Salvation, Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words

In recent posts I have contrasted morality with ontological, as well as existential, etc. I’ve had comments here and elsewhere in which people stumbled over the terms. The distinction offered is not a private matter. Orthodox theologians for better than a century have struggled to make these points as being utterly necessary to the life of the Orthodox faith. The following is a small article of mine that tries to do some of the same. In a nutshell: morality is “life according to rules or reasonable philosophies.” The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian life. Rather the word ontological is more proper: it means have to do with the very being of someone – their essence. What we need is not a change in behavior (morality) but a change in who we are (ontology). Christ came to change us, not reform us. 

Morality does not use Orthodox means – it’s all in the “head.” It is rules. Ontological change requires that our very being or existence (thus the word existential) be united with Christ, His life becomes our life and thus we live a new life. Once this fundamental approach is understood, so we can begin to under the mysteries of the Church and the true character of our life in Christ. Thus this article – a meager thing meant to be of some help. 


The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).

I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.

2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.

My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.

I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.

The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.

It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my teens, I was hooked.

The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”

And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.

In over 30 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past twelve years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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56 responses to “Salvation, Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words”

  1. Susan Cushman Avatar

    Just today I had a lengthy discussion with a dear friend about some of the issues you address here, but I didn’t have the right terminology for what I was trying to say. You have nailed it here, and I’ll share your post with her. The moral vs. existential approach to our relationships with God and others is at the heart of it. Like so many things in the Christian life, it’s simple, but certainly not easy. You say “We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die.” If that is true (and I lean towards believing it to be true) I am in danger of that death every day. But I have a much greater chance of making good decisions for existential rather than moral reasons. Thanks for this post, Father.

  2. JB Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for your efforts on stressing ontology. The nature of things is so important to our Faith, yet we like to focus on other things to support ego.

  3. George Avatar

    here lies hope

  4. Tikhon Avatar

    When my wife and I converted from a traditional Anglican church to the Orthodox faith, one of the things we discovered was that not only were the answers to our questions far different than we were accustomed, but the questions themselves were different! Thus, your statement, “All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers” resonates profoundly with me. Indeed, the questions do have a way of determining answers. Pray for me a sinner.

  5. Katherine Clark Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen. As usual you have wrapped words around what I have heard in my heart.

  6. […] really enjoyed that article and gained a better understanding of our Orthodox faith, and this one, “Salvation, Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words”, clarifies it even deeper. BY FR. STEPHEN FREEMAN ON SEPTEMBER 16, […]

  7. Gloria Mitchell Avatar
    Gloria Mitchell

    A very thought provoking article. As a Lutheran in the fundamentalist LCMS, I have tried to explain to people that being a Christian does not mean that I am always “good.” People tend to judge God and Christianity based on how people who say they are Christians behave.

  8. Anthony (@ServantCEO) Avatar

    It is true that our preferred desire to have Love of God in the heart to be the motive for obedience, but as the great fathers of our Church like St. Anthony the Great and St. John Chrysostom said long ago, it is also a good start to have fear of punishment for doing that which is immoral be a starting point to keep one’s life right WHILE working at getting to the place where finally our life is motivated by Love and not just fear.

  9. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    I think my greatest frustration is that that the Catholic church does not believe many of the things imputed to it such as the “legal problem” and many other things. My problem is that I am not smart enough or a good enough debater to defend this and usually feel overwhelmed when I try.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think such generalizations as (legal or forensic) really describe a mindset rather than certain specifics. Sometimes it’s a mindset in which justice plays a very strong role (it’ll drag one down a forensic highway often). Sometimes it’s generalizing about a Roman Position that no longer dominates in Rome. That, of course, makes the Orthodox nervous, simply because change means it might be something else tomorrow. I would have a hard time saying that Rome is one thing or another, simply because it is many things during a time of increasing change. That same force of modernity attacks Orthodoxy and everything in its path, and no one can be entirely unstained by it. But if you find a way to defend this, mail it in.

  11. Jeremy Avatar

    Father, bless! A very insightful post. But I wonder if it is too strong to say the nature of our problem is not forensic, full stop. Rather than our problem is not ONLY or not PRIMARILY forensic. For example, how should we think of passages like Colossians 2:13-14, where Paul seems to talk about the work of the cross as a canceling out of a list of legal debts held against us? Perhaps this is only an image of forgiveness? Or perhaps it is not talking of legal debts to God? It is very difficult for me…

  12. dee Avatar

    Colossians 2:13-14 (“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
    Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;)
    If God is The One Who Is, in comparison to (and without) Whom no-one and nothing else even really exists; If our inevitable bodily death is (should be) the ticket (our “birth”) into unfaltering communion with Life Himself, Love Himself and Existence Himself; then the seemingly forensic qualities of the above passage, seen in this light, pale into insignificance… What I am struggling to explain so clumsily here is that our “trespasses”(“legal debts”) understood in this light, are simply our ties with death, (our “communion with the nonexistence from which we have been called into existence”).
    Therefore when we celebrate our forgiveness of sins we primarily celebrate the “death of death”…

  13. Chrys Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for another profound post. This view is something I have been working through over the past year -primarily because of the deformative consequences of the forensic view that still informs the assumptions that shape so much of my perspective. I would note that your book has been a real help.

    Your point about morality is vital. THE human problem is that sin cuts us off from the Source of Life. What is needed is the restoration of Communion with Life, with God.

    Being “good” will not “fix” that the problem, since this is at best addressing the symptoms, not curing the underlying disease. Even if we could be “perfect” on our own, we would only “seal” ourselves in the self-contained existence that is that very cause of our problem to begin with. That is, we would only ensure our death. Thus St. Paul rails against those who believe that reliance on the Law – or on any prescribed behaviors – can make us “right.”

    In point of fact, moral perfection is impossible since we, on our own, can neither know nor properly “do” what is right. Our existence apart from God deprives us of both the light and the power to do what should be done. We can see this when we reflect on our own experience; often just a little reflection exposes that our very “best” behavior is actually self-serving. (Hence Scripture tells us that His ways are far above ours and His goodness so far above ours that even at our very best, our “goodness” is like filthy rags by comparison with His.)

    The problem is much deeper and the solution must be as well. We need some way to reconnect – to re-establish communion – with God so as to participate once again in Life, which belongs to God alone. (More to the point: God is Life. Or more pointedly, Life is God Himself.) Once we see this, we understand that our purpose and calling are realized ONLY in so far as we are united to Him and His Life – and Truth, and Will – flow through us.

    Moral behavior, in itself, does not and can not “connect” us to God; however, immoral behavior will “disconnect” us. (Perhaps this is why God gave us the commandments as He did, most of which are proscriptive.)

    Even when we recognize this, our egotism recedes only one step. We try to grasp life for ourselves. But Life” is not a “trait” that exists, as it were, “apart” from God. He IS Life – Life IS Him. In this effort (often disguised as religiousness), we repeat the sin of Adam who himself tried to “grasp” equality with God (Phil.2). Sin is pernicious in its effort to usurp the throne of God, to seek to be self-contained, self-willed, to have life as I want it on my terms – but this still only cuts us off from God and thus from ourselves as we were made to be.

    In short, there is no way to live a self-contained life, no way to live a life that we direct and control. So far as we try, we are like appliances without power, or a conduit cut off from the flow: no matter how “correctly” we try to mimic what we “should” do, or to orient ourselves as needed, we do not function apart from being connected to the proper source.

    Yet once we are restored to communion with God – to Real Life – we can begin to live as we were made to live, called to live. Once the Light and Energies of God are alive in us, then we MUST do the good works that God made us to do and calls us do, the works of the Kingdom, the works of Love. Thus we can see that “works” – of any kind – can not “justify” or heal us, yet at the same time, we are called to do good works. (This makes clear to me how St. Paul’s concerns and St. James’ commands are both vital and true.)

    If morality is a potential diversion, asceticism – ironically – is essential. t is the means by which we seek to make ourselves just a wee bit open – open enough – to let Him make a home in us.

    In this effort, asceticism pulls up the weeds of false idols, distorted notions, and counterfeit loves (attachments) that would divert us to a self-serving life, that we often see as being an essential part of “who we are, that cut us off from Communion,
    Asceticism seeks to “starve” the false self. It seeks to cultivate the garden of our hearts so that God’s love might take root in us. It clears the rocky soil that would kill shallow roots and pulls up the weeds of other values and interests that would entangle and choke it. Yet if by loving asceticism that dirt is so cultivated, cleared and cleansed – kept for God alone – then the seed of God’s love may take very deep root in it – deep enough to endure the trials of testing of life. Deep enough to blossom into an overflowing bounty of love, yielding 30, 60 or 100-fold. Then love offer back love to the Love that brought it into being. Asceticism is how we cultivate our lives so we may receive and then blossom into Love.

  14. Chrys Avatar

    I think Elder Aimilianos makes a similar point in this excerpt from the book, The Way of the Spirit in which he addresses how the passions that rule us are to be overcome:

    “As a result, you experience an ultimate, supreme form of intellection, that is, a spiritual understanding of the ultimate reality: the One God. This is a mode of perception absolutely exclusive to the intellect, in which the intellect has renounced all things, leaving them behind for the sake of its movement towards God. It follows, then, that your entire being must abandon everything and remain alone at the summit. When the intellect reaches this point in its mystical progression towards God – which is the most important place in human existence, situated at the spiritual center of our being – you will discover something remarkable: your passions, your faults, and, above all, the things most deeply-rooted within you that torment you, have all vanished. When you’re there, beholding God, where is your anger? Where is your egotism? Where’s this, where’s that? They have all disappeared. What a wonderful thing! Uproot your passions! Isn’t that what we say? But that’s incorrect, because it is God who does that. Someone who is tied down can’t get up by himself. If you’re tied down, you’re stuck there. And the passions are terrible bonds from which you need to be liberated, and that is a task that God alone can undertake and accomplish.”

  15. Dan Georgescu Avatar
    Dan Georgescu

    Father, thank you very much for briefly untying this knot of confusion between moral and existential. Most of us, the average people get captivated by the sense of morality and next thing is the beginning of judging other people. The relative sense of morality is now judging another relative sense of morality. The ontological view is a step up on the ladder. A step higher than that, I just recently found in the late writings of St Silouan the Athonite. There is only love of God that is expressed in every phrase. I noticed some similarities with St Nicolai Velimirovic’s writings. They knew each other and shared same perspective of the Kindom.
    Glory to Him in the highest!

  16. dee Avatar

    Chrys, your posts were fabulous!

  17. […] Saturday, he re-posted a longer, more systematic discussion of this general idea, which he introduces thus: In recent posts I have contrasted morality with […]

  18. scott sanderson Avatar
    scott sanderson

    Thank you for your foresight. I have recently felt much the same way. That is why I left my Baptist heritage. I am not here to disparage that tradition, yet, I do see a lacuna in their rationalistic approach. We are, as humans, incomplete. That is ontology, not morality. You said it better than I could! Praise God.

  19. Chrys Avatar

    Dee, thank you for your very kind comment. I saw your post after I submitted mine and can only concur with Fr. Stephen. (It seems to me that “the death of death” could almost serve as a summary of Romans 8. Well done.)

  20. dee Avatar

    I thank YOU, Father Stephen and Chrys, for providing such a ‘spiritual banquet’, it is powerfully reassuring when eloquent explanations (of what we only suspect or maybe even grasp with our spirit) are offered to our intellect

  21. PA Avatar

    Father, I loved reading this post because it puts into words what (for a very long time) I have had trouble verbalizing. Yes, for many of our Christian brothers and sisters, being Christian amounts to “doing good,” but in the end, so what? It is rather a matter of life itself, as you say. I love the line that says “Christ came not to make bad men good but to make dead men live.”

    The ontology vs morality argument can help shed light on many contemporary “moral” issues. Take, for example, homosexuality. To the strict moralist, one should avoid homosexual acts because they are bad (or “not good”). This argument immediately falls apart when dissected down (why is homosexuality bad? it seems arbitrary…). In this line of thought, however, people easily get the impression that God loves those who avoid engaging in homosexual acts (the good ones) more than He loves those who engage in homosexuality (the bad ones). But this issue is better addressed in an ontological sense — homosexual acts draw one away from God, and thus lead to death.

    For those of us who are Orthodox, the sense we get of being *alive* (which we may not feel very often, but which we get glimpses of periodically in our Orthodox life (for me, it is most often when I am engaging in or partaking of a sacrament)) is so vivid that your explanation of alive vs dead is so very clear. I often feel bad for Christians who are unable to experience this, but such is what happens when you dispense with sacramental Christianity.

  22. Andrew Avatar

    “It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.”


  23. Benjamin Avatar

    In a culture where it popular to value its particular system of mammon above all else, it is understandable that there also would be those who believe that morality is paramount – even if only subconsciously – in order to sustain it.

  24. Michael Avatar

    This weekend I glanced at a commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 while visiting a dear friends house: “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

    To explain transformation into the image of God’s glory the commentator was at pains to put it in moral terms; he used the word “moral” about three or four times!

    Father Stephen, I think this is a case of the “legal or forensic” mindset you mentioned that can eve change how we understand the gospel.

    I grew up in a world full of this mindset and saw in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans what I thought was the clearest gospel possible –clearer even than the four Gospels!– because it talked about who was predestined to be justified. Now, some years after conversion to Orthodoxy I’ve learned those portions of Paul’s letters were written to Gentile Christians being assaulted by Judaizers telling them they could not justly participate in God’s salvation plan without becoming Jewish first and observing all the former laws including circumcision.

    But Paul did not preach another gospel about predestined people who are thereby legally and morally justified. Paul instead simply straightened out the Judaizers who had blinders on, like me, and gave hope to Gentile Christians who needed to know that in God’s plan all believers were predestined to participate in salvation by grace through faith in Christ.

  25. Boris Bruton Avatar
    Boris Bruton

    Well said, father. It is in our fallen nature to always grasp at the forensic, the moralistic interpretation of things, and so let the glory of God escape us. And then moments come, and we — I — get it. Christianity is one of the most misunderstood religions. So many great minds have totally missed it — Tolstoy, Gandhi, Jefferson. Thank you again. Very helpful. Boris

  26. Juan Luis Avatar
    Juan Luis

    I dont see your view conflic with what I have learn as a Roman Catholic, be cause of Original Sin, everything in this world is born to die, wether Emperor or Empire, Governer or Governed, and the only thing to save ous from death is Gods Grace, which works in us and changes us, but yes as we change into the image of Christ, so does our morality by obaying Gods Decaloge, and when we talk about Good Works of our salvation, its ways about the works of Charity.

  27. Chad Avatar

    Does this depend upon the type of moral approach that is used? Specifically, I’m thinking of the difference between Kantian deontology (which is very concerned with legislation) and Aristotle’s virtue ethics (which is very concerned with the nature of things). Of course, Aristotle was a pagan, and we are Christians, but might he be respected for pointing the ancient world in the right direction (outside of the faith of Israel)?

  28. Lysa Avatar

    I can’t help but think of the Bible verse, “Faith without works is dead”. “Faith” CHANGES the way we “act” (morality)! Why? Because what I BELIEVE affects what I DO. Jesus said He came to bring a “sword”, not peace. The sword is one symbology of the world of thought and belief. I believe THIS is what Jesus came, in part, to do… to CHANGE our beliefs as we enter into a personal relationship with Him. In changing what I believe my behaviors are changed – not out of compulsion, but out of conviction! When I truly believe something I am strengthened to act upon that belief… not in fear (compulsion), but in LOVE – for “Perfect LOVE casts out fear”. When I truly know the LOVE of Jesus I am empowered and encouraged in my FAITH. And, yes, my behavior DOES change! And, this belief does not come because someone at a pulpit defines what I ought to believe, and ought not to believe. It comes because the Creator gave me a brain, a conscience, accountability, and the capacity with which to use all the aforementioned.

    This is why I no longer call myself a “Christian” – and it has nothing to do with whether I believe in Jesus or not. It has to do with Christians (the self-proclaimed) and the harmful results of their choices/behaviors on the Creation and the Other, and the very excusing of such choices by the whole of this religious society which I see in articles such as these – as if we “can’t help” our seriously poor behaviors by our very nature! How, if we can’t help it, could there possibly be an accounting (Judgment) at the very end…??? It is not as if I can only make “1” choice, and that is the choice for Jesus, and am incapable of any other.

    Yes, we have choices on a level, and ALL the commandments are fulfilled in LOVE. What would LOVE do? THIS sums up all “morality” for me! Period.

    Now… if you want to talk about POWER for living… there, my Friend, lies the problem – to which there IS a solution… and I think I just discussed it in the first paragraph… Jesus came so that we might have LIFE and have it more abundantly (wholesomely). This does not happen by the hand of a “Christian” nation, or the Christian individual, disrespecting and abusing the Creation/Earth as evil and strictly as a means to aquire – nor in the murder of another for all the reasons we may find to justify… It really comes down to the individual – not a group/religion – respecting, in LOVE, the Creator, the Creation, the Other – not in feeling as much as in CHOICE. Here, all the commandments (natural LAW) are fulfilled – in LOVE.


  29. Alex Avatar

    I sent this article to a former Catholic seminarian (still Catholic, not a seminarian) and he got the feeling that you were deontologizing morality. As an Orthodox I have certainly heard (from Orthodox speakers) terms like, for example, virtue. The term wasn’t taken out of the context of our union with God, but it seems to me to have a moral connotation (though not forensic). Thoughts?

  30. dee Avatar

    I think they key here is not the word morality but the word ontology… The impeccable morality or behavior or virtue of a saint is nothing but a consequence of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
    It is He Who can bring about such an ontological transformation that makes you into a “repetition” (pardon the awkward expression) of Christ – a true Saint.
    However, this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be working on changing my behavior, although I need to know that the reason for this struggle is to show God that I want Him to Ontologically change me, (I haven’t that power in me), to unite me to Him, make His life (and His “behavior” therefore), emanate from me EFFORTLESSLY because my corrupt nature has finally become what it was meant to be – Christ…

  31. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Dee, I agree. Morality is a term for obligations that may be manifestly legitimate, but the meeting of moral obligations does not save nor does it indicate salvation or even virtue. People can observe moral laws to the degree we’re able and motivated.

    Virtue is a better word when used to mean fruits of the Holy Spirit who makes us, as images of God, into a likeness of God.

    The problem with morality and ethics for a Christian is that there simply are no acts which are right or wrong in themselves; everything a Christian may do has a primary reference only to Christ. The demand is obedience to Him in every moment for everything we do and say.

    Deontological ethics, natural laws, teleological or consequential behavior theories, and so on, make sense only if Christ is absent from consideration.

  32. dee Avatar

    Thank you so much MichaelPatrick, beautifully said…

    I was so glad to read: “The problem with morality and ethics for a Christian is that there simply are no acts which are right or wrong in themselves; everything a Christian may do has a primary reference only to Christ. The demand is obedience to Him in every moment for everything we do and say.”

    Indeed, Christ is the measure of all things, and freedom is the only soil in which Love for Him and his creatures can grow… how could the notion of “moral obligation” have entered into such a perfect paradise? How could a freedom loving young man, for instance, intrigued by his natural intuition that “it can only really be all about love” and “that can only really be found in Christ”, not be put off by such a perversion of the ontological depth of this truth he has sensed, (when he then suddenly encounters ‘forensic’ morality)

  33. dee Avatar

    Thank you so much MichaelPatrick, beautifully said…

    I was so glad to read: “The problem with morality and ethics for a Christian is that there simply are no acts which are right or wrong in themselves”

    Indeed, Christ is the measure of all things, and freedom is the only soil in which Love for Him and his creatures can grow… how could the notion of “moral obligation” have entered into such a perfect paradise? How could a freedom loving young man, for instance, intrigued by his natural intuition that “it can only really be all about love” and “that can only really be found in Christ”, not be put off by such a perversion of the ontological depth of this truth he has sensed, (when he then suddenly encounters ‘forensic’ morality)

  34. Leonard Nugent Avatar


    I’m not too sure about what you just said but I am pretty sure that I’m morally obligated not to steal your car!

  35. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    In reading this thread it makes me wish that Tolstoy, Gandhi, Jefferson had Boris Bruton around to explain it to them. I once heard a church of Christ preacher explain where Aquinas went wrong on some matter of doctrine. It was truly a blessing for me to have been in that audience!

  36. dee Avatar

    Our reasoning is of this earth, whereas God’s ‘reasoning’ does not fit into human words. Amongst other things, this unfortunately opens up the possibilities for endless misunderstandings. God’s commandments indeed, are (as Elder Sophrony used to say) a “projection of His life onto our plane”… However, seeing this Life as mere ‘rules’ in the notion of “moral obligations”, amongst many other things, deeply alters – perverts even- the most crucial of all gifts to reasoning creatures: freedom…
    Without freedom there can never be an arrival at the meaning of all existence which is Love. True Life and Love are synonyms with each other (in the “Spiritual plane”) as well as with Paradise -the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact these words become so poor in our human language that, (this is a secondary reason why) the fathers very often remind us of their experience of God which is always the same for thousands of years: the person of Christ is paradise, love, life, light and the measure of all things…
    The meaning of all existence, as said above, is Love, but this is a synonym with Christ. In fact, the opening of St John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word/Λόγος” has this meaning as well in greek: the word “Logos” in greek also means “meaning”… (one would say “ο Λόγος της ύπαρξης” – “the meaning of existence”…
    The notion of “moral obligation”, useful for the correct function of society, has little to do with the understanding that we need to ontologically become what God made us to be: Sons and Daughters of His – like Christ, in his capacity as the Son of Man, has demonstrated.
    Compare the loftiness of such a high calling, of acquiring the Holy Spirit and the true Freedom only this ever imparts, (to become a repetition of Christ! – as Elder Aimilianos often calls it) with the notion of having to conform to some obligations…

  37. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Leonard, I will admit this is a difficult thing. It may help to recall that all sin is a matter of our relation to persons and not to any “objective” standard. For example, after sinning against Uzziah and Bathseba, King David said

    “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight, that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest.”

    How could he have sinned ONLY against God?

    The answer is found in Christ who took on Himself all sin, assumed into Himself the hurt of Uzziah and Bathsheba and, perhaps, generations of unborn children that David may have cut off by his selfish act. (We have no way to know the extent of the damage his sin caused.)

    To the perfect degree that Christ became sin for all mankind He became the only location of accountability for sin including its causes and consequences. When we offend we offend Him and only Him. This is not a cute play on words, it is an absolute reality that is vital to understand if we are to be saved members of His body. We cannot sin apart from Him and we cannot be saved apart from Him.

    Only Christ has fathomed the depths of human sin. We should never permit ourselves another standard because our only hope is His grace and mercy to exchange our sinful short life for adoption into His own relationship with His own Abba – to be sons and daughters of God in Christ.

  38. dee Avatar

    Excellent MichaelPatrick, that is why the first commandment ‘to love Him with all one’s being’, “contains” all others and safeguards their correct understanding…

  39. Karen Avatar

    Leonard, I think your confusion of the meaning of Michael and Dee’s statements (or parts of their statements) is understandable. Hopefully, their further clarifications have helped. If I can restate it, the issue is not that there is not clear right and wrong, but that to reduce “right and wrong” to the level of objective “stand-alone” rules, and then define our spiritual problem as that we do not keep the rules, misses the depth of what it means to be “right” or “wrong,” which may only be seen in its fullness in reference to Christ Himself.

    From her comment above, Lysa seems to have taken that same kind of misreading–in this case of Fr. Stephen’s original post (and even of Scripture itself)–to a whole new level!

  40. Michael Avatar

    One hell I know about is just trying to reconcile broken relationships and redeem lost opportunities without Christ.

    Without Christ we can’t know all the brokenness we’ve caused others or what our lost opportunities have cost us and those we love. We must know and repent yet without Him we can’t bear knowing. This causes tears.

    Meeting all persons in Christ is so important because our only hope of repentance and forgiveness is to huddle in His embrace where Love covers all our sins.

  41. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Karen I think you are right. To reduce “right and wrong” to the level of objective “stand-alone” rules is clearly wrong!

  42. Byzantine Jewess Avatar

    This helps explain something that I have been confused by at times – that the more “religious,” at least according to others, the less concerned I am with the categories of “right, wrong,” “good, bad” that I was once deeply preoccupied with. Certainly I hope to do and love good, but moving toward thinking about things in terms of overall spiritual (and bodily) health has been tremendously more helpful.

  43. fatherstephen Avatar

    According to what I’ve said about the “ontological” character of right and wrong – you could steal my car, but you would have taken a step towards non-being. I worry about this everytime I get in my car, even though I paid for it. It’s just that, as a car, it’s so next to nothing. 🙂

  44. easton Avatar

    father, maybe it’s time for a trade ; D

  45. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Father I do understand what you’re saying and one thing that I find to be true is that persuasive moral arguments rarely work on car thieve’s. I also think that if you came across a group of monks comparing car’s they might be arguing who’s car was closer to nothingness!! 🙂

  46. dee Avatar

    this is becoming very entertaining 🙂

    However, I would want to make a (quite sombre) clarification:
    for those who have had the unbearable experience of Hell and its desperate eternal blackness, even for a few minutes, “nothingness” (horrible as it is) almost seems irresistibly attractive! That is something we also say that the demons feel as well…
    This is a reason why it is better to describe, say, steeling a car, as a “step away from the Light”, rather than just a step towards nothingness… in other words it is actually a lot worst than that…

    Repentance also always ‘feels’ like a step towards the Light…

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    When I write on this in detail, I try to use the language that St. Athanasius first used. He never really speaks of “nothingness” (other than the “nothing” out of which we came). He will write of a movement towards non-being or nothingness, but not complete nothingness. Being and existence are God’s gift to us and he does not take them away – we simply set ourselves on a trajectory that moves us further away from true existence. “This is condemnation. That Light came into the world and men preferred darkness to the Light” (Jn. 3:19).

  48. dinoship Avatar

    Yes, I totally agree Father, no doubt about it. Even on a psychological level, the Ontological move away from Life Himself, (towards that eternal blackness) actually feels like being set on a “trajectory that moves us further away from true existence”. And St. Athanasius’ language makes for much a more robust philosophical argument. The reason for my ‘clarification’ was that some might think (erroneously) that nothingness is oblivion (in the far eastern understanding of the word, as if it is a good {!} thing), however, when “men prefer darkness to Light” they (myself included) know not, I say this with great pain, what they/we are opting for…
    May St. Silouan who’s feast we celebrate today and who knew all this to it’s outmost deapths help us!

  49. ikonick Avatar

    Father Stephen

    Your post resonated with me. To my mind Christianity is like sexuality, not a code or an external philosophy that I adhere to or try and live by, it is a part of me.

    I fear I have been ‘flirting’ with Orthodoxy for many years but unable/unwilling to take my interest further. Your post has moved me to think that even I might recognise what it may mean to live in the kingdom of God. Please pray for me.

  50. Andrew Avatar

    I would say Father, that Eastern Orthodoxy is the means by which monasticism, holy monasticism even, is allowed to enter into the world.

  51. Andrew Avatar

    (Holy monasticism being a circumlocution of the kingdom of heaven)

  52. Joel Watson+ Avatar
    Joel Watson+

    O God! You are good (καλός’ not αγαθού)! Thank you again for your sharing.

  53. Joel Watson+ Avatar
    Joel Watson+

    Sorry for the mis-typing, αγαθού, not αγαθου…

  54. […] make dead men live is how my priest puts it. Our problem is not one of morality, but of ontology. Father Stephen writes, “The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian […]

  55. […] Ontology, Existential, and Other Large Words I just read this great article and wanted to share. In Christ, […]

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