By Fr. Stephen Freeman. Original published on the Ancient Faith blog.
In recent articles I have challenged the place of contemporary morality in the Christian life. Some have had difficulty with this, wondering how we should then think about the commandments that are directed towards our behavior. Others have suggested that my challenge is merely semantic. There are certainly semantic distinctions being made here – but the reason for them is important and goes beyond mere words. But if it is not proper to think of ourselves as “moral” beings, how should we think? How do we confess our sins if morality is not the issue?
Our culture sees morality as the rules and standards by which we guide ourselves. These rules of conduct are external and can be described and discussed. They are the rules by which we choose how to behave and by which we sometimes judge others. In this, everybody can be said to be “moral.” Atheists invariably adhere to some standard of conduct – it is just what human beings do. We are sometimes inconsistent and often cannot explain very well the philosophical underpinnings of our actions – but everyone has rules for themselves and standards that they expect of others.
But it is precisely this that sets Christians apart – that makes them “unmoral” (not “immoral”). The nature of the Christian life is not rightly described as the adherence to an external set of norms and standards, even if those norms and standards are described as being “from God.” The “unmoral” life of Christians is a different mode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as by how it does.
This “unmoral” life is not necessarily exception for its behavior. If this were not so, then an atheist “acting” like a Christian, would seem to be a Christian. Indeed, at one point in our culture, a “Christian gentleman” meant nothing more than a “gentleman.” This is often the case in public morality. Most Christians seem to be little different from their non-Christian friends. They cannot describe how it is that they differ other than to say that they “think” certain things about God and the universe. But did Christ die only to give us certain ideas?
If the unmoral life is not about behavior, what is it about?
It is about being a god.
If the unmoral life is not about behavior, what is it about? It is about being a god.
This, of course, is shocking language, but it is the Christian faith. The life of a fish is about being a fish. It is not about swimming or breathing water (though these certainly are part of a fish’s life). But a man with a special device can breathe water and swim for days without ever becoming a fish. In the same way, the Christian life is not about improving our human behavior, it is about taking on a new kind of existence. And that existence is nothing less thandivine life.
But is our primary confession simply that we fail at being gods? As difficult as it may be to understand, this confession is closer to the point than repeatedly admitting that we’re only marginally good at being moral. One of the failures of morality is that it seems so tantalizinglypossible. And so we distract ourselves as we wrestle with our morals, condemning ourselves for what we somehow imagine that we can and should do.
But think carefully about the commandments of Christ: “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Morality withers in the face of such a statement. Christ’s teaching destroys our moral pretensions. He doesn’t say, “Tithe!” (Priests and preachers say “tithe”). Christ says, “Give it all away.” He doesn’t just say, “Love your neighbor.” He says, “Love your enemy.” Such statements should properly send us into an existential crisis.
The disciples recognized this. “Who then can be saved?” They wondered.
Christ responded, “With men it is impossible. But with God all things are possible.”
The modern fascination with morality is a theological travesty for Christians. It is the reduction of the Kingdom of God to the Democracy of the Mediocre: “I give thanks to God, for I’m doing better and making progress!”
But the Kingdom of God is found in what we cannot do. Morality is not a treasure buried in a field – that treasure is nothing less than the Divine Life of God.
So how do we live the Divine Life of God?
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)
This is the life in which we moment by moment offer ourselves up to God. We voluntarily empty ourselves before Him and yield ourselves to what He can do in us.
…to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us…be glory. (Eph 3:20-21)
The root of this life is our communion with God. And the rupture of this communion is the true nature of sin.
…for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Rom 14:23)
And this is the proper character of our life. We eat Christ. We drink Christ. We breatheChrist. We do all things in Him and through Him. Learning this manner of life is the task of our faith. It is the path of the saints and the teaching of the Fathers.
We could describe our lives in a “moral” manner, but this would not touch upon our communion with Christ. Our “moral” efforts, when done apart from Christ, do not have the character of salvation about them. Christ does not die in order for us to act in a certain manner. He died in order to enter into our death that through our dying we might enter into His life.
In confession, it is our communion that should most concern us. We do many things that are contrary to Christ’s commandments, and they are worth mentioning. But we miss the point of our existence if we fail to see that it is our broken communion that matters most. Morality is little more than our feeble attempt at self-sufficiency.
Apart from Me, you can do nothing. (Jn. 15:5)
Confession is the sacrament of repentance, our turning to God. It is not the sacrament of the second chance and the harder try. Our failures, including our moral failures, are but symptoms. It is the disease itself that should demand our attention. This emptiness and futility of lives is often experienced with shame and embarrassment. We feel that we should somehow be able to do better. But Christ intends to bring us to this recognition of our futility. It is why our salvation begins at the point of death (the ultimate futility). Since everyone can die, everyone is capable of salvation. But it is death that we most fear.
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)
Our fear of death is a place of bondage because our new life can only begin there.
Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luk 17:33)
The point of confession is to lose our life. If moral failure is part of that – well and good. But moral success can be just as problematic. Witness the Desert Fathers:
Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph: “Father … I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart … what more should I do?” The elder stretched up his hands to heaven and his fingers became fire. He said, “Why not become all flame?”
Indeed. Why not?