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.
So wonderful! Thank you, Father! Glory to God!
I am confused. How would you describe the Turkish armies that captured Constantinople in 1453 and enslaved tens of thousands of Orthodox and killed even more in the celebration of “Allah” victory? Would these Turkish armies be enemies of Orthodoxy? Or, how about the Germany Gestapo and SS who arrested tortured, killed or sent to Concentration Camps Christians (Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox) who refused to acknowledge Hitler and his movement as the new god? (The German student White Rose movement included both Lutherans, Catholics and one Orthodox Christians who were all killed.) None of these violent humans are our enemies? None of them are evil?
Father Stephen, thank you very much for this reflection. It may provide the basis of my Christmas Eve sermon. I am an Anglican priest who teaches medical law and ethics in a secular context at a good English university. I would be grateful if you were able to recommend some reading in the area of Orthodox moral theology, an area with which I am unfamiliar but would like to get better acquainted.
Good morning Father.
Regarding the following: “God becomes a man and is birthed into our world. This reveals human beings as bearers of the image of God …”
Perhaps I’m so immersed in the paradigm of being individualistic, I do not understand how God becoming man reveals all human beings as bearers of His image. Would you say more about this please?
Paul, I’m a bit startled that this is the burning question on your mind after reading this whole article. It seems you are wanting to argue with the Apostle Paul (Eph. 6:12) and maybe Jesus? (Matt. 5:43-48), not just Fr. Stephen.
Maybe this prayer of an Orthodox Bishop who suffered under the Nazis will serve as food for thought about the implications of the Gospel for our understanding and attitudes towards those who make themselves our human enemies:
Thank you! This addresses indirectly many issues arising amongst my friends with adult children. Your words are setting some ideas in their proper places for me.
Thank you for sharing the prayer. It’s a wonderful site, full of beautiful prayers…
Please forgive me being off topic here, but maybe Father (or somebody else here) knows…
The Trebnik is supposed to have a “prayer for animals”. Met Anthony Bloom, in one of his recorded talks, mentions a prayer he read to a mouse (after which all mice in the house he lived in left). I have been searching for this prayer ever since, with no luck.. 🙂
If you would look up the Scripture reference, you would see why I say this. St. Paul says: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12 NKJ) The various actions of evil that you describe, and they are certainly evil, are the direct result of our true enemies, the spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places. Those who do those things have clearly been victimized by these evil powers to do their will. These human beings must also be the objects of our mercy and our love, not just of our hatred and opposition. You cannot hate a human being in the manner that you can hate a demon – for they are not demons, no matter how demonic their actions. But the spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places does not care who is right and wrong. They can destroy us just as well by our hatred of “evil” human beings. You have to step back and see where the real battle lies.
Joseph Woodwill’s small book is an excellent overview and will likely suggest further directions for you.
In the Incarnation, Christ is not doing something strange or alien to God. God is not becoming a rock or a tree. Rather, He becomes what He had prepared to become from the beginning. From the beginning He made us “in His image,” and this is only fulfilled and thus revealed in its fullness in the Incarnation of Christ.
Before the Incarnation, it might have been possible to view human beings as mere animals, or simply animate objects, no different than an amoeba. There are some in our modern world who have reverted to such a view. The Incarnation is a revelatory event as much as anything else. It reveals the love of God. It reveals the dignity of human beings. We are, as the fathers said, “Capable of bearing God.” This is unique to human beings but only revealed in the God/Man Christ Jesus.
Is that helpful?
Yet another inspirational and thought provoking article!
The morality we have today has been around for a long time. And we know it’s not true morality. It is a morality based on pride rather than true integrity found only in Christ.
Today we have a fake morality based on individual will and fashion according to the masses. Counterfeit religion in which the world abounds will also produce counterfeit morality.
What a world we live in when immorality has been accepted as moral.
Annihilate and hate your enemy; abort your children; euthanise the elderly and much more; all in the name of a foreign morality
True morality is the manifestation or Birth of Christ in our hearts, where love forbids such actions.
Karen, thank you for that beautiful prayer. I have tried my entire life (I was a soldier for over 30 years) to not hate those who were my enemy or adversary. As a professional soldier, I knew very few men (there were some exceptions, and they were exceptions) who took satisfaction in killing in combat. Those who I know who had a lot of combat and saw a lot of death were always sickened by it, even when it was killing enemy soldiers who were trying to kill them. I am sure the same was the case with the Orthodox soldiers who defended Constantinople. Those soldiers were trying to defend Orthodox women and children from a horrible fate. They were (from my reading) experienced warriors and had long abandoned the idea that combat was a glorious thing.
Excellent article. Just as morals are relativistic in the Modern Project so is Truth. All the latest revelations about the behavior of those in positions of power shows that their versions of truth and morals fit their definitions thus allowing their behaviors.
To add my two cents to the discussion of whether or not people are evil, I believe one can say that their actions are evil but as the line between good and evil runs through every human heart it is difficult to declare a person evil and not condemn one’s self as such.
Your post also explains well why some get so angry when others do not behave as they would like them to.
Nicholas Stephen Griswold
Very well said, important not to forget our own corruptible nature.
Great article, Father Stephen, as usual. I’m a longtime reader, first-time commenter.
I work in a liberal mainline Protestant church (as a seminarian) and find myself drawn to Orthodoxy, largely due to your writings. In particular, I’m drawn to what you write about in this post: a realist(ic) approach to the Law of God in contrast to the Western, legal/forensic approach I’m used to. ‘That which is’, as you put it.
Lately, I’ve struggled with how to lovingly address someone in the congregation who has a transgender family member–a child, in fact. Since my denomination took a confusing stance on all things LGBT (basically affirming everyone’s varied interpretations of scripture and ‘bound consciences’), this topic tends to be a bit of a minefield. My approach to the situation has been to recognize the dignity of everyone involved and to emphasize the importance of mutual respect. But, at times, this approach feels like a betrayal of what I know to be true.
I agree that reality–like gravity–needs no defense. But I also know there is a time to speak just as there is a time to keep silence.
Father, do you have a word for me?
Yes, thank you Father. It goes back to the beginning!
I don’t think it’s fair to say modern morals are “always moving toward violence” simply because they are “elevating free choice to the primary position within all things.” After all, wouldn’t the primacy of free will indicate it would be unethical to impede upon the free will of others by kidnapping, enslavement, murder, etc? Doubt it exists, but I’d love to see data so we could compare the violent deaths/enslavements caused by those adhering to a divine command system of ethics compared to those deaths caused by those adhering to a system “elevating free choice.” No disrespect toward orthodoxy nor toward an orthodox system of ethics, but that general approach to ethics has led to (or, at least, been used to excuse) a significant amount of violence, has it not?
The human being as the bearer of the image of God is fascinating though! How then can there ever be a just war?
Father, bless! Would you please elaborate on the role of PERCEPTION this part of your essay: ” However, if something is true because it is real, then it ultimately makes its own argument. You don’t have to defend gravity.” What role does perception play in this? What is that Buddhist/Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant…? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant
Certainly problematic. First, reality itself is articulate and will eventually make itself known, though that could be fairly unpleasant – even as “consequences” keep adding up. You’re a staff member, not the Pastor. I don’t think I would do anything pastorally that runs counter to the Pastor, though I would not do anything that runs counter to my own conscience. Which means that lots of times, you don’t do anything.
Mostly, you pray (when you’re not sure of what to do).
In other words we find what we seek? So that morally speaking when we look for the bad, don’t we find it even amidst what is good and vice versa?
Is that what you mean?
Truly God is the only who judges man and searches hearts rightly. And thanks be to God for that!!!
BTW – your name/ email tikhon, is populated in the fields of my computer below.
Very strange indeed!
What I meant by “always moving towards violence” is that, if only my will is the definition of morality, then I can only make it so by asserting it against other wills – thus, violence. But you changed the rules of the game, making an appeal to what is ethical/unethical. If the ethical/unethical has a primary position, then we’re talking about something that has not yet progressed to the point I’m suggesting.
It is worth noting, that when Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Orthodoxy (mind you, he was just a glorified Viking), he did several things: he outlawed torture; he outlawed capital punishment; he tithed all of his property. That, to me, was an Orthodox conversion fo a ruler. Though it is all too rare in the annals of history. It is interesting, if you research the matter, to see how Orthodox rulers wrestled with the problem of capital punishment (rather than automatically assuming it as a given).
If there really, really is a cliff, no amount of perceiving will make it ok to walk off of it. Perception, however, is an undoubted part of the human experience – though it is not the sum total of human experience (Berkeley was wrong). All arguments are resolved at the end of things, when finally we all stand naked before the judgment seat of Christ. Reality prevails.
Thanks for this wonderful message. I’m in the process of becoming Orthodox, thanks in large part to your writings. A brief question: I have no icons in my home — which one should I get first? What prayers should I say in front of it? I know the Jesus prayer, Lord’s prayer, and I have a pocket-size Orthodox prayer book. Any advice would be appreciated.
I didn’t “automatically assume it as a given,” Father. I wasn’t even necessarily referring to orthodoxy in my post, but other branches of Christianity and other religions. I meant to be very respectful toward orthodoxy in my comment as my limited knowledge of the EOC is that they have more often faced persecution rather than being the persecutors and were generally far kinder in their approach to Christianity than the western church barring, I think, some attacks on the Bogomils or Paulicians or some other heretics – I’m not even sure about that. But, yes, I’d actually heard the story of Vladimir of Kiev before (perhaps in one of your older posts, I can’t remember)! He sounds like an incredible man and an ideal ruler. I only meant to point out that I sometimes find the divine command theory of ethics frightening (when espoused by the wrong folks). I mean, growing up here in the south, people have used the bible to endorse racism and slavery. I find that terrifying.
And, I feel like I’ve insulted you. I apologize. I certainly didn’t mean to offend anyone with my comment. I’m here as a learner.
In that respect, I fear that kind of authority more than anything. Once a ruler/government has identified itself as the guardian or deputed authority of something ultimate (the Divine) there is no reigning in of the authority.
I actually don’t trust any government very far – because the nature of its power is pretty much coercive by definition. I prefer a “kinder, gentler” coercion. I think at present what kindness and gentleness we see is governed primarily by what can be passed off as “polite.” Of course, once our benevolent powers move away from these native shores, they can be as coercive and murderous as any regime (apparently).
I don’t think there is a good Christian theory for government – at least I’ve not seen one.
Thanks for this Fr.
It makes me think of how often we fall into the trap of modernity and attempt to assert authority over others instead of revealing Christ to them.
Paul, thank you for your service. It was Fr. Stephen who introduced me to that beautiful prayer on his blog several years ago. Your comments about how even having to kill an enemy in combat creates a wound reminds me that this is precisely how Orthodox tradition handles the matter (the soldier must bring this to Confession for healing). I’m very glad it was not the Orthodox Church that produced or endorsed the “just war” theory. It seems to be something that cannot be found to actually exist in the real world, though there may be relatively lesser and greater evils within war and politics.
I confess though I recognize the beauty of the truth of St. Nicolai Velimirovich’s prayer, I have far to go in actually living it!
On the topic of Orthodoxy and war here is a beautiful article which captures many of the relevant issues:
Will – i have struggle with the gender issue too, having many friends who are homosexual. I do not wish to contract Father’s excellent advice to you, but i did wish to share something that helped to understand how to view it from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I was part of a contact on this topic one day while eating lunch with the Sisters of the Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga, California. The Abbess, Mother Melania, said – by way of analogy – that she has a very strong predilection towards being mean to other people, but that doesn’t maje it right for her – as a follower of Christ – to ACT on that predilection. When I asked my parish priest about this subject, he told me that the Orthodox Church does not deny a person their sexual orientation experience or ask them to change it; rather, it simply asks them not to ACT on it. This may mean living a celebate life, either in the world or in a monastery, if they find themselves unable to transcendend the nature of their attraction.
Typos (darn autocorrect!)
1) “contract” = “contradict”
2) helped *me*
3) “contact” = “conversation”
Please forgive me. I obviously need to work on my proof-reading skills. 😜
Chris M. Having studied the approach to war extensively with my son I can say there is no just war. War is always the result of sin and evil.
However, there maybe a way for those in war to act honorably, mercifully and with integrity even when they find themselves in direct confrontation with an evil that should be confronted.
Military organizations try to train such responses out of their people but as Paul says, that is quite difficult.
Real humanity reveals God just as the Incarnate God reveals real humanity.
The kenoticism often seen in war should not be used, but often is, to justify and glorify war. Kenoticism is the natural human response to suffering and pain.
Unfortunately ethics are a bit like statistics — they can be used to justify anything. At best they are secondary points.
Fr. Stephan is quite right the worship of the individual will always leads to violence. It is fundamental to nihilism and the seduction of the nothing. There are simply no good arguments against what Fr. Stephen writes here. None. Let his statements rest in your mind awhile and percolate to your heart.
God save us and have mercy on us.
I think I understand, Father. It goes back to what we discussed regarding the ring of power. Your point is, if I understand you correctly, that when I’m talking about the actions of the powerful, I should look past the system of ethics those folks supposedly espoused to the nature of those who’ve been in power (or the nature of power itself). Divine command theory is not necessarily the problem, it’s generally the folks interpreting the divine command! Thank you for being patient with me.
I don’t want to take up too much space on the comments board, but Will brings up a topic that has been a particularly difficult one for me as well, although it appears I stand on the opposite end of the spectrum from him. Part of me has been drawn to orthodoxy, but another part has been repelled because I feel that converting means I am betraying or somehow condemning a beloved relative who is a homosexual. I’m a social worker and from a scientific/biological point-of-view I see nothing “wrong” with his behavior. Theologically, however, I know I’m not educated enough to argue. I’m here to learn. If someone could explain to me, theologically, why homosexuality is wrong, perhaps, I could understand.
Michael Bauman – thanks for your response. I’ve never been in war, nor have I studied it thoroughly, so
I appreciate your input. And, regarding your statements about arguing with Father Stephen: I don’t come to the page to argue, but I’m so ignorant concerning Orthodoxy (and I’m so curious about its finer theological points) I feel I have to ask these questions. I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up in a secular household. Orthodoxy, its rules, its culture – it’s all new to me. I’m trying to learn. I learn through conversation. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but perhaps this is the wrong medium to get my questions answered. Apologies to all for misusing the space.
There are others here who can answer better than I, but I will mention (despite my neophyte level of Orthodoxy) that when you ask about “wrong” in relation to the Orthodox faith, there is quite a distinction from the understanding as it might be described by other groups who do not have a truly traditional understanding of Christianity. “Wrong” is typically treated as a legalistic concept by others, but in Orthodoxy sin has a greater association with death than what one might typically mean by “sin”. The approach in Orthodoxy that is different, is that it is ontological in regards to our image of God that it is in us. For now I will not go into the science side of your question. But the ascription to “what science says” about homosexuality is typically co-opted by both sides of the political divide, and typically incorrect, or mis-stated.
Thanks for the response, Dee. You’re right, as far as I understand it, regarding “wrongness” and Orthodoxy. Fr. Stephen and I have had a couple of conversations about how I’ll have to get over my legalistic understanding of Christianity if I’m to be Orthodox. I’ll admit, it’s difficult sometimes. Even now I’m habitually referring to things in terms of right and wrong. Ugh. Smh.
As for the scientific research, if you can find me recent peer-reviewed research that there is something “wrong” or harmful in homosexuality, we’ll talk about the science, but I suspect you’ll have trouble. But, as I mentioned, I’m more interested in learning about the church’s perspective. I want to understand why homosexuality = sin = death.
Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory has an compelling teaching on “Sin” available from SVS Press. He’s speaking to people in the church, and not as a scientist, but makes the case that we all come from brokenness, and even fallen DNA. As such, he suggests that, yes, homosexual inclination is completely natural. Natural — in that it comes from our broken selves, as do greed, selfishness, etc. Normal vs. normative. I came away with a much more compassionate framework for the whole complex reality.
Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou comes to the same conclusion as Fr. Hopko with a very pastoral plea to pray earnestly for gay Christians who choose celibate lives. A tough calling.
Chris M, did not mean to imply you are arguing. Question always. Many many questions. I am quite blessed even though I did not grow up Orthodox or even Christian, my parents were a generation older than most people my age. My Dad was literally a pioneer whose father homesteaded in New Mexico territory. They lived in a sod hut for quite a while. I missed a good bit of modernity. My Dad experienced the reality of God in His creation with the inter-connectedness of all things and taught it always. My Mom too.
The Orthodox Church is the only place my brother and I could be at home and honor our parents.
It is very difficult to find peer-reviewed material on the subject that is very trustworthy, in my opinion. There are conclusions that we “need” to reach in our present cultural construct that are so powerful that research is very easily skewed. So, I could not reliably suggest that path as a helpful way to approach the question.
I would maintain that there is far more overwhelming evidence that points to cultural/environmental mechanism in human sexuality. We are not nearly “hard-wired” for this or that so much as we are nurtured. As someone who has heard confessions for 36 years, I would say that my experience echoes that.
When someone says that they were “born” one way or another – I find it unbelievable, simply because I think we are much closer to being asexual as a child. None of us remembers earlier than about three – by which time many things within an environment are already set.
I see almost all human sexuality as damaged in one way or another. It’s a very complex part of our social/psychological makeup – so much so that thinking in terms of “right” or “wrong” is terribly simplistic.
The Church’s understanding does not divorce sex from the procreation and nurture of children. It obviously serves other functions, but that is its primary and obviously natural role. There is nothing about anal or oral sex that serve any function apart from pleasure, and, particularly in the case of anal, is destructive and dangerous in many cases. We’re not made to have things inserted there on a regular basis. Please forgive this graphic illustration.
The place of sex in a marriage, apart from procreation, is its abiding role in the bond and unitive experience of marriage that strengthens the union of parents in the raising and nurturing of children – when it is at its best. It’s often not at its best.
Same-sex relationships in their natural and proper place are called friendships. And such friendships are appropriate and important. They are not, however, helped or assisted by self-gratification, or simply the gratification of a partner. It becomes sex that never can be procreative, or support the greater place of procreation.
The insanity of our culture seems to think that only sexually active people can be normal or healthy. If the last 60 years or so has taught us anything, it is this assumption is patently false. The sort of assumptions behind current sexual practice have destroyed families and created a culture that is simply sick and getting sicker.
On the other hand, we are living in a reactive period in which the abuse of shame and outrageous prejudice are being met with an equally outrageous move in the other direction. The “flamboyant” displays associated with many “pride” parades are evidence of reactive behavior, to say the least.
In this climate, it is hard to speak in a manner that is not immediately labeled in one reaction place or the other.
Orthodoxy, as evidenced by its canons and lives of the saints, has been extremely aware of same-sex activity. It does not blush when, in the lives of the Desert Fathers, it says something like, “Two monks fell into sin.” It just treats it as sin – but doesn’t get weird or want to stone them or any such nonsense.
Orthodoxy has a very healthy understanding of sex, I think. It presumes, for example, that all married people will refrain from sexual relations from time to time, particularly for the purpose of fasting. The assumption is that we don’t “have” to have sex. We are not slaves to our passions, nor should we be.
By and large, all of the “desires” we experience as human beings, are distorted, such that they are not true, natural desires, but rather experienced as “passions” the misdirection of desires. We d not desire the right thing in the right measure at the right time. Instead, we become enslaved.
Orthodox piety assumes fasting. It is normal in the Christian life. It is part of the larger discipline of the passions so that, through Christ, in the Spirit, we come to a measure of greater freedom. Essentially, Orthodoxy would say homosexual actions are expressions of the “passions” and do not draw us towards the healing that is ours in Christ. It can, indeed, be quite damaging. The same can be true of heterosexual actions as well.
The problem in all of this, that I think I hear in your question, is a sense of “normalcy” that is, in fact, just “secular normalcy.” “If no one is hurt, then it’s not wrong.” etc.
I strongly recommend Fr. Thomas Hopko’s little book, Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction. Come by the office, I’ll loan you a copy.
I read the elephant story that Tikhon posted. I had never heard it before.
It’s interesting because while it is about different blind men encountering various (but not the same) parts of an elephant and then they are asked to determine what it is. Everyone has a different perception of what the creature is but since none of them touch more than one part of the elephant so none of them experience the encounter the same way.
No one encounters the whole elephant so they also do t gave a full picture.
Often I hear many things about many people (gossip! – and certainly in my life I have spread it)) and when I am around those of whom I heard negativity about many times I find it that what I heard is not at all my perception of them.
Relating it back to your prior article about the honeless :: one person can encounter them and find the only stench /be repulsed and another find a complete blessing with that same homeless person.
So like the blind men in the story – we are feeling only one part of the elephant / seeing one aspect of a person rather than looking at one created in His image we encounter a fragment of them – our perception of them.
I probably didn’t explain any of that very well. And I am not trying to suggest a vagueness about right or wrong – and yes gravity is gravity – you can argue with it. But it will win.
Interacting with people is different than interacting with gravity. Gravity is rather constant and unforgiving. People are a mystery – they love, resent, forgive, bear grudges, stumble and fall (maybe all in one day!!) and yet we are created in the image of Christ. often times in our interaction with others we do not encounter the Other because of shortcomings of either party – but it’s still there. However sometimes one does encounter and see clearly Christ in another human being You see something so good in another person and it changes everything. How can you ever look at people the same again??
Mainly just to say God always sees the whole of each of us and that is a comfort and a reason to give thanks.
And also, blind men should avoid cliffs and maybe get a seeing eye dog.
Michael: Cool story about your dad! Sounds like he led a fascinating life! And, yes. I’ll keep questioning as long as there are priests and parishioners patient enough to bear my questioning. 🙂
Philip: You and Fr. Stephen recommended the same book! Must be an interesting read. I may also have to see if I can find those comments from Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou. Thank you for the response.
Fr. Stephen: Thanks again for the patient explanation. I think you’re correct in that I see a sense of normalcy to it and, yes, I see homosexuality as victimless. I do, however, find your explanations regarding the passions fascinating. I’d like to learn more and I’d be happy to borrow the book by Fr. Hopko. I’ll try to drop by sometime this week.
I hope this isn’t terrible, but the simplicity of the “two monks fell into sin” thing literally made me laugh out loud. In my line of work, I guess I’ve gotten so used to the intense, incredibly emotional reactions from evangelical protestants that discover their family members are homosexual that the seeming nonchalance of the statement just seemed humorous. Sorry.
Thank you Fr Stephen for your full and detailed answer to Chris M. I’m printing it for the next time I’m asked, I’ll have your response to offer. I’ve encountered some of Fr Hopkins reflections on the subject online as well and found them helpful also.
These matters have been much on my mind of late, and your account of the truly moral as that which accords with reality has greatly helped me, Father Stephen. Thank you
An observation – and forgive me if this has already been raised – but I’m the absence of any widely perceived Reality, or account thereof, does not even Truthful Morality, based in Reality usually look to Modern people like yet another arbitrary choice, and the exercise of pure power?? I guess it must, yet perhaps, insofar as we ourselves perceive Reality and are formed by it, then the moral shape of our lives bears Witness to Truth?
I’ve tried to explain this like a master carver, who sees the form of a beautiful object in a piece of wood, and carefully uses the tools of his craft to reveal the object hidden therein. The only problem is that he is surrounded by people as it were blindfolded with equally sharp chisels and saws . . . It came to me that this is perhaps a parable of cross bearing??
Well stated. Thank you.
Chris M: May God bless you on your journey. I’m an Orthodox mom (used to be Lutheran) with a gay daughter, gay friends, transgender students…and I have stopped worrying about why. I pray and I love them. I also recommend Father Tom’s book; it helped me understand how to be loving and compassionate…and to look at my own sins and not another’s.
Thank you, Laura. That’s very kind of you. I’m really looking forward to reading this book now. Its rare for me to find one recommended by so many people!
And, Dee – Fr Stephen is always incredibly patient and detailed in his responses to my questions and, believe me, I have plenty! 🙂 I’m very grateful he puts up with my presence/curiosity here and has been willing to help me along in this process.
Another book recommendation, this one on the Just War doctrine. As I understand it, the author, a Catholic scholar, has petitioned the Pope to do away with this doctrine.
Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War. Robert Meagher.
Father Stephen –
In your discussion about modern morality this is incredibly apparent in the propaganda film that the Nazi’s created as they first came into power. The name of the film is “The Triumph of the Will.” In the film Hitler often repeats how the Germans are peace loving people. Throughout the film he repeatedly outlines a utopian future for the German people. The emphasis on discipline and appeals to morality and sacrifice (the morality of the regime) are apparent all through the film. At the end of the day – over 50 million people lost their lives and Germany and much of the European continent was devastated. What is even more sobering though is that the double speak that Hitler has often been used by many leaders… incluidng our own at times. While this is the extreme example of what you seem to be saying about modern morality, it clearly demonstrates the short steps from the morality of the will to violence against others that do not embody what I have declared as right.
Father, thank you for your response. I suppose in your analogy, is the cliff death (for of this reality, there is no doubt) or is the cliff something else–i.e. the existence of God/the Truth of Jesus Christ as the Son of God/Orthodoxy? For if the latter is the case, each person would have a different perspective and experience of this. While death will surely bring an answer, two people’s perspectives are critically important while living. And, unfortunately, there is no universal cliff which all can agree exists. Each religion (or lack thereof) describes the cliff differently. How can we know what is true? I see so much that makes sense from different perspectives. While the cliff analogy is so black and white, what I observe, have discussed, and have read does not reflect this. Any help is much appreciated!
Chris M, and everyone else who asks questions and brings up sticky topics-
I am so grateful. Orthodoxy is fairly new to me, and often the questions asked are lurking somewhere in my own mind and need addressing. Or subjects- like just war theory- ought to be reframed from with an Orthodox understanding but haven’t come to the forefront yet.
Regarding war…where does protecting the oppressed fit? How can soldiers do what’s required (I am making a huge assumption here…) without destroying them?
My dad went to Vietnam as an Army Major just after I was born, was injured, returned home, and rose through the ranks until he retired as a Major General.
I’m not pro-war, or even pro-military necessarily, but I believe people like Hitler and Stalin ought to be stopped somehow, and those they want to desire need protection. But it seems like a pretty dangerous road to despotism coming from the side of the protectors.
I saw the work my dad did, heard his motivations, and admire him deeply. I believe he is a great man. As a family we sacrificed much to support him in his mission. But there are lingering questions as to how this all fits together.
The cliff, in my analogy, is something like death, or the various ways that death works in our lives. St. Paul says, “If you sow to the flesh you will reap corruption.” Corruption=death, decay, etc. Certain decisions, made through false decisions or perceptions, will eventually prove themselves to be death and decay. It might indeed take generations for it to reveal itself in the life of a culture. There are some things that virtually every religion would agree on (cliff-wise). Perceptions are not nearly so varied, classically-speaking. It’s primarily in the modern market-place of ideas that we have multiplied and magnified the notion of variety, primarily to support a highly individualized account of reality.
If I’m talking to a real Buddhist (not some recent American variety), or a real Hindu, for example, we would find wide agreement on many things. That agreement would likely to have been shaped through centuries of experience. I do not know of a religion that thinks adultery is a good idea. I think lots of moderns feel it might be a matter of personal choice, etc., that an “open-marriage” is simply a life-style choice. It that were to become common, it would eventually take itself off a cliff.
We are already over the cliff on many such things – but the price is being paid by children and teens – many of whom are so confused they have no idea what to think. We are experiencing an epidemic of gender confusion – so extremely far beyond any statistical norm that it can only be accounted for by a cultural fad – for which teens are not to blame. It is a cliff. Teen suicide is on the rise as is cutting and a whole host of destructive behaviors, and these things are not disconnected. They are artifacts of a cultural madness – something that would seem strange in virtually every culture. Of course, there will be some anthropologist, somewhere, who will trot out an obscure tribe and proclaim that its bizarre non-normative practice proves that there is only culturally derived realities.
Where the religions differ, in general, would be describing what happens when you fall off the cliff, or why the cliff is there, etc. But the cliff is what it is. Reality is pretty much just that – reality.
Another example. Male and female are so obvious that I should not have to mention it. The purpose of male and female is equally obvious. The role the family has in support and nurturing marriage and children is also obvious. There are lots of cliffs that surround it. It is only in the last few years, in a highly politicized setting, that any other account has been ventured forward – an account that would gladly destroy the entire edifice of normative civilization in order to support life-styles that will not and cannot produce and support life.
There are plenty of cliffs: do not lie. do not kill, etc. Societies that start ignoring such things begin to fall into corruption and decay. If you want a measure for cliffs, look to the weakest. Look to children, single mothers, etc. In America, look at the prison population. The “success” and illusion of normalcy is a facade, supported by piles of discarded people who fall by the wayside in order to maintain the private delusions of a culture in madness.
By happenstance I joined the Air Force the very day the Vietnam War started. I did not go there but had many friends, relatives and acquaintances who did. Some were wounded, others killed. I can only say about just war policy that with weapons of mass destruction, it cannot be very “just.”
Fr. Freeman has often stated, however, that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini had to be stopped. At a more manageable level : it is difficult for any soldier to kill another soldier. In WWII only one of five actually shot at another combatant. The percentage may have gone up some in recent wars but even in Vietnam, 52,000 bullets were fired for every enemy killed, Hollywood hype aside. Most killing is done from afar… bombs, artillery, etc. Look at the plight of our poor returning soldiers, young men and women, from the Middle East wars. PTSD is rampant among them. My wife’s great nephew committed suicide after returning from Iraq. I think the rate of suicide among vets is 20+ a day…Lord have mercy on them! The pain and anguish that follows the killing of another human being, created in God’s image, is part of the hard-wired reality of which Father Stephen writes so eloquently.
Right before posting the above, I noticed someone else’s name and email were in my name, email slots. I think this occured to Karen, too.
My youngest is a boy, just turned 8. He naturally has a warrior approach to the world, attacking and destroying with vom and vigor. I do not see this as inherently bad. He also has a hefty dose of compassion in his little self that will hopefully bring balance.
I sadly had the opportunity to discuss the atom bomb with him and his 12 yo sister. War is always awful, always destroys, always ruins. And yet we must strive to protect the oppressed, and in other situations be willing to die for Truth as the martyrs have and still do.
I could see my boy was really working on all this, trying to comprehend. It is a weighty responsibility to have children. We can be proud of my dad while at the same time recognize the Vietnam war was a horrible travesty on so many levels. The world can be so very confusing and full of sorrow.
May the Lord have mercy on us and our world!
Going all the way back to your original comment Chris M:
“I don’t think it’s fair to say modern morals are “always moving toward violence” simply because they are “elevating free choice to the primary position within all things.” After all, wouldn’t the primacy of free will indicate it would be unethical to impede upon the free will of others…”
The short answer is no. 😉 Free will as “primacy” (i.e. the highest, most primary reality and first principle) does not lead to a categorical imperative (i.e an ethical “thou shalt not pass”) because of the incoherency of a metaphysical ethics of will/choice that is on the one hand truly free, and on the other limited by something outside itself (in this case an ethical categorical imperative focused on the multiplicity of free wills in relation to each other). Where in freedom (freedom as primary first principle) is the principle of a limit (i.e. an ethic)?
In the history of (both ethical and metaphysical) philosophy, Nietzsche is Kant’s superior (by some distance) because he lays bear this internal contradiction of Kant’s metaphysics. However, our cultural “mind” is still trying, with ever increasing desperation, to make Kant stick. It has not and can not work because it rests on idealism. Idealism, no matter how hard it tries, can’t escape it’s own monism – the fundamental first principle of “I think, therefore I AM” and a freedom based on it.
Christianity denies even the possibility of a metaphysical ethic (i.e one grounded internally on self-sufficient grounds and “physis”) not because it is “amoral” but because it grounds anthropology – what we as human beings are – not on metaphysics but rather on our *createdness* “out of nothing”. Our first principle is thus intelligible only on a *Personal* level, and thus our freedom (and everything else about us) is based not on a (meta)physic which can be captured and held by the discursive reasoning mind, which can then go on to describe a coherent ethical system calculated from a dialectical term. The thing about Persons, and a Personal God, is that His (and thus our) freedom is created and contained in the mystery of Personhood. Personhood is uncircumscribable by ratio/mind. Rather than being rational or unrational, Personhood is supra-rational.
Within the framework of the knowledge of good and evil (go back and read Genesis again – we “know” good and evil when we eat of the tree, we do not *become* good OR evil) morals and ethics are thus held suspended as it were (in a manner of speaking) and “worked out” within a larger and richer story of creation, freedom, sin, death, hell, salvation, and the freedom of created *personal* wills in the eschaton forever choosing the good. Such a story and Reality can not be contained in a mere moral dialectic much to the consternation of the modern moral mind.
This story (i.e. Christianity) also “explains” (but not dialectically – personally) why scientifically speaking we are this or that organic fact (and thus not *ethically* responsible for our proclivities) and at the same time capable, in a manner much more radically free than Kant ever dreamed of, of personally owning and then crucifying those very proclivities.
Chris M et al. A great book on the struggle involved for Christians who suffer same sex attraction is “Washed, But waiting” by Wesley Hill. My only caveat about the book is that the author falls into ontological assumptions about same sex attraction and indeed all sexuality that are not true. Easy trap given the ideological bias of our time and the powerful nature of sexual attractions though.
Some fifty years ago when I began my Christian journey, I thought it important to find out what it meant to be a Christian man. My exploration of that question has never stopped. My failure to be one has never ceased either.
I can say that Fr. Stephen’s statements are supported 100% by my own studies over the years. Especially the observation that each of us has disordered sexual passions. The early chapters of Genesis, the Book of Job, the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Galatians have been particularly helpful to me. Many readings, much prayer.
The examination of my own soul has lead me to understand that shame is a huge nexus for disordered sexual passions. That shame can start very early even in infancy.
We are created male and female and there is a cosmic synergy there that is integral to our salvation. Very little of that has to do with what we call sex. A good read on that topic is ‘Mr. God, this is Anna”. A thought provoking book by Orthodox scholar Deacon Patrick Mitchell is “The Scandal of Gender”
Being male is an ontological reality. My disordered sexuality is not.
If you want a rule on sexuality: chastity and celebacy before marriage; chastity and fidelity after marriage along with prayer, fasting, almsgiving and repentance.
It is impossible for two people of the same sex to be married to one another.
There is a great deal of Orthodox commentary both ancient and modern on the topic. There is no reason to simply fall into the morass of the nihilistuc cultural paradigm of modernity.
Good Lord, Christopher. Mind = blown. See, this is why I said I don’t come to Fr. Stephen’s blog to argue, but to learn: I know when I’m outclassed. 🙂 One might be able to scrap, but that doesn’t mean one can hang in a boxing ring or in the octagon. 😀
First of all, I’ll say this, I’m not going to pretend to understand half of what you wrote. Like Fr. Stephen, you’re on a different level from this lowly social worker! And, I read some Nietzsche in my undergrad, but I’m barely familiar with his work. You’re saying that Nietzsche’s argument was superior to Kant’s because Nietzsche recognized that true free will meant one would not suppress one’s own will in order to appease another’s and that goes back to idealism and the idea that one can only be certain that one’s own will/experience exists so why allow one’s will to be a slave to that of another that one can’t be certain even exists? But, a Christian approach to ethics, circumvents this problem by… bestowing us with personhood? Sorry if that’s not what you were getting at. I had to rush to read what you wrote and, as I mentioned, this is WAY over my head.
Michael: Thank you for sharing your experience with me and thank you for the recommendation! Perhaps once I’m finished with Fr. Stephen’s recommended book I’ll pick this one up. Although I don’t share the feelings of some of the folks on this page regarding homosexuality and gender, I will agree with you that sexuality and shame are interconnected, at least, in our own culture.
Chris M, I’m with you. It’s like trying to get a drink from a firehose. Sometimes, simple is better.
Personally I find Nietzsche ‘s philosophies incredibly anti Christian and nihilistic/self destructive, but never the less interesting.
Although he believed himself to be grounded in reality, it was his own reality of the absence of God in his own life, which was expressed through his philosophies, and provided no room or hope for any movement in morality. In fact I feel his works to be incredibly suggestive, that bad moral behaviour is acceptable or excusable. It is frightening how influential his writings have been.
We learn from the experience of the Church that even a little bit of asceticism (aschesis) in the right way with humility can go a long way in our Spiritual development. I am by far not the best at doing this, but when we try to sacrifice something more than just food i.e, time, TV, and other passions eg lust, anger etc we start to experience a change in our fragmented humanity. Christ heals our wounded nature and unites us with Himself. This is the opposite of nihilism, we are new creations in Christ.
I hope to visit the monastery God willing next week. I will light a candle for you and your ministry and send your best wishes to Father Zacharias.
Sorry guys! More simply, the first takeaway is that Chris M suggestion of a categorical imperative limiting the negative consequences of human freedom understood metaphysically/idealistically has already ‘played itself out’ within the western intellectual tradition of the last 500 years. This does not mean that culturally it is not hugely influential (mostly by dumb momentum) or that folks keep trying to resurrect it (think Rawlsian “theory(s) of justice”, our shared political life played out in terms of “rights”, etc.).
The second takeaway is that (Orthodox, Classical, what Fr. Stephen points to) Christianity simply does not *fit* into the terms and structure of this way of thinking about humanity, our freedom and its relationship to morality. It is not just that “…But, a Christian approach to ethics, circumvents this problem by… bestowing us with personhood?” it is that Orthodox Christianity does not even grant “the problem” in the first place. Christian Personhood is not “inserted” into the game as it were as a 2nd half substitute – Christianity is not paying the game at all…it’s not even in the stadium as a spectator. As Fr. Stephen is continually at pains to point out, Christianity approaches what it means to be human from an entirely different set of assumptions, and these assumptions/first principles lead us to an entirely different set of “problems”, so to speak (stating it dialectically).
In such an environment, Orthodox Christianity is truly “other”, alien, and incomprehensible. It may even appear (and in a real sense is) “unmoral” to a metaphysician, and all modern people are metaphysicians of one sort or another. Into this universe populated with moral “selves” who, despite a nagging doubt caused by our incomprehensible and unavoidable suffering and death that resist our best moral efforts to correct, reason/act/live as if they really are the source of their own moral being, comes a God who is born as one of us and reminds us of the actual and real human problem(s) by His suffering and death.
I don’t know how to weigh the relative diabolical weight of this or that Idealism. If you separate the crude appropriation of Nietzsche’s thought from the political history of Nazi Germany, is his willingness to look into the abyss of our existential situation “worse”, or more “anti-Christian” than Kant’s idealism (or western liberal societal exaltation of the Cartesian Self)? Is his honest assessment of the arbitrariness and vacuousness of morality / good and evil in the western conception of man (anthropos) “wrong”? I don’t think so, at least not within its own terms. Is his “solution” of the heroic Self/Will unencumbered by any-thing Christianity? Certainly not.
My humble opinion is that Kant’s idealism is no better than the opinions of Nietzche. Whilst Kant seems to provide a more flexible approach overall, and seemingly ‘moral’ in some cases it is indeed an unrealistic philosophy and smacks of self improvement without God (ego).
Also, both philosophers can be seen as ‘true’ if we view their theories as observations of the state of the world in their own times. Both were influenced by their multi – faceted environments. I find Nietzsche particularly despairing with Kant following closely behind.
Christipher. I read all of Nietzche as a senior in college. I spent a lot of time with him
Neitzche is superior to Kant because he does not back down from his own internal logic. The will not bound to God is destructive and needs to be. Morality alone is not only insufficient but crippling to the proper expression of the Will.
Of course he can still not get totally free of the reality. His Three Metamorphosis of the Spirit seems more than a bit like the Orthodox paradigm of Purification, Illumination and Theosis.
His premise that man and our will are or can be self-determining is wholly wrong however.
Nietzche and his fellows of the last half of the 19th century did their best to denude us of our essential inter-relationship with our God, our Creator and our Redeemer. Ultimately however their efforts lead us inexorably back to Him as the only cure for the madness of self-determination and the horrible destruction such demonic ideas bring.
The only existence Beyond Good and Evil lies in submission to God’s love and mercy and the communion that follows.
Chris M. I said that our disordered sexuality is intimately connected to shame, not sexuality per se.
Also, while I appreciate your honesty regarding your feelings on homosexuality, it is not about opinions or science or philosophy or ethics. As Fr. Stephan points out there is a reality that trumps all of that.
Hedonistic polymorphous perversity is the norm in this world, but that is not the reality of who we are sexually or any other way. Homosexuality is normal for the standards of the world just as adultery and other forms of fornication. None of that, fortunately, is who we are.
In my life it seems I have to be stripped of everything I think I know in order to see who I am but I a stubborn disobedient man.
May God grant you a gentler journey.
In my reflections on your thoughts in your essay, I particularly appreciate your observation that Classical Christianity need demonize no one. And I see a connection of St Ephraim’s prayer with what you describe as the mystery of Christmas. Where you write of Christ’s incarnation: “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 reveals the reality of life as communion…”
In the prayer it is written: ‘O Lord and King grant that I see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages’
Implicit in the juxtaposition of the words ‘brother’ and ‘Thou’ is the image of God in our brother.
St Ephraim’s prayer is typically said during Lent, but it is an important part of my Advent fast and prayers. I believe it helps me ‘get into the spirit of Christmas ‘.
Thank you for your words Fr Stephen.
Yesterday I tried to post a comment and it didn’t appear, so here is what I attempted to convey: It seems to me that the Reality of things is expressed both in Christianity and in Taoism (and others?) as The Way. It is the Way of human flourishing which goes beyond what an individual may think is for the best for themselves–being open, for example, to having Life flow in and through us to subsequent generations. I think it’s ironic that there are those today who say that we should remember that we are “just animals” and have forgotten our connection with other creatures and creation–when, in fact, the rest of Creation seems quite adept at following the Way they were created to be. It is humans who are given the choice to some degree of accepting the Way–and we don’t usually do so. I’ve wondered if the same people who espouse the need to be more connected with Nature are the same ones who support the anti-Nature aspects of our current social experiments. . .IOW–we can see the value of the Way of the Universe when it doesn’t apply to ourselves and our desires. But, the Way includes past and future generations.
I’m sorry I misrepresented what you wrote then, Michael Bauman. My bad. And, I completely agree with you that reality trumps opinion. Unfortunately, finding that reality, that truth, is difficult sometimes. You and Fr Stephen have arrived at your understanding of the truth it seems through scripture, philosophy, and personal experience. I have arrived at what I perceive to be the truth through observation, measurement, and personal experience. Of course, as Fr Stephen mentioned, maybe there are problems with the data I’ve come across or the experiences I’ve had. I shared my opinion not to try to convince anyone else, but only to give a mile marker for where I am now in my journey. And, I’m glad I did! I got two book recommendations out of it! 🙂
Thank you again Michael for your response and for asking God to grant me a gentler journey. Lately, I’ve wished that for multiple reasons – my ignorance is probably the biggest one.
Whoops. Wish there was an edit function. “Observation and measurement…” makes it sound like I personally conducted a study on the health or societal effects of homosexuality. Full disclosure: I haven’t. A more appropriate description would have been something to the effect of, “I have arrived at what I perceive to be truth through a thorough exploration of peer-reviewed research and personal experience.”
Father Stephen, thank you for the ministry of this blog. I read regularly and am always fed.
Going through the experience of watching my mother draw closer and closer to the end of her earthly life has given me a glimpse of what you write about here: of how the law of this world and everything in it is death, plain and simple; and how the answer to death can never be “morality” but is instead life himself breaking into our death through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ.
I now find it now hard, however, to think of anything that pertains to this mortal life as truly “good”. All that I once thought “good” because “moral” now seems at best like a shadow of a good that is to come. Celebrating a worthy feast, marrying, begetting children, keeping home – and even spiritual disciplines of fasting and alms-giving – we do not do these because they are an ultimate good, or Good Itself; and indeed, to participate in them as if they were the ultimate good would be idolatry. Instead, all that we do that we call “good” is such because it points us to the future Kingdom.
Which is what gets me to this question: It’s not like heterosexual sex or heterosexual marriage is something in itself life-giving. No matter how blessed or virtuous, it’s still dead! We seem to forget this when we say heterosexual sex = good, homosexual = bad. It’s not bad or good, they’re both simply – dead. How then do we judge between things at all? Is it just degrees of pointing to the Kingdom? Heterosexual marriage points to the Kingdom better than homosexual marriage does, so … best to bless the one but not the other?
I recently read a wonderful book by Daniel Opperwall called Layman in the Desert. In it he explains that the (immediate) goal and the (ultimate) telos of every Christian – whether monk or layman – is the same. The telos is the Kingdom if God (Saint Seraphim would say the acquisition of the Holy Spirit) and the goal (how we get to the telos) is purity of heart (accomplished through our efforts to practice the virtues, pray, give alms, etc) . The difference for the monk and the layman lies in the arena in which the goal and telos are pursued; for the monk it is in a monastic community and for the layman it is in the world (usually within marriage and family). Opperwall used Saint John Cassian’s The Conferences as his text to demonstrate how the ancient teachings of the desert Fathers are just as relevant to laymen as they are to monks and how to apply them in one’s life in the world.
You are correct, all of the “good” things we are asked to do as Orthodox Christians are just the means (immediate goal) with which to attain Christ in our hearts (ultimate telos).
I have carefully read and considered your last post and I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of my comments. I even wrote a long and detailed response. However, when I tried to post it, my computer erased it.
I think that may have been a signal from the Holy Spirit that I should just shut up. And, I said before, I think we have wandered far off topic.
So I am going to let you have the last word,
The foregoing post does not belong here. It belongs in another thread. I apologize for my lack of skill in regards to posting comments.
Chris M, et al,
Fwiw, I find an ecclesiological perspective to be the best approach to discussions on sexuality (hetero- or homo-) and Christianity.
After all, when St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the mystery of marriage*, he quotes the Genesis account of the creation of Eve, which Christ also quoted regarding marriage, then says he is speaking about Christ and the Church.
It’s worth noting that, whether one reads Genesis literally of figuratively, Adam represents the whole of masculinity, and Eve the whole of femininity, yet the Church has no concept of marriage as something between a man and all women, or between a woman and all men.
But we are not merely given an account of Adam and Eve, but of wounded Adam and side-birthed Eve**: an image of Christ crucified and the Church.
That being the case, I suspect that marriage (and all that it entails) was given as a teacher, particularly a teacher of the relationship between Christ and the Church when it (the marriage) is properly oriented.
From that, it follows that to introduce SSM or polygamy or any such thing would be akin to presenting a model of ecclesiology that is completely foreign to that which we have received.
Anytime one treats marriage as something primarily involving the issue of who can “love” (or sleep with) whom, they’ve missed the point, those things are secondary.
* I keep to marriage here because the Church does not give approval to any sexual activity outside of marriage, and lust is lust, no matter whom (or what) it is directed towards.
** see Fr. Stephen’s article “The Cruciform Human” (May 2015). Also recommended is Fr. Stephen’s three part reflection on male and female (July 2015).
Which is what gets me to this question: It’s not like heterosexual sex or heterosexual marriage is something in itself life-giving. No matter how blessed or virtuous, it’s still dead! We seem to forget this when we say heterosexual sex = good, homosexual = bad. It’s not bad or good, they’re both simply – dead. How then do we judge between things at all? Is it just degrees of pointing to the Kingdom? Heterosexual marriage points to the Kingdom better than homosexual marriage does, so … best to bless the one but not the other?
John, we do not bless “homosexual marriage” because it is not the union of true marriage. The fullness of humanity is found in the union of man and woman (woman having originally come from man and thus returning the fullness of humanity to him), which, with God’s blessing, produces life. This mirrors the Trinity in creative communion; God spoke thusly in Genesis: “Let US create man in OUR image.” This is the communion of true Life creating life and it is mirrored in the sacrament of marriage, the communal, life creating union of man and woman.
Thanks for the recommendations, Matt Z. I’ll look back at the old articles when I get a chance. I think the problem here is (since we’re still talking about the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage and my understanding of it, but doing so now through scripture), I’m SO ignorant of scripture, Church Tradition, etc, that a lot of this doesn’t even click for me yet. I mean, I know the story of Adam and Eve, but maybe it doesn’t touch me yet on the same level that it touches you. I’m so new to the Church, I feel like a pagan just hearing about (true) Christianity for the first time. It’s like I’m still worshiping Artemis or Odin or some other deity, but like the Kievan Rus, I’ve visited the Orthodox Church and felt something powerful. Now, I have a lot of people telling me what I know is wrong – that I need to accept a new truth. I’m trying to understand. I’ve prayed. I’ve gone to Divine Liturgy. Fr. Stephen’s blog has been a great and gradual way for an introvert like me to learn. The conversation that takes place in the comments section has been helpful as well. The reading recommendations are, I think, going to be incredibly helpful (at least, based on the popularity of the books suggested). I just think the scriptural argument, like Christopher’s philosophy lesson above ( 😀 ), is a little over my head (heart?) right now.
Chris M – the learning never ends, even for those born into this faith. There’s always things we learn incorrectly, or just miss. The most important thing though is you’re not alone. It is God’s Spirit itself within you that is guiding you, accompanying you, comforting you – and all of us 🙂 I rest in that knowledge often!
Thanks for that, Helen. That’s very kind of you.
Kristin, you raise a great question. I’m hopeful that Michael B or Father Stephen will comment on your question.
I am very opposed to war, especially because of what I’ve seen of US sponsored wars in the last 65 years or so (Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, etc). But as someone who is opposed to war, you raise a good question that has troubled me regarding my own war views. What about Hitler? Again, as a pacifist, I ask myself: was our country wrong to go to war to stop Hitler? Perhaps the question isn’t that simple. I honestly don’t know.
I have read that much of what changed Solzenhitsyn’s own views were the atrocities that he saw his own side commit, all in the name of “stopping the nazi’s.” I’ve long loved his statement that “the line separating good and evil runs through every human heart.”
Still, I’m troubled by the question you posed and hoping to hear from someone else on the blog on this matter.
My two cents….
You may also want to consider the not too few Orthodox Saints that were soldiers. In a recent post Father reminded us that although these Saints were in the military in the end they became martyrs for Christ. Also, in the early Church there was a long period of time (3 years?) before soldiers were allowed to partake of the Eucharist, to allow for repentance and the healing of the soul. It is in this approach that we understand that the Church recognizes 1) God commands Thou shall not kill and 2) in a fallen world there is war and 3) the shedding of blood leaves a mark on the soul. Thus the Church allows for repentance and healing. Knowing this has helped me sort out some of my conflicting thoughts.
The Hitler question is always the clincher, isn’t it. In the end though I think it is safe to keep from judging someone who comes to the defense of the oppressed. The other clincher question is would you defend your loved ones against an oppressor? I don’t have any family here, but I do have my animals who are family to me…and if someone or something was trying to hurt them, I’d come to their defense and believe me, in the end someone is going to get hurt.
It’s a tough question Alan. We say we believe in one thing, and when the rubber meets the road we act just the opposite.
Paula. Good comments.
I think anyone would do the loving thing and at least try to stop an aggressor who was trying to harm their child or loved one. That kind of love for and protection of the innocent is born within, from a good God who loves mankind.
I was Mennonite Brethren for 25 years. Many of the young men in this denomination are C.O.s., or would be if there was a draft. Numbers of them in the past served in WWI and WWII as medics. If they could not do this others served stateside in hospitals or some other capacity. If I recall correctly, if one wants C.O. status, it must be established quite sometime before it would be needed. This could be a dated letter from a pastor/priest stating that one is opposed to serving in the military, or perhaps other ways of being on record of which I’ve forgotten.
I believe there are people who are warriors — those who are willing to physically lay down their lives to protect others from attack. They are nobel and honorable men. They are most often abused by men of power. A true warrior will do everything in his power to make peace before taking up the sword. For some time and it is getting worse, the warrior spirit has been trained out of men. It is looked down on.
Yet the sword is given to rulers to restrain evil and protect. That can include war if necessary. But it need not involve arms at all.
With the nature of modern warfare the role of the warrior becomes anacronistic. Modern warfare is massive, indiscriminate total and used in the service of evil. A tool of progress. Right now the wars in the middle east are being used to to destroy Christians and our ancient communities.
Yet the desire to protect and serve is strong in many people. But there is a disconnect between the reality and the propaganda and policy that creates and sustains war. That disconnect extends to policing as well BTW. The modern brutality is worse than anything in the past and almost no one is prepared for it. Plus our culture denies the reality of spiritual healing through repentance. PTSD is inevitable.
Doctrinal pacifism presents it’s own dilemma: by my inaction do I allow someone to be harmed who could have been protected.
There are no easy answers nor should their be. Violence is endemic to our state of disconnect from God and who we are. That violence is in all parts of our life not just warfare. Violence is natural to rebellion against God. Nihilism is the philosophy of rebellion and it rules our culture. That spirit of rebellion takes physical form and therefore has to be contered physically but the real enemy must be kept in mind.
Our current culture glorifies violence in everything but war. Only those who are warriors can overcome the violence with strength and mercy. It starts by refusing to do violence to those closest to you or allowing harm to come to them if it can be prevented. Those two imperitives can come into conflict. For me, to protect should take precedence. Not everyone agrees. Either course requires courage, deep humility and obedience to God. Seek the truth and seek to be truthful with mercy rather than justice especially about oneself.
For mercy “becometh the throned monarch better than his sceptered sway”
Thank you for your beautiful comment, Michael.
As always I enjoy your comments. Do you think physical war can sometimes be a manifestation of spiritual warfare?
As a retired service member who served from the Vietnamese War (2nd Indo China War) through Desert Storm and coming from a family that has served this country almost continually, I have watched this conversation unfold with interest. Without passing judgment on just and unjust wars, whether we should be or involved or not involved, I offer the following points:
1) War boils down to destroying things and killing people made in the Likeness and Image of our creator.
2) War involves killing people who are not part and party of the decisions that led to war.
3) No matter how noble the cause killing people is always part of the equation and the damage inflicted to families, persons and infrastructure does not go away when the war stops.
4) When we as warriors kill or wound the enemy, we are killing or wounding somebody’s father, mother, aunt, uncle, brother, sister or cousin. We are killing part of their family.
5) War is never clear cut. It is never fair and it is never right all the time.
An example of number 5 is an incident that my father was involved in. He served in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. He was an honorable man who loved his family, was generous to others and had a very deep religious conviction. He was a patriot who answered his country’s call. He graduated from college in 1950 just in time to return to active duty and be involved in the Korean War. (For those who want to question the justness of the war, North Korea attacked the South and the American service men who had been stationed there after the Japanese forces were removed,. Without the unprovoked attack there would have been no war.) My father was a platoon leader who landed with his platoon on Inchon Beach in the second wave. His unit was part of the force that retook Seoul from the Northern forces and went deep into North Korea during our counter offensive. One night as his platoon was moving up to an objective it had to pass through a small village. It was after midnight and very dark. Suddenly his men were under fire from all sides with rifles, machine guns and hand grenades. The platoon fought back, suppressing the fire. When the sun finally rose and they were able to search the village and determine who attacked them, they discovered that it was old women and men and young children. There were no survivors of the village population. War is ugly, war is brutal, war is indiscriminate and I have real trouble calling destroying people made in the Likeness and Image as just.
Even in the war to stop Hitler we killed many that were not combatants. Google for pictures of Dresden after the war and ask yourself how many of the people who died there were enemy combatants. Bullets, artillery shells and bombs are indiscriminate killers. Once released they go their way and hit anything in their path. Enemy soldiers are not always volunteers. Many of those that died retreating from Kuwait in Desert Storm had been selling shoes two weeks before and were forced to join the Iraqi Army against their will.
War is between governments and it is the people who suffer. Gone are the days when Kings rode into battle at the head of their troops. At least Henry V led his troops from the front in his dynastic struggles in the 100 Year War. I am forced to remember what Samuel said to the people of Israel when they wanted a king. Kings and elected governments do all of those things to this day and we, the people, are the ones who bleed. In my opinion, the only just war would be if those leaders went into battle against each other and we got to sit in the stands and watch.
Sorry for the rant, but war is just ugly and destructive and those are the only adjectives that have meaning. The rest are glowing words of praise written by the victors.
Mario, in one sense physical war is always a manifestation of spiritual warfare. A manifestation that indicates we are loosing the battle.
In the United States we have come to a point where peacemaking is very difficult. Identity politics and ideological politics make it extremely difficult. Peacemakers are considered sellouts or enemies. Sometimes those presenting themselves as peacemakers are actually not. “All would be well if Christians stopped being so hateful and just accepted abortion, homosexuality, etc. your can’t stand against scientific progress!”
Nihilism and the worship of power means that every other person is an enemy because God is the enemy. That is why even one’s own child in the womb is an enemy.
Tom Leher’s old sarcastic song National Brotherhood Week written back in the 60s was quite prescient. The beginning and the end I will share: “On the white folks hate the black folks and the black folks hate the white folks all of my folks hate all of your folks, it’s American as apple pie…..Step up and shake the hand of someone you can’t stand, it’s only for a week so have no fear. Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.”
In the last fifty years his sarcastic observations have become more and more real. That is the darkness. But the light is here too in the Church but we have to fight for it even here. It is a spiritual battle, not an ideological one.
We have to rouse ourselves crying holy holy holy art thou O God, through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.
Sometimes that means physically challenging evil determined that Thou shalt not pass!
The risk is great to those who do that.
To Paula, Dean, Michael, and Nicholas…..thank you all very much! I’m indebted to you all for these most insightful comments.
Thank you for your blessed reply. I chuckled at the American folk song, but it is very pertinent to our current spiritual environment. It is as though we are all actors (in Greek ‘Hypocrites’, and sometimes it is even difficult for us in keeping it real.
“Nihilism and the worship of power means that every other person is an enemy because God is the enemy. That is why even one’s own child in the womb is an enemy.”
Your paragraph above I find similar to what Father Zacharias at the monastery was saying: ” We are enemies of God, our sin creates enmity with God.”
Nicholas I was hoping you might write your perspective given your experiences in war. Thank you so much for sharing them in the light of the Orthodox Christian faith. Too frequently I hear from self professed Christians in the US an enthusiasm for war in which they treat their violence upon others as a “crusade for God”.
We’ve had such good notes from Nicholas and Michael.
The younger George Bush said something near the start of the Iraqi war that has stayed with me. On an aircraft carrier he boasted about what we could do to the Iraqis, ” Bring ’em on!” Now I’m sure one-on-one he would be an amiable chap…we could talk about our paintings, perhaps over a beer on a hot Texas evening. However, when he said that I turned to my wife, dismayed and said, “Oh, no!” Then the indiscriminate bombing of Baghdad, the “shock and awe.” Well, the Iraqis weren’t the only ones who suffered from this hyperbole. We did, as well as our poor Orthodox Iraqi brothers and sisters, who once made up 10% of the population, now decimated and dispersed.
Nicholas – Thank you for those excellent points and examples.
Karen – Thank you for that wonderful prayer! I will treasure it always.
Michael Bauman – You said, “Having studied the approach to war extensively with my son I can say there is no just war. War is always the result of sin and evil.” You expressed that well. Thank you. I agree.
Sometimes that means physically challenging evil determined that Thou shalt not pass!
It is well to remember that we ourselves are wounded in this challenge. Father has mentioned several times how, even in a just cause, violence will wound our souls. We should remember that and pray always for those caught in the trials of these dark times. Lord have mercy.
Bryon, yes we ourselves are wounded. But sometimes those wounds cannot be avoided. Too often they are the result of machinations of others. Even those can be healed. Our culture does not allow for the grief and the repentance necessary for that healing though.
If anyone doubts the need to stand there is a well documented story about the night before the battle of El Alemain which was the last stand of the British and American troops against the Nazis in North Africa. Many soldiers reported being visited by St. George encouraging them for the battle to come. The British and American troops defeated the Nazis. That battle was a turning point in the war both strtegically and attitudinally.
The Christian mandate is always about peacemaking (an active verb). Nevertheless there are times when the force of arms is necessary to create a space for peace to be made. Appeasement is not peacemaking and neither is relying on arms alone. Tragedy results in both cases.
Sorry to go off the current topic (righteous war) here, but I’m really wrestling with this death vs. life thing and was wondering if someone could help me out.
The moral model is insufficient if not completely wrong-headed because I as a human being don’t have a moral problem; I have an ontological/reality problem. Everything I cling to and pursue – financial stability, a “healthy lifestyle” through diet and exercise, a well ordered home, a disciplined way of interacting with others – is ultimately a meaningless attempt to postpone death, and is doomed to failure. Stability, health, order and discipline, which are often seen as moral goods or the good consequences of the moral life are each not only tainted with death, but ultimately end in death, and I am thus guaranteed disappointment and unhappiness if I pursue these things as goods in themselves. The attempt at a well-ordered life through morality is doomed to fail. It is not the end which I seek.
The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not God’s attempt to give us moral guidance to follow, but is instead God’s solution to the problem of death. Christ enters into our death, into our mortal life; he fills it with himself, with Life itself, and overthrows the power of death, so that we, by participating in Him, by uniting ourselves to His life, may no longer die but live. This is the true end which all men seek.
My question is: To what extent does this new true life begin here and now? It is not as if becoming an Orthodox Christian and participating in the life of Christ through the sacraments has fully given me Christ’s life. Though I partake of true life Himself in the Eucharist, I still sin, and I still die. How to explain this? Is anything truly “good” – that is, immortal because Christ’s – in this life?
The “death” problem is solved, not by eliminating it, but by “trampling down death by death.” It is a paradox. In His death on the Cross, Christ makes His death the means of destroying death. This, in turn, is the same path we ourselves travel. Every moment of every day, there is the invitation and possibility (even a commandment) to live in that very manner. It is described in the letter to the Philippians:
Walking “with the same mind” in which we humble (or empty) ourselves – such as without complaining or disputing – being blameless and harmless – is not a “moral” act – in is an act of our own being, united with the being of Christ, doing in Him and through Him what He Himself did. And this “walking” is itself life-giving and good – because it is Christ-in-us doing the work (“for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure”).
It is the very essence of love. It is the heart of all of Christ’s commandments: love one another, forgive your enemies, give without expecting in return, etc. Every commandment of Christ has the character of the way of the Cross and serves as a commentary on a life conformed to the Cross.
And, at the heart of the paradox, this work that we do has a “hidden” character to it (“Our life is hid with Christ in God” – Col. 3:3). If this work were not “hidden” – then it would become an object of a perverted desire to grasp and control it. We would want to have victory over death for its own sake and not for Christ’s sake making it a temptation. It’s hiddenness is of a piece with the self-emptying.
The Christian faith is one of “revealing,” of making visible what is hidden. The way of self-emptying love is the visible sign in this life of the victory over death. But what is hidden will have an ultimate revealing. You can hear this in the passage from Wisdom:
It is spoken of in many other places. Romans 8 speaks of the “revealing” or “manifestation” of the “Sons of God.” St. John’s first Epistle says that when we see Christ at the end of all things, “We shall be like Him,” etc.
The more we walk in this way of life – self-emptying love – with Christ working in us – the more it is given to us to know its truth. It “reveals” itself to us inwardly.
All of this seems to vary in measure from person-to-person – “according to the measure of faith.” For some it is a small thing. For others, it would seem that they were already at the end, even in this world.
I’ll write more later – but I’ll make this a first installment of an answer.
Many years ago I I once asked a priest what was Jesus waiting for, why has not the second coming occurred yet? Perhaps this is a variation on your line of questioning. In the end for me at least I have to give up on the demand that the eschaton happens now, that the truly good is no longer mixed with a bit of evil NOW. For me I have to learn to live with the ambiguity, the perplexity, and the plain old suffering of a life and time that is still being redeemed. Psalm 89/90 (Moses) reminds me that the days are evil and yet at the very same time Redemption is occurring even now…
Marvelous answer to John! As has been said before, many of your answers to commenters are every bit as good as an article itself. I await your further reply.
David K – I think it is important to remember that The Triumph of the Will led to the Holocaust. That is why some of call the Holocaust the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. It is an ironic statement, of course. The point is that if you follow the ideas of the Enlightenment to their logical conclusion, you get the Holocaust.
To the extent that we ‘die to this world’, and ‘die to self’ – here and now, in small and big occasions – to that same extent we participate of what is the eternal, immortal, true “good”, even in this life. That is the experience of the saints.
(even just the ‘wanting’ to do this ‘dying to self and world for Christ’ qualifies here),
John – I recently read a really wonderful book titled A Layman in the Desert by Daniel Opperwall. I have mentioned it in the comments under several previous blog posts by Fr. Freeman, so I won’t describe it in detail again here. All I will say is that it addresses your question and provides the answer you are seeking. I found this book to be so helpful to me that I bought a copy for my priest who had not yet read it. May God bless you on your journey!
Christopher – these excerpts from the excellent book The Theology of Illness by Jean-Claude Larchet speak to your question…
“Saint Gregory of Nyssa offers the following explanation. When God created man inthe beginning, he did not create an individual but rather ‘the fullness of our nature;’ ‘by the divine foreknowledge and power, all of humanity is included in this act.’ God knew not only that Adam would sin and, as a consequence would procreate, but He knew as well, ‘He Who holds in His hands the limits of all things,’ ‘the limits of all things,’ ‘the exact number of all the individuals who would make up humanity as a whole.’ ‘Whereas the fullness of humanity had been foreordained by God’s foreknowledge, this same God –Whose governing authority orders and delimits all things exactly, and sees the future as the present — established in advance the time needed for the full constitution of the human race, such that the coming of souls in their predetermined number should determine the limit of time, and that the flow of time would cease once it were no longer needed to allow for the propagation of the human race.’ Accordingly, the end of time will come ‘with the fulfillment of human generation;’ ‘humanity will be transformed and, from its perishable, earthly state, will become imperishable and eternal’ once ‘the fullness of humanity shall arrive at its term according to divine foreknowledge, since the number of souls will no longer have to increase.'”
“This is why the blessings stored up for us are not granted to us individually and immediately in there fullness. Rather, there is a delay in their bestowal as humanity awaits its growth to full stature, according to the possibility offered to each human hypostasis to be saved and deified.”
It also may help you to know that Greek has two different words for life that are used in Scripture. One is Bios which refers to physical life and the other is Zoe which is Spiritual life. Our Bios comes to an end, but thanks to our Lord, our Zoe does not. Bios is not real life but, as scientists can show us, is mainly a very complicated series of chemical reactions. Our physical life comes to an end when our chemical reactions and physical properties are disrupted and no longer function properly. This could be due to disease, injury or simply old age where the system decays and breaks down. Our Zoe is from the Holy Spirit who is called the Zopion in the Nicene Creed. This noun is a compound noun made up of Zoe and Paeo which means to make or to do. This makes the Holy Spirit the maker or doer of Spiritual Life, which by God’s Grace is eternal life. In order to grasp what is actually being said in Scripture one has to know which word for life is used. An easy hint, it is almost always Zoe when the Lord speaks of life.
Before the Resurrection when a person died their totality of life ended. Their souls entered into Hades, the Land of Shadows where they still existed but did not have the fullness of Zoe. When the Lord descended to this realm of Death, He filled Death with His Zoe and defeated/eradicated this temporary state of near non existence for the departed because Death could not contain His Zoe and continue to exist. Thus all are granted Eternal Life (Zoe) and more abundantly. Our bodies still break down, quit functioning , die and rot but our Zoe continues awaiting the Resurrection and Judgment. No longer a mere shade of life our souls enjoy the fullness of Zoe.
Now the Lord never told us what this new life entails before the Resurrection even though we get glimpses in Scripture of those who have been well pleasing to the Lord. So it is impossible for us to be specific of all the facts and circumstances as we can only speculate and speculation beyond revelation is always equal to heresy. This may be another factor in why it is hard to grasp what is being said about Zoe and why our bodies die. The Lord left us why a Mystery and it takes Faith to accept that He promised us abundant Zoe and yet our bodies die. I don’t understand it in technical terms, but I trust Him and will lead my life accordingly.
Thank you. You write: “In His death on the Cross, Christ makes His death the means of destroying death. This, in turn, is the same path we ourselves travel. Every moment of every day …” This rings true to me. I do not participate in Christ’s death – or in his resurrected life – in some merely “spiritual” sense accomplished by participation in the mysteries (baptism, Eucharist) alone. Rather, I have the possibility of participating in it “every moment of every day” – in the time in between the mysteries – by choosing to pick up the cross and die to self. When I do that, whether it be in how I do my work, or how I relate to my wife or to my neighbor, that bit of my life – perhaps just that moment – has died and has risen with Christ in His new life.
Does that sound right?
It is amazing how easy and habitual it is for me to read the second part of that Philippians passage as precisely an exhortation to moral exercise/discipline, and as efficacious only inasmuch as I am successful in the moral undertaking. It’s mind-blowing to see it the other way around: that the blamelessness and lack of complaining mentioned are the fruit of dying with Christ, and thus of His life in me. I don’t strive to “not complain” because I’m trying to be “good”; I die with Christ, and therefore don’t complain!
I feel like I’m just beginning to see something I’ve wanted to see for a long time… Thank you, Father. I’ll look forward to the second part of your answer :).
(Of course, seeing is one thing.. Doing is another, and harder, thing. Easy to sit here and write comments on a blog. Harder to actually die to self. Cause, you know – death hurts.)
Christopher and Dino, thank you for your replies as well. Christopher – yes, I think “learning to live with the ambiguity” is something I very much need. And Dino, I think you said in one sentence what it took me a whole comment to try to get to.
Nicholas – Thank you so very very much for that detailed explanation of the difference between the two Greek words for life. Absolutely fascinating. I wish I could learn Biblical Greek in order to have a clearer understanding of the New Testament Scriptures.
Is it appropriate to believe that Christ not only ‘changed’ death but ‘birth’ as well, perhaps in the Mystery of the Incarnation? Am I conflating things too much?
‘Death hurts’ sounds like a reasonable adage. But let’s clarify that it is love we are talking about: the dying to self.
A person that has decided to love has decided to die to self. Once the decision is taken –truly taken– what is difficult is revealed to be the most natural thing.
The conventional secular (or ‘secularized Christian’) life, understandably finds being slandered, or in pain, to be a particularly difficult thing to bear without an ‘ego reaction’. The life in Christ, however, is so exclusively fixated/decided upon union-with-Him-no-matter-what, that it finds these trying occasions as the best possible opportunities to better manifest what is bubbling inside of the ardently-in-love soul. Such a decision inflames the fire of the soul for fasting, night-vigil, ascesis, forgiveness, prayer, self-renunciation. All these become fervent joys – of varying measures in each soul.
There is no need for despondence when we see that we fall short though… Just for further inspiration to make a new start. It is that simple. Again and again.
There is no doubt at all that, to the measure that a person strives in these things, they hear the voice that witnesses loudly within them that: they are God’s son or God’s daughter.
Your words are like drops of dew watering the hard soil of my soul. I pray that they sink in fully. Yes, it is ego and my fear of pain that avoid the death to self whenever the opportunity for it presents itself. If I could see love in the center of that death to self – a love so beautiful that it pulls in and calms all worry of how this death will end up – then perhaps I can take the first steps, and then keep stepping.
This love is itself fearful too – it hurts a bit too – but in a different way.
Father Stephen, the follow up question for me is: If it is the death to self in all the little moments between the sacraments (after baptism, between reception of the Eucharist) that really, actually unite me to Christ’s death and thus resurrected life, then what do the sacraments actually do? Baptism unites me to Christ’s death and resurrection – but if I still have to die and rise again every moment of every day, are you sure baptism is needed? Why not just try to die a bit every day?
If I can learn Greek, you can. It is a matter of learning the alphabet, grammar rules and vocabulary and they have several very good versions of the Lexicon for Koine Greek and online sources. You may not ever get to the point of being able to pick up something written in Koine Greek and read it like you read English but you will be able to see the nuances in wording. http://www.greekbible.com is a great way to investigate wording. You can see the Greek text line by line and when yo put you cursor over a word it opens a box and defines the word and if you click on the word it it parses the verbs and declines the nouns so you know the function of each word. Greek noun endings tell you what each noun is doing in a sentence and saves you from diagramming a sentence like we have to in English.
We cannot wait to take the first steps once we have ‘seen love in the centre of that death to self’.
It is not love that we will start with. No; we have absolutely no idea what true love is like.
Our first steps can be taken competently through seeing joy.
Yes; it is joy we have to start with. Joy will become the fuel that will lead us to love.
You lose some of your joy? That’s proof there’s a demon’s tail in there somewhere.
Our adversary knows full well that joy produces fearlessness, and there’s only a few possibilities left for the enemy with which to fight a fearless, joyful Christian athlete – and these possibilities can be eliminated through the discernment of a spiritual guide.
If, however, he can bring about significant despondency, in one way or another, consciously or even somewhat unconsciously, then the Christian becomes easy pray for a myriad of the adversary’s traps, in fact, he’ll probably need no adversary fighting him anymore at all: the believer himself will have atendency to become the slanderer of God!
I think it would be helpful to understand that these things are not separate events. The moments of death to self (being alive to others) is not one thing and the Eucharist and Baptism another – they are all one and the same thing – living in union with the life of Christ. The life of Christ is a death-to-self-alive-to-others life. When we live in union with Him, His life does what it is. Every act of self-denying love is a Baptism into the death of Christ and a union with His resurrection. It is a union with His self-sacrificing death on the Cross and with His life-giving Body and Blood.
This is why the concept of “mere” morality is so empty – and such a loss of the fullness of the faith.
John (if you’re still reading)
I’m responding to your comment from December 7, 2017 at 9:25 am:
Which is what gets me to this question: It’s not like heterosexual sex or heterosexual marriage is something in itself life-giving…
It’s true, how do we judge at all? The answer is that we imitate the practice that God lays out for us – not just because He says so but because we know that is what leads us toward life. Fr. Stephen has famously said that Christ didn’t come to make bad men good but dead mean alive.
We live out our lives no matter how painful instead of reverting to suicide because that will lead us toward life. We practice patience with others even when we’re being abused instead of losing our temper because that will help us become more truly alive. We follow heterosexual practices in marriage because that is the path which leads us to becoming more truly human and more truly male or female.
All things are death to us in this fallen world, but we practice the particular methods of dying that Christ has shown us, because they lead to eternal life with Him.
Father, understood, and that’s a helpful perspective. There is something special about the sacraments though, no? Some “extra” grace conferred on the recipient – or “the remission of sins” in the case of baptism? I think I understand when you say every act of death-to-self-alive-to-the-other is itself a baptism, and even the Eucharist – because Christ is there in that moment, in his death, resurrection, and life. But there seems to be something “extra” about the sacraments, else why would we have them. I would even want to say that I’ve experienced this “extra” grace myself, in that I notice when I haven’t communed in some time.
I guess I’m asking, are the sacraments “special” vehicles for participating in Christ’s death and resurrection – do they confer or accomplish something that the day-to-day death to self doesn’t? And if so, why?
Please forgive me if these questions are a nuisance. I usually stop asking after my first question because I feel too awkward to press the point. It is freeing to freely ask, but I hope it’s not a bother.
Nicholas – thank you for that link!
John – It’s my understanding (and Father can correct me if I am mistaken) that Baptism confers on us the grace of the Holy Spirit which then gives us the strength to practice the “dying to self” on a moment to moment basis in our daily lives.
John…funny, but I wrote a lengthy response to your first question about Baptism, but didn’t post it. As I too am new to Orthodoxy, I read your question as asking about the efficacy of the rite of Baptism itself, a question that many of us have upon entering the Church. Upon reading your follow-up question I detect the same inquiry.
It was after reading Dee’s question about Christ changing our ‘birth’ that I thought of your initial post. I thought about Jesus’s response to Nicodemus “unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”. These words, as well as Jesus’s own Baptism, are the why the Church kept that particular rite, the immersion into water for cleansing. She further explains the fulfillment of that rite in Christ, which is over and above John’s (Baptist) baptism and really all the ritual cleansing done back in those days.
It is not by any magical power nor does it lack any effectiveness (i.e. purely symbolic). It is that by Christ’s Incarnation He has redeemed (and is redeeming) the world unto Himself…meaning all created things….sanctified, set apart…meaning water itself as well. We call those waters “blessed”…the Priest blesses them, calling upon the Holy Spirit to do so. We are immersed in these blessed waters, to our death in Him, and rise to our life in Him. It is a rite that we enter into because of the redemption (of all creation) Christ purposed in His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection. It is efficacious because He made it so. We do not go any further by asking “how”. As Father said, by “mystery” it is not that we are to be ignorant…we already have the teachings….but that we partake by participation. That’s how I understand it, John. After all this I hope I understood your question properly!
I hope that it helps you to understand more of what is really being said. I find English a poor theological language because of the limits of meanings in many words that we use.
the appropriation of the grace of the sacramental life is commensurate to the mystical life – personal day-to-day death to self enables true ownership of that grace of communal sacramental participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Nicholas Griswold – Your discussion of Bios and Zoe is interesting. How does the resurrection of the body fit in with that?
The “Newer Comments” button doesn’t seem to be working. I had to click through one of the links in the Recent Comments section in order to get there.
The Lord never has provided details of what the resurrection of the body entails. We have a tantalizing vision of His resurrected body that bears the marks of His crucifixion and is solid to the touch. We are not given anything else to go on. I confident that Zoe is in view, because spiritual life is eternal life, but to hazard a guess on whether the body functions as before is to go beyond what is revealed. That act is one sure to end in heresy so I cannot say.
The sacraments are normative in the life of grace and are the primary means of communion. Baptism/Chrismation is our initiation into the life of grace, and our union with Christ. The Eucharist, the communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, is our continuance in the same grace. The actions we perform are not “another thing” – but a continuation in the same. I don’t really want to make a huge distinction – only that if we walk in the grace of Christ’s self-emptying love, we will want the grace of communion in His Body and Blood. All of this is the ongoing life of Christ that is the Church. In the life in the Church we live in the fullness – not this thing but not that thing – but all things.
I have taken the liberty with the English translation of correcting the word “fellowship” (as its usually rendered) a giving it as the word “communion.” It is the Greek word “koinonia” that means communion. Fellowship no longer has the right meaning. Also, the reference to the “blood of Jesus” in this passage should not be abstracted and thought of as something apart from the Eucharist (as would commonly be done by a Protestant reader). There is no reason not to see this as a Eucharistic reference. The passage gives a wonderfully “whole” view of our life in Christ.
the appropriation of the grace of the sacramental life is commensurate to the mystical life – personal day-to-day death to self enables true ownership of that grace of communal sacramental participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.
My understanding is that the sacraments are the revealing of God and a sacramental life is the revealing of God in all our life (and all of Creation). The personal day-to-day death to self is the union with God that is our salvation. It is the sacramental life; the fulfillment of the sacraments in Creation. Forgive me if I have misspoke. Blessings.
“the reference to the “blood of Jesus” in this passage should not be abstracted and thought of as something apart from the Eucharist (as would commonly be done by a Protestant reader). There is no reason not to see this as a Eucharistic reference. The passage gives a wonderfully “whole” view of our life in Christ.”
Thank you for this Father Stephen – I am slowly having to unlearn old ways of hearing the Word ‘off the surface’ as it were – this is yet another illuminating revealing of the Depth of the Faith. It puts me in mind of the title of a wonderful new book by a Protestant theologian but one who seems to be on a journey into something deeper, Hans Boersma, entitled ‘Scripture as Real Presence’ – As a Romanian Orthodox friend of mine puts it, ‘Everything is Eucharist’
Grace to you
Well said Byron. I was mainly alluding to the sacramental life that is communal, the Eucharistic worship in Church as opposed to the personal effort and 1-2-1, mystical time that appropriates the first.
Father and all, thank you so much for the thoughts and replies. They mean very much to me, and I’ve been mulling over them these past few days. I hope and pray I can live-in to some of the truths you have written about and know them in the real way of knowing that Fr. Stephen describes.
I understand (as best as I’m able) the emphasis on the fullness of the faith and of Christ’s life being one thing, not many small things accomplished piece-meal by different sacraments or actions. There is only one life in Christ, which is the life of the Church, which is both salvation and “the forgiveness of sins”, eternal life and love. All is the communion with God in Christ, and all of the sacraments are meant to pull us into, or open up, that communion with God.
So, last thought/question: is the sacrament of ordination any different? As in, does ordination “accomplish” or “effect” something special, something specific that we can point to? (Yes, Paula, you understood me perfectly – I keep running back into this no-doubt-western idea of the sacraments’ “effectiveness”, so I’m trying to shake it, if that is indeed what is needed!)
My late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dallas) once said to me, “Priests are born. Ordination simply reveals them to be what they are.” That was, perhaps, hyperbole, though it contained a very important thought. What is difficult in thinking about the sacraments is to tie them into a linear mode of time, cause and effect. We certainly experience things in that manner, to a great extent.
One way to think about the sacraments is to read the text of the prayers used in their celebration. The prayers mean what they say. When, in the Eucharist, the priest says, “And make this bread to be…” it means just that. But to isolate that phrase and that moment from the rest of the service is a mistake (something commonly done in the West). In Anglicanism, if somehow the priest has failed to estimate the congregation’s size and he runs out of the consecrated bread, there is a simple formula, just a short paragraph, that is said over more bread and that serves as a consecration. Orthodoxy would never think of doing such a thing. Someone once said to me that the sentence of change should not be taken by itself. We live in a linear experience of time, and it takes time for us to say something, but the whole of the service is the saying of that one thing, even though the exact phrase will not come until nearly an hour or more into the service. The service is one thing – even though it fills a space of time.
To a certain extent, it is also correct to say that the service began long before that. The very growing of the wheat and grapes, etc., through all that happens, including the baking (which is a big deal in Orthodoxy) have a participation in that single event of consecration.
In ordination, we could think in the same way. But the prayer of ordination certainly occurs in a particular moment. Nevertheless, the one who is ordained, will likely, in time, come to see that his whole life was being revealed in that moment, that everything had always pointed to that moment, and that moment alone made sense of him. So, yes, the prayer of consecration (in all the sacraments) effects and accomplishes something – and we can point to it – but we should not ignore that what is accomplished extends outwards towards the fullness of what is consecrated – “filling all things.”
I hope that helps and is not too vague.
I’ll share a brief personal story. When I converted to Orthodoxy, I had been an Anglican priest for 18 years. I was immediately tasked by the bishop with serving as a lay pastor in directing and founding St. Anne, the parish that I have now served for 20 years. I was also immediately entered into a process of retraining and testing in preparation for ordination in the Orthodox Church. The Bishop was confronted with an interesting situation and I think he must have been concerned about our well-being.
He said to me, “You will wear the cassock when you are in Church, and they are to address you as ‘Fr. Stephen.'” It was in that context that he added, “Priests are born, ordination simply reveals them to be what they are.”
I cannot begin to express how important and helpful this was to me. I would have done anything I was asked by the bishop. I had nothing to defend in my former state. But in that single action, he redeemed the whole of my life, not dismissing what had gone before, though not claiming any particular sacramental status or efficacy in my Anglican ordination. It was a singular action, and another bishop, or the same bishop, might have handled the situation differently. It was a massive example of “economia.” I weep whenever I think of Vladyka’s kindness and generosity. He helped me to believe that God is good.
So Fr. Stephen,
Playing devil’s advocate here, if you ran out of Eucharist bread, how would you handle it?
Father, I have encountered people who simply seem unable to think in a non-linear manner. I do not know how to talk very well to these people about the faith. The connections that are natural to me don’t make sense to them. My own son is like that. Everything is a discreet action or choice leading in a specific direction. Any ideas?
In Orthodox practice, you don’t handle it. You just run out.
I like that answer. It’s uncomfortable and risky (and I don’t like that), but it mirrors reality well. I’ve had the experience of having to run across the street right before the service to purchase the next best thing at the corner store in order to provide, but never that of simply running out. I suppose it’s best to learn to think on one’s feet and simply trust God for the words to say, the acts to fulfill when the time comes.
Thanks for your honest answer.
The Orthodox cannot just dash out and get more bread. The Eucharistic bread has a careful preparation and baking that are, in many respects, as much a part of the service as the liturgy itself. The “whole” of the consecration is quite interesting. For example, the service book says, “Before serving the liturgy, a priest should be at peace with all people.” And it is quite possible that a priest might have to not serve if a problem should arise. I have politely warned my people that if you have a problem to take up with a priest, particularly something upsetting, it should be postponed until after the liturgy, lest everyone be made to suffer.
Equally, the are dangers surrounding the preparation of the Liturgy. A priest has to work with a sharp knife in the ritual cutting and preparation. Should he knick himself and begin to bleed, he must stop and leave the altar. There can be no blood in the altar area. He has to tend to the injury until it is completely stanched. I’ve had this happen more than once…clumsy me.
It is also interesting, that the canons direct that once the service has reached the Great Entrance (in which the bread and wine are brought to the altar and formally offered) it cannot stop. The Liturgy must be completed. I once had a situation in which an “upset” occurred during the Great Entrance itself. I pondered what to do. The upset would have been sufficient to cause me not to serve that day had it occurred before the service. As it was, it was too late. It was a very disconcerting day that has troubled me ever since.
All of this points to the fact that the Liturgy is a “single thing.” The people are not disinterested watchers – a mere audience. They are full participants, and their thoughtless actions and reactions can be disastrous. Before the priest begins the Anaphora, the deacon cries out: “Let us stand aright! Let us stand with fear! Let us attend, that we may offer the holy oblation in peace.”
Prior to that, during the Great Entrance itself, we sing, “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and Let us who mystically represent the cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all who comes invisibly born by the angelic hosts.”
It is worth noting that the Creed is said after the Great Entrance, and is introduced with, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.”
People, I suspect, tend to ignore these lines, said as introductions to larger actions, but they define the very heart of what is taking place. The Creed cannot be rightly confessed, or believed, if we do not love one another. Faith without works is dead. The offering of the oblation (the Bloodless Sacrifice) must be done in peace. I am very clear with those who serve in the altar: there is no place whatsoever for anger in the altar. I have heard terrible, scandalous stories of hierarchs who famously behave in an imperious manner as though their ministry gave them permission to berate, belittle and employ angry rebukes. I’ll not cite any in particular. I will say that I’ve never served with anyone who behaved in such a manner. I would likely want to ask to be excused from serving. Frankly, I cannot understand how this is not obvious to every ordained man.
I have a few thoughts in reply. They are crude generalizations and not meant to draw conclusions.
If I look at extremes I find the West tends to be crass and flat, often with an ignorant disregard for hierarchy, honor, respect, etc. In the same view I find the East to be VERY much about these same things, almost without regard to their neighbor if he happens to hold no status in the particular proceedings. Continuing this generalization, the West errs toward the needs of the common people and the East errs toward all that is holy.
I find no cause for ultimate blame because as fallen humans we always end up falling off on one side of the horse or the other, but I do find it interesting to see the outcomes when the two happen to meet:
–What is the effect on the people when a portion of the congregation doesn’t get served?
–What does it mean when something inexcusable happens after the Great Entrance begins?
–What if the Great Entrance has started and you cut yourself?
And of course the same kinds of questions could be posed to those practicing the Western rites, but I look forward to your…corrections. (grin)
In light of the idea of running out, an anecdote from the recent past. Last spring I attended another parish as I was on a trip and I made Sunday liturgy. I was last in line and the priest was frantically fishing around in the chalice for the one remaining crumb of the Body (in that jurisdiction I can commune with the laity and not get vested which is why I chose to attend there…fewer things to pack and I did not want to push myself on the parish to commune at the altar. When I approached the Cup I identified myself and the priest said to me: “The Holy Deacon Nicholas will have to be patient while I try to find the last crumb.”
I agree with that sentiment. Basically we do the best we can given the situation – and God understands.