My article, The Un-moral Christian, along with You’re Not Getting Better, have continued to generate conversation around the internet, and within parishes. At least that’s the impression I get from numerous conversations, emails, social media, and even phone calls. Most of those conversations seem to be serious and are engaging the question of how Orthodox Christians should think about the moral life. A recent conversation in my parish has yielded some additional thoughts for me that I think might be helpful to others. At its core is the question of “moral progress.”
There is an abiding discomfort for many with my assertion that we generally do not see moral progress in our lives. That discomfort comes from many directions. Perhaps the most serious is the question that asks, “Then why bother? If we are not making progress in our battles with the passions, why make the effort?”
The crux of the issue lies in the very meaning of moral progress. In any normal meaning of the phrase there is an assumption that as we progress, we become better at things. We have less trouble with the passions: anger, greed, envy, jealousy, pride, etc. We make right decisions with greater ease and less confusion and turn away from evil with greater strength.
For some, moral progress is presumed to be part of our “synergy,” our cooperation with God in our salvation, a doctrine that figures prominently in Orthodox theology. Thus, many would look for moral progress as a sign that indeed the work of God in their lives is truly taking place and bearing fruit. We are told that the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Surely this constitutes moral progress!
It is in thinking about this that we need to be careful, even somewhat precise. The distinction I am making is important, and perhaps too easily missed. What St. Paul describes is the “fruit of the Spirit,” and not “moral progress.”
My parish conversation turned on the example of a recovering addict/alcoholic. It is possible for an alcoholic not to drink, to live a life of sobriety. What is not possible is for an alcoholic to drink responsibly in a controlled manner over a sustained period. Thirty years of sobriety will not change this fact. No amount of not drinking will make an alcoholic a better drinker. In that sense, there is no moral progress.
But surely sobriety is better than drunkenness? It is indeed. But what it represents is not an improved life, but a completely different mode of existence. It is not an improvement of the “Old Adam.” It is the “New Adam.” Someone might object that I’m using an example from outside the Church, apart from the sacraments, even outside of Holy Baptism. I am indeed. Such is the grace of God.
It comes down to this: We can live a miraculous life, in which, by the Spirit, we live remarkably victorious over the passions, or we can live a moral life in which our best efforts will remain about as good or bad from one day to the next for the rest of our lives. Our victory is not a moral victory, but life from the dead.
The life that St. Paul describes as the “fruit of the Spirit” can be compared to St. Peter walking on the water. No matter how much Peter might have practiced and struggled, he would never be any better at walking on water. His experience went from the miraculous life enabled by union with Christ to the moral life in which he nearly drowns.
The moral life brings its own sad temptations. Most poignant is its tendency to judgment. “If I can do it, so can you!” Those who imagine that the good life is lived through human effort (even with a little Divine assistance) quickly begin to value the human effort above everything else. They imagine that the moral crises of our time can be addressed through argument and legislation. Their judgment inevitably leads them to anger. It is why so many “good” people are today so angry. Our adversary cares nothing about morality: the anger is sufficient for his purposes.
The burning desire of almost every alcoholic that I know is to be able to drink responsibly. To simply have a drink or two, relaxing with friends, without the insanity that ensues when he loses control, is a never-ending fantasy. But if he yields to the fantasy he discovers that he has made no progress whatsoever. There can be no successful practice of “moral” drinking. The same is true for us all. We would like to make “moral progress,” to become the kind of people who can be trusted to do the right thing. But it’s a fantasy. We can either live the miraculous life of Christ or the moral life of man. The moral life of man does have progress – it progresses steadily towards death.
There is one last objection to the distinction I have offered here. It is the one that suggests that I’m simply engaged in word-play, making “morality” into a straw man. All language is a playing with words – it’s what we do. But these words are about an important distinction. The experience of that distinction can be seen in the successful sobriety of a recovered alcoholic, in the miraculous life of a saint, or in St. Peter’s stroll on the Sea of Galilee. It can also be seen in the angry judgments of frustrated moralists who imagine that with a bit more knowledge, a bit more effort, an occasional assist from God, they will, at last, live a better moral life, and happily buy one more round for everyone in the bar – from which they will crawl home one more time.