You might be thinking that it’s too early to hear about Christmas – Thanksgiving is yet a couple of weeks away. However, for the Orthodox, the Nativity Fast began on November 15. It is already time to give our thoughts to Christmas – our Winter Pascha. This article (a reprint) reflects on a theme that has been present in my thoughts for several years. I pray it will be of use as you re-order your earthly cares.
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. 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 thought to be 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.