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.”

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.



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221 responses to “Why Morality is Not Christian”

  1. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    Mary,

    Our fallenness means that we experience sin precisely as “normal.” That’s the whole problem.

    The difficulty with homosexuality is that many homosexuals root their personal identity in this sexual orientation. This confusion of personhood and behavior makes dialogue challenging, because any criticism of the latter is construed as an attack on the former — which certainly isn’t the intent. Thus distinguishing the sin from the sinner can be a monumental task — for both sides.

  2. dinoship Avatar
    dinoship

    PJ,
    although

    “Our fallenness means that we experience sin precisely as “normal.” That’s the whole problem”

    is spot on, we also have the added problem of the utter need for self-justification (which soon develops into criticism of the other, and soon after to criticism of the true Other – “the woman YOU gave me”). The solution to all problems, mine, as well as the problems of those close or far, the only true solution, is God, my closer union to Him…. So, I agree (that we must obviously retain the clear teaching without confusion of personhood and behaviour), but, we must go far further than just that, and concentrate far more than we do on the only part of creation we have any power in transforming (with the help of God’s Grace): our own self!

  3. Lasseter Avatar
    Lasseter

    PJ

    The difficulty with homosexuality is that many homosexuals root their personal identity in this sexual orientation.

    But why shouldn’t they? If a person is a bona fide, from-as-far-back-as-he-can-remember homosexual, why shouldn’t he? You can tell such a person all you want that his homosexuality is not what God created, not what the Lord intended, that it is just a product of the fallenness of man, but, if it is all that he knows, what is he supposed to make of this effort to separate his person–his earthly person, anyway–from some ideal of his person that he is not acquainted with?

    This confusion of personhood and behavior makes dialogue challenging,….

    Lex orandi, lex credendi. We believe as we pray, and we are also behave and as we think and feel (lest we suffer some sort of cognitive disturbance from the conflict between the inner and outer lives). I find it fascinating to see this bifurcation of personhood and behavior here, because it makes me think of the whole ridiculous faith vs. works controversy that makes Orthodoxy seem so anathema to many Protestants: typically the Orthodox does not make such a hard division between the life of the mind and the life of the behavior. If a man knows only sexual attraction to members of his own sex, how else is he supposed to comprehend the sexual component of his person? Telling him that’s not his true person turns into an academic exercise, and this is probably the cruelty (bludgeoning seems a popular word for it in this discussion) that other are taking issue with.

    I am, by the way, of no doubt that homosexual behavior is sinful, but I also have no doubt that most or all of us know little other than the person we are in this world, and that includes the person who finds this person or that sexually or romantically attractive. Telling a man that that’s not his true person is not an especially compelling method of persuasion or form of solving the problem of the sin.

    One other thing. Men are such sexual beasts that they will have sex with anything. I suspect that much of the homosexual behavior that the Torah speaks out against was, back in the old days, engaged in by men who were not homosexuals in the deep, lifelong sense that we typically speak of today: they were men with perfectly normal sexual predilections towards women who had sex with other men, because … well, because they were there. You know, like climbing Mount Everest. They did it, many of them, because of opportunity or because of the bizarre dictates of pagan rituals. In those cases, maybe, just maybe, this person versus behavior distinction is a little easier to sell, but I don’t think it’s worth a hill of beans in the real life of any person who has no heterosexual inclinations he is aware of and is only sexually attracted to members of his own sex.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    And so the circular debate that is not really a debate goes on. Two wholly different anthropological assumptions approached from within a moralistic mindset. There can be no agreement. One thing I am certain of: as an Orthodox Christian I have no rights. I have no call to? question, attack, or change the Church’s Tradition that calls all to restoration not acquiescence: to be not of this world.

    That means fighting to allow God’s order to rule my life, not my desires and appetites. Although I have been angry for as long as I can remember if I allow myself to be defined as my anger, I am lost.

    Only the presence of God’s grace and the deep love of my wife, both unwarranted gifts reveal to me my true self.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Those who want the truth will find the truth. Those willing to settle for false idols will not.

  6. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Absurdly more than enough has been said here. I do not wish to see this discussed further, thank you.

  7. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    You don’t make bad points, John. This isn’t an easy topic, despite rhetoric on both sides. Perhaps we’ll take it up again. But, as per Father’s wishes, we’ll drop it now. God bless.

  8. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks again, Fr. Stephen, for what you wrote and for allowing the discussion at all. I think some valuable perspectives were shared and I completely understand your stopping it now. To continue would distract us from other important things that you have to teach us.

  9. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    I second Mary’s gratitude, Father. I really appreciate that you give us a forum to have these important discussions and, with any luck, grow in godly wisdom.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My priest blessed us with a homily on having a heart of mercy. It left me in tears. A big part of that it seems to me is to realize my own brokenness and my own total inability to put myself together.

    Therefore I can only offer my brokenness to God and cry out for mercy. “That same pray for mercy teaches us to render the deeds of mercy; for in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”

    Real mercy also requires that we know from where we have fallen.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is no legalistic morality in mercy. “I will have mercy, not sacrifice.”

  12. PJ Avatar
    PJ

    Michael,

    How timely! I’ve been pondering that same verse for the last few days.

  13. […] man’s fundamental problem, the death that clings to our very being. As my good friend Fr Stephen Freeman likes to say, “The problem of sin is not a legal issue, but an ontological issue (a matter of […]

  14. Tree of Life Avatar
    Tree of Life

    to put is so simply, morals is partaking in the tree of knowledge of GOOD and evil. even our good is vanity of vanities if we do not take Christ as our real good, which is being filled with Him in our spirit and allowing Him to flow in our mind, emotion,and will, so that the flesh will not be exercised.

  15. Tree of Life Avatar
    Tree of Life

    to elaborate more and add something that may sound so simple (which God is not complicated at all, we like to make Him that way), but i wanted to say that Christ is our real morality. Genesis 1:26 talks about how we are all made in Their (i.e., God and Christ)image and according to Their likeness. therefore, we have God’s attributes in us. God is the good One in us. if we try to be “good” without Him, we will fail. we should try not to focus on being good because we would be eating off the wrong tree, knowledge of good and evil,which leads to death (spiritually). there’s a reason why the tree of “good” and “evil” and not just “evil.” may this not only be revealed but be our reality in our experience daily.

    thank you for this post, brother.

    -a sister in Christ

  16. Jeremy Avatar
    Jeremy

    But isn’t following the moral rules in the bible (don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet, etc…) exactly the same as being renewed and transformed by Christ? When you first accept Christ’s offer of salvation you want to try to live a life that is pleasing to God…which means following the life described in the bible…which includes those moral behaviors. I don’t see the difference?

  17. Jake Avatar
    Jake

    The very fact that you and Fr. John disagree on such a fundamental point demonstrates that something is seriously out of wack in this Church.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jake,
    It could be sin. Mine or his. Let God be the judge. For what it’s worth, Jake, Fr. John and I have very different backgrounds and very different training, and often approach things in a different manner. I have a particular understanding of “morality,” as I’ve articulated it, that is indeed in keeping with the Tradition – as articulated in a number of places – but is a very theological analysis of the question. Fr. John is approaching this in a very different – even practical manner. If we discussed it face-to-face, we might either agree or disagree – mostly, I suspect, according to personality. It is not surprising to find Orthodox priests disagreeing about something – even about something that might seem fundamental – especially in a matter, like this, that involves pastoral understanding.

    For example, I do not approach my parish from a very moralistic or legal position – but work towards cultivating a deeper understanding of the nature of sin and its work in our lives. Just citing the rules, I think, gains very little. Fr. John might or might not agree with that. Priests often approach such things in a different manner, mostly on the basis of their personality, whether they like to admit it or not. I am not a disciplinarian. It’s not who I am. I never laid a hand on my children. They still turned out great. That “quirk” of my personality also leads me to ask questions from a particular direction and come up with answers, from within the Tradition, that work.

    Orthodoxy is real. It’s not an ideology. If it were an ideology, there would only ever be agreement. But it’s real and true, and because of that, you find personalities have an effect as well.

  19. gary Avatar
    gary

    In Western society we have two primary competing claims for the origin and basis of Morality: naturalist evolution and scriptural theism. …Each individual must weigh for herself which alternative holds the most merit.

    On the one hand, naturalism holds that in a world where survival is contingent on both competition and social cooperation, there is bound to be a conflict between self-serving impulses (evil, from a societal standpoint) and group-serving impulses (good, from a societal standpoint).

    On the other hand, Christian theism holds that an omniscient god creates a perfect human couple (knowing they will be tempted to sin by a talking serpent), then wipes out nearly the whole of the human race in the time of Noah (knowing in advance they would all turn evil), then, with his foreknowledge, ultimately consigns the majority of the human race to an endless torment in hell (while asking us to turn the other cheek against our own enemies), requiring the murder of his own son to redeem the minority of humanity that recognizes and accepts this Grand Plan.

    —Kenneth W. Daniels, former evangelical Christian missionary in his book, “Why I Believed”

  20. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Gary,

    The entirety of Kenneth’s statement, which you quoted, is nothing more than Protestant nonsense. It is not a part of the dogma of the Orthodox Church; it is not in any manner true. I will leave it to Father, and any others, to answer in detail if they so choose.

    I would encourage you to do some searching on this blog for more reading. A good place to begin may be here: https://glory2godforallthings.com/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/

  21. John Avatar
    John

    An unforgettable line from an old Jesuit in my moral
    theology class: “Poor moral theology generally finds its roots in the rationalization of unconfessed sin” ( usually sexual). Easier to change the rules than to face the sin with one’s confessor.

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