The Morality of Christmas

Morality is tricky business in what is an extremely moral society. I pray my readers to be patient with me as I explain what I think is the problem. First, I will note that morality is all that is left when the most fundamental grounds of a culture have been destroyed. We indeed live in just such a time, hence the rise of a vehemence in the moral life. Second, I will suggest that what we as Christians must strive for within ourselves is less and less of a moral grounding in our lives and a greater grounding in that which is – all of which requires some explaining.

Two men building a fence along the edge of a cliff will not have an argument about which side to stand on as they do their work. Gravity presents its own argument and its word is final. Indeed, it is not an argument – it is real. This is the nature of Christian moral claims. But our modern world has altered this understanding.

Today, we use the term “moral” to describe behaviors that adhere to some particular standard or guide. As such, everybody is “moral” and lives according to some form of morality. People do not behave in a random manner. Everyone has thoughts and opinions about their own behavior and the behavior of others (no matter how much they may say otherwise). Those thoughts and opinions need not be based in anything other than opinions and feelings – indeed, most morality in our modern world has no other basis. And this is the point.

The Christian understanding of morality is not arbitrary in the least. There is nothing in the whole of the faith’s teaching whose ground is simply “God said so.” Nothing within the Christian moral life is arbitrary. What God commands is our good and He directs us according to the goodness of our existence and the creation in which we live.

If anyone asks the reason for any action within the Christian life, a good answer, rooted in our own well-being and the well-being of others should be forthcoming. The commandments of Christ do not simply tell us what we should do, but in their telling, reveal the very nature of reality to us.

The so-called breakdown of morality in the modern world is not a moral problem. What has broken down is not morality, but any agreed notion about the nature of the world. Our perceptions of reality itself have shattered into disparate fragments. And there is a strange aching for morality, a tormented desire for goodness in some form or guise. But as the ground of reality has shattered, so has the possibility of moral conversation. We shout in hopes of being heard.

When we lose a common understanding of reality itself, all that is left is bald assertion. The morality of the modern world is simply power. It is, in one form or another, the use of violence (or its threat) that argues. Certain positions and behaviors are extolled while others are not only condemned but increasingly demonized. In the baseless morality of modernity, those with whom we disagree are not simply wrong: they are evil. This is the only conclusion that can be reached when what is right is established solely through choice. If what is good is only good because I choose it, then choosing otherwise must be seen as evil and named as such.

Classical Christianity, on the other hand, need demonize no one. No human being can ever be the “enemy” (Eph. 6:12). What is right and what is true is not a matter of choice – it is established by reality itself. In our modern setting, many (even most) will argue with the nature and character of reality. Some will even assert that reality is nothing more than a social construct. However, if something is true because it is real, then it ultimately makes its own argument. You don’t have to defend gravity.

In the confusion of our present times, however, it is easy to overlook the true morality that God and creation uphold. An absolutely essential element of that reality is expressed in the mystery of Christmas. God becomes a man and is birthed into our world. This reveals human beings as bearers of the image of God and dictates the very reason for the manner we are commanded to treat others. More than this, the Incarnation of Christ reveals the reality of life-as-communion (indeed, the whole work of Christ makes this known). It tells us that when we harm another, we not only harm the image of God, but we, in fact, do harm to our own selves.

St. Paul appeals to this understanding when he speaks about marriage:

So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. (Eph 5:28-30)

This same reality is revealed in Christ’s statement: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). It is very much worth pondering that Christ does not say that what we do to others is “as if” we had done it to Him. No. He reveals the utter Divine solidarity of the Incarnation. He is the other – each of them, everywhere and always. This reality undergirds the whole of His “ethical” teaching. To love as Christ loves begins with recognizing Him in the fullness of the Incarnation.

Tragically, modern versions of morality, rooted in the will (elevating free choice to the primary position within all things), are always moving towards violence. There is nothing to which one can point other than “my choice,” to justify anything. And my choice only has power when I am willing to exercise the violence required to give it power. The more our culture moves towards the morality of the will, the more violent and coercive it will become.

The Incarnation of Christ is without violence (on the part of God). There is no coercion. From the beginning, Mary is asked and yields herself to be the mother of the Savior with joy. All that is endured, up to and including the Cross are freely accepted and not coerced. But the coming of Christ is not strange for creation – it does not even offer the violence required of accommodation. St. John says of Christ, “He came to His own people.” The world was created through Christ, the Logos, and bears His image within all things. Far from doing violence, His coming reveals things to be what they truly are. All things find their true home in Him.

This is the morality of Christmas – all things becoming what they truly are.  This is peace on earth and good will towards all of mankind.

 

34 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post Father.

    What has broken down is not morality, but any agreed notion about the nature of our world.

    To say that this notion of the nature of our world has “broken down” completely (“any agreed notion”) implies some time in the past in which there was an agreed upon notion of the nature of our world – one from which we “broke” and the one to which you contrast modernity. Since “agreed upon notions” can indeed be found amongst different groups today, you must be referring to a past universal agreement as the point of contrast.

    To which era do you point?

    I’d suggest, in addition to your thoughts here, that a related issue is that of authority. The society-wide institutions that have supposedly been the keepers of this inerrant view of the nature of reality from which we exist don’t inspire trust or unquestioned obedience.

  2. Mike H
    The last time there was anything approaching a real consensus on the nature of reality would be prior to the Reformation. The Reformation marks both the end of that consensus and the beginnings of the modern period that has been marked by increasing fragmentation. Good reads in this aspect include Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality, as well as Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation.

    The consensus begins to fragment, but cultural shifts are often somewhat slow (especially prior to technology). Thus, the inherited cultural capital continued on as something of a consensus for quite some time. The fragmentation has sped up enormously in the late 20th century and beyond with the birth of mass culture and the so-called “post-modern” movements within the academic world.

    There was certainly a Byzantine consensus, which would have largely been similar to the Western Medieval one – and that consensus continued in Orthodox cultures until the advent of Communism. It has not disappeared. Neither has the Medieval consensus. Gregory’s excellent book makes the astute observation that these earlier views are not superseded by subsequent assertions…but continues on as a voice within the fragmented mix.

    As Christians, we do not take our view of reality from culture forces – but from reality as it is revealed to us in Christ. Debates about that revelation have always been present – but they were and are genuine debates rather than simply bald assertions of the will.

    I have not used the word “inerrant,” nor would I – with its history of abuse as an externally imposed system. The modern reading of the past (itself deeply flawed) contends that the present represents a freedom from authoritative claims and true liberation. Of course, without any agreed upon basis for such a claim, there’s no way to ever know.

  3. Fr. thank you for this beautiful post.

    You wrote once that “our Christian lives are not a moral project.” That statement stuck with me. I’ve thought about it often. This recent piece adds another dimension to that statement, for me at least. It seems that making our salvation a moral project steers us into a delusional belief that as we pursue salvation, we are becoming more “moral” than the person we used to be. Then it only follows that we are becoming more moral than others not on the same path, or as far down the same path. It is very difficult to follow morality as a guiding light without comparing oneself to others, and that’s where violence gets a handhold even if only in our hearts, as judgment is a form of violence. To borrow your illustration, I am 61 so I do increasingly illustrate the power of gravity (hoho!) but my relationship with gravity has no bearing on others or what I think about them, nor can I accuse others of being less committed to it than I. Gravity is not a moral issue, but it is a force to be reckoned with. As you say, it is real.

    So here is my conundrum, and my question for you. I was brought up to believe that a Christian should hold high “moral standards,” so it seems we should confess falls from morality or whatever violates our conscience. But there are problems with this. To use a couple examples, one person confesses failing to recycle as a moral failure because he is concerned about the environment, and another in good conscience does not confess the same thing. They have different views on the matter. One person confesses spanking her child, while another confesses not spanking. They both want to repent of their waywardness. It seems the conscience, which is something of a vessel of morality, is not a dependable alarm system. It needs to be tuned to God’s voice while we muddle along. But without it we are rather stuck. While we muddle along until our last breath, does it matter more that we are confessing than what we are confessing? What is the confessor’s role here?

  4. Jeff,
    The formation of conscience is a part of the Church life, and one of the roles of a good priest/confessor. We can use various “failings” to diagnose what is going on within us. But confession is always about healing the devastating work of death and corruption that are work in us.

  5. Father, you have nailed it. Look at the swarms of protesters for every cause today and we see the truth of your words. They decide what truth is and then go to violence. Your point about declaring those that are different as evil is also truth. ow much this especially applies in the First Self Righteous church on the corner, how often have a I heard a “Christian” condemn others as Hell bound, sometimes for as little offense as attending a different church. It is even within Orthodoxy as I am personally aware of a group that has schismed from the rest of us over calendar issues. Thank you for such a good summation of the effects of relativistic thinking on our morals and behavior.

  6. This is like spiritual aikido, helps defend against spiritual warfare while also encourages me to want the well-being of the attacker.

    Thank you Father – Joyous Christmas!

  7. Helen! I love your analogy!

    Father Stephen :: does the conscience emanate from the brain or the heart?

    Jeff :: I don’t think one persons conscience verses another need be a conundrum. All of us have a unique life and experience. Using your example:: adult A might confess to spanking their child because they, as a child, were abused by their own parents and find that they are not able to discipline a child in the righteous way of love for fear of abusing their own child. For the other, parent B, having been raised by loving and godly parents, who knew how to discipline in love, confesses not spanking because by not spanking, they spare the rod and spoil the child. (BTW I not advocating spanking just following the thread)

    I think the seasoned Confessor sees the uniqueness of each penitent and as Fr Stephen says is able to guide them in the way of the Lord,which is meant to bring about healing and conversion.

  8. A world that has morality as a primary virtue divorced from God, is a world of terror. Even “good things” are full of masochistic recrimination and constant shame or its obverse-tryanny.

    It is the world described and predicted by Nietzsche: darkness, destruction and death.

    Morality is contingent. It is either contigent on our interrelations with God, His order and each other (reality/communion) or it is contingent on ideology and the satanic temptation to take God’s place (demonic fantasy) attempting to create our own order and indeed ourselves.

    The big question for me is how does one confess ontologically rather than morally? (I hate the lists of wrongs I have done)

    What is the preparation like and how does it differ?

    Can one even do that except wholly by grace?

    Is a maturation process?

  9. As an example of what I mean in the first part of my post one need look no further than the false debate about freedom vs security in the aftermath of terror attacks.

    In reality they are not opposed. Freedom is security because it flows from obedience to God.

    Only in a moral world divorced from God could such a “debate” be framed. It becomes an individual’s will vs the will of the collective.

    Force and coerecion the only tools.

  10. Michael,

    You raise an interesting question as to the ‘nature’ of confession. Speaking to the center of things, i.e., going to the heart of the issue would only make sense. The principal issue at hand is our state before God. This speaks to ‘our being.’ I remember the Priest that brought me into the Church said about confession, that when he finally hears a confession centered on such things as ‘oh, my god, I’ve been such a fool for so long. I can’t believe everyone has put up with me for all this time”, that at that point we are finally becoming increasingly aware of our being i.e., our ontological state before God and man.

    A recitation of sins committed in light of the ‘greater issue’ becomes at most secondary…and is probably the very least of things. (Though extremely useful as we stumble in immaturity and a rudimentary intuitive understanding) Do we really love God? Do we really love our fellow man? Do we really have faith? (Which is a simple thing, but how that eludes us!!) The answers to these questions break our hearts…indeed they do.

    This is also a deeper awareness – and one not too pleasant. When Christ asked Peter if he loved him, he asked three times. This challenged Peter. He was “grieved.” It was the resurrected Christ that challenged him, this coming at the very end of St. John’s Gospel. In other words, it took awhile for Peter and Christ was patient. Confession is equally a challenge for us. It is the (slow) process of seeing.

    I would be very much interested in hearing Father’s response. Thank You for raising the question Michael.

  11. Thank you Fr Stephen, I believe you are steering the conversation back to an ontological view. I find an ontological approach is most helpful in the discussion about what we ‘ought’ to do in reference to political activism.

    I confess that I have been a sort of activist in my life, but generally in the sphere of my work and occupation/profession. I was involved in one protest stand in my younger years and not too ironically don’t remember what it was about, specifically.

    Recently my spiritual father recommended that I recite the St Ephraim prayer, regarding someone who had aggravated me. The recommendation was to place the name of the one whom I felt alienated (“O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge _____, (name of the person). The effect brought the prayer out of the general, to the specific. Then after saying the name, the prayer continues, “for blessed are You unto ages of ages”, immediately indicating that in that person is Christ. The effect of this prayer started the healing process of my blindness in how I see others. Typically I see “other” in anyone who aggravates me or exhibits behavior I judge wrong or inappropriate. Now the prayer teaches me to first see Christ in this “other”.

    I’m not there yet, but God willing I pray that I might be closer to this ability to see Christ. It is Christmas Eve, and tomorrow is the Feast of the Nativity. Merry Christmas to you and to all who comment here!

  12. I once asked a priest whether it is better to confess who I *am* vs what I’ve done. The answer I got was helpful but it wasn’t until I gained a very experienced confessor that I got an answer in real time. I never asked him the question. I just confessed my sins as best I could. In his counsel he almost always focused on who I was – I assume he diagnosed that by what I had done, and no doubt how I spoke about it, and what he learned about me over time. So at times he even discussed sins I had done but not thought to confess. It was a bit stunning at first! So maybe we do best when we do the best we can and just lay it all out there. If we are blessed with a good confessor he helps us with formation of our conscience, as Fr. put it.

    Here in this formation is where reality and morality meet, and start losing their distinction. We never speak of Christ as being “moral.” We want to be unified with him to recover our true nature. That is not a “moral project.”

    Victoria and Michael and Father, thank you for your wise words.

  13. To borrow your illustration, I am 61 so I do increasingly illustrate the power of gravity (hoho!) but my relationship with gravity has no bearing on others or what I think about them, nor can I accuse others of being less committed to it than I. Gravity is not a moral issue, but it is a force to be reckoned with. As you say, it is real.

    An interesting comment! This afternoon I was considering that faith itself is much like gravity in that it is not a “choice” we make but a recognition of God revealed. If we ignore (or deny) gravity, we don’t suddenly fly off into the sky; we are subject to it, regardless of our feelings about it, not it to us. It is, as you say. “real”.

  14. Every time I took my son (who is now 14 years old) to confession, he seemed to be ready without searching his conscience. I gently scolded him for the lack of effort, but than he said that he doesn’t exactly know how to search his conscience. I looked at him, and pointing to the pocket of his pants, where I knew he had couple of coins and his cell phone, I asked: “Could give me a coin from your pocket”. He proceeded to pull out the big cell phone first and than he searched for the coin. At that moment I said pointing to the phone, “It is always easier to confess your big sins, and than search for the small ones. You could’ve given me a coin even with the phone in your pocket, but having your phone out was easier, wasn’t it?” To this he replays “Mom, my phone is my biggest sin!” It was such a good guess, I had to smile.

    About gravity: I believe that searching for God sincerely and desperately can take you to a place named faith. Faith is not an easy trail. And you learn that when you rich a point where you’re stuck : You can’t climb back and you can’t go forward, so you have to fly.
    Pray for me, Father Stephen!
    Thank you for your post

  15. Father Stephen –
    Thank you for a post that really challenges us to reflect on the true source and ground of morality. Building upon Michael’s post above, it is interesting to note in both facism and communism, they were all about “morality”, with oft stated words such as “duty, obedience, and sacrifice” (words we use when talking about Christian Morality, but that took on very different meanings as used in those context). But in line with what you reflect on in your article above, it is worth noting that there was a propaganda film that was released by the Nazi’s at the outset of their regime called “The Triumph of the Will.” This is actually posted on YouTube. This is very striking as the setting is prior to the unleashing of the war and violence of WWII and the Concentration Camps, and shows a Fuhrer who is promising to make Germany great again and promising to bring an age of peace and posperity to the German people. This is clearly an example of a morality of the will that quickly moves to an unprecedented level of violence and in which the “other” is seen as evil, the enemy, and must be eliminiated. If our morality is not truly grounded in Christ and the implications of the Incarnation, then there is a real danger that our morality will always eventually become another form of the “Triumph of the Will” with more or less devestaing consequences for our world.

  16. Dave,
    Morality is probably the greatest temptation for Christianity. You do not need to believe in God to be moral – everybody is indeed “moral.” But without God, there is nothing to restrain your morality. Every political mass murder in history was done for “moral” reasons. Every war has a moral justification. Only God can restrain the insanity of moral man.

    When we first sinned in the garden, Adam becomes a moral theologian and begins to discuss who is responsible and why (including God being ultimately to blame).

    We cannot be saved through morality. We can only be saved through bearing our shame. And shame is the true death of morality.

  17. Thanks Father. Just recently, upon the death of his friend Carrie Fisher, Steve Martin wrote a tweet about the beauty he saw when he was young, and what he learned subsequently of her wit and intelligence (paraphrasing). He’s been roundly vilified, and deleted it. Your post speaks volumes about what we now call morality.

  18. Greetings Father.

    I am contacting you here for this matter since you don’t have a email address to send this to.

    I opened a blog recently to expose the orthodox perspective (and other near philosophical point of view, such as Platonism) to a french speaking public, especially my own (french-canadian). I wanted to know if you had any problem with this, as I translate a lot of your texts (as of right now, I think we have around 10-15 translated, and more on the way as you produce them). For example, this is the link to the translation of this very text : https://nouvellefrancecontrerevolutionnaire.net/2016/12/30/la-moralite-de-noel/

    God bless.

  19. David and Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this wonderful gift of translation of Father’s articles.

    One of my New Year’s resolution is to brush up on my rusty French, enough to be able to have a reasonable conversation… What better material to study than Father’s articles!! I love it! Thank you both!

  20. Agata,
    I wish my conversational grasp of any foreign language was up to the standard of “rusty.” I can read in a number of languages but am really only fluent in two: English (American), and Appalachian (Southern and Mountain). Officially, these latter two are not recognized as languages. But, of course, when outsiders come in, they don’t recognize what they are hearing as English, so it must be a different language!

    Have a blessed New Year! I hope we see each other somewhere around the country in 2017.

  21. Thank you Father!

    I would love to see you soon, your blessing from last February has brought much Grace into my life throughout the year. Please keep us posted here on your plans on speaking engagements and retreats! I am thinking that visiting your parish’s Celtic festival, if you have one again, would be a great excuse to come pray with your parishioners, some of whom I would love to meet. And of course to hear you serve in one of those Appalachian languages…. 🙂 And to hear your chanter who sounds like Elvis…. 🙂

    Wishing you, Matushka and all friends on this blog a very Happy, Healthy and Blessed New Year!

  22. Fr. Stephen, as a Catholic, I always struggle with how to make sense of the ontological view as opposed to the moral view. It seems to complicate things more than elucidate them, at least for me. It seems it would be a tremendous amount of work to realign one’s spiritual life around being rather than doing. That is not to say that is a bad thing, but it is a struggle. I wouldn’t know how to confess or discuss moral propositions, so deep is “law” oriented morality in my Western consciousness. I wonder if there is not some balance to be found: Acknowledging that God’s commandments are not arbitrary and are based in reality, but also acknowledging that consciously rejecting them, the “way of life”, is also a moral failing.

    Anyway, that leads to a question: The will plays a major role in post-Trent Catholic moral theology. There are a great number of Catholic saints that say the essence of holiness is “the will of God in all things.” Sanctity is nothing other than surrender/conformity to the will of God at every moment.

    Is this what you refer to when you say, “modern versions of morality, rooted in the will…are always moving towards violence”? Is conformity of our will to the will of God misguided somehow?

  23. Sam,
    Good questions. In practice, it is certainly possible to pay attention to things done wrong – but many times we get lost in a host of trivialities (that’s my observation as a confessor).

    I find the distinction between shame and guilt to be useful in this regard. Shame is about “who I am” while guilt is about “what I’ve done.” There’s so much to say on this – any number of books can be read. Real healing, and thus growth in the spiritual life, comes through exposing shame. Oddly, many RC confessors might send you away saying, “You did nothing wrong, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” and completely miss the point. St. John of the Ladder says, “Only shame can heal shame.”

    I contend that the legal notion of morality is simply false – based in wrong ideas – particularly about God. Many people live with it, but it is frequently far more problematic than helpful. For those suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive disorders, it is utterly toxic.

    One problem with “moral failing” is that it doesn’t go deep enough. Things are ever so much worse than that. I don’t just do wrong things – I am dust, twinkling on the very edge of non-existence. And I play games by leaning over the edge as far as I can…

    Modern versions of morality are Western perversions of Western Christianity. Having lost at least a mooring in Natural law, they now have nothing left than the sheer will – sometimes described as “democracy.”

    The natural will (the will of my human nature) always tends towards the will of God (that’s the 5th Council). Things are broken and I find myself using this flimsy thing called the “gnomic will” – that tantalizes me with the notion that it is actually my will – when’s it’s hardly more than the passions themselves. The West has a tendency to produce “gnomic Christians” the most fastidious and conforming thinking that they are moral. But fastidiousness and conformity have no true standing in reality – they’re just puffs of wind.

    Actually finding the will – really finding the will (the natural will) – is a matter of great ascesis and far, far more grace. It is a matter of becoming truly human.

    The will of God. St. Paul says that the will of God in Christ Jesus is for us to give thanks always for all things.

    Wondering what “God’s will is for my life” for example – is pretty much a useless exercise in our neurotic imaginations.

    I’m probably not being very helpful. Sorry.

  24. Father Freeman,

    I think I understand what you are saying but questions remain. To put the question another way, is not keeping the commandments “good” and not keeping the commandments “bad”? Yes, the commandments are based in the natural law, in the way things are. But the scriptures do seem to speak of sin in terms of keeping the law as righteous and failing to keep it as unrighteous. Are these not moral terms?

    As a parent, it would be hard to apply the ontological approach to raising children. Yes, my commandments are for their own good and they reflect reality as it is. But I cannot expect them to always understand that. So most often, they simply need to understand that disobedience is wrong, whether or not they see the reason or “reality” behind it. Learning obedience to rules/commandments, even in insignificant things, will keep them from “reality,” that is, from running in the street or touching a hot stove. Thus, it seems to keep my commandments as a Father is morally good and failing to do so is “naughty”…or in moral terms, sinful. This is a “lower” and less mature understanding of obedience, but I expect that some day, through further guidance and maturation, they will understand the nature of things more fully.

    Does this not apply to the spiritual life? It seems for the majority of Christian history, moral terms have been used for us spiritual “children.” Not because the ontological view is not real, but because it seems we are too blockheaded to operate on that level until further down the road. So God our Father uses the metaphor of law and commandments and punishment and reward to teach us the way of salvation. Of course his commandments are not arbitrary and they are rooted in the reality of things…of being and non-being and much more. But as “children” we tend not to think in such terms, and in our immaturity only operate on the level of punishment and reward, cause and effect…at least until we mature a little in the ways of holiness.

    Perhaps I am way off base. I will have to look into the gnomic will further as it is a fascinating concept. Julian of Norwich speaks of this very thing, a higher will always inclined toward God and a lesser will that chooses passion/sin.

    In Christ,

    Sam

  25. Sam,
    It is quite possible to be moral, but not to be good. And that is the ontological point. In raising our children, our concern isn’t really with being sure they obey the rules – that they are “moral.” What really matters is “What kind of person is this child becoming?” And that is the ontological question. I might use many techniques in raising a child, but if I am not always mindful of who they are and who they are becoming, I will easily lose my way and very likely be surprised that things are not what I thought they were.

    This is the same question with regard to ourselves – the ontological question. This is what the virtues are about. The keeping of the commandments is for the purpose of acquiring the virtues – the shape of our character – what kind of person we are, i.e. the ontological question. This is the inner reasoning behind God’s work in our lives and the inner reasoning behind a good confessor and spiritual father. It is helpful if we are mindful of it as well.

  26. Father just reading Romans 12 which among other things exhorts to righteous behavior. Am I wrong to see that exhortation in a context of communion, transformation and community? With the context being necessary to righteousness?

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