There’s so much gaps in my heart that need to be filled. I’ve asked for too much for a lot of the things in the past that were beneficial to my soul only to be burned out in the future. All I can ask God is for Him to sustain me with His mercy on me and keep me and others in good health.
Most times I’m at a loss for what I REALLY want in life. Some of the things I wanted were not good to begin with, while the desirable things which are actually profitable to me for a VERY LONG are very difficult to attain. One day, I feel like being a mystic, the next day I’m less that and I’m failing.
There’s so much emphasis on my part to remain synergetical to God’s grade, but my sins (past, present, and future) are a burden.
Lord have mercy on me and please do not destroy me in my less than godly state, lest I die.
Glory to God: Why Morality is Not Christian (by Fr. Stephen Freeman)
I recall my first classes in Moral Theology some 35 or so years ago. The subject is an essential part of Western thought (particularly in the Catholic and Anglican traditions). In many ways the topic was like a journey into Law School. We learned various methods and principles on whose basis moral questions – questions of right and wrong – could be discussed and decided. These classes were also the introduction of certain strains of doubt for me.
The great problem with most moral thinking – is found in its fundamental questions:
- What does it mean to act morally?
- Why is moral better than immoral?
- Why is right better than wrong?
Such questions have classically had some form of law to undergird them:
- To act morally is to act in obedience to the law or to God’s commandments.
- Moral is better than immoral because moral is a description of obedience to the good God. Or, moral is the description of doing the good, or even the greatest good for the greatest number (depending on your school of thought).
- Right is better than wrong for the same reasons as moral being better than immoral.
Of course, all of these questions (right and wrong, moral and immoral) require not only a standard of conduct, but someone to enforce the conduct. Right is thus better than wrong, because God will punish the wrong and reward the right – otherwise (in this understanding) everything would be merely academic.
I will grant at the outset that many Christians are completely comfortable with the understanding that God rewards and punishes. I will grant as well that there is ample Scriptural evidence to which persons can point to support such a contention. However, this approach is far from a unanimous interpretation within the Tradition of the faith – and has little support within historic Eastern Orthodoxy.
That Scripture says such things (God is the punisher and rewarder) is undeniable – but there is also another strain of witness:
When James and John approached Christ after He had been turned away by a village of Samaritans, they said, ”Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. ”For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village. (Luk 9:54-56)
If James and John were working out of a “reward and punishment” model (which they clearly were) Christ’s rebuke must have caught them by surprise. The same is true of many other encounters in Christ’s ministry. The interpretation brought by the fathers in all of this, is that God’s role as “punisher” is only an aspect of His role as “healer.” What we endure is not for our destruction and punishment but for our salvation and healing.
This takes everything into a different direction. It is, doubtless, an interpretation brought to the Old Testament from the revelation of Christ in the New. In Christ we see clearly what was only made known in “shadow” under the Old Covenant. Through Him, we now see more clearly.
God as Christ brings an entirely different set of questions to the moral equation:
- What does the Incarnation of God mean for human morality?
- What is at stake in our decisions about right and wrong?
- What does it mean to be moral?
St. Athanasius (ca. 296 – d. 2 May 373), the great father of the Nicene Council and defender of the faith against the assaults of Arianism offered profound insights into the nature of the human predicament (sin and redemption). His approach, as given in De Incarnatione, begins with the creation of the world from nothing (ex nihilo). Our very existence is a good thing, given to us and sustained by the mercy and grace of the good God. The rupture in communion that occurs at the Fall (and in every sin), is a rejection of the true existence given to us by God. Thus the problem of sin is not a legal issue, but an ontological issue (a matter of being and true existence). The goal of the Christian life is union with God, to be partakers of His Divine Life. Sin rejects that true existence and moves us away from God and towards a spiral of non-being.
Thus, our issues are not moral in nature (obeying things because they are right, etc.) but ontological in nature. The great choice of humanity is between union with God and His Life, or a movement towards non-being and emptiness. Our salvation is not a juridical matter – it is utterly ontological. The great promises in Christ point consistently in that direction.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:1-2)
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18-1)
For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed–always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (2Co 4:6-12)
Such verses, which could be multiplied many times, point towards our salvation as a change that occurs within us, rather than a shift in our juridical status – having settled all our justice issues, etc. Rather, we are told that “God is working in us to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Our salvation is nothing less than conformity with the image of God, a true communion of life and participation in the Divine Nature.
Juridical approaches obscure all of this. Concerns for justice quickly denigrate the faith into a cosmic law court (or penal system). Most problematically, the issues tend to be objectified and stand outside the life of believers. To be free of all legal issues that stand between ourselves and God is still far short of paradise. Our goal is to be transformed into union with Christ – to be healed of sin and to be made new. This requires a change within our inmost being – the establishment of the “true self” which is “hid with Christ in God.”
As for justice – it remains a mystery. Christ speaks of God rewarding one group of workers who labored only at the end of the day in a manner that was equal to those who had labored the entire day. The principle at work seems to be something other than a concern for justice (this is an example used by St. Isaac the Syrian).
Morality, as a systematic form of study, is a degeneration of true Christian teaching. Like secularism (and the two-storey universe) it can presume to discuss questions as though there were no God. Morality (and its ethical cousins) becomes a “science,” an abstract exercise of reason based (often) on principles that are merely assumed. The Scriptures tell us that there is “none good but God,” neither can there be anything good that does not proceed from God. The “good” actions that we make are actions that lead us deeper into union with Christ. Such actions begin in God, are empowered by God, and lead to God. “Morality” is fiction, at least as it has come to be treated in modern thought.
The sin that infects our lives and produces evil actions is a mortal illness (death). Only union with the true life in Christ can heal this, transform us and birth us into the true life which is ours in Christ.
As I have stated on numerous occasions: Christ did not die in order to make bad men good – he died in order to make dead men live.
If my treatment of the word morality is disturbing – I ask your forgiveness. I hope this small piece is of use in considering the true nature of our life in Christ. One of my favorite stories from the Desert Fathers illustrates (obliquely) the difference between mere morality and a true ontological change.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Glory to God for All Things: The god who is No God (by Fr. Stephen Freeman)
A God who remains generalized and reduced to ideology is no God at all. Only the daily encounter with the living God, with all the messiness it entails, can rise to the name Christian.
Belief in a true and living God is a very difficult thing, fraught with consequence. Belief in the idea of God can be tokenism at its very worst. This distinction between the true and living God and the idea of God goes to the very heart of the secular crisis of the modern world. There is no room in the secular world for a true and living God – while the idea of God is perfectly suited to the emptiness of the secular mind.
For the individual Christian this distinction is the great crisis of the believing life. There is a divide in our culture between the ideas we think and the lives we live – and the division is often accepted as normal. This is more than mere hypocrisy – our problem is not that we fail to live up to our ideas – our ideas frequently fail to have anything to do with the life we live.
In secularized culture, religion is not eliminated – it is placed at a remove. The remove in which religion is placed is anywhere that does not matter, anywhere that does not touch our daily lives. The secular genius of the modern world (including America) was its contention that religion and belief are the same thing. The acquiescence of believers to this arrangement was, in effect, an agreement to render their faith impotent.
The fatal flaw in this agreement can be summed up simply: true religion is not a set of beliefs – it is a set of practices.
We believe in prayer – but we do not pray. We believe in forgiveness – but we do not forgive. We believe in generosity – but we do not give. We believe in truth – but we lie.
Again, the manner of our failures goes beyond mere hypocrisy. The divorce between belief and practice is a cultural habit reaching far beyond religion. There is a radical division between thought and action throughout most of our culture. The frequently indistinguishable character of the contemporary Christian from the contemporary unbeliever bears witness to a deeper problem.
The practice of Christianity has been increasingly banned from the public square. We have agreed to privatize our faith. What we believe has become a matter of “conscience,” rather than the offensive matter of practice. The Reformation largely erased the outward forms of the Christian life: feast days; pilgrimages; vestments, etc. The Reformers were correct that the inward life of the Spirit was far more important than the ephemeral forms in which it was exhibited. However, they failed to notice that with the disappearance of the outward forms, the disappearance of the inward life would pass without notice. Today, the outward debauchery of Mardi Gras is the legacy of an abandoned Ash Wednesday. Christian practice is reduced to drunkenness (no American city seeks to ban Mardi Gras for its religious content – the practice of drunkenness is not as offensive as a Christmas Creche).
Early Christianity was surely marked by practices: without them, there would have been no need of martyrdoms in the arenas of the Roman Empire. Early Christianity was not a set of beliefs – philosophies were cheap and plentiful in ancient Rome. It was the Christian refusal to offer worship to the Emperor and the gods of the Empire that brought them to the arena. They refused to engage in the practices of the pagan state. The radical generosity of Christians came under the abuse of the Platonist philosopher Celsus. He excoriated Christian acceptance of thieves, rogues, prostitutes, drunkards and the like while the Christian refusal to declare upstanding pagans (such as himself) as “just,” was a rejection of Roman society itself. Christians were dangerous.
The closest thing to danger presented by Christians in the modern world is the insistence by some that the unborn actually have a right to life and should be protected against the actions of those who would destroy them. However, many Christians (including some who claim to be “pro-life”), accept the secular fiction of the separation of Church and state, and offer that their private beliefs should not determine the actions of others. Their private beliefs are useless – before God and man.
The American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, commonly states that “there is no such thing as private morality.” It is inherently the case that morality is a matter of behavior between people. A “private morality” is no morality at all. To believe that the unborn have a right to life but to refuse to insist that such a right be observed by all, is, in fact, to declare that there is no such right. If there is a “right,” then it is immoral not to demand that everyone accept such a right.
Whatever we profess as Christians can be acted upon and practiced – or it is a useless profession. Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 confronts Christians with their practices: feeding the hungry; visiting the prisoners; clothing the naked; giving drink to the thirsty. No mention is made of Creed. It is not that belief is unimportant – but the dogma of the faith undergirds and informs our practice of the faith. “Faith without works is dead,” because it is no faith at all.
The heart of the Orthodox faith (both dogma and practice) is found in its proclamation of union with Christ. “God became man so that man could become god,” in the words of St. Athanasius. Human life was intended to be lived in union with God. In the Genesis story of the fall we learn the essential character of our brokenness: we severed our communion with God and turned towards the path of death and destruction. The nature of sin lies precisely in its movement away from union with God. The path of salvation is precisely the path of union with God. This is made possible by Christ’s union with humanity. He took our broken condition upon Himself – trampling down death by death in His crucifixion and descent into Hades – He raises us up in His resurrection to the path for which we were created. From glory to glory we are changed into His image as we live in union with Him.
This is more than a doctrinal story – it is also a description of the practice of the Christian faith. We love because we live in union with Christ, “who loved us and gave Himself for us.” We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner because in doing so we do this to Christ. Every practice of kindness and mercy is an act of union with Christ. The Church’s life of feasts and fasts, sacraments and services are the practice of worship – the life of union with Christ. They are not religious entertainment nor mere educational events: they are the visible manifestation of the inner life of God in man.
Christians in this world are “as the soul is to the body,” in the words of a second-century Christian writer (Epistle to Diognetus). As such, they are the life of this world. The presence of practicing Christians is properly the presence of the Kingdom of God. The in-breaking of the Kingdom in this world is a disruption of the culture of death initiated in the fall. The world’s love affair with death is and should be threatened by the manifestation of the Kingdom. This is only true as Christianity is practiced. That Christians “believe” something is no threat whatsoever unless that belief is made manifest in practice.
The proposed constitution of the European Union (to give an example) offers religious freedom to individuals. Orthodox Christians have complained that such “freedom” was guaranteed under Communism – but that in the name of protecting individuals, parents were forbidden to teach the faith to their children. The Christian faith is practiced as a community. An agreement to define the faith as an individual matter is an agreement to destroy Orthodoxy. The world’s onslaught of Christian practice is subtle and relentless. Christians would do well to practice their faith and refuse devil’s bargain offered by modern states.
We are called to a life in union with the true and living God. That life infuses every action of the day – every breath we take. Anything less is an agreement with the enemy to place our God at arms length and to serve a god who is no God.
Glory to God: The Disappointment of Religion (written by Father Stephen Freeman)
Reading the lives of the saints often raises our expectations. We read of someone transfigured with light, or of someone who is present in two places at once. We read beautiful descriptions of the inner life, of an awareness of our union with God or clarity with regard to the nature of all things. In comparison, our own religious experience will be sterile, a voice crying out in the wilderness met with stony silence. For some, such comparisons can lead to despair. For others, these comparisons make them doubt the authenticity of saints’ lives. In many cases we simply discover the disappointment of religion.
The modern religious search often begins in disappointment. The rhetoric of religious believing and the reality can be miles apart. There can be very legitimate reasons for this disjunction. The truth claims of many religious groups border on the absurd. Complex dogmatic constructs quickly reveal themselves to be the intellectual fabrications of cultural and psychological forces. Disappointment leads to disbelief.
A hallmark of the modern world is the emphasis on the individual. Religious systems that cater to this emphasis (whether knowingly or unknowingly) often find rapid success. The same rapid success can be followed with rapid disappointment. The criteria of individual values, rooted in emotion and psychological states, are notoriously changeable. Those who live by experience, die by experience.
Experience is the great watershed of individualism. The greater the emphasis on the individual, the greater the emphasis on psychology and emotion – for these are the primary aspects of individual experience. If the focus shifts from my place within a network of relationships to my place within myself, then the focus necessarily leaves me with nothing but “me.” Love ceases to be a set of practices and becomes a feeling.
Feelings and psychological states are inherently a part of the human experience – but they are a very poor basis for human community and culture. The rise and dominance of consumer culture is the result of experience being exalted to the pivotal point of our existence. We shop, we buy, we consume in order to “feel” good. And the feelings which we deem “good,” are themselves those that are sold to us in the deeply psychologized world of advertising. That God makes me feel good can be little more than saying, “I like salt, sugar and fat.”
People are always hungry (for salt, sugar and fat) and people always have an array of feelings and psychological states. But these are secondary elements of human existence – meant to be balanced, made whole and subservient to our greater life. Consumer societies will never be happy, stable, or healthy. Their happiness and stability can be managed by those who have the power of propaganda. By themselves, they will never create a healthy civilization.
The purpose of the Church is not to create healthy civilizations, nor does the Church exist to be yet one more outlet of good feelings and neuroses. The Church is that place where God is being reconciled to man, and man to God. It is that place where all things are being gathered together in one in Christ Jesus. It is the ecclesia, the Divine Community of the Body of Christ, in which we may be made whole and in which the truth of our existence can be made manifest.
How does that make you feel?
Depending on the state of our lives, feelings in the ecclesia can be terrifying, satisfying, depressing, or meaningless – everything human beings are capable of feeling. It is also inevitable that we bring with us into the Divine Community the brokenness of our psyches. Thus, we are prone to use others in distorted ways. We attach ourselves to leaders and use their confidence or eloquence (or far darker things) to patch together the shattered pieces of our own psyches. We use our peer groups in destructive ways to create islands of belonging, fleeing the alienation and abandonment of our inner history.
These (and many similar things) are the distortions of individualized consumers. We do not know how to live without meeting the irrational demands of our feelings. Our psyches have no training in how to heal – only in how to use things and people around us for comfort, defense and need.
This cultural reality makes it very difficult to speak of authentic Christian experience – for we speak to one another as addicts. We largely know experience as an alcoholic knows alcohol. That an alcoholic might prefer vodka to wine tells me nothing about vodka or wine. Religious experience tells me almost nothing about God, the Church, truth, etc. It is God, the Church, truth, etc., viewed through the fog of distorted modern perception.
Facebook offers us the icon of our modern selves: I like it.
Not surprisingly, Orthodoxy is not well adapted to modern existence. You may or may not like it. Orthodoxy does not care whether you like it (or it should not). There are many drawn to certain aspects of Orthodoxy – conversions are commonplace today. Conversions that are similar to the consumer-variety – those that populate the world of denominationalism (and non-denominationalism) are not unknown – but they are productive of but three things: unhappy Orthodox, former Orthodox, or former consumerist Christians. It is this latter that is the proper goal of the transformation of the mind (Romans 12:2).
That transformation, from consumerist governed by the passions, to disciple governed by Christ, is the very heart of the Christian life. In its earliest stages it is deeply disappointing and necessarily so. Our passions need to be disappointed and reordered.
I have written elsewhere that ninety percent of Orthodoxy is “just showing up.” I meant then and repeat nowthat the slow work of transformation requires our presence within and to the ecclesia, the Church gathered. My forgiveness of others is often a rebuke of my own passions: I find you irritating, because I am governed by my passions. Christianity, from the time ofits gifting to us by Christ, has consisted of daily taking up our cross and following Him. It is a road of dispassionate living.
Learning to live within the ecclesia, is learning to renounce the distortions of individualism and the dominance of our desires. We do not renounce our individuality, but rather take up our individuality as persons – as those who live for and with others. My individual life is not strictly my own. My life is a common life – the Life of Christ that dwells within His ecclesia.
This new life is far from a disappointment: it is fulfillment. But those who would be fulfilled must first be disappointed. A beloved friend once advised me: the truth will make you free – but first it makes you miserable.