There are very few categories more basic than life and death. For Classical Christian thinking, they are essential. There has also been a tendency in both theology and philosophy, however, to move away from these fundamental categories and become lost in the complexities of other language. Thinking about the moral life is a prime example. A word like “sin” becomes an obscure subset of legal wrangling and tortured logic. The legacy of moral complication has been the loss of moral reasoning. There is a fundamental failure within our culture because we no longer understand the matter of life and death.
In Orthodox theology, thinking in terms of life and death is described as an “ontological” approach. The categories of life and death are also spoken of as “being” and “non-being.” They are foundational for Orthodox thought and need to return to our contemporary vocabulary, for the world and all that is in it, is truly a matter of life and death.
It is interesting that moral categories such as “right” and “wrong” create confusion for many. To modern ears it injects a world of subjectivity into questions of great moment. “Who’s to say what’s right and wrong?” we hear. This is a profound weakness in much moral thought in the modern period. Right and wrong are the language of the law. Life and death is the language of the Church. It is also the language that speaks with the greatest clarity.
For one, life and death are fairly easily defined. When something is alive, there is general agreement on the fact. The same is true about death. In the same manner, the fundamental categories of being and non-being are easily ascertained: either something exists or it doesn’t.
In the teaching of the Church, God alone has true self-existent Being. He is the root and ground of existence – all things having come into existence only by His will (“in Him we live and move and have our being” – Acts 17:28). Additionally, the Church holds that being (existence, life), as a gift of God, is inherently good. It is also the teaching of the Church that all things that are created are beautiful, in that they reflect the will of the Creator. Thus these three fundamental categories, being, goodness, beauty, are all related and have their grounding in being itself.
In the same manner, the Church understands death as a movement towards non-being. It is a rejection of being and existence. In the same manner, death is not good nor beautiful. In the New Testament it is often termed “corruption” (literally, “rot”). Thus the devil is described as a “murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). He is also the “father of lies,” lies being a form of non-being (Jn 8:44).
Bearing these simple things in mind, it is much easier to think clearly about many contemporary issues that press upon us. Killing is contrary to the commandment. Even in situations of self-defense or defense of the weak, killing remains dangerously intertwined with the vortex of death. It is not a good thing nor a beautiful thing. We may deem it unavoidable and even necessary, but it is only “necessary” because of the evil that has entered the world. In the Church, the taking of a human life must be followed by repentance. It is never merely justified and dismissed. Something terrible has happened and it is necessary for our souls to be cleansed and healed.
On issues such as abortion, this is a very clarifying understanding. When does life begin? It obviously begins at the beginning. When a human ovum and a human sperm unite (both of which are living), the result is alive. It is not only alive, it is a human life (what other kind of life could such a zygote be)? There are no fine distinctions to be made: it’s a matter of life or death. And the willful destruction of an embryo is death, the causing of a human death. It is neither good nor beautiful. It is inherently a sin.
There is a long history of moral reasoning that is called “Utilitarianism.” It simply means, “What is useful.” It is a way of asking questions about certain actions. It’s reasoning is best expressed as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It sounds eminently practical and is often employed in political and social thought. However, it is also fatally flawed. First, it fails to define the meaning of “good.” The greatest “good” cannot be described in practical terms. Often Utilitarian arguments are used to justify whatever some power group wishes to do. Whoever gets to define the “good” gets to make the rules.
Thus, those who find justifiable reasons for abortion always turn towards some form of utility. Abortion is certainly “useful” for the person who is burdened by the presence of this new life. But it is already an existing life and cannot be destroyed without sin. No amount of “useful” side-effects, such as providing fetal tissue for medical research and the like, can make the reality of the death go away, nor can they make killing into a good thing.
This reasoning is also a proper way to think about other things in our daily lives. The Christian life is not static and unchanging. It is dynamic, a movement towards a goal. That movement is described by the Fathers as one from simple being, towards well-being, and finally eternal-being. Sin is a moving in a contrary direction. Repentance is a change of direction, a return to the proper trajectory of our life.
Stanley Hauerwas, the American theologian, has said that the desire to control the outcome of history is idolatry and that whoever undertakes such a thing has agreed to do violence. He is entirely correct, for the outcome of history belongs to God alone and it is inevitable that the self-appointed masters of history will always be forced to kill in order to see their results come about.
The lesser goals of our world, constructed out of the plans and schemes of mortals often have very noble ends in mind. They are especially keen on the elimination and alleviation of suffering and pain. When these goals are expressed in their Utilitarian justifications, they always sound compassionate and caring. But when it is seen that the goals will ultimately require violence and killing, then their alliance with death is revealed. Mercy killings are among the most obvious examples of this utility. “A good death” becomes the reasoning behind murder or assisted suicide. War, in all of its forms, is the most egregious example of such a drive for historical mastery.
In our private lives, we fall short of the sanctioned killing of the state (though we may gladly give assent). But the same drive to control the outcome of history creates the idolatry of anger and bitterness. This is contrasted with the common theme of Orthodox prayers in which the events of the day are accepted, blessed and left in the hands of God.
The Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina is a good example:
O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility.
Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.
At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things.
Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day,
teach me to accept it with a calm soul
and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.
Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions.
In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.
Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.
O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day
and all the events that take place during it.
Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope,
to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.
This prayer (and many others like it) is intended to move the heart towards union with God’s will, who works in and through all things for our salvation – the movement from being to well-being to eternal being. The same is true of all the commandments of Christ:
The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (Joh 6:63)
Glory to God for all things!