A Matter of Life and Death

The-Seventh-Seal-filmThere 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!

39 comments:

  1. This is my favorite prayer each day and I like this translation – slightly different from what I have. Thank you for the reflection on abortion – complete agreement.

  2. Very interesting post Father. It has brought together the many strands of my own thinking in the matter of Life and Death. Two things pop out as important to remember. One is that in the Greek text the word Zoe is used for life, which is spiritual life. People often ask me if to sin is to die how come people don’t fall down dead immediately when they sin (like Adam). I would respond by saying that spiritually one is headed toward death (non-being) unless they turn (repent) and come back. The other is paganism. Despite the form of the belief structure of a pagan, they have one thing in mind, controlling the environment around them.
    You said: “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.” Perhaps this is the more egregious part of idolatry and pagan thinking that the Lord so despises.
    I think recognition of this controlling aspect of paganism is important because when I was still a Protestant Pastor I heard many people speaking of how they can pray a certain way and God has to answer or if we fast for a reason like in the health of another, that God has to bless them because we sacrificed. Another one often preached is if one gives money to a ministry, God has to reward the giver with more than they gave. (So called 7th Spiritual Law of Sowing and Reaping).
    Does any of this seem in line with your thinking Father?

  3. Father Freeman –
    What an excellent blog post. I am the head of a county level organization and one of the services we provide is Wraparound to children, youth and their families who may be involved in multiple systems (Child Protective Services, Juvenile Court, Mental Health, etc., etc.). I think that often times both the staff from the agencies they are involved in and the families themselves are so busy trying to remove/escape from any form of hardship or suffering that actions are too often taken that are reactive, short sighted and create even more unintended consequences. I have also found this to be true in my own life too – when I have tried to control how everything is supposed to go or knee-jerk reacted to situations in my life in order to escape hardship or suffering, it usually brought on even more hardship and I often missed an opportunity to further learn to trust God learn to open to His will.

    Dave

  4. Many truths are perennial: did you know that in every traditional source of the Buddhist religion, abortion is prohibited? They have found it to be wrong even without theology. Although in modern times, some more western influenced like the Dalai Lama have attenuated the teaching.

    When a truth is perennial in this fashion, I am all the more easily persuaded.

  5. Nicholas,
    Yes. It does. In general, Orthodoxy teachers say that should not pray or ask for things – that God already knows what we need (Matt. 6). Instead, we pray for all things that are for our salvation (for others as well). Christ says about clothes, money, etc., “the Gentiles seek after these things.” Many Christians pray like pagans (though there has to be a better term).

  6. “Life and death is the language of the Church. It is also the language that speaks with the greatest clarity.”
    “…for the world and all that is in it is truly a matter of life and death.”

    Thank you for this post. So profoundly “bottom-line”. Attending to this simply-stated reminder reveals my priorities moment-by-moment.

  7. I am an outlier (though I think a not entirely uncommon one) to this:

    “. 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.”

    Since it can not stand with this:

    “Even in situations of self-defense or defense of the weak, killing remains wrong…{followed by the “necessary evil” understanding}”

    I believe it to be not quite right (at least in a very important sense) and confusing. I am not ignorant of these things either. Because of my life circumstances, I personally know several men (current and formal federal agents and soldiers) who have killed in the clear cut cases of defense of the innocent, as well as in very ambiguous battlefield situations where there frankly is not any “innocence” – just a real Hell-with-a-capital-H. I have had discussions about things that shall remain “hidden” and of which I am not worthy.

    I think it is very important to qualify the word “wrong” in the above sentence. What is “wrong” is the world, the tragic outlines and “circumstances” that make a defense of the innocent “right” (I think the word “necessary” leads us down the wrong path). I am intimately aware of the psychological/spiritual damage that even a “right” killing leads to, but these killings are not “wrong” in even an “ontological” understanding of the word – otherwise everything is “wrong”, and there is no “inherently good” left in the very being of a man or the world. To be “transformed”, to be a Person in the “New Creation”, to be in union with God can not mean the destruction of our being – otherwise “transform” is simply a euphemism for negation of the Person.

    I have not quite put my finger on it, but in the end this “necessary evil” position leads to the act itself to somehow be confused with the ontological understanding of evil. The evil and tragic character of the world as-it-is is being confused with a good thing as-it-is. Frankly, I would rather have a “legal” position/understanding if an ontological position/understanding “necessarily” leads to a defense of the innocent and a dying for ones friends as being evil and “wrong” in-of-itself. Besides, the term “necessary” is a legalism.

    Also, allow me to apologize in advance to those who will be offended – life and death are very serious and it is right to recoil in revulsion…

  8. Father, thank you for this great post. Thank you for the great reminder that we should not pray for things, but should pray for the salvation of others and ourselves. A very dear friend of mine, who was the person who introduced me to Orthodoxy, told me just last week “too many people by their payers reveal that they view God as a vending machine.”

    David, thanks for your comment. I know what you said is true in my life, to my shame. I’m so busy trying to arrange all my ducks, and re-arrange them, that often times, my re-arranging causes more and worse problems, than if I had just left well enough alone.

  9. “Many Christians pray like pagans (though there has to be a better term).”

    When I read Nicholas’ description the words “sorcery” and “superstition” quickly came to mind – treating God as some kind of (super(?))natural resource that can be mined or harnessed with clear cause-and-effect interactions. (I’m also reminded of the “nice guy” syndrome with many dissolute males of my generation who believe they are have some moral right to have sex with women they buy things or do favours for… it is the same way of death, but applied to other human creatures instead of God.)

    Christopher: You appear to be doing exactly the thing Fr. Stephen is warning us not to do in this article. With all respect, I think Fr. Stephen is the culprit here for using the word “wrong” there to undermine his own position – Fr., you might want to reword that so it’s a bit less triggering of the judicial culpability analyticalism – “evil”, perhaps?

  10. Christopher,

    I don’t remember your occupation so let me just take this example: I know good, honest, God-loving men who are hunters of wildlife. I have nothing against them and in fact love them dearly. In our circles we all agree they are doing good things, communing with nature while they’re out there, providing for the family, helping restrain the goose or deer population, and so on.

    But God did not create us to kill. It goes against our nature. The hunter would be wise to imitate the Bushman and thank the dead animal for the sacrifice it has made – and to ask the Lord’s forgiveness that things are this way, to remove any stains resulting from this practice from his soul.

    The killing of humans is even more to be treated as something that will eventually kill the (police officer, soldier, etc.) if not tended to and mitigated – like the staunching of the blood and the stabilizing of the pulse. It tends to harden them since a little piece of them dies every time their target does. Even when the deed was necessary, that doesn’t stop it from being damaging. People in these professions make a sacrifice. God gives grace and heals wounds, but the wounds still occur.

    Just as the coal miner pays with dust in his lunges and paramedics pay by being numb to trauma, killing someone leaves a wound. If you can step away from the legalistic connotations of sin as in “bad” and “wrong and “just plain evil”, there are ontological implications of “injured” and “wounded” and “needing help” that help us turn toward these people with compassion and understanding instead of shame and disdain.

    It’s worth mentioning that we all wade through filth every day in this world. We are all wounded, twisted, diseased – and part of the problem. This world leaves its mark on all of us and we all need healing, need to continually repent and be led back to the path.

  11. Christopher and Matt,
    “Wrong.” There might be a better word. What I mean to say is that there are clearly circumstances in our world that threaten to draw us into the vortex of evil (non-being). Every death in which we share has that capacity. A priest in the Orthodox Church, for example, cannot enter or serve the Liturgy if he is involved in causing a death. Let’s say I’m in a car wreck, and someone dies. And the wreck is not my fault. Nevertheless, before I can return to the altar and serve, I must be given a blessing from my bishop – and quite likely will be given a time of “penance and fasting.”

    When we pray – we speak of sins that are “voluntary and involuntary.” Sin is death, death is sin. They are movements towards non-being. I’ve know many men (soldiers and others) who have been involved in the taking of lives. They are profoundly effected – and it is removed from legal questions. Historically, more than half of all soldiers don’t point their guns at the enemy. The armed forces have worked hard to change this stat. My father-in-law walked all the way across Europe as an infantry rifleman. He shot his weapon plenty of times but he told me that he had no idea if he ever killed anyone.

    But taking a life – even in complete innocence – brings us into contact with the “vortex.” It is in that sense that it is “wrong.” Not voluntarily or legally. But wrong. I worked 2 years as a hospice chaplain, ministering to dying patients, their families and to the hospice staff. The staff had it hardest (doctors included). It wasn’t that we weren’t doing good work. It was heroic work – among the most meaningful I’ve ever done. But the vortex was there. It threatens to drag you down. Depression, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness are ever present. We did about 3 deaths a week. But it was common to say to a staff person after a death that they should take a few hours (that’s all the break we could get). But we would go down to a local arboretum and just walk – trying to recover.

    Wrong is a poor choice, I think. I don’t exactly want to say “evil,” either. I’ll ponder it a bit more.

  12. I think a lot of the time we get bogged down with the kill-to-save-innocents example what with all the issues of war propaganda, relative innocence and collective guilt and why there’s a war in the first place, etc. etc. etc. – and the negligence/driving/car-culture/petropolitics stuff that can creep into car accident scenario isn’t much better.

    Your hospice example really hit it much closer for me, Father. “Evil” is definitely inappropriate (at least as an adjective rather than a noun – the options seem to open up much better if I try to rephrase it as “tainted with ___” or “a participaton in the ___”).

  13. Christopher,

    As one who has killed others under the situations you describe, I can say that the acts were “wrong.” I have both killed, and saved, and brought people from death to life as a medic. None of the vast experience I have with violence, death and human suffering at the hands of others can be considered anything but falleness….sin…and yes, wrong.

    You say “I am intimately aware of the psychological/spiritual damage that even a “right” killing leads to, but these killings are not “wrong” in even an “ontological” understanding of the word – otherwise everything is “wrong”, and there is no “inherently good” left in the very being of a man or the world. ”

    The reality of our ontology is not based upon our current responses to the world in sin. Your statement above ties our ontology to our prevalent condition In sin a and death. That ontology is marred, sickened, distorted. Our “right” or “natural” ontology or “true reason” (as the desert Fathers put it) The “image and likeness” of God….who is perfectly revealed in Christ.

    The ontological nature is thus capable of making a choice in any given curcumsatnce, between what it was meant to be ontologically “the image and likeness” or it can choose what I call the “beer goggles” of ontological sickness. With those goggles on, we justify ourselves based on our circumstances, instead of our ontological calling.

    One can easily call killings such as the ones I’ve participated in”wrong” without making the conclusion that there is no longer ANY good in the world. That’s quite a leap. The choice remains even in sickness.

    You say;
    “To be “transformed”, to be a Person in the “New Creation”, to be in union with God can not mean the destruction of our being – otherwise “transform” is simply a euphemism for negation of the Person.”

    This is where I differentiate between a “true person” which is Christlikeness and an “individual” which is the fallen ego pretending to be a person. The new creation is actually a movement from a sickness which is steeped in ontological death and the “beer goggles” to a “resurrection” of the ontological being of Christ in us, whereby we can overcome the sickness by submission to the Spirit. It actually IS meant to be a destruction of the old individual by degrees in sanctification (not a destruction of the person) “behold the old has passed away” the “old man” is to be put off, but it takes our cooperation.

    Our fallen self has nothing to do with our being( for that fallen being is actually only the movement into nonbeing). We only exist after the fall and don’t cease to exist immediately because God wills our preservation for repentance. So when you say otherwise, “transform” is a euphemism for negation of the person it is because you have conflated our fallen state as actually constituting proper personhood. True personhood can only exist In The form in which we were created. Everything else short of that is “Amaria”. The “falling short of the glory of God” or the image and likeness which constitutes being itself.

    Negation of what we currently are in our falleness is not a negation of true personhood, as the being of “person” is defined by trinitarian personhood – God and our “ontological mode of being”. Anything short of the trinitarian mode of being is is negation of ontological personhood….so our very sin negates personhood….and therefore being…and leads to death.

    This is why we believe in theosis….the movement (eternally) back into the image and likeness of God by grace. We are being brought back into true personhood through synergy with the Spirit, and our old selves (the fallen individual and false ego) are crucified, dead, and yes… Destroyed and left behind in Christ. That sick man…the “old man” is no more part of our ontology as is a tumor or a fungal infection. Ontology is bound to the image and likeness, and sin is a parasite which pulls us from ontological life to non ontological non being…

  14. I wrote all of the above far to quickly without proofreading. The bottom line is that to call the fallen sin state we are in “ontological being” is wrong. What we are now actually has nothing to do with true ontology. Our only true ontology (being) is found in the image and likeness of the triune God. Our fallen “ontology” (if it can actually be called that) is actually the movement away from being to non being….and is thus non ontology. We have no true ontology outside God and this is why we “corrupt” into non-being.

  15. AJ,

    I think you zero in on some things here that are profound, and I think need to be carefully considered. Allow me a couple of preliminary thoughts – ones that I might revise/retract later! 😉

    First, if there is a such a radical difference (a sort of mathmatical/step/quantuam difference as opposed to an organic one) between our ontology “now” and our risen, “new creation”, ontology, that seems to mean a necessary negation of the Person. In this undertanding, Person becomes a placeholder for, exactly what? If our current being is so thoroughly corrupt there is no transformation at all, but a destruction (rightly so) and the (re)creation of complete otherness (a “new creation”), what does the formal have to do with the latter?

    Second, if we commit to this ontology that means we hold to a kind of reverse Antinomianism, where we can do no right except die (except death is sin also, so even this is wrong). Like Antinomaianism, the “necessary evil” ontology radically rejects our current ontology/being as being radically and fatally flawed (and you put it well I think). It begs the question of how it could have been created by a good God. Taken to it’s conclusion, we can do no right. It takes us beyond a radical pacifism, moral anarchy, etc. to a radical rejection of our very being.

    Third, if this is true: “What we are now actually has nothing to do with true ontology. ” then our belief in the Imago Dei in each of us is a delusion.

  16. ” It tends to harden them since a little piece of them dies every time their target does. Even when the deed was necessary, that doesn’t stop it from being damaging. People in these professions make a sacrifice. God gives grace and heals wounds, but the wounds still occur.”

    I agree Dwester, and not just on a theoretical level – I know it through an intimacy I have with some folks who are in exactly this situation.

    Even in the most clear cut “necessary” events I am familiar with (these are law enforcement – not battlefield events) this “tragic” element (I like that word – Father you have used it before) that is ontological, of the innermost spiritual being (and not merely a “moral” judgement) is there and must be dealt with and healed. I pray that I have not been an impediment to this myself. I suppose I am willing to call this aspect “evil” and “wrong”, I just don’t know what it means however to call the act itself “necessary” and “evil” if the choice is not to act because the act is in-of-itself “wrong” – then we must not act, renounce all protection of the innocent and walk the plank in a radical act of renunciation of any good in anyone or anything. This very thing (or something like) is done by the martyrs! Now, the question is, is every act in this world a time for martyrdom (I don’t mean spiritually, I mean every “act”)? Do we also choose it for the innocent (which we will have to do if we are radical pacifists)?

    I obviously believe there is a time for everything under the sun…

  17. Hi Chris,

    I’ll try to give a more robust response later (if I have time) to engage your very good thoughts.

    In the past in these forums there has been a great deal of discussion about the work of Christos Yannaras and his book “The Freedom of Morality” That work and Zizioulas’s “Being as Communion” changed my life and understanding of “ontology” and my entire understanding of life in and out of Christ and the Church.

    As you work through your own understanding of ontological being I would HIGHLY suggest Yannaras who basically distills patristic understanding.

    In the meantime, since I have little time to contribute, I hope that others here (who are far more capable than I) will flesh this out in a way that makes some sense for you.

    In any case, you are right in a sense…our response to the fallen dialectic of the world loses some meaning when we call it “wrong.” It might be best called “unnatural” – this is what many writers of the Philokalia call it. Our ontological being is bound to the being of God…and it is THAT calling that is “natural” or “true reason.” Anything outside of that is a movement towards death…which is “unnatural” and lives life in an “unreasoned” state. There is not a in / out line…it is more of a continuum….the continuum only existing because God sustains our physiological being by grace from disintegrating into nothingness` by our departure from the only measure and meaning of “being” = Trinitarian love = Life – Being – Ontology.

    I REALLY hope that Fr. Freeman or Dino (amongst others) has the time to give some insights into this aspect of “ontological being” from an Orthodox perspective that responds to the points you have rightly brought up.

    Blessings,

    AJ

  18. AJ, I am grateful for your insights.

    I would deem it a great favor if you would pray, when you remember,
    for my son-in-law, James, who is a Marine and was in the infantry in Iraq, and then moved to EOD with 3 tours in Afghanistan (I think in response to something inside him pulling him to save life rather than having to take it);
    and for my daughter, Lauren, his wife, who is presently in Army Intelligence as a step to the FBI (or similar; she’s not interested in ordinary police force work – wants to try to prevent crime if possible, and “bring to justice” otherwise – she is, interestingly, quite “liberal” politically).

    Thank you so much.

    Dana

  19. Dana,

    James and Laura will be in my daily prayers. Blessing on you and on them. James’s experiences are quite similar to my own. I was a Marine infantryman and spent time as an Army medic with EOD and IED clearance teams in Afghanistan.

    Thank you for asking me to pray for them…it is an honor to do so.

    AJ

  20. As I have read Chris and AJ’s conversation I thought back in my own experience in the Air Force with these issues. I remembered back to the day when I was sitting nuclear alert and the klaxon sounded. We scrambled to our jets only to see green lights. Fortunately we were withheld, but spent several anxious hours awaiting a possible execution (It was the day that Nixon declared World Wide DEFCON 3 and we were playing brinkmanship with the Soviets.) The issue would have been what would happen if I were executed. My target was an Air Defense Headquarters building in a very large city. If I had released I would have incinerated many common citizens who had no choice in their countries actions.
    As I have thought about that over the years I have wrestled with what is good and bad, right or wrong in our actions. Many years later, while in Seminary, I happened to be concentrating on the story of the Rich Young Man. What the Lord said back to him when he said: “Good teacher,” caught my attention. I realized that all of our concepts of right and wrong are at least, in some way, relativistic because only God is good and we do not know His mind or will perfectly. What seems right to us in our current circumstance may not be so “right” in the absolute. We can only see in the glass darkly and do the best we can with the light that we have.
    Having said this, I think the point of this article is that we can choose to turn towards God and be obedient as best we know how, or reject His way and do what is right in our own eyes. One way is Life and the other Death for if we turn our backs on the Way, the Truth and the Life, we cut ourselves off from Life just as walking across the room with a lit table lamp will end in us pulling the plug from the wall and the light dying.
    This is a thought provoking article father and a stimulating conversation. Thank you for putting this out there for us to wrestle with.

  21. Having listened and given more thought, I’ve edited the paragraph on killing as “wrong.” See what you think:

    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.

  22. Father, I find this quite satisfactory an explanation of the point. It certainly is a subject that is very difficult to wrestle with even in broad brush and it becomes even thornier when one deals with a specific situation. I believe this is the exact reason why we have repentance and penance as sacraments to help us heal with the damage of getting close to the vortex. Thank you.

  23. Yes, this wording sounds good. As you alluded to, the terms “right” and “wrong” have become so obliterated through overuse, inappropriate use, etc. that it’s too difficult to know what language is being spoken when they are used in such intense and essentials conversations as this.

  24. As I have written many times, the “moral” concept of right and wrong, in the forensic sense (the way they are used popularly), makes wrongdoing an external matter. It is between me and a rule of some sort. It is impossible for it to give account of the concept of “involuntary sin,” which is very prominent in Orthodox prayers of repentance. It is also common in the OT as well (think of the death of Uzzah who only touched the Ark to keep it from fall).

    I first “stumbled” into an ontological understand in an effort to get away from the inadequacies of the legal model. It started in my senior year of seminary and continued for a decade or so more as I wrote and thought about it. Eventually, as my Orthodox reading continued, I realized that what I was doing was, in fact, the ontological approach common in Orthodox teaching. I stopped writing and just started reading more, letting the pieces fall together.

    Writing about the ontological approach is common today, but when I first “stumbled” into it in the 70’s, there were very few Orthodox theological works available in English – nothing at all like now. I think that as foundational things go, it is the single most important idea in Orthodox accounts.

    The language of a “vortex of death” has the advantage of being concrete (and thus more subject to an ontological understanding) as well as dynamic (it’s in motion) and dangerous (as death always is).

  25. Aj, Father, Dwester – everyone thanks for the discussion I know how difficult it is. My daughter has a playmate, and her father is an Afganstan vet who has a TBI and suffers from significant PTSD. Say a small prayer for Sean if you get a chance.

    Nicholas, your story brought to mind my father who was there (on the “flightline” if my jingo is correct). He said it was the first time he ever saw “the real ones”.

    “The Freedom of Morality” has been on my need-to-get-to-list for quite a while now. Father, I light bulb came on for me when you mentioned “involuntary sin” – might be worth an essay on the link between it and a “right” defense (even unto death) of the innocent. I have been ruminating on this issue for a while, and if Fr. Websters “lessor good” is not right, then I would like to see something that does not in the end lead to a “moral” condemnation, simply because I think this is our real situation. I don’t believe we are all called to a monastic (or some variation there of) life where we can be true “pacifists”. IF I am right, and other forms of life are available to us in a full Orthodox sense (and are truly the full Christian life, and not a “concession”, an “oikonomeia”, and the like), then perhaps there is some explanation that does not end with “necessary evil” which is still the fact even in your revision, for how can any evil at all ever be “necessary”, even if good comes from it in some way? BUT, perhaps that is our situation and part of the cross of this world…

  26. Chris,

    Last night, I also remembered a much smaller and more digestible intro to the question of ontology by Yannaras.

    It is called “Relational Ontology.”

    It tackles some of the underlying ontology we are contending with, but is certainly less heavy than contending with The Freedom of Morality….which I’ve had to read 4 and 5 times a chapter at a time to even slowly absorb the implications and interrelatedness.

    That might be added to your list and its very short and I’ve found can be skimmed for some real jewels…whereas Freedom of Morality is so dense it makes the two brain cells I have left work overtime. 🙂

    AJ

  27. AJ, forgive me – my daughter’s name is Lauren, not Laura.

    Thank you again – means so much to me.

    Dana

  28. fwiw – another good source of teaching on sin is Fr. Hopko’s 2 CDs from SVS Press titled “Sin: Primordial, Generational, Personal”

    As he would say … “highly recommended”

  29. Fr. Stephen:

    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.

    New version is perfect.

    I also really appreciate (in addition to the hospice example) the reference to Uzzah – that (and possibly much of the rest of the OT that we moderns find so problematic) has just made a whole lot more sense.

  30. In so many ways, thinking “ontologically” about spiritual things is simpler and more correct. It underlies Scripture. It is, I think, inherently one-storey. The forensic approach is inherently two-storey.

  31. Father, I hate to turn discussion in this direction, but as someone currently studying medicine, I wanted to clarify the clarity of death. Does the Church understand the ways modern medicine now acknowledges death, cardiac and brain? Would each be understood as “full” death, or would the removal of a vent from a person deemed brain dead be in some fashion sin requiring repentance because it subsequently leads to cardiac death? Similarly, regarding life as life, because you noted the living nature of ovum and sperm, how (if at all) should the Christian physician approach contraception, whether of known or unknown mechanism of action?

  32. Mark,
    Generally, the Church treats brain death as death – following the general understanding of modern medicine. I have been present many times with families when the machines were turned off.

    There are differences regarding contraception. Many of the Fathers opposed it (when the subject comes up). Bear in mind that all Christian groups opposed contraception until the mid-20’s. There are others who hold that methods that are not abortifacient are permitted. In my jurisdiction, this matter is left to a family and their confessor.

    Although the Ovum and the Sperm are living (obviously), they are not a human person until their union (at conception). Again (obviously). My point about them being alive was to say that the question, “When does life begin?” is obviously at conception. At no time does a human person go from non-living stuff and become living stuff. Life begets life.

    What is so egregiously stupid about pro-choice arguments is the denial of this simple fact. To say things like “tissue” or “the size of a kidney bean,” etc. is like a child arguing against eating something because it is “icky.” Mature, educated human beings use the “icky” argument repeatedly to deny that a human being exists. And a sizable portion of the population are happy to put up with such nonsense. This is inspired by the demons and is the overthrow of our fundamental rationality in favor of a passion-blinded “ickiness.”

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