of the way we speak about it. I certainly welcome your guidance. Thanks again.
Ok, so this is what I think I’ve been seeing in the comment sections of these last couple of blogs about progress:
When confronted with Father Stephen’s assertion that “there is no such thing as progress” many of the blog viewer’s here more or less ask themselves the same, or at least a similar question that I asked in my comment above, “is it possible at all for a Christian to recognize in themselves when or if Christ has healed them in any way?” And then they answer themselves with a “Yes, because I’ve witnessed it within myself,” and then proceed to call the healing that they’ve witnessed in themselves progress. Why? Because they have progressed from wounded to healed in one way or another through Christ. I don’t know, though, that anyone here has actually denied that it is solely Christ’s righteousness working in them, and not in any way their own righteousness. And of course Father Stephen’s advice concerning the question I had asked is also relevant to all Christians who have witnessed a “progression” from wounded to healed within themselves -“But to prevent the temptation that comes with our private sense of progress -it is best to simply give God thanks always for all things.”
Part of me also wants to rescue “progress”, but when I read this:
“…all who have witnessed a “progression” from wounded to healed within themselves”
I want to then say that then there is no healing. There is no healing for the body, it “progressively” becomes worse and worse until it dies. There is no healing for my morality – Fr. Stephen is right my morality is the same as when I was 8 (I would push it back to even younger). There is no healing in my spirit – (speaking for myself) I have become more aware of just how sick in spirit I am but I commit the same sins over and over, I am still deeply delusional, etc. I was a “better person” before in my delusion and when I was a “moral” person. Now I can actually smell the rot. This seems to be what St. Paul said of himself (the thorn, I don’t do as I will, it’s not me it’s Christ, etc.).
The ideal of progress is also sooo dangerous. If knowledge and persons and morals “progress” then anything can be justified. In our culture it is now what “feels good” (e.g. it “feels right” to some to justify their same-sex attraction, it “feels right” to some to declare gender a mere biological accident that “oppresses”, etc. etc.). This culture still believes “harming others” limits this worship of sentiment, but as abortion has revealed it is all to easy to define this away (by changing the definition of a person, etc.). Someday, this limit will be seen for what it is and be done away with – then it will be alright as long as it feels right and you have the power (as it is with unborn children today).
If human beings truly do “progress”, then we might as well throw all this Christianity stuff out the window and join the culture in worshiping the future when all things will be perfected according to the cult of “progress”.
“Pride is not going deep enough. There are a few “primary” emotions. Shame and fear are perhaps the deepest. Both are quickly changed – so that we don’t notice them. ”
Father, could you point me to a resource to learn more about the primary emotions and how they morph?
You say, “I want to then say that then there is no healing.”
Would you want to say that Christ has not healed you? But if He has healed you would you want to say that it is totally impossible for you to notice such healing? Because the last comment I made was related to my previous comment, which was this:
“Regarding the quote from the monastic I was wondering if it is possible at all for a Christian to recognize in themselves when or if Christ has healed them in any way? It seems like you are saying, “if it seems like Christ has done nothing for you to change who you are, then rest assured He is transforming you!” I personally feel that I would be a different person than I am today if I had never sought Christ to heal me. But I guess since I thought I noticed Christ working in my life I must be wrong.
Then again, I’ve also noticed that there are some very dark things still lurking inside me that, quite frankly, verge on hatred for God. Like when I become afraid of dying, or loosing a loved one, my mind has a tendency to darken with mistrust and hatred for God for allowing such painful things. Is this really when I’m most United to Christ? It really is counter intuitive to think so.”
So, with this in mind, if someday I notice that I no longer harbor any mistrust or hatred towards God in the midst of tragedy or loss am I free admit that Christ has granted me grace (with the definition of grace being “the gift of God’s own presence and action in His creation,” as it says in the back of my Orthodox Study Bible)? And then may I say that I have progressed from hatred towards God to love towards God by this very grace? Because that is what I meant by ““…all who have witnessed a “progression” from wounded to healed within themselves.”
You also say, “There is no healing in my spirit – (speaking for myself) I have become more aware of just how sick in spirit I am but I commit the same sins over and over.”
I also have become aware of how sick I am when I realized sometimes I harbor feelings of mistrust and hatred for God, and I think that this realization in itself is a kind of healing and gift of grace. If I had feelings of hatred toward God and neither thought there was anything wrong with it, but instead embraced it whole heartedly, then I there would be no saving repentance. So let me ask if one goes from reveling with glee in hatred towards God, to realizing their sickness and wanting salvation from this sickness, could they not say to themselves they have progressed from one state of being to another state of being by grace (and remember I am defining grace as God’s presence and action)?
I think that the way I’ve described “progression” is how many Christians think of it rather than in a works righteousness sort of way.
The “progression” I’m trying describe is a passive progression, where God alone ontologically moves me from one state ( a sin state) to another (a resurrected state). Im not talking about me causing myself to progress to some future goal, but rather God bringing me to life, and I’m just simply using the word progression to describe going from dead to alive. And I’m not saying we absolutely have to use the word “progression,” or even that it’s the best word to use (I personally don’t think it is), I’m just claiming that there is a harmless way to use such a word, and I personally think this harmless way is how many Christians use the word, particularly various Christian commenters on this blogs.
Michelle & Christopher,
My kneejerk thought regarding a Christian’s appreciation of their healing and transformation [their “progress” if you like, even though that sounds unfitting, a bit like calling ‘ripening’ ‘evolution’) is that it need not be an ‘either or’ condition.
The key, however, must be the notion of that particular paradox found in our tradition, and exemplified in the image the Elder Sophrony employed, of ‘the Tree’; the deeper its invisible roots go, the higher its visible portion can soar.
The more lucidly one sees how deserving of “keeping their mind in hell” they are, the more powerfully they become capable of “not despairing”. And vice versa, the more they are purified, healed, illumined and the closer to Christ they move, the more they understand the profoundness of their weakness and their distance from their beloved One. Blessed despair from oneself and utter hope / single-minded focus on Christ are in proportion to each other.
When speaking about the culture – I said there was change but no progress – that progress was a myth. That myth is often transferred into our lives. But there is certainly change and transformation. And there is certainly a harmless way to use the word progress.
My experience intentionally pushes back, however, because there is a lot of delusion in the concept. The transformation and progress that takes place in us is of such a nature that progress is a problematic expression. It is better to simply give thanks than to take stock. But I understand your well-made point.
“There is every difference between Christ in me, and me doing something myself because Christ told me to. And that difference is the whole of the gospel.”
I can certainly agree with that. I guess that, strictly speaking, I never see me as doing anything myself (if I do that would be sin!). No time to read all the other comments now, but I look forward to catching up on them.
Thanks again for the answer.
I am the mother of an agnositic Orthodox Christian in college and a practicing Orthodox Christian in high school. Fr. Stephen, What you say here in the comments “Some things – like the sexuality stuff – are going to be huge in the coming years. All young people will have questions about it and they are going to almost always think the Church is wrong. We should therefore think long and hard about why the Church is right and about how to say it. I’m working on it here. This language of morality and sin is foundational for the conversations to come.”
This is the big reason why I pray for you and look forward to your next publication. (And you requested prayer from your readers concerning this, Godspeed your efforts!)
Thank you ever so much for your prayers. Book is in the works.
Well maybe this all makes sense within the context of the Lily report, a document I’ve never heard of, nor find myself compelled at this time to seek out, but it makes no sense to me. Morality and righteousness, while not synonyms are not distinct from each other and while sin may not merely be a moral problem, morality is involved. Morality is not exclusively a code of actions, although it may be merely that for some. Even Paul doesn’t just use sin to describe the inner workings of death, but also as a verb to refer to our actions which break faith with God and ‘fall short.’ — sin as “breaking the rules” is a valid usage. I took issue with the title and the content of this post because, while it may be a helpful way of looking at the issue it addresses, it can only be one angle among many and not exclusive of all others as it seems to claim.
errata …Morality is not merely a code of rules… (not actions)
These recent posted have been very interesting. Our understanding of our ontological root and its only remedy is sorely misunderstood, so I take great comfort seeing this being addressed. Thank you Fr. Stephen for this.
When we convince ourselves of progress, we’re quickly starting to blur the lines of our understanding – not deepen them. If I’m aware of my progress I am more closely gaining Self-assurances that is autonomous. This is a great danger. This is getting close to a self sufficiency and an autonomy, which is ultimately non-being. i.e., outside of God. No one is alone in the kingdom. Be united to Christ.
*Keep thyself in hell and fear not” These were the words of Christ to Silouan. What was asked of Silouan? Was it growth? Progress? In any sense of external measurement which is about “getting better?” Did he have this sense of things at all?? Rather, was it the experiencing at a greater depth of something that Already exists that was the hope of his calling? To know the reality of our true selves, is the gift of God – it is also our hell – no one wants this – this is difficult ; to know the True God is the gift of God: to know the ontological state of ourselves as we relate (incarnationally) to God is the ultimate gift and to know his all consuming good elicits a response.
The deepening awareness of ours and God’s ontological states is the Experience of the kingdom.; it is the revelation of Jesus Christ; it is a call and response to a message that is freely given and already given (Heb 9:28). Be united to Christ. This is the breadth, length, depth and height of our calling (Col 1:27, Eph 3:18) Our response is rooted in something and that is our awareness of these ontological states (that already exist). This becomes the means by which we live out our faith. I need to understand these states so I can have the only response proper to it.
Was not this path i.e., an awareness that informed Silouan, that Christ showed him? Was not this path i.e., this awareness, the thing that moved him forward? (Always in weakness); this movement (or procession) was informed by the understanding of the fullness (reality) of the ontological content of the God-Man (Theanthropos) and our utterly unworthy, futile and impoverished means to be united to Christ. … All is the gift of God.
Was it not this fullness of understanding of the ontological content (not mere ideas; the kingdom is rooted in ontology or it is rooted in nothing!) that informed Paul’s only response – that, truly I am the chief of all sinners; simultaneously, that one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of God the father, amen. Truly – keep yourself in hell and fear not.
The response is to live liturgically, offering our ourselves, the world, living united to Christ, which is always a life “offered”. We become enlarged over time….. or in a moment. As Silouan said “Until you pray for the world you will not cease from your sin.”
What “progress” do I offer back to God? My ontological ‘root’ affords me no such thing. I toil in my brokenness here. …. John 21:17 & Col 1:27…. be united to Christ.
I can’t thank you enough for writing this. I have been saying such things for several years now, mostly because of the examples of many spiritual fathers over these past 25 years and the examples of my very simple grandparents who clearly loved God with all their hearts, and yet did not master themselves for the burden of being in the world. . . but nowhere could I express this near the eloquence that you have, bringing to others the understanding that you have brought to the subject in English. One of the things that truly gives me patience in this life is the understanding that our salvation is mostly hidden, as you say, and with this in mind, I do not have to detach myself from others to live with them.. . that is when I am mindful of these truths. When I am not, I make the mistake of the “old man” in thinking that I have better knowledge and this makes me a better person, which is a terrible sin, and also brings an unnecessary pain. I will refer to this many times. Thank you again and God give you strength to pray for us.
This is very illuminating and I like this. Really this message put me at peace and give reason to live the real live
I am Protestant, but believe this article is correct and raised it with a debate with my atheist friend the other day. He responded that sin and forgiveness has to be moral and “forensic” because Jesus tells the woman in Luke 7 that “her sins are forgiven,” as in the plural sum of all her moral transgressions rather than her ontological privation. How would you respond to that?
Blessings in Christ,
I love it when atheists tell Christians what the Scripture means. Christ forgives the paralytic and then, when challenged, said “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” Essentially saying that the two are interchangeable. We do not have a legal problem with God. Your friend has spent too much time listening to Protestants explain Christianity. The Orthodox reading is much older. The ontological understanding undergirds all of the doctrines of the Great Councils.
I should add, that as someone who hears confessions and pronounces the absolution on a regular basis – it’s not the legal issue that is of any real bother. It’s what sin does to us (ontologically). It makes us sick. It kills us (“the wages of sin is death”). God has no need to punish us. Death is something we bring on ourselves. It is why the death and resurrection of Christ are necessary to our forgiveness. We are Baptized into His death (He takes our death upon Himself) and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. Resurrection (for us) is what forgiveness actually looks like.
Thank you Father! The Eastern spirituality is much more in-depth than the Western.