St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Christianity is not moralism

(The following is an essay by one of our members, Christopher Encapera. Christopher is a long-time convert to Orthodoxy and currently serves on our church council. He is enrolled in the online program from our UOC St. Sophia Seminary in South Bound Brook NJ. I thought this essay so powerful and thoughtful that I asked him for permission to put in as a blogpost. Thank you Christopher.)

To discuss what Christianity is, it is helpful to start out with what it is not. Christianity is not moralism. Moralism is Christianity reduced to legalism that concerns itself with external standards of “right” and “wrong” which become the measuring stick by which we as persons judge ourselves and others (and are judged by God).  The moralistic take on Christianity is actually one of several early heresies.  However, we live in the West and the West was founded on moralistic Christianity and all the “big” names come to mind;  Calvin and most of the Protestant revolutionaries, most of Scholastic Roman Catholicism, and of course St. Augustine and his peculiar (and un-Orthodox) idea of “Original Sin”.  Indeed, modern “secularism” is as moralistic and judgmental as its religious counterpart and is merely the other side of the same coin – thus all the moral finger wagging that secularists do towards Christians.  To quote Fr. John Romanides of blessed memory:
“…the experience of theology is noetic prayer and glorification.  Orthodox theology does not have ethics, it has asceticism.  Orthodox ethics does not exist.”

Sin is not a moral problem.  That bears repeating:  Sin is NOT a moral problem.  If it were, then the solution would be morality.  Western Christendom (and our modern society) is a grand monument to the utter failure of this idea.  Since our problem (which is death, sin which leads to death and perpetuates it, and sin which avoids death and seeks temporary and shallow pleasure) is not moral, then ethics is not the solution.  Orthodoxy does not eschew ethics; it just understands its relative place in the “hierarchy of value”. Ethics have a purely pragmatic place in society, law, etc. (affirmed by St. Paul in Romans 13:4) in that, for example, it is useful to keep angry sinners from killing one another.  This is the business of government and other such organizations but NOT the Church – the Church is a society and a Body with its Head (Christ) in heaven, thus we are not an ethical and moralistic society.  When we become that through our sinful misunderstanding of Christianity then we have become something other than Christian and the Spirit of God is not with us.

Our problem is not moral – it is rather ontological or one of “being”.  This is one of those difficult to translate words (like nous/noetic that usually gets mistranslated simply as “mind”).  Our problem, rather than being moral, is “existential”.  As St. Paul puts it:
    ” For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me….O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7)

So if the Law (i.e. morality) is not salvific – what is?  The answer is of course the very next line “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”.  So our problem (death) is “solved” not by more/better/correct law (morality) but rather by the “ontological” event of the Revelation of Christ God who enters into this “body of death” and saves us in a very physical (ontological) way.  It is the difference between a policeman and a physician – you are not committing a crime by being born into this “body of death” (which is the Augustinian understanding of “Original Sin”) rather you need a physician to heal you; the policeman can do nothing for you.

However, we are real persons with a will and free choice (by God’s design) and thus we have to *respond* to God. Otherwise we are choosing death and sin – God IS Life and there is no other Life apart from Him.  We respond to God through repentance, and repentance involves a movement of the will, heart, soul, mind, body – everything we are – towards God.  Yes, God is “patient” with us, and in a sense “tolerant” of our role in our own pain and disease (sin).  However, God is NOT “tolerant” of sin itself, death itself. Rather he says to us in some of His very first words as the Incarnate Christ “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”  This repentance, this aspect of our being that we experience as our part in salvation, is our response to God that is often confused with “morality” and “intolerance”.  Repentance and its facilitation and support by the love of God and every person in His Body (which leads to Life) IS the reason to be Christian. There is no other reason to be Christian and if you are looking for other “fruits” you are looking for magic (or as Scripture puts it, “signs”).
St. Paul only appears to bring back the “solution” of morality and ethics when he very quickly begins to talk in these terms:
“For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.…” (Romans 8)

What St. Paul is actually pointing to, however, is repentance – the response we have in our freedom to God. We are free because we are created in His Image and He is free. God does not compel us (never ever ever) but calls to us in “a still small voice” (I Kings 19:11).  Fr .John Romanides summarizes our path of repentance (and here he is merely repeating the theology of the Fathers of the Church) as:  purification, illumination, glorification (or “deification” or “theosis”).  This path of repentance is what it means to be Christian, and when we, for whatever reason (and there are many reasons), are not on this path we are in a very deep and profound sense not being what we are intended to be.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Christianity is not moralism”

by Michael Sayre August 24th, 2016 at 5:11 pm

Wow, Christopher! What did YOU eat for breakfast this morning?

This is a very clear and impactful little exposition of our faith. I have read and heard Fr Gabriel move into this sort of articulation many times, so I assume that it remains a constant and familiar thread through his sermons … and evidently to your ears. You have communicated this so well. Onto my re-reading stand it goes for awhile. Thank you. And thank you, Fr Gabriel, for sharing it.

by Matthew McNeile September 14th, 2016 at 11:53 pm

Nice job, Christopher. I look forward to reading your blog.

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