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.