Nothing but the Whole Truth

Because Christ Himself is the Truth, we cannot have any such thing as “partial” Truth. Something or someone can be close to the Truth or moving towards the Truth – but in a proper Christian sense – only Christ is the Truth and Christ is one.

And thus within Orthodoxy it becomes problematic to speak of anything in isolation from everything else, for the Church is not the summary of its parts, but is the Body of Christ and is one. Fr. Serge Verhovskoy of blessed memory, is quoted as having said, “Orthodoxy is the absence of one-sidedness.” I have always taken this to be a comment on the character of Orthodoxy that it is “whole” and not “partial.” This aspect of the faith requires an effort on our part, particularly in an atomizing culture, that is, a culture which almost always focuses on the parts rather than the whole.

Fr. Sophrony, in his writings and teachings, frequently makes a distinction between what is merely “psychological” and what is “spiritual” or what he will term “hypostatic” or “ontological.” It is a distinction he makes particularly when he addressing the subject of Spiritual Fatherhood. Some who come to a Spiritual Father will only understand things on a pyschological level and are not ready to hear a “word” from God. They, indeed, might be crushed by such a word, or simply let it pass unnoticed.

There is an entire level (or more than one) at which our faith can be lived where things are understood psychologically, morally, or politically, never rising to the level of true communion with God nor the transformation of the inner life in which we not only forgive our enemies, but enter into a communion with them in such that we pray with bitter tears and anguish for their salvation and the salvation of the whole world.

By the same token, the Sacraments can be seen in a lesser way and not entering into the depth which they contain. I dare say all of us (certainly myself) live on a level that is less than what God intends.

The danger comes when these levels begin to be substituted for the true gift of God in Christ Jesus as though they were the true end for which we live (the whole truth). I can think of several areas where this can be a problem.

On the personal level, it is possible to remain enmeshed in a psychological understanding of the Church and the sacraments. We see that an inner change is to take place in us, but that change is seen largely in psychological terms rather than the depths of ontological change taught by the fathers of the Church. We see our sins as “problems” but not in fact as the evidence of death and corruption at work in us. We are sorry for things we have done wrong, but we do not see that these things are in fact dragging us deeper into the realm of death. Thus our repentance remains shallow and grace for a greater and deeper work is refused.

By the same token, it is possible to understand sin or the teachings of the Church in a purely “moral” way – the rules by which we should live. I have said elsewhere that God did not become man in order to make bad men good but in order to make dead men live. Our problem is not a “moral” one, in the weaker sense of the word, but truly existential and ontological. There is something mortally ill and wrong with us – something that is not described by mere moral description. The Church’s life, when presented or lived merely on the moral level, is robbed of supernatural life and rendered into little more than a human institution.

The same can be said of the Church as a “political” entity. The Church has a proper role to play in speaking to ills of our society, and to the social inadequacies of our institutions. But were the world to turn from its present mis-doings, and tomorrow have a perfect environment, and proper living arrangements, etc., it would still be placing fallen man in an ersatz paradise. Even desert monasteries have occasionally fallen into carnal life and become little more than outposts of hades.

None of this is to say that there is no place or use in addressing the social and just issues of our culture, or that the Church is meant to live without monasteries, etc. But the sickness which infects us can be healed, finally, in any setting in which the Church dwells. The thief on the cross found paradise “in a single moment,” we sing in Holy Week. It is not a normative setting (in a certain sense) and yet the thief on the cross is quite normative in another way. The thief perceived (by God’s grace) the depth of His own sin and accepted the shame of his condemnation. He also perceived the goodness of Christ and begged for His mercy – and found it – in a single moment.

The world has been filled with various movements, particularly in the modern period. Different problems have seemed of cosmic significance and worthy of all possible attention. The end of slavery is one – though there is a deeper slavery which has not ended for most. The prohibition of alcohol is another – but it ended in a very deep failure. I lived through the 60’s and even spent a couple of years in a very serious Christian commune, but not one possessing the wisdom to do what a commune (or monastery) should.

The slow maturation of true Orthodox life, in its fullness, without “one-sidedness,” is precisely that – slow maturation of true Orthodox life. St. Vladimir, Prince of the Rus, received Baptism in 988 A.D., but the story of Orthodox life in Russia generally marks the life and ministry of St. Sergius of Radonezh in the 14th century as the point at which there came a flowering of Orthodoxy in its fullness in that land.

There are perhaps, many Vladimirs among us today, but few, if any, of Sergius’ vision or stature. It is for his like that we pray, struggling to live faithfully what we have been given, and to live it on levels deeper than is obvious in our culture.

The Truth will always be and always must be, measured by the fullness of the stature of Christ (Ephesians 4) which will be marked by the depth of our communion with God, with all mankind, with the universe itself, and our willingness to follow Christ towards the Cross and the kenotic fullness of hypostatic being (forgive the obscurity of my language here).


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





4 responses to “Nothing but the Whole Truth”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Picture: Baptism of the Rus’ by Vasnetsov

  2. Dum Spiro Sparrow Avatar

    > By the same token, it is possible to understand sin or the teachings of the Church in a purely “moral” way – the rules by which we should live.
    Amen. That is so true, and has been on my mind this week. Unless we speak out on an existential level (and from an “existential experience” of God’s resurrection), no one will accept our (apparently one-sided) moral positions. We must stop seeing morals as a starting point but acknowledge that they are resultant to the existential reality of the Gospel. I do or don’t do something because I stand before God, not because I “should” or “shouldn’t” do it. Obligation is the unbeliever’s obedience: the obedience of a slave, not a son.

    Great post. -dss

  3. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    A wonderful picture. I note that the baptismal is shaped like an ark.

    Reading this I am struck again by the comprehensiveness of Orthodoxy. A mark of comphrehensiveness is slow gradual maturation. It took 4 centuries for Orthodoxy to flower in Russia. It has taken many millenium for the promises made concerning Messiah to come to fulfillment. THis comprehensiveness reveals God at work. When humans try to bring things to pass, the product is synthetic and falls far short of being comprehensive.

  4. Mary Avatar

    My priest said recently that in Orthodoxy we do not judge our actions by a set of moral rules, but rather by whether an action leads us closer to Christ, or farther from Him.

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