Of Course We Are Called to be Moral – A Response to My Critics

waldorf460Well, the firestorm has moved even to my host, Ancient Faith Blogs. There, you can find a response and a critique of my last article, The Unmoral Christian. I find nothing in the response with which I disagree. The author argues that externals are often important, certainly for beginners, and suggests that I have overplayed my hand in overemphasized the inner nature of our lives. That is perhaps true.

Every child certainly begins life being taught clear, outward rules for their behavior. However, before they reach puberty, I would maintain, they have probably already received what moral formation is likely to take place in their life. The rest of their lives will be marked by weaknesses and struggles that were already set in place within childhood. At least that’s my observation and pastoral experience.

As a young or beginning Christian, that moral struggle will need to be supported and encouraged. But as Christians grow, they need more meat and less milk. The experience of a serious adult can provoke deep dismay as they notice that over the years little or nothing has changed. One well-noted “de-convert” from the Orthodox faith observed several years ago that he saw no evidence of what he thought was a moral progress promised in Orthodoxy (this was his misinterpretation of the teaching on Theosis). The change from “glory to glory into the image of Christ” is not represented by an increasingly successful moral struggle. It is, as I noted in my article, a transformation in the Divine Life. That transformation might very well be revealed in greater moral abilities, but not necessarily so. Some things remain quite hidden, even unto death. If you want to see the Divine Transformation, you will have to gain a perception that goes much deeper than outer behavior.

The author cites several fathers who commend moral actions. We must, I well agree, begin with the commandments of Christ. It is of note, in his citing of St. Ambrose, that Ambrose trods a two-fold path. One for the beginner and learner, another for the monastic (the “perfect”). This distinction becomes, in the later West, a chasm between the laity and monastics – with only the monastics being expected to seriously pursue the harder points of the gospel. In modern Protestant theology (cf. Reihhold Niebuhr) Christ’s commandments become bifurcated – some being treated as unattainable and not really meant to be kept. That distinction never took root in the Tradition of the East. We clearly do not see monastics and laity as distinct classes – they only differ in the level of asceticism that they undertake. There are, for example, only one set of rules for fasting in the Orthodox Church. Monastics keep them more strictly. But there is not a “perfect” fast for some, and a “pretty good” fast for others.

I cited the importance of “failure” with regard to the commandments. This is a pastoral observation (not dogmatic). But I maintain, along with many spiritual fathers, that we cannot know the fullness of Christ without also knowing the emptiness of ourselves. The morally “successful” are often full of themselves. Christ was killed by the morally successful. St. Paul called such successes “filthy rags.”

While I readily grant the need for the commandments and clear direction in our lives (where did I deny this?), we can no longer write as though we were living among children. Our culture has entered a wild, rebellious, adolescent phase in which everything is being questioned. Many times we can no longer answer the hunger of the world by saying, “This is the commandment – do it.” Hearts are desperately thirsty and have been drinking at wells of false and misleading teaching. Nothing is perhaps more perverted today than the public morality of our times.

My writing effort, which I characterize as evangelistic and apologetic, seeks to engage the world and the culture at the level of its angst and to give answers (or even create questions) that can be chewed on. I think that there needs to be a heftier diet out there. I use my theological and pastoral background to do just that.

I suspect that what I do is only marginally successful. Some will understand what I have written and find it to be of help. However, I have heard in some places (though not in the cited article) that I’m somehow sounding an uncertain trumpet, creating anxiety and questions about morality during a time of moral questioning. I have perhaps underestimated the angst of the Orthodox about their own moral security.

During a time of moral questioning, there needs to be some serious answers. And those, it seems to me, must go beyond citing the rules and the law.

But if it troubles you, then please let it go. I would not trouble you further.

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