If Christian morality is not a legal or forensic matter, how are we to think about moral behavior? Does the word have no use for Orthodox Christians? What do we think about when we confess our sins? If morality is ontological – a matter of being – what does that look like?
To say that morality is ontological, a matter of our being, is to confess that the commandments of God are for our sake, for our salvation, our direction towards union with Him, and not merely for a legal/forensic judgment. The consequences of our actions are primarily internal, not imposed on us from without (Rom. 1:27).
My last article used the imagery of boundaries to speak about our proper way of life. Nothing is more constitutive of our salvation than the fullness of our personhood in relationship with the Triune God. All that pertains to our salvation rests within that relationship – which is truly ontological and not forensic. For Christ truly became what we are that we might become what He is.
Our boundaries can be seen as measures of who we are. As such there are all kinds of boundaries: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, hypostatic. Our boundaries are both the points at which we violate the proper boundaries of others as well as the points at which we may be saved. To understand this requires that you rethink with me the mechanics of morality. I am not suggesting here a metaphysics of boundaries, but rather using boundaries as a way to speak of metaphysics.
If we think of sinful actions – say adultery or theft. The violation of certain boundaries, exclusive faithfulness on the one hand, and property on another, are easily adapted for moral thought. But more than that, there are “boundaries within boundaries,” or other liminal aspects such as how someone thinks about their spouse, or someone other than their spouse. Those emotional boundaries are deeply important, and we describe their violation as lust, covetousness and the like.
But in these cases, rather than simply thinking of a specific rule-oriented explanation (the forensic model), we can explore the inner dynamic of what makes unfaithfulness a sin, not only against another, but against our own being as well. For there are proper boundaries of the self as person, and there are the improper boundaries (or none at all) of the self as ego.
The Orthodox Tradition understands the human person in the light of the Divine Persons, rather than the other way around. It is primarily by reflecting on Christ as God and Man that we understand what it actually means to be a human person. Indeed, the very word “person” as a name for the human subject, is a contribution of Christian thought to language.
To exist rightly as person, and not merely as self-centered ego, includes proper boundaries. To know where I “stop” and where I “end” is essential in having any meaning whatsoever. I am not you. Your concerns belong to you and are yours. You do not exist in order to fulfill my desires. When modern language speaks of “objectifying” another human being (as in making them a “sex object” or “economic object”) what we really mean is that we have destroyed proper boundaries and have subsumed them into our desires and thoughts. The moral content of such thought should be obvious, with reflection.
Even commandments such as truth telling have to do with correct boundaries. The truth always has actual content. That real content is describable. Only a faithful and correct description, etc., properly respects the boundaries of someone or something. To mis-represent is to distort boundaries for a false purpose.
This same exercise is easy to do across the whole range of moral concerns. But it is important to see that in using such imagery to carry out these thoughts, we are seeing ourselves, those around us, and our situations, not in legal terms, but in substantial, ontological terms. We can better understand that wrong actions are not merely “legally wrong,” but are actual violations of personhood and the reality of others – as clear and distinct as violence to someone’s physical body.
Important as well is its assistance in seeing ourselves as we truly are. Only boundaries reveal anything. For the shape and outline of things and situations, their delineations are all words for their boundaries. With no boundaries, we see nothing, or fail to know that we see anything. In making Himself known to us, God has always done so by boundaries. His name is the first great boundary revealed to Moses. It is set about with caveats and treated most carefully. Prominent within the 10 commandments is the prohibition against the misuse of His name. For if the name is used indiscriminately, it loses its meaning, and ceases to be the Divinely-revealed boundary by which we might know God.
Of course, the ultimate boundary is the Incarnation itself. The Word becomes flesh:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3)
The commandment continues into the very heart of our New Testament faith:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.
All of this is rightly defended in the veneration of the Holy Icons, in which the Church recognizes the condescension of God to humankind. He has become such that He can be pictured! The veneration of icons is properly, a moral act (in an ontological understanding).
But in the recognition of the boundaries of others and the things outside of us, we also come to know and accept the boundaries of our own selves. And this constitutes an essential part of our salvation.
For though we describe one another as persons, in the theology of the Church, that is something that we have yet to fully become. Our salvation can be understood as a movement towards true personal existence. The character of personal existence is most especially marked by its relationship to the Other. Just as the persons of the Holy Trinity are revealed with names that are relational (Father, Son, Spirit), so the truth of our personhood is revealed as it is rightly shaped in its relationships – with God, with other human persons, and with all created things.
Conversely, it is characteristic of sin that it fails in those relationships – its boundaries are broken, obscured, or non-existent. We do not relate to the Other, but use the other. Human beings as consumers is almost synonymous with human beings as sinners.
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another. (Gal 5:14-15)
And we are told of our adversary:
…your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.(1Pe 5:8)
That mental construct that we call the “ego,” our false self, is primarily characterized by its own distorted boundaries. In its anxieties it seeks to control, to manage, and to own. It exists as a story that is under constant revision, always searching and rearranging the past while warily scanning the future. The true self, as person, is content to exist in the present, at home within all of the boundaries that are appropriate. It is, in the last analysis, the heart of love.
This is the other dynamic of personhood. Content within proper boundaries, we learn to rightly extend ourselves towards the Other, without coercion or violence. In love, we lay down our own prerogatives and voluntarily accept the burdens of all. The ego obliterates all of the others in its own mania. The person accepts death, its own annihilation, for the sake of the Other, and in so doing finds itself and fulfills its personhood.
The distinct advantage in thinking in this manner (or something similar), is its integration with the language of the faith: personhood, being, etc. Doubtless there are other images that can be used (though they haven’t yet occurred to me). But the disadvantages of legal/moralistic language are manifold. It tends to make our moral life somehow separate from the rest of our lives. It becomes its own special subset of the faith. This compartmentalization is typical of one period in Christian history (scholasticism) and has left us with a problematic legacy – and a pressing danger that much be considered.
For quite some time traditional morality, rooted in legal/moralistic ideas, has been increasingly undermined by various forces in the culture. It is being replaced with a new set of legal/moralistic ideas, sometimes ruthlessly enforced through government action and bureaucratic policy. This “new morality” exploits the weakness of the legal/forensic model by challenging its cultural biases and attacking its apparent arbitrary character. Christian moralistic answers are proving to be unable to meet the challenge. Thinking “ontologically” requires us to say how something is wrong, and not simply that it is wrong.
There is an interesting example in St. Paul:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. (1Co 6:15-18)
St. Paul could have simply quoted the Law: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But he instead grounds the commandment in the ontological reality of union. There’s certainly more to be said when his argument is unpacked. But it is the kind of moral grounding that is required in the current challenge presented by our culture.
Legal imagery has, over time, led Christians down a very false and empty path. It has created an understanding of morality devoid of true content and left Christians intellectually unarmed and confused in the face of the New Morality. Worse still, it has substituted images of moral progress for the true path of the Cross that is marked by voluntary self-emptying. The imagery that I have offered here, a meditation on the boundaries of being, suggests a way to consider the teachings of the Fathers in which self-emptying is the very nature of moral action. To accept a boundary is to empty the false self. To extend that true personhood towards the Other is the very nature and character of the Cross. It is Christ’s way of the Cross. For He accepted the boundary of human existence, even to the point of death – the shameful death of the Cross. And through His shameful death He destroyed death, breaking its boundaries, and exalted human nature to the heavens. That is the true moral path.