As I continue this series on morality (or unmorality) the conversation continues to push me back to basics. There are deeply important reasons for unthinking the morality of the modern world and rethinking its place in our relationship with God. The most important reason is because it is incorrect to think of us as primarily moral beings. So what would constitute a moral being?
A Moral Being
A being understood primarily as a moral being would be one whose existence is more or less a given. The important question isn’t whether or not such beings exist, but how they behave. In terms of existence, all people would be seen as pretty much equal. It is what they do with that existence that is of concern, and particularly of concern from the perspective of religion. The crisis of humanity is its danger of being immoral.
Moral beings have been given Divine Commandments to direct them on the path of right behavior. Those commandments were fulfilled and completed in Christ, the only truly moral being. He gave us a greater Law, that of love, and taught us what it meant to live in accordance with that revelation.
In this understanding, His death and resurrection make it possible for us to live as moral beings, bringing us forgiveness and the power to change (repentance). Being saved by grace is primarily exhibited in greater and greater mastery of the passions (wrong inclinations and desires – moral disorder). It is crowned with perfection and eternal life with God in heaven.
An Ontological Being
There is another way to understand our existence, in which existence itself is not a given. St. Athanasius, in describing our human condition, begins with our creation out of nothing. He does not think of our existence in moral terms. Rather, he describes our sin as a break with God, the sole source of our being and continued existence. The consequences of this break are our falling back towards non-existence. The crisis of humanity is not moral in nature, but existential.
Over the course of several centuries, the language of the Church developed a common vocabulary for speaking about the doctrine of God (Trinity/Person/Being/Energies), the doctrine of Christ (Person/Being or Nature/Will/Energy) and the doctrine of man (Personhood/Nature/Freedom). The most refined versions of this conversation are found in St. Maximus and the 5th and 6th Councils, as well as in the later refinements of St. Gregory Palamas (14th century). That language looks at all of these things in terms that are primarily ontological – having to do with being.
Thus, when thinking about human beings and their Fall, this is seen in terms of a movement away from true being and the path towards eternal being, and thus towards non-existence. Salvation is seen as a restoration to our true mode of existence and direction in communion with God.
All of this works well with the Church’s language and proclamation of Christ’s victory over death and hell, as well as with St. Paul’s description of sin whose wages are death. It is the primary language and grammar of the Church in these matters.
A Clash of Grammars
The language of morality (behaviors/commandments/moral struggle/) has always been present in the Church. It has its place within the Scriptures and certainly plays a role in traditional teaching regarding the passions and spiritual warfare. However, it was not until the rise and prominence of legal/forensic imagery that moral thought came to be a primary way of thinking about the Christian life or human beings as such.
The teaching that man’s sin was primarily a breaking of the law, requiring payment or punishment, with righteousness being the fulfilling of the law, requiring reward, etc. represented an interjection of moral thought into the realm of the Divine/human relationship. Morality (not being and well-being) becomes the defining characteristic of human beings in the eyes of God. And God as Law Giver, Rewarder/Punisher, becomes the defining understanding of God in the eyes of sinful humanity.
When these ideas are interjected into the Godhead and dominate Christian thought, the Trinity, in its proper formulation, begins to recede. The relationship of the Father to the Son becomes primarily defined by the Son’s righteous transaction on behalf of sinful man. All conversation about being, substance, person, coinherence, etc., becomes superfluous, a distraction that obscures what is important (morality).
It overstates things simply to describe this as a problem between East and West, or Protestant/Catholic versus Orthodox. The reality on the ground and within history is much more complex and messy. But it is nevertheless the case that in cultural thought (which effects professional theologians as well) moral ideas and categories have pushed ontological ideas and categories aside – with the result that the culture today is speaking one language, the doctrine of the Church, another. This rejection of the traditional Christian language of ontology makes sense in a secular culture. Why would unbelievers want to speak a Trinitarian language? Morality can be understood by atheists as well.
Many of the most critical discussions in our culture concern very basic things about our humanity. Such things as sexual behavior, the beginning and end of life, marriage, etc., are all very fundamental parts of what it means to be human. Our cultural language, however, is dominated by moral imagery, understood in a very legal/forensic manner. Moral language is simply inadequate to discuss matters of such fundamental import. Christians, restricted in their vocabulary, wind up saying little more to pressing questions than, “It’s just wrong!” Those voices are increasingly ignored.
The culture, in pressing a radical revision of its understanding of the human, is itself using the legal/forensic model with effects that are devastating to a Classical understanding. The language of rights (itself part of the legal/forensic model) are simply sweeping everything away in their path. Gainsayers are left speechless or looking like fools. Of course, the reductionism of the radical revisionists is absurd. Human behavior cannot be rightly understood within the mere assertion of individual rights. Fundamental boundaries involving gender and the like are swept away as though they were artifacts of some outmoded worldview.
The Recovery of Christian Language
Moral thought has been highjacked by Modern culture. It is deeply infected with legal/forensic models of what it means to be human. We have incorporated pop psychology and progressive imagery into some of the deepest concerns of the Christian faith. With this has come the loss of disciplined, careful Christian thinking about contemporary needs and concerns. The Tradition is weakened and made somewhat obsolescent. There is a need to recover proper Christian language as we think about the spiritual life.
This recovery includes a critique of moral thinking. We are not, rightly-defined, moral beings. Morality is not the essence of our relationship with God. This is easily revealed in the fact of hypocrisy. Mere adherence to an outward standard has never been acceptable in God’s eyes. God sees according to the heart – the inmost character and disposition of our being. An “objective” moral standard might easily judge someone as “righteous,” even though they are moving away from God Himself. The standard, its rules and norms, substituted for God Himself, become a false mode of existence, which is idolatry. Christ says that this is “Of your father the devil,” meaning a movement towards non-being (for the devil was “a murderer from the beginning”).
Learning a language is something of a slow process. What we are engaged in, as Orthodox Christians, is the recovery of our own proper language. The words of “morality” in the Fathers have been co-opted by a foreign language, their meaning corrupted and changed. It is this changed that I have striven to point out by using such striking words as an “unmoral” (not “immoral”) Christian life.
The language of the Church, as embodied in her Councils and hymnography is rich in its understanding of what it means to be human – far richer than the reductionist theories of the new moralists. My readers would do well to think about these larger questions and hear what is being said. It will allow us to escape an existence as a moral cipher and become human beings.
Thank for you the clarification – this was much needed.
morals = good
moralism = not so good
I think this may be the most clear and forceful contribution to the series. Very well-explained! Thank you.
Thanks. It helps to hear it. One of the advantages to writing in a blog format is feedback and the ability to make further postings within a conversation. Can’t do that in a book.
Thank you, Father! This entry strikes me as the most accessible on the subject. This is a very difficult viewpoint to understand because it is so counter-cultural. Blessings to you for your clarity and focus! God bless.
The modern moralism is deeply connected to the modern ideas of materialism, egalitarianism/individualism and in a twisted sort of way our hedonism. Even the religious varieties have become disconnected to who man really is and become an excuse for behaving pretty much any way we please and calling it “moral”.
It has philosophical links to many of the lionized philosophers of the Enlightenment and their desire to make man the measure of all things and destroy the Christian understanding of man. They have succeeded in large measure.
One of the grave consequences has been the reduction of so much of human society to the purely and grossly economic in the narrowest of senses.
I began to understand the lineage of these thoughts in my study of history which my entrance into the Church put into a wholly different perspective.
I am reading a fascinating book that makes the connections much clearer without contradicting anything I previously knew so I think it is credible. The book: Moral Darwinism: How we became hedonists by Benjamin Wiker. Mr. Wiker is a Protestant creationist and his solutions suffer deeply because of that as he is never able to make the ontological the ground. However, his scholarship on the sources and the links between them is quite instructive.
As with all good books, it is available from Eighth Day Books, an Orthodox ministry and a small business which is a bulwark against the darkness (I am not exaggerating). More than worthy of the support of anyone and everyone who values books, faith and life.
I can really see what you are saying.
The post Enlightenment materialist philosopher’s indeed succeed in making man the measure and reducing him eventually to economics, chemistry, randomness or ‘morality’ – one that is becoming more warped by the day.
No wonder the eugenically minded ‘morals’ are now including things like euthanasia or infanticide, coupled with the warped talk of ‘rights’, it can make the mythical Spartan ‘Kaiadas’ look lame in comparison.
We must cleave ever more tightly to our Lord.
I’m becoming convinced that we live in a post-philosophy world. That, though we can trace various ideas that have led to our present Modernity, Modernity itself has simply de-coupled its life from everything that has gone before. What is left is mostly just hedonism – pleasure – pleasure for those with the money to pay for it. And we get to make up rules that protect the maximum of our middle-class pleasure.
As for the suffering required by others in order to support our own hedonism, we ignore them as best we can.
Morality becomes “whatever works for me.”
I noticed recently, that on Facebook, where you fill out your personal information, under “gender,” you can choose male or female, and then there’s a drop-down list under “custom.” The custom list has over 30 choices for gender. This is the triumph of Foucault and Derrida – gender as pure construct – utterly self-defined.
A priest sent me a link for materials now available for making your parish truly gender safe – it was more extreme gender as pure social construct – subject to any redefinition we might want. This makes Huxley’s Brave New World seem positively conservative. Had he written a novel of the “trans-world” no one would have believed it. Stranger than fiction.
It is almost the ultimate anti-Classical worldview in which everyone simply gets a boutique existence.
Oppositely, a true Christian worldview actually involves suffering – as unavoidable (utterly realistic). And then it deals appropriately with the suffering. The lie of the boutique world is that it will somehow alleviate suffering. It cannot and it will not. It finally becomes so solipsistic that only suicide will have meaning.
Thank you, Father! All those interested in the movement to a post-philosophical world would benefit, in my opinion, from reading the series of four or five posts by the author John C. Wright on his blog.
I am on a tablet so can’t cut and paste, but go to scifiwright.com and search Restless Heart of Darkness.
this is so true (unfortunately for the ’boutique’ part):
I’m reading it now – well, skimming really, after the first few screens – and I’m not really getting anything from it that I could not get on this blog (in the articles or the comments!) with much fewer words, each one more beautiful and less likely to be made up by the author, and generally less tainted with vitriol, insults and smug contempt about those the author disagrees with. (the writing is almost as bad as I remember mine being when I was writing about creationists as an atheist – have mercy on us sinners!) I cannot read his words as those of someone who has grasped the love of Christ and is speaking from a place of that love (rather than a love of one’s own many words – see previous parenthetical), but I will not rule out the possibility completely, having seen enough of his writing to know there are occasional gems. Are there any good “money quotes” buried in the rough that we should be aware of?
Re: the Facebook gender thing: I think I get exactly what you mean by it, but it troubles me as someone (though myself very much a cis het male) who knows a statistically unusually high number of people who are sincerely struggling or have sincerely struggled with their gender identity problems and have resolved/are resolving in different ways. This is an extremely difficult subject that I think goes to the heart of the ontological problem that is addressed by Orthodoxy. How can the Church approach people with these struggles in love and truth without alienating them? How do we discern whether an expectation is a genuine call to embrace the reality of what God has given us, and not potentially causing grief and harm over something that is merely the enforcement of a cultural more (skirts, beards, manner of sitting, etc.) that has no real grounding in Truth? (This seems to me like one of those situations where it can be very blurry whether something is a mere moral prescription or a call to ontological change.)
Fr Stephen Freeman, you have authentic insight (and I mean “gnosis”) into the human condition. You are a blogger from whom I learn.
When I used to hear or read that “people never change” it depressed me so badly. But that was before hope in Christ. Having drunk too much from the Judaic Roots kool-aid, I thought it was about Pelagian self-improvement, somehow or other. Wrong.
Good question. I have a number of thoughts. One, is that the present culture drivers have bought into a model that sees solutions as “political.” I don’t mean party politics or government – but something much more in the model of Foucault and Derrida. It is a politically defined problem, as pretty much everything is in Anti-Foundationalist (or its various stylings) thought. These folks were quite the rage in in my grad school years at Duke. I had to learn to converse and be conversant in their thought just to take part in the class arguments.
But, everything is seen as political – i.e. – everything is about power and exercising power. Thus gender issues are not about body, ethics, psychology, dysmorphic this or that – the problem ceases to be a “problem” if it is politically defined as “not a problem.” If gender is an issue, then treat gender as a politically derived concept. Change it. No more problem.
The solution is entirely just that radical. The first organized efforts at such re-definitions were carried out by the Bolsheviks and their successors. The new radicals learned it from them but have taken it to new heights. It is little wonder that its first foothold in our culture has been in the academy – a place about as divorced from reality as possible – and a place dominated by Marxist intellectuals. When I was a Duke, I had a good friend who taught Philosophy at the University of Beijing. He told me that he had never met an actual Marxist until he came to Duke. We laughed. About 6 months later came Tiananmen Square. His family was shipped back to China and he said we must never talk again.
There is doubtless a real (and not just “politically-driven”) problem for some people viz. gender and self-understanding. And their suffering is indeed real and painful. How a culture treats them belongs to the same question as to how we treat any number of people. But effectively obliterating gender in order to spare the feelings of a few genuinely ill people is not the answer. For one, the “political will” required to sustain such a fiction is simply not reality-based. Political will requires a huge, even massive effort that inevitably involves a great loss of freedom. Making people say things that are not obvious just doesn’t hold up over a long haul. It is “catching on” at the moment like a cultural fetish – a fashion. The culture will become bored soon enough and find another more interesting cause, and throw today’s fetish under the bus. It is simply not a sustaining model for a culture. I’m just sorry that we’re going to have to make so many people crazy and angry before it goes away.
But suffering is a very legitimate concern – and an appropriate concern for the Church – always and in all places. And it is not just the gender-confused, homosexual, etc. persons who are proper concerns in the suffering department. Everybody suffers. It’s part of life in the real world. Christianity does not teach a world without suffering. Christ did not die to end suffering. Christ died in order to change death itself, and in that change, trample down death by death.
Christianity is a life of self-offering. It is a life of voluntary suffering for the sake of the whole world and its salvation. There is no other true form of Christianity.
The madness of the present order is in its drive to eliminate suffering. It cannot be done. The drive to eliminate suffering always results in murder. Christianity is not about murder – but about the transformation of suffering and the salvation of the world through union with the suffering God.
This gospel has largely been abandoned by contemporary Christianity and it has pretty much nothing to say to the world other than a banal promise that it, too, will alleviate suffering.
Orthodox Christianity says point blank: If you want to be a disciple of Christ, take up your Cross. If there were only one Orthodox Christian left in the world, then he would take up his Cross for the whole world. The first Orthodox Christian did just that (and He was God).
So, on these suffering gender questions, it becomes for the Church – how do we proclaim the gospel to these fellow-creatures in such a way that they will take up the Cross of their sufferings and join us for the life of the world and for its salvation?
“A post-philosophy world,” indeed!
Would you be surprised to know that my alma mater seriously considered dropping their offering of a philosophy major, before they ultimately decided to severely downsize the program?
I’ve always thought there should be more philosophy, not less! Can you imagine what science might actually look like if its students were required to take logic, epistemology, and an introduction to the philosophy of science? 🙂
Thanks for the link, Ann!
This article sums up a lot of your recent thought on history and morality both–thanks very much!
The quest to end suffering is a state of constant warfare against our own humanity so suicide seems the only reasonable solution.
We have to deny our own suffering and become more and more isolated
How radical then to reach out to someone else who is suffering in a different way and offer to share theirs, even if only a little. Not to analyze it or make it better just to acknowledge the suffering and bear a little of it with them for awhile. Like the Cyrene.
Funny, I’ve never heard a sermon preached on him.
Bear one another’s burdens as we walk together toward Golgatha.
The nature, the cause or the type of suffering is largely irrelevant.
Lord forgive me
thank you for making this difficult topic of ‘secular suffering’ so clear for everyone. It is deeply appreciated.
‘The drive to eliminate suffering always results in murder.’
These are hard words, Fr. Stephen. Are you speaking about this as a systemic drive or an out of control passion? I am aware how often helping can hurt, but I am also so impacted by Christ’s example in alleviating the suffering around him and his words that are clear about being judged by our willingness to respond to the suffering around us. Maybe there is a difference between the desire to alleviate suffering and the drive to eliminate suffering?
Thank you so much, Father ! I am reminded of two verses – “our righteousness is as filthy rags” and ” our pattern is Jesus” . Ken
I think that ‘The drive to eliminate suffering always results in murder’, chiefly implies my suffering:
If I want to avoid being crucified I must of necessity crucify another…
Let’s use an example: I find out that my child will be born with a debilitating problem, so I “eliminate my (and its) suffering with an abortion”? that’s what secular ‘morality’ would now have us do… Or do I take up the cross as from the hands of God in the knowledge that my salvation is unsure without it (and the child’s) and that “His grace is sufficient for us: for His strength is made perfect in weakness. And gladly therefore glory this infirmitiy, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor 12 :9)
It is something the American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has said in many ways. Whenever ending suffering becomes the driving principle in our ethic, we wind up having to kill people to stop the suffering. We already do this in euthanasia and abortion. There are certainly very important things that we should do to aid/heal those who suffer. But when we seek to eliminate suffering, we necessarily begin to exercise a measure of coercive control that will ultimate require killing people.
The distinction between “eliminate” and “alleviate” is indeed important.
I cite Hauerwas from time to time. Though he is not Orthodox, he is one of the most important thinkers in the realm of theological ethics that I know. I also studied under him, so I understand his work. I was recently taken to task for quoting someone who was not Orthodox (go figure).
Our adversary hates the Cross and he slanders it in every way he can.
Matt, please share your work with us. I have made my living as a writer for thirty-plus years and take both professional and spiritual delight in well-crafted prose that brings us closer to the Father and Son.
Examining life at the margins of a very comfortable society is worthwhile (I’m a longtime reader here), but nothing to get too upset over. A Facebook dropdown menu for gender identity with “custom” as an option is simply a reaction from a public company to its immediate environment: the margins of comfortable, over-educated America. A young, uppity bay area (Facebook’s extended neighborhood) will demand being called gender-neutral pronouns *while* they go on Yelp to complain that a pop-up burger joint put tomato on the wrong side of the lettuce in their sandwich. They will march for Palestine in front of tv cameras *as* they UberX a ride to an absinthe bar across town.
If we believe that the law is written on our hearts, my first question when faced with something that seems to pervert something good is: what drive do we share that is being perverted? It’s just that our passions (which we all have) aren’t there to take us to mere pleasure-seeking, even though that sometimes seems to be the easiest use for them. There are foils for all “deadly sins” given to us through faith. So if I see a person perverting gender/ sex/ identity as something they can design for themselves — or strip away altogether — one reaction I have is kind of positive: “aw man, I wanna skip to the end, too, where there’s neither male nor female. But we’re not there yet.”
Thank you, Fr. Stephen and Dino.
My wife and I are licensed to be foster parents, but have not been able (or “willing” more honestly) to begin accepting children into our home. I think our fear illustrates this idea of alleviating vs eliminating suffering uncomfortably well. In order for us to alleviate the suffering of children, we must open ourselves to share in their suffering. To eliminate our own suffering, we must abandon the children to their suffering and pretend it doesn’t exist. We don’t want to suffer. But until we do, someone else will.
Pray for us. God save us from ourselves.
Until I was Baptized and Chrismated into the Orthodox Church I had long had the demonic voice of suicide whispering in my ear. The promise always was the end of suffering — for myself and for others (everyone would be better off without me).
The evil ones are quite good at mimicking the person’s inner voice. I, thank God, rejected the suggestions for a couple of reasons: 1. I knew that this life was not all there is; 2. Totally by grace I knew where the suggestion was coming from. There was always something a little off about it. With Chrismation I was brought into joy and the voice went away.
For those who succumb to the suggestion from what I have read it is because it has become constant and their own inner suffering increasingly difficult.
Joy, thanksgiving and laughter are existential the antidotes that allow us to reject the lie that ending suffering is the goal. They also allow us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ and our own salvation. I am often reminded of the playwright, Christopher Frye’s words: “The phenomenon of cachinnation is surely the surest touch of genius in creation.”
We need to learn to enjoy one another in Christ in spite of our sins, not attempt to celebrate some and condemn others giving thanks for all things. Give all over to Him, help others where we can. Be constant in worship, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness and repentance. Otherwise we will be constantly at war alternating between anger and despondency.
“This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Make no mistake, suffering, like the poor, will always be with us in large and small ways. Struggle will always be with us and part of the discipline of the Cross is to not give into the temptation of allowing the cup to pass from us but to embrace our lives as gifts from God no matter what the existential difficulties.
“Don’t you know right from wrong?” The tree of knowledge of good and evil is the moral tree. The Tree of Life is the tree of well-being.
“How radical then to reach out to someone else who is suffering in a different way and offer to share theirs, even if only a little. Not to analyze it or make it better just to acknowledge the suffering and bear a little of it with them for awhile. Like the Cyrene.
Funny, I’ve never heard a sermon preached on him. ”
Are you familiar with the works of Charles Williams? Particularly his novel, “Descent into Hell”? I’d say it fits your criteria of a sermon on the Cyrene, though his prose is admittedly dense.
William’s theological ideas are expressed very poetically in his fiction, but a recurring theme is that of willing substitution: that each of us, as lovers of Christ, make ourselves willing to bear the sufferings of the particular fellow humans in our spheres of influence. It’s quite profound, and he doesn’t shy away from the logical implication: that we might be willing to walk into hell itself for the sake of a friend who might still be willing to grasp at salvation (this theme is explored more in All Hallow’s Eve).
tess, I am not familiar with his work. I’ll look into it.
Certainly the Apostle Paul expressed his willingness to give up his own salvation for the sake of the Jewish people.
My son when he was considering going into the military 10 years ago was quite aware that he was risking his own salvation to protect others and he was consciously willing to do that. Fortunately, God had other plans.
It is not an uncommon thought.
Still, I don’t think it is about the grand gesture so much as it is about the little things: making the choice to be open to other people’s pain while at the same time not attempting to ignore or cover our own. It can be tough to do.
I am truly blessed in that I have a wife who is kind–not just to me but to almost everybody. She is empathic not just kind on the surface. She teaches me every day.
I know that my brokenness is healed a bit with each kindness she extends to me (not sympathy) even when I make it difficult.
Your statement above really struck a chord with me. I’ve been thinking about my own path to Christ recently, and have been struck by the realization that the depressiveness that plagued the first 20 years of my life disappeared at some point. In many ways, I truly believe I died in Christ, and the man I am now is not, ontologically, the same as the one I was in high school and college. That’s not to say that I’m transformed into a moral person without faults, but that the way I approach the world, my place in it, my suffering, etc. has been fundamentally altered, and the only explanation that makes sense is that it was by the grace of God.
Matth: God’s grace is indeed wonderful. Sometimes it comes upon us and changes things obviously and dramatically at other times more slowly as we enter into it and cooperate with Him.
In my case the demonic whisper tempting me to suicide just vanished once I was Chrismated. Many other struggles remain but that is one that does not.
In sharing this I discovered that the voice is still there just urging me in directions I am more amenable to and did not fully realize was the same voice. Sins I have accepted into my heart more deeply.
A comment and then a question for you, Fr. Stephen.
First the comment…
I’ve always found it interesting that morality/moralism is nearly always the driving paradigm – even for unbelievers. By this I mean that actions of any sort must always be “justified” or, to put it another way, defined as morally good. It is not enough for actions to simply be actions, be they good, evil, or simply tragic. There is nearly always a perceived need to define (or redefine) them as good, moral, and therefore “justified.” It is not enough for war (for example) to be tragic. It must be good. It must be moral. It must be “justified.” It is not enough simply to acknowledge that actions done for the good of some cause the suffering of others. They must be considered 100% good. They must be moral. They must be “justified.” It is, again, not enough merely to choose an ‘alternate lifestyle’ (sexual or otherwise) and simply live it according to one’s freedom to do so. Our culture demands that all actions must be good, moral, “justified.” All such actions (and many of my own) must be defined or redefined as moral goods and therefore “justified” lest the mask be ripped off and our true selves exposed.
It adds a whole other dimension to the meaning of our being “justified” by the faith of Christ Jesus.
Now the question…
I have understood, to the degree my feeble mind can, the ontological or un-moral nature of salvation ever since reading THE FREEDOM OF MORALITY (an excellent book) many years ago. Thus, I do understand the critical importance of the distinctions you’ve been drawing. But my question has to do with the limits (?) to the language of philosophy when speaking of human existence. My understanding – and please correct me if I’m wrong – is that our existence is a gift that will never be taken from us. We can attempt to refuse the gift; and indeed, as you have written, we can choose movement toward non-existence. But no matter how wretched and miserable we may become through our movement away from God in Whom all existence is grounded – in life or in death – our existence remains an irrevocable gift of God; does it not? I ask this because if the philosophical language is carried to its ‘logical’ conclusion one could presume it possible for us to cease to exist altogether, and I don’t think that is at all what is meant by…
“St. Athanasius, in describing our human condition, begins with our creation out of nothing. He does not think of our existence in moral terms. Rather, he describes our sin as a break with God, the sole source of our being and continued existence. The consequences of this break are our falling back towards non-existence. The crisis of humanity is not moral in nature, but existential.”
The key word then, if I understand correctly, is “towards.”
Yes. You are correct. “Towards” is the key word. Even the adversary still exists. I find CS Lewis’ imagery in The Great Divorce to be astoundingly helpful in thinking ontologically. He managed in that book, to actually portray heaven and hell in a precisely ontological manner rather than moral. It’s one of the most amazing feats in Christian fiction. It is more sound theologically than a vast number of others things I can think of.
Lewis warned against taking in any way literally. And he is correct – other than its usefulness in thinking about these things in an ontological manner. But in his hell, people (the “ghosts”) just keep moving further and further out, and their existence becomes less and less significant – less real.
And it is quite the opposite in heaven. More real, more solid the further in you go.
And he uses the imagery of movement, and solid=real, to achieve this. It has a sort of moral component, but interestingly, almost all the talk about morality is on the lips of those from hell, not those in heaven.
It is a book I strongly recommend people read. It is, for my money, my favorite Lewis and one of my favorite pieces of theological imagination. I think it really helped me long before I came across the ontological tradition of the Fathers. It simply made more sense than the forensic stuff I had read. But I couldn’t do anything with it, because it wasn’t Scripture.
But it “primed the pump” so that when I first encountered an ontological approach in theology, I leapt at it, never to leave.
I think there is no “annihilation” for anything. God might have something quite different in mind.
I appreciate your question and have some thoughts about it.
Of course we can help others and may even prevent or reduce some suffering, but we cannot end suffering or the fear of it. People captivated by fear of suffering are lost in a way that we cannot remedy. Only God can and He does that through suffering, not by going around it.
We can actively join with the suffering of others as Christ did — for love which is the indissoluble bond of humans and God. We weep with those who weep.
Schemes that try to end suffering on earth are idolatrous because they promise things that God Himself would not. They try to do things that God Himself does not. In the end, these are the schemes of people who think they know better than God what it is to be a human. Christ is THE human and He suffered.
The thing that strikes me is that while we are in an increasingly anti-intellectual, anti-religious and anti-philosophical world, religion and philosophy are really inescapable. Hedonism and narcissism are systems, too, even though they are individualistic ones directed by whatever one wants at the time. Since all moral systems derive from religion (whatever one considers one’s “ultimate concern,” to use Tillich’s broad language, which is what scholars of religion generally prefer anyway), we do end up with moral judgments based on whatever feelings, impressions, perceived goods, that one wants at the time. But all other ways of looking at things become increasingly opaque and nonsensical. The further we go from human nature as God designed it- to be a reflection of His Own life and a participation and endless growth, uniquely, in His infinite Energies- the more blind we become. At this point, it seems to me, the culture is extremely dark, and there is a collective insensibility to non-individualistic reality. The whole nature of human beings as “persons,” in the most proper theological sense of that word, is being blotted out from the consciousness of the culture. We can wring our hands about the results, which are clear enough on every level. But until we get back to the core issue of what it means to be made in God’s image, and called to share in His likeness, and understand this in covenantal (familial) terms rather than forensic ones, no real progress back from the brink of self-imposed destruction is possible. This means that at the root of everything, including Christian anthropology, we always get back to the Trinity, THE Family, the communion of Self-giving which is total and perfect and the foundation for everything else at every moment.
Well said, Fr. Patrick.
Thank you, Father. Lewis was very helpful to me as well. And I love this:
“God might have something quite different in mind.”
While the ages to come have not been revealed to us, we know that God is good beyond comprehension!
“…that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. “
Father Stephen and all:
First, I want to point out that while we are admitting a positive place for morality (or perhaps more accurately “the commandments”), I have yet to see a positive statement of it. Given that out existential problem is ontological (something I hope I don’t give the impression I am disagreeing with!), and that our calling is beyond mere morality (i.e. “supramoral” ), what then is the place of morality (positively stated) Christianly speaking? There is a way to read much of what is being written here that it is merely relative/cultural, merely self generated (and thus necessarily sinful), etc. Perhaps morality is too easily a synonym for “commandments”.
Also, and I think this is important, what do we do with those (i.e. how do we communicate with) who have a more “innocent” view of morality, one that is less technical (i.e. theological) and less “eccentric” than the one we are giving it here. I admit my first thought when I hear the term “moral” is not that of a self contained “moralism” independent of God (or necessarily of that western legal/forensic theological strain). I suspect I am not alone in this. Indeed, I have heard the term used by C.S Lewis (to name just one western writer) who uses it in a much more positive manner – something closer to what I think Dino was referring to in the greek in the last thread about “ethos”.
Or is this in vain and the term is hopeless bound up in legal/forensic model?
It’s not in vain, the term can be used provided it is bracketed with important provisos such as discussed here.
There are so many other examples of this – faith, works, God, tradition, salvation etc etc. We still can and should use these and other words regardless their misuse. It’s all in the meaning we ascribe…
Now I will end my comment before I am accused of being a nominalist….
“It is all in the meaning we ascribe…” There is a meaning that is consonant with the truth and there are a plethora of meanings which are not consonant with the truth.
The trouble with parsing language in most conversations is that no one can follow them in part because most are conditioned to the sound-bite. “Tell me about God and salvation in 10 seconds or less.”
It takes a lot of prayer to become simple.
In response to this kind of attitude, my son has taken to using the Nicene Creed. If the person listens all the way through (many stop at the mention of Mary), and want to know more he invites them to Liturgy. If they come with and open heart, they learn and they change.
Fr. Stephen says we are in a post-philosophical age. While I lament that, he is likely correct. Fortunately, the Church has the Divine Liturgy, icons and the saints. Experience can replace what words have difficulty conveying.
A good part of the effectiveness of this blog, IMO, is that Fr. Stephen is writing in obedience, blessed by his bishop to do so. As a result, there is an unseen and unspoken grace that is communicated even through the internet.
People respond to that.
Glory be to God.
Very well said Michael,
and we all who regularly comment should have the same blessing/obedience ideally.
I want to thank you for being willing to get your hands hands dirty with this blog. What an act of mercy to dive into the complexity of our illness the way you do. I know it would be much easier to wash your hands of this kind of thing. I am reminded of Mother Teresa who showed us so genuinely what is was to touch the unlovely in their pain. I think touching the mind of the sick is just as sacrificial as touching a sick body. I have read your blog for about three years now, and I have seen you be consistent to your mission. Thank you for hanging in their with us and helping us peel back the onion.
Dino, if we were to do that I don’t think conversation here would change much because of the manner in which Fr. Stephen moderates. But, it is a good suggestion, at least one’s confessor/spiritual father.
It did bring up the question in my mind of the attitudes one might have if one was posting under obedience:
4. Diligence not to express only one’s own opinion (part of humility but deserves a place of its own)
5. Unwavering dedication to the truth (keeping #1-3 in mind).
Those are the five attitudes I can think of. There are probably more. Keeping these attitudes becomes easier if one is under obedience I think.
I would say that “we know that all things work together for good to them that” (Rom-8:28) are under their Spiritual Father’s blessing. Not that spiritual vigilance stops being indispensable or anything, but the air of freedom is guarded by this ‘obedience’ in a mystical way and with benign, wide-reaching, unthinkable repercussions.
In light of my obedience, I invite your prayers for my Diocese. Our ruling hierarch, the ever-memorable Abp. Dmitri, fell asleep in the Lord about 2 1/2 years ago, and had been retired for a couple of years before that. We’ve been wonderfully cared for by a Locum Tenens, who is very supportive and caring. But in two weeks we assemble in Florida to nominate a new bishop (this is an OCA process, unknown elsewhere in Orthodoxy). We will forward that name to the Holy Synod of Bishops who alone can elect our bishop. They do not have to elect our nominee, but are most likely to. (All of our candidates have previously been vetted and approved).
If they elect (in March) a new Bishop will likely be consecrated in May. It has been something very much on my heart over the past number of years. I was with Vladyka Dmitri just two weeks before his death, which took place just shortly after my own father’s death. It was a very hard month that year.
I was serving as a Dean at the time and thus was part of the process in interviewing candidates. I’m now retired from “Deaning” but have stayed close to the process. To see this completed will be deeply important for the South. We have only ever had one bishop, since our Diocese was only founded in 1978. Finding a successor to the “Apostle of the South” is momentous.
On a personal level, some time after his consecration, I will place my ministry before him for his blessing (or not). It is a joy to write in obedience and would be a torment to do otherwise. It frees me from many things that would be destructive. It especially frees me from the need to be clever or original.
Your prayers are invited!
May God’s grace abound in the south and guide the selection of your new bishop and continue to grant you fruit in your ministry.
Through the intercessions of the blessed Theotokos.
Amen and digital bump to that!
“Experience can replace what words have difficulty conveying.”
Can it? I am not sure, perhaps at times it does, at other times our experience requires reflection, perspective, interpretation. “Raw” experience can be quite befuddling.
I suppose it is neither here nor there, but such it seems to me. But I do, like you, believe that certain interpretations reflect truth or reality more faithfully than others. I do also think we traditional Christians tend to uncritically accept and promote aspects of life as eternal, immutable fact whereas many things in life are open to change, conditioning, interpretation. As if interpretation is something evil, to be avoided at all cost, the assailant of the clear, indisputable nature of truth.
In this case, coming back to the topic of this post and Christopher’s concern about the (in)ability to use “moral” and “morality” – I would say we *must* bring interpretation to bear on this (and other topics), with full force and without apology. The Fathers did so, unapologetically, without reservation – at times recovering the meaning of existing words and terms, at others times creating new words and phrases altogether. The meaning and use of words change, subject to social conditioning and manipulation. But lets use that to our advantage! Let us recapitulate our thoughts, our habits of speech, the words we write in accordance to Gospel and for the Glory of God.
Very good points. We are God’s “rational sheep”(Logika probata) meaning that we must indeed use words. And, ultimately, words are necessary to us for understanding. We might “know” something wordlessly, in an immediate sense, but then we must (!) move towards words, images, icons, etc.
And, in order for the faith that has been Traditioned to us to truly become ours, we have to engage its words, ideas, realities, and even then “play” with them. We recast them in other words – not in order to change the Tradition – but in order to understand it and make it our own. This exercise with the moral life is precisely that. I have not so much been trying to substitute some finished product and throw away something else, but to really examine and engage “what does this mean?” Some things are discarded – such as the forensic driven ideas of morality that do not properly belong to us.
I’m writing an article just now, expanding on boundaries as a way of thinking about “moral.” It is working very well. But it is not an exercise in creating a new Orthodoxy. It is rather finding words/images that allow the words we already have to make proper sense.
The Fathers do this all the time. And it is right behavior for rational sheep. One of the reasons that we can do this, is that we understand ourselves to be speaking of something real. When we use a different word, we don’t do so in order to change something, but in order to grasp something that we know to be real and unchanging. And it is that which is real and unchanging that saves us poor sheep.
Fr. Stephen, a couple quick comments:
“The drive to eliminate suffering always results in murder. Christianity is not about murder – but about the transformation of suffering and the salvation of the world through union with the suffering God.”
This is pure gold! Thank you so much.
The struggle in this series of posts can seem to put the ideas of morality and the true Christian gospel up against each other, such that you can have one or the other but not both. I don’t believe this is the case.
One way I’ve come to think of it is:
morality = 2-dimensional
gospel = 3-dimensional
The 2D world is all around us. We interact with it all the time and it will never go away, i.e. reading a book, looking at a computer screen, writing a letter, doing our taxes, etc. But we’re bigger than that; we aren’t able to be contained by the 2D world. We live and move and have our being in a 3D experience. This is simply our reality.
In the same way morality is part of our every day life. It will never go away, just like Jesus said about every jot and tittle of the law. However, it is not large enough to contain us and not powerful enough to give us life. On the other hand an intimate relationship to the source of our life, God Himself breathes life into our morality, gives it form and understanding. In this picture morality simply guides us in how best to love – most of the time.
Hopefully this idea is helpful.
That’s right, respectively. It is up to the individual.