The Nature of Things and Our Salvation

akademgorodokA number of you will remember this post from a year ago. It is foundational to many discussions on this site. I thought it might be helpful to post again – after all – new readers are always coming on board.

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The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to briefly state several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

21 Responses to “The Nature of Things and Our Salvation”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: All Saints of Russia Orthodox Church in Akademgoroduk, outside Novosibirsk, Russia.

  2. The Nature of Things and Our Salvation « Heaven34yz’s Weblog Says:

    […] View Original Article Blogged with the Flock Browser […]

  3. Diana S. Says:

    Wow!

  4. mic Says:

    “And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.”

    what a beautiful paragraph! i dont recall reading this post the first time around, so i am glad that you reposted it.

    Christ is Born!!!

  5. Karen C Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for posting this again. I don’t remember reading some of the details and it is good to read again. I am reminded of some of the experiences that have had the most profound effects on me as well. These are life and death issues (or sickness/addiction and health issues) as well. They include the death of a teenage acquaintance when I was only seven from a hunting accident, the death in an auto accident of a childhood best friend when we were both teenagers, and the unexpected death of a favorite aunt when I was a young adult, the result of complications of flu and paraplegia. They also include the “loss” of my only sister (in a sense) to lifelong chronic mental illness when we were young adults. Addressing the gaping wounds of the heart that are the result of such experiences (or that we become aware of through such shakings) by confronting only the behavioral and moral issues is like putting a bandaid on a cancerous sore. I am reminded of the Scripture:
    “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Because of the power of this truth, I can genuinely give thanks for all those painful events that predisposed me to be open to such an inconceivable Gift. Glory be to God for all things!

  6. Robert Says:

    Great post Fr. Stephen.

    I am reminded of that part in the Diving Liturgy in which the priest prays (I am paraphrasing) “for You are our sanctification”.

    That too indicates to me that the nature of things is not moral, but as you say, ontological. God is our sanctification, our life. Profound, very profound for this simple soul trying to make sense of life.

  7. AR Says:

    Father Stephen, my husband and I wish to thank you for the part you played in our union with the Orthodox Church. On Saturday we were baptized and chrismated and yesterday, for the first time, we participated in the mystery of the Eucharist.

    Your concern with the life of the heart through union with God in Christ, and your ability to communicate that in such a non-scary venue as this blog, played a large part in helping us to overcome our fear of the Orthodox Church enough to start attending. What once seemed so strange and ritualized revealed itself as our home once we understood what you communicate here. Many people have planted and watered, you among them, and we thank God for them all. This conversion has brought us very real life and healing. Father, we ask your blessing and will presume to remember you in our prayers tonight.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Alana,

    You have made my Christmas. May God’s joy fill you and your husband in your union with Christ!

  9. Andy Says:

    Fr. Stephen:

    Long-time lurker, first time commentor. Thank you for this and for all your writing (especially the Christianity in a One-Storey Universe posts). They always give me something to think about and after thinking about it, change my heart. They always bring me closer to Christ.

    Livejournal does not do trackbacks. I’ve quoted this post in one of my meditations on the O Antiphons. Thanks again!

    May God bless you this Christmas!

  10. Ward Thornton Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    “Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral.”

    I think mankind’s problem is moral (as well as existential)… Because it is our sin that needs to be forgiven…

    I also believe that Christ did come to “make bad men good” (as well as “to make dead men live”)… Thus it is accomplished by the inner-work of God (which seems to be much more of a process than an event)…

    We both agree (I think) that the church shouldn’t be the morality police…

    Maybe your point is that if “the lost” are truly dead, then morality & sin cannot be issues? Because they are non-existent (dead)…

    Which is a very good point & makes my view on original sin seem condradictory, because I do agree with the rest of your article…

    I believe in the mystery, Fr. Stephen… I really do… 🙂

    Loved your article (by the way)…

    The Wardster

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Ward,

    The differences are in that Orthodoxy generally understands sin as ontological (the wages of sin is death – which does not mean the wages of sin is punishment by death). We do wrong things because we are diseased with sin and our sinful actions tend towards our destruction and non-being.

    Plenty of non-believers believe in morality, that people should be good. But being good will not unite you with Christ. It just unites us with the middle-class behaviors of our culture.

    Of course, a dead man made alive will also manifest the goodness of God to some extent. The tree bears fruit.

    I do not think the forgiveness of sin has anything to do with morality (behavior) in itself. It is an act of healing that makes it possible for us to lead a new life. “Which is better, to say ‘your sins are forgiven, or rise take up your bed and walk.’ Christ was not a moralist.

    The difference may sound picky – but I believe it is deeply essential to the Orthodox proclamation of the gospel.

    A blessed Christmas!

  12. Steve Says:

    Being “alive in Christ” is an ontological reality that can never be reduced to moral relativism. We have to remember that many old world ‘religions’ were allegorical variants of a metaphysical duality (light vs. darkness or good vs. bad).

    Who’s to decide who is good or bad?

    Sorry for pipping in.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Morality is simply too weak a category to carry any theological weight.

  14. Steve Says:

    Blessed Christmas Father Stephen!

  15. Ward Thornton Says:

    Wow… Thanks for responding so quick…

    I see where you’re coming from now…

    Peace! The Wardster

  16. Steve Says:

    In a troubled world discussions on the true nature of salvation can seem also chic. To be sure, it has always been the case that the more troubled the world, the louder the voices of the doomsayers; but self-fulfilling prophecy is not the same as biblical prophecy.

    Evangelicals tell us that we are near the “second coming”. St. Paul said this nearly 2,000 years ago but did the disillusioned Galatians listen? Christ was in their midst, but did they see Him?

    American Evangelical Christianity (and God TV, God bless ’em) have their eyes fixed on a future ‘one-time’ only return of Jesus Christ. They seem to think that the Church is be taken to the heavens en masse in linear progression of time. Adverts placed in the Christian media give new meaning to what it means to be ‘left behind’. This is reverse psychology not eschatology.

    It may even be another gospel. No man or woman has the authority to cobble together prophecies from the bible (in this case from the book of Daniel and the writings of St. Paul among others) for any purpose other than for what God intended to happen in His time and place.

    Reverse psychology is too weak a construct to convey the full meaning of the nature of salvation. The rapture idea sits well in the three-story construct inhabited by American Evangelicals; it is the delusion of history, packaged and labelled as the Eschaton.

    How many Gospels can there be?

  17. Ward Thornton Says:

    Not all Evangelicals believe in the rapture theory… I grew up in that camp & I certainly don’t…

    Furthermore, every believer’s theology is a work in progress (if they’re honest about it)… & no organization within “the body” has it all figured out — which is why I’m not that committed to any form of systematic theology…

    There’s only one covenant nation (church) & it consists of us (“the Isreal of God” — Paul), those who have joined by faith in Christ Jesus…

    So give those Evangelicals a break… When it’s all said & done, they’re gonna be there too… 🙂

  18. Steve Says:

    Ward,

    Glad to hear you say this. We are all being changed into His likeness — how else could we become inheritors of the glory?

    Evangelicals mean well I know.

    Thank you.

    And Merry Christmas🙂

  19. James Grant Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thanks for your blog. Your post on this topic is of great interest to me. I am a Baptist pastor trained in the Reformed tradition, but I am interested the the way Orthodox Christians and theologians view salvation. Your discussion of the moral versus existential problem is helpful. Can you give more suggestions?

    Thanks,

    James Grant

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    There is an excellent little book by Bishop Kallistos Ware entitled “How Are We Saved,” that is apparently a transcript of a talk he gave somewhere (he is Professor Emeritus of Patristics from Oxford as well as a Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Church in Britain). It is quite basic but very straightforward – I’ve often found it helpful for people.

    There are a number of articles on this blog that touch on the subject. I’ll see if I can’t locate a few of them and edit them onto this response (as a link).

    My article, “Watch your Metaphors,” might be useful as well.

  21. James Grant Says:

    Thank you. I will get Bishop Ware’s book. I have heard him speak before via the internet, but I am still wrestling through these things. I guess the categories/worldviews are so different (ie, Reformed evangelical and Orthodox) that I often feel like I have stepped into a different world.

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