Why Morality is Not Christian

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.”

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75 Responses to “Why Morality is Not Christian”

  1. CB Says:

    I think it would be redundant for me to say anything else in response to this article, except that I find it to be very welcome, like so many other articles in this blog.

  2. Ruth Ann Says:

    Hello, Fr. Stephen. I do agree that the systematic approach to morality found in some, maybe all, Western religions, has its limits. But in my faith, the Catholic Faith, there is a both/and approach. We have a long mystical Tradition that I would describe, like you did, as an ontological approach to God, an inner transformation. The Fathers of the Church, many of them, maybe most of them, are the same Fathers that the Eastern Churches claim. Then there are the saints, like St. Benedict, St. Bernard, St. John of the Cross, and many more, whose writings and lives are like you described. The Law approach runs parallel, and the two are actually related, but I’ll leave it to the trained theologians to explain that. One without the other? I’ll have to think on that.

  3. Steven Clark Says:

    Father, what came to my mind is the rich young ruler (Last Sunday’s Gospel). Ironically he comes and calls Jesus “Good Master”. He followed the rules of morality; yet his attachments were in his wealth. It prevented him from relationship.

  4. David Says:

    I appreciate your post. Morality has been an interest of mine also.
    The following is portion of an essay that I once wrote. It was a philosophical challenge to a mentor I respected, but, with whom I disagreed, concerning his humanist doctrine.

    We often assume that “Mores” & “Ethos” are equivalent concepts, but they are not. The Latin root for moral is mores. Mores are driven by ‘mob’ forces from without, e.g. religion, culture, government, community, neighborhood, and even criminal syndicates such as the Cosa Nostra; all of which may have it’s own unique moral code.
    Ethos however, is a spiritual element that arises from within; it is an application of an internal standard of reality. The standard is somewhat irrational, yet, it is spiritually superior. Consider ROMANS 7:19-23
    19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do— this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
    Note that the writer continually references “I” in this passage. However, you can see that in verse twenty, the writer divides himself into two individuals. Even more importantly, he transforms our understanding by his identification of a spiritual/true self and a carnal/false self. In verse twenty-two the writer further enlightens us about who the true self is. True self is the “inner being”. As a disciple of Jesus, this makes sense. I see the inner being in myself as the man who exists as God created me and prior to the external modifications from without, which was my choice to believe Satan’s lie, that I could become like God, by my own physical effort.

  5. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for All Things!

  6. Rowley Says:

    “Sin is primarily a metaphysical phenomenon whose roots lie in the mystic depths of man’s spiritual nature. The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called.”

    and later:

    “Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.”

  7. Rowley Says:

    Sorry, posted too soon. Excerpts from, “St. Silouan the Athonite,” Archimandrite Sophrony.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Rowley,
    Indeed. Excellent quotes. This is the teaching of the fathers and of the Orthodox faith.

  9. Steven Says:

    I agree entirely with the substance of your post, Father. But I think I would want to switch around the words in your title and say that “Christianity is Not Morality,” or “not a moral system.” It seems to me that the very grammar in which we, in Western civilization, discuss morality comes entirely from the Christian tradition. We could not reason morally, for example, apart from a Christian understanding of the human person as imbued with intrinsic and eternal value. But, as you rightly point out, mere adherence to “moral guidelines” is by no means the aim of Christian spiritual life and discipline. So, I would say that our morality is (and properly should be) Christian, but that morality, as such, is not the end toward which we are striving — but inner transformation, divinization.

  10. Leonard Nugent Says:

    Luke chapter 18 indicates to me that moral behavior is necessary but not sufficient. Moral theology attempts to understand the natural law. If you stop at moral behavior you stop exactly where the rich young ruler stopped. If you don’t act morally all you can say to Jesus is ” I haven’t done any of this stuff!”

  11. Theron Says:

    Father, I would think this is why so many of the righteous saints of the OT are praised even though their standards of morality are very different from what we would consider acceptable today. They sought union with God.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Steven,
    It’s an admittedly provocative ahead (quite intention). Moral Theology, grounded in scholasticism is problematic and has been since its beginning. I purposefully meant to challenge its use. Some of this might be a side-effect of the fact that I studied with Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, but I find the challenge to be quite authentic. Note Rowley’s comments from St. Silouan.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Leonard,
    Natural law, I think, is a scholastic invention, that allows people to speak of law apart from God. It is not the vocabulary of the early Church. Eschew it.

  14. Leonard Nugent Says:

    Father, one problem that I have in eschewing scholastic theology is that minds that tower over mine, Thomas Aquinas not the least, have been unable to do so. Martin Luther is a good example of someone making those decisions for himself

  15. Adam Lamar Says:

    Interesting Article – Thank you, Christina.. Reposting

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Leonard,
    Heaven knows, I respect St. Thomas as a great intellect. However, I respect him most in the statement at the end of his life, “I have seen something that makes everything I’ve ever written seem as straw.” Scholasticism is not, to me, a move forward for Christian theology, but a great movement sideways and downwards. I do not blame Acquinas, I simply consider him as beside the point. Which, glory to God, his own confession seems to realize as well. It was an interesting development in Western theology, but a huge mistake. But you know my place in these matters.

  17. David Dickens Says:

    A reminder of why I was driven east into the desert. I was not lured as some are fortunate to have been, by the beauty; but rather I was compelled to flee what I could no longer understand or for what little measure I did understand conform.

    Thank you Father Stephen.

  18. Jeffrey Holton (@JeffHolton) Says:

    More needs to be written about this in the West. Repeatedly. Until it’s understood, we Orthodox will always be viewed by American Christianity as those crazy heretics who have unwritten God’s grace. Ironic, in a sense, really.

    I tried writing something like this once, but all I could squeak out was a piece of short fiction. And I don’t even like fiction that much. Thank you for pulling it off in prose.

    A Christianity based on a list of declarative statements and moral guidelines ultimately has all the palatability of US Tax Law.

  19. Marcelo P. Souza Says:

    This is a great article. Thank you Father. As a convert from the Reformed tradition (where I was a Minister), I had to deal with such issues at length. This article is a great summary of very key points.

  20. Leonard Nugent Says:

    Jeffrey,

    I’m intrigued by your statement “A Christianity based on a list of declarative statements and moral guidelines ultimately has all the palatability of US Tax Law.? could you expand on that a little more?

  21. Leonard Nugent Says:

    Father your reply made me think because Aquinas himself distanced himself from scholasticism when he he said all he had written was as straw. I have never been a big fan of scholastic theology but there are some things that I’ve learned from it. Thanks that did give me a perspective!

  22. Andrew Says:

    Thanks Father for this post.

    I find it refreshing as every time I turn around it seems that “Morality” has changed, but fortunately Christ does not.

    Andrew

  23. Nathan Says:

    Check out this link from the Russian Orthodox Church’s official teaching manual on moral theology:
    http://www.mospat.ru/en/documents/social-concepts/kh/
    And note what happens without solid moral theology:

    “The Lord pointed to adultery as the *only* permissible ground for divorce, for it defiles the sanctity of marriage and breaks the bond of matrimonial faithfulness.”

    OK, but look what it follows up with:

    “In 1918, in its Decision on the Grounds for the Dissolution of the Marriage Sanctified by the Church, the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, recognised as valid, **besides adultery** and a new marriage of one of the party, such grounds as a spouse’s falling away from Orthodoxy, perversion, impotence which had set in before marriage or was self-inflicted, contraction of leper or syphilis, prolonged disappearance, conviction with disfranchisement, encroachment on the life or health of the spouse, love affair with a daughter in law, profiting from marriage, profiting by the spouse’s indecencies, incurable mental disease and malevolent abandonment of the spouse. At present, added to this list of the grounds for divorce are chronic alcoholism or drug-addiction and abortion without the husband’s consent.”

    Jesus gave only one permissible ground for divorce, adultery (which even then isn’t a patristic interpretation, for divorce was totally forbidden), but for whatever reason they go onto officially teach all these other sins are sufficient grounds. I don’t believe such can be supported anywhere in the Councils or Fathers.

  24. asinusspinasmasticans Says:

    “Unless your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall in no manner see the Kingdom of Heaven.”

  25. asinusspinasmasticans Says:

    Also, Father, something came to me once that I have never fully understood – A man who was capable of resisting Bathsheba could never have written the Psalms. I don’t mean this to excuse David’s sin (or my own), but rather to explain to myself the ferocity of David’s passion for God and how I should emulate it.

    As CS Lewis wrote – It does you no credit to congratulate yourself for resisting sins you haven’t risen to the level of yet.

  26. Food for Thought « Examining Life Says:

    […] https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/why-morality-is-not-christian/ […]

  27. David Ravel Says:

    One of the best article I’ve read in my entire life, and it prooves why I come to this site day after day. Thank you very much Fr.

  28. Daniel Lewis Says:

    Father, bless.

    I have heard similar statements on Aquinas before re: his repenting of a great deal of his earlier scholasticism. Unfortunately, my searches have turned up nothing– and I wouldn’t expect western Christians or the Scholastically-minded Roman Catholics to announce it from the rooftops, either.

    Could you or anyone else point me in the direction of resources that discuss later Aquinas?

  29. fatherstephen Says:

    Nathan,
    The Church sees divorce as a sin – and even the Lord’s “permissable” case of adultery, does not mean divorce is not a sin. Ask anyone whose been divorced and they’ll tell you how painful and destructive of the inner life divorce is for any reason. The social teaching document of the Church of Russia, is not seeking to amend Christ’s teaching, but is setting forth, for the guidance of the Church, its use of “economia” with regard to the discipline of Church marriage. The canons of the Church permit remarriage (twice) in the Church, but it follows repentance and has prayers of repentance within the service itself. The Orthodox understanding of economia is guided by mercy. Legalism, whether driven by moral theology, or the like, often creates strange fictions (like the annulment procedure, etc.). I would suggest that one problem is that you are reading an Orthodox document with the foreign eyes. If you understood Orthodoxy, you would not draw such conclusions.

  30. fatherstephen Says:

    Daniel,
    He does not renounce his work, but after a vision, says to his amenuensis (secretary) who was urging him to return to his writing, “I have seen something which makes everything I’ve ever written seem as straw.” A good source is GK Chesterton’s small biography on Aquinas. I do not see this declaration as an act of repentance – nor would he have considered his work something to repent of.
    Scholasticism had its “crisis” in Byzantium during the debates between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian. The Council of the Church (meeting in Constantinople) declared Palamas’ position to be correct and condemned Barlaam’s Scholasticism. Essentially, it declared that Hesychasm and Apophaticism to be the proper means of doing theology – i.e. prayer and true spiritual experience are the basis of theology rather than pure reason.

  31. Daniel Lewis Says:

    Forgive my ignorance. What then, is the proper way for an Orthodox Christian to approach the writings of Aquinas?

  32. fatherstephen Says:

    Daniel,
    I would read him as a Western, medieval scholastic. Not a Doctor of the Church. I think he was a very holy man and hold him in great esteem. But I haven’t read him in years. Most Orthodox probably don’t read him, and would find his writings very odd (stylistically). Do you have a special interest in Aquinas?

  33. Patricia Says:

    Concepts of right and wrong are also culturally determined to some extent; whereas the notion of good and evil is a more universal reality. Fr. Meletios Webber expands on these ideas in many of his lectures and in his book: Bread & Water; Wine & Oil.

    It is much easier for a fallen being to construct moral frameworks than to choose dying to self. Constructs are tainted with self and ego (both individual and of a group) whereas union with God requires ever-increasing self-effacement. “I must decrease that He might increase.” (St. John the Forerunner)

    Another terror of a reliance on morality is that one can arrive at a place where, having constructed the framework out of one’s own self/culture, one can imagine that one (or one’s group) has “arrived”, that there is nothing more to pursue — except, of course, judging everyone else against the Almighty Framework.

  34. Daniel Lewis Says:

    Father Stephen:

    No, not really. As a Protestant, I never touched him (though my education referenced him) and I haven’t given him much thought since becoming Orthodox. I was just curious, and had heard rumors of that “revelation” moment.

  35. Rowley Says:

    Father Stephan,

    You mention that you studied with Hauerwas. I’m mostly familiar with his writings on homosexuality, nationalism, abortion, and end of life issues. If you have a moment, could you provide a very brief “nutshell” view of Hauerwas from an Orthodox perspective? Or point me towards one?

    I read him while working my way out of the Evangelical/Reformed traditions and into Orthodoxy (still working on it…). Most of what he’s written is over my head, but I was struck by his call for Protestants to take pre-Reformation theology seriously, and at act like a community that is older than America.

    Orthodoxy has answered those questions for me in unexpected ways, but I can’t help but be thankful to him for opening a door. Which leaves me wondering, does Hauerwas ever address Orthodoxy?

    I’m sure you have plenty to write about, so certainly feel free to pass on such a particular request.

    Rowley

  36. Margaret Says:

    Fr. Stephen, I have got to second the request for a “nutshell” view of Hauerwas from an Orthodox perspective? Or point us toward one? My husband wrote a review of one of his books a few years ago at the request of someone, not published review, but adding to a review and that was when we were considering leaving the Church of England for Orthodoxy, which we eventually did become Orthodox. Anyway, very interested in your (or on Orthodox Church) perspective on the views of Hauerwas. Thank you.

  37. fatherstephen Says:

    Rowley,
    Oddly, Hauerwas seems to stay away from Orthodoxy. When I was defending my thesis he was on my committee, and though my thesis was on the Icon as Theology, and he liked he, even suggested it be published, but strangely told me I should try to publish elsewhere than with the Orthodox. I didn’t ask more than that. (It’s never been published). He’s somewhat post-modern, though with a careful bullet aimed at classical liberalism. I found him helpful, myself, but would never recommend him as Orthodox reading. When he’s right, he’s clever and offers twists on things that can be very illuminating. But like any of us, when he’s wrong, he’s wrong.

    In a nutshell, he’s more or less Mennonite in his thought (greatly influenced by them) with a very Catholic view of the Eucharist. He’s a Protestant, though I don’t think he could explain why he is a Protestant. He’s a Yale University product where he was immersed in the theology of Karl Barth – thus his critical thought regarding many things. He’s one of the more interesting theologians in the country – but not Orthodox. I think that probably the most interesting Orthodox theologian in the U.S. right now is Fr. John Behr at St. Vladimir’s. I like his stuff (mostly Patristics) very much.

  38. Margaret Says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  39. Rhonda Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your article! Just a couple of weeks ago I finished reading “The Freedom of Morality” by Christos Yannaris. Your article was a very timely reminder of that book which I highly recommend to all. Thanks!

  40. Michael Woerl Says:

    david, in short, to accomodate our weaknesses and human condition, pastoral theology sometimes trumps “moral theology”
    as the Holy Church is the hopsital for sinners, it makes no sense to take a rigid positon that does not allow sinners to enter the hospital …

  41. Ryan Says:

    Father, bless. I am trying to understand your article in the context of the parable of the sheep and goats. (Mt 26). It seems that in this episode, the Lord judges based on works of mercy performed, rather than some abstract notion of “union with him” (please do not take offense, I use the word abstract because I am ignorant of such a thing). It seems to me, that morality is still good in itself (some actions being intrinsically right or wrong).

    In addition, in Western Christianity the pendulum of morality has seemed to swing on both extremes. For example, Jansenism (which stressed the importance of moral actions but seemed to minimize human free will) was a response to a great deal of moral laxity that was seemingly justified by “casuitry”. Romans 8 seems to indicate that we are free in the Spirit, but how do we begin to understand what the moral life means outside of us, i.e. what the intrinsic change within us leads to in the wider circumstances of our lives?

    I apologize for my rambling. I greatly enjoy your articles.

  42. Peter Says:

    Morality as defined by a system I think misses a key point. In God there are no “systems”. There is just the real itself. Therefore, acting morally is simple conformance to the real. Immoral actions are a denial of reality and therefore as father Stephen has pointed out a decent into non being.

  43. Rowley Says:

    Thank you, Father Stephan. This is a very helpful summary of Hauerwas. I will certainly look into Father Behr.

  44. Michael Says:

    Rowley, do you mind posting the page number(s) for those excellent quotes you gave us from “St. Silouan the Athonite”?

  45. Cheryl Says:

    Father,

    I really enjoyed this post, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, partly because I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of Les Miserables in my car, and thinking about the contrast between the characters of Jean ValJean (whose life has been transformed by grace) and Inspector Jalvert (who is the epitome of justice)…it reminds me also of the two brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and about this very discussion.

    However, my priest spoke today about the Israelites in the desert and God sending the snakes among them and the bronze snake is lifted up. I understand that the bronze snake is figurative of Christ…but still, GOD sends the snakes, seemingly out of judgment. There are other similar passages–of the earth swallowing up people, the command to kill Achan for stealing, slaughtering the Canaanites…

    How does this fit in with our picture of God? What is going on here, and why does it seem like he is painted so differently here than in the New Testament? The “justice” here doesn’t even appear to be redemptive/discipline oriented–it seems to be about punishment and an assaulted honor, almost like an Anslemian portrait of God.

    +Miriam

  46. Leonard Nugent Says:

    Peter how many people have you ever met that that if you asked them “what in the name of all that’s holy do you think your doing?” could simply reply “I’m simply conforming myself to the real” I’ve always found it comforting to have a few hints and guidelines posted along the way

  47. fatherstephen Says:

    Leonard,
    I don’t think we ever say, “I’m just conforming myself to the real,” nor do I say, “I’m doing what I think is systematically right.” I usually say, “I’m struggling to be ontologically authentic as revealed in Jesus Christ (actually I don’t say that either – though that’s what I’m thinking). Usually I simply say, “About the best I can when I’m up to it.”

  48. Michael Bauman Says:

    Are the snakes figurative of Christ? I have always thought is is Moses’ staff, lifed up as a prefigurment of Christ, His word and sacrifice which allows the passions and death (the serpents) to be defeated–precisely why our bishop’s staff today has the serpents surmounted by the Cross of Christ and why, as with Moses staff, the bishop’s staff is at the entrance to the Holy of Holies at the Cathedral. Mercy, through obedience, conquers the natural consequences of sin in us. I have never seen anything resembling justice here.

    Am I wrong?

  49. Andrew Says:

    +Miriam if I may
    He sends the serpents that they may be lifted up. It is both the last thing Adam sees in Paradise and the first thing his descendents see when they return. It is the very gate of Heaven.

  50. Rowley Says:

    Michael,

    Not at all! Page 31.

    Rowley

  51. Cheryl Says:

    @Michael

    Moses makes a bronze snake and lifts it up…I meant to refer to that as a prefigurement of Christ, not the real snakes.

    Numbers 21 for the original story, John 3:14 for the reference to Christ.

    +Miriam

  52. Warren Aldrich Says:

    Great stuff here! Thanks for a clarifying statement.

  53. tpkatsa Says:

    >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.

    From my post:

    I disagree. Morality as we understand it via Judeo-Christian values is not a “degeneration” of Christian teaching. Morality is a broader set of teachings that intersects the Christian faith in some points but not in others. In my class on Judeo-Christian values I make it quite clear that the purpose of morality is to enable us as a society to treat other human beings with decency, dignity, and honor. Morality is not the consequence of a theological exercise. Morality does not attempt to solve the Mystery of the Trinity or figure out how many angels dance on the head of a pin. Morality as expressed in the Ten Commandments provides a benchmark by which societies can be governed. Now yes it is true that in some respects New Testament ethics go beyond the Ten Commandments, but New Testament ethics are intended for our inter-personal relationships, not as a means to govern society (except perhaps for “render unto Caesar…”). “Turn the other cheek” is beautiful when exercised by the individual but it is suicidal when exercised by nation-states (as a matter of public policy).

    And yes, sometimes morality needs to be discussed as if there were no God. Some people in society do not believe in God, or believe in a different god than the Judeo-Christian God. Morality is the only framework by which all reasonable people can conclude that using airplanes as missiles and crashing them into buildings full of people is evil: otherwise it’s just “your God” versus “my God” (Christianity versus Islamism). It is not that we deny God – I would never deny the existence of God – the issue is that you have to be able to speak to those of all faiths and those of no faith…read more here: http://tpkatsa.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/morality-is-not-christian-so-says-father-stephen/

  54. fatherstephen Says:

    Actually, you made much of my point for me.
    1. turn the other cheek is fine for individuals but suicidal for states – thus the state is a higher good than the individual. Pilate and the Sanhedrin agreed.
    2.Trinity and angels and pins are not commensurate. You make the governance of societies the greater good – which finally speaks in harmony with secularism. The history of secularism is the invention of an existence considered apart from God (not the death of God). Along with rise of secularism is the rise of the newly-invented nation-state, which brought not less bloodshed, but more. Some of Hauerwas and his associates have written rather well on the problems of the modern nation-state. Hauerwas once said, “The great success of secularism is that catholics could now kill catholics (and protestants kill protestants) in the name of something less than God.

    The state has many problems as a concept. It imagines that it can command my loyalty (even my killing loyalty) in the name of the state. A king could command loyalty, but the king was not a state, and the king had limits. The great wrestlings between king and courtier (as in the case of Thomas More) is simply one of many examples (even in Russia) where the king could be questioned, even disobeyed.

    Hauerwas again notes that nuclear was is the ultimate democratization of war – everybody gets to die. The modern abolition of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant (cf. Gen. Sherman, total war, etc.) blurs this classic distinction. A human being ceases to become human and now becomes an American, a Frenchman, etc.

    The whole subject is full of depth and layers worth discussion – but secularism, an invention of Protestant Christianity and modernity their child – are indeed a degeneration of Christianity. They were born under failed Christian settings – their replacement – the nation state – is not a given – just language for organizations whom we believe have the license to kill.

    Morality is a “systematic form of study” that can be done apart from God. It is also weak and unable to save. Which state does not, as a matter of policy, lie to other states and to its own citizens? The state is largely about power and very little more. I expect more out of a king, or a Czar (if they are Christian). I expect more out of Christianity. I want a king (or head of state) who believes he will have to give account before God in some manner. I’m not utopian – but the commandments of Christ apply to all (states included). Utilitarian arguments have already tallied so many dead bodies to their credit that I think the “too dangerous to turn the cheek” is far too facile.

    Perhaps the first truly great secular war (though it had is predecessors) was WW1 – an almost exclusively Christian bloodbath – (with the exception of “secular Turkey”). The American Civil War fits neatly into the same framework. God’s name invoked (always the 2 storey God). CS Lewis, in one of his poorest moments, imagines Christians killing each other on the battlefield, waking up in heaven and apologizing like a couple of guys have an accident at a tea table.

    As a Christian I can speak to people of no faith, all faith, any faith. My faith is not an obstacle. However, every body of faith should recognize that the secular states wants to destroy their religion – to reduce it to the second-storey and by no means hold it great than the so-called ethics of the state. We’ll be allowed to keep our faith, but in a new secularized dhimmitude. I’d rather turn the other cheek.

  55. tpkatsa Says:

    Hi Father, well thanks for your reply… I posted my reply here: http://tpkatsa.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/morality-is-not-christian-so-says-father-stephen/#comment-1188

  56. Eric Simpson Says:

    Great article. I always wince when I read or see the phrase “WWJD”, which presupposes that we can deduce morality from the basis of our deductions about how Jesus might behave in any given situation. That seems very improbable and dangerous to me. While there are times for punishment or reward in life, I am also very wary of any psychology (cognitive behaviorism, for example) that relies upon it as part of its method of inciting change or growth.

  57. The Nature of Things by Fr. Stephen Freeman « † Pick it up! Says:

    […] true philosophy of the Gospel, (my summary), the most recent one to my recollection being his post, “Why Morality is Not Christian”. I really enjoyed that article and gained a better understanding of our Orthodox faith, and this […]

  58. David Ravel Says:

    Father I have a question.

    Do you have any other readings, books or anything that talks about the subject ?

    Do you recommend any particular book as for Orthodoxy in general ? I do not live near any Orthodox Church, and don’t have access to computer very often to read, so I would try to find and read book when I can.

    Thank you very much,
    David.

  59. tpkatsa Says:

    Howdy Father, so given our conversation what you think of the following article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html

    The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

    When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot…

    When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

    So, if morality is “not Christian,” what is your answer to this problem? What in your estimation is the role of the Church in equipping Christians to think morally?

  60. tpkatsa Says:

    Father, I forgot to add, being able to think morally isn’t a matter of scholasticism versus mysticism, or east vs. west methods of approach to theology, it’s a matter of making the right moral choice given the situation…

    For example, would you rather your teenager smoke a cigarette or cheat on an exam? You wouldn’t believe the number of people who say they’d rather have their child cheat. I have talked to priests who could not give a straight yes or no answer to this question.

    Another one: if your dog that you love dearly or a stranger were drowning in a lake and you could only save one, which would you save, your dog or the stranger? A full 2/3 of high school kids answer that they would save their dogs and let the human stranger drown.

    So obviously we as Christians – and Orthodox Christians – have work to do because our kids are not equipped to answer these relatively easy moral questions. If they cannot answer the easy choices, how will they then be able to tackle bigger moral dilemmas?

  61. fatherstephen Says:

    As an Orthodox priest, I’m the father of four. Two are married to Orthodox priests. I have one and almost two grandsons. All of them are people who may good choices for themselves and for those around them, and take the teaching of the Church seriously. “Moral” formation is much the same as building character, which I think is done less by various schemes of moral theology and mostly by being taught by a person of good character and a true and active life in the Church. The problems you point to are the sad result of a secular system that is sick to the core, to the breakdown of the family (with the increasing aid of the state). We cannot do what parents will not do, as painful and sad as it may be. The role of the Church is to be the Church. I happen to think there are much better ways to teach than the scholastic model and that this has largely been the case in the best times of Christian East.

  62. fatherstephen Says:

    If the Church can’t even train priests to know these things, then I would not want them serving in the Church.

  63. Fr. John Whiteford Says:

    I think that we often over state how different the Orthodox take on things is the point that we end up discounting or denying authentic aspects of our own tradition. In Russia, the basic catechetical instruction that everyone gets in school is called “Zakon Bozhij” — the Law of God, thus the title of the book by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy. There is a moral law, and all Orthodox Christians are obliged to keep it. If people keep initially out of fear of punishment, that is the first step towards keeping it out of love, as the desert fathers make clear. I know that you would agree, I just think you have over stated things a bit here.

  64. Leonard Nugent Says:

    I think a question I would have is that if a moral person dies without becoming a mystic (read christian here) will that person go to heaven or be cast into hell

  65. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. John,
    The Law of God is indeed widely used in Russia – in some ways for lack of anything else. I’ve read it and its a good example of a sort of “Westernized” approach, often typical of that century. But it is used and with effectiveness. The teaching of right and wrong in children and in adults has been long recognized by the fathers as two different things altogether.

    Leonard, You are well aware of what I’ve taught about heaven and hell, making your comment tongue in cheek or impertinent.

  66. Leonard Nugent Says:

    Father, my comment could be interpreted as tongue in cheek or impertinent but it hits at the heart of something that has caused me a lot of distress over the years. Most of the people who I dearly love do not share the same focus on spiritual matters that I have. They live good, moral decent lives but never have endured the Great Canon of St Andrew in all it glory.And even myself, many people do not believe I’m even in a real church. My question is…whats to become of all of us?

  67. Mark Says:

    Dear Leonard;
    in light of this post and all Fr Stephen has written about God’s loving kindness, what does your heart suggest?
    You can search Fr Stephen’s blog for heaven and hell; it’s been well covered.

    Love;
    -Mark Basil

  68. fatherstephen Says:

    Leonard,
    Seriously, love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. It’ll be fine. But the other questions become distractions such that we think to much. Love more.

  69. Fr. John Whiteford Says:

    “The Law of God is indeed widely used in Russia – in some ways for lack of anything else. I’ve read it and its a good example of a sort of “Westernized” approach, often typical of that century.”

    If you are speaking of the Law of God by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy, it was written in the 1950’s in America. What about it did you find westernized?

    The concept of catechetical instruction being termed “The Law of God” certainly predates Fr. Seraphim, and there is no western precedent for that.

    “But it is used and with effectiveness. The teaching of right and wrong in children and in adults has been long recognized by the fathers as two different things altogether.”

    I think the idea that children should be taught something different than what adults are taught is actually a fairly recent and western phenomenon. But even if we accept that it might not be a bad idea to approach children differently, one thing that doesn’t change is that all Christians are obliged to keep the moral Law of God, and so there are no two ways about the fact that violating that law is sinful, and without repentance, such violations will send you to hell… and that is because the moral law tells you what means to love God and your neighbor, and if you don’t adhere to it, you don’t Love God or your neighbor.

  70. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. John,

    I have written fairly extensively on the topic – my concern is not to deny the law of God – but to move it from an objectivized, external matter, to an internal matter (“written on the heart”). It is not a legal problem that man has in sin, but a problem at the very level of his being. In some ways it bears deep resemblance the conversations regarding the nature of the atonement. A forensic approach in either case, it seems to me, lacks insight.

    As for children and adults, St. John Chrysostom, in his writings on educating children, was quite clear that some things should be postponed. In the same manner, I suspect that even for some adults, somethings might need to be postponed.

    God’s peace.

  71. Chris Says:

    Reblogged this on The Sacramental Rebel and commented:
    This is a big issue in the south were I live. Morality is so linked to faith that when people fail they end up feeling ahunned.

  72. Glory to God blog: Why Morality Isn't Christian - Christian Forums Says:

    […] to God blog: Why Morality Isn't Christian Your thoughts on this blog by Fr. Stephen Freeman? I recall my first classes in Moral Theology some 35 or so years ago. The subject is an essential […]

  73. ram0ram Says:

    Reblogged this on ram0ram note book.

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