Of Course We Are Called to be Moral – A Response to My Critics

waldorf460Well, the firestorm has moved even to my host, Ancient Faith Blogs. There, you can find a response and a critique of my last article, The Unmoral Christian. I find nothing in the response with which I disagree. The author argues that externals are often important, certainly for beginners, and suggests that I have overplayed my hand in overemphasized the inner nature of our lives. That is perhaps true.

Every child certainly begins life being taught clear, outward rules for their behavior. However, before they reach puberty, I would maintain, they have probably already received what moral formation is likely to take place in their life. The rest of their lives will be marked by weaknesses and struggles that were already set in place within childhood. At least that’s my observation and pastoral experience.

As a young or beginning Christian, that moral struggle will need to be supported and encouraged. But as Christians grow, they need more meat and less milk. The experience of a serious adult can provoke deep dismay as they notice that over the years little or nothing has changed. One well-noted “de-convert” from the Orthodox faith observed several years ago that he saw no evidence of what he thought was a moral progress promised in Orthodoxy (this was his misinterpretation of the teaching on Theosis). The change from “glory to glory into the image of Christ” is not represented by an increasingly successful moral struggle. It is, as I noted in my article, a transformation in the Divine Life. That transformation might very well be revealed in greater moral abilities, but not necessarily so. Some things remain quite hidden, even unto death. If you want to see the Divine Transformation, you will have to gain a perception that goes much deeper than outer behavior.

The author cites several fathers who commend moral actions. We must, I well agree, begin with the commandments of Christ. It is of note, in his citing of St. Ambrose, that Ambrose trods a two-fold path. One for the beginner and learner, another for the monastic (the “perfect”). This distinction becomes, in the later West, a chasm between the laity and monastics – with only the monastics being expected to seriously pursue the harder points of the gospel. In modern Protestant theology (cf. Reihhold Niebuhr) Christ’s commandments become bifurcated – some being treated as unattainable and not really meant to be kept. That distinction never took root in the Tradition of the East. We clearly do not see monastics and laity as distinct classes – they only differ in the level of asceticism that they undertake. There are, for example, only one set of rules for fasting in the Orthodox Church. Monastics keep them more strictly. But there is not a “perfect” fast for some, and a “pretty good” fast for others.

I cited the importance of “failure” with regard to the commandments. This is a pastoral observation (not dogmatic). But I maintain, along with many spiritual fathers, that we cannot know the fullness of Christ without also knowing the emptiness of ourselves. The morally “successful” are often full of themselves. Christ was killed by the morally successful. St. Paul called such successes “filthy rags.”

While I readily grant the need for the commandments and clear direction in our lives (where did I deny this?), we can no longer write as though we were living among children. Our culture has entered a wild, rebellious, adolescent phase in which everything is being questioned. Many times we can no longer answer the hunger of the world by saying, “This is the commandment – do it.” Hearts are desperately thirsty and have been drinking at wells of false and misleading teaching. Nothing is perhaps more perverted today than the public morality of our times.

My writing effort, which I characterize as evangelistic and apologetic, seeks to engage the world and the culture at the level of its angst and to give answers (or even create questions) that can be chewed on. I think that there needs to be a heftier diet out there. I use my theological and pastoral background to do just that.

I suspect that what I do is only marginally successful. Some will understand what I have written and find it to be of help. However, I have heard in some places (though not in the cited article) that I’m somehow sounding an uncertain trumpet, creating anxiety and questions about morality during a time of moral questioning. I have perhaps underestimated the angst of the Orthodox about their own moral security.

During a time of moral questioning, there needs to be some serious answers. And those, it seems to me, must go beyond citing the rules and the law.

But if it troubles you, then please let it go. I would not trouble you further.

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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105 responses to “Of Course We Are Called to be Moral – A Response to My Critics”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    I have gotten a lot of food for thought out of your posts, and they have spoken to some current struggles for me in my spiritual journey. But then again, I’ve been Orthodox for nearly two decades now. I still have a long way to go on developing my Orthodox phronema, but I think that’s what your critics are missing… they are evaluating your writing based on their own Western Catholic and Protestant Christian experience. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is another beast, when you really start digging into the spiritual life… (this depth is one of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy).

  2. Max Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I think “angst” about moral security among us Orthodox is warranted. . . At least in the English speaking world, the tradition of ethical reflection among Orthodox Christians is scanty, especially seen in light of devout Roman Catholic ethicists who are doing much of the grunt work in the fight for traditional Christian moral values, esp. with respect to sexuality and family. I suppose I am curious how you think the ascetic struggle towards deification fits into the necessity that we maintain the Christian moral tradition in this modern age when moral norms are, for the most part, rejected or flouted as accidental or unnecessary.

  3. Jeremy Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this meat.

  4. Isaac Avatar

    While it was bound to raise hackles and cause distress, I think what you have written Father needs to be said and I am glad you are taking it on. Christianity is not morality.

  5. Paula Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, your essays have been EXACTLY what I am looking for. I’m noting your critics are often occupying the space between protestant/orthodox dialogue, which is fine, but there needs to be just the kind of meat out there that you are providing.

    Don’t ever change what you are doing! I look forward to every single post!

  6. Fr. Marty Watt Avatar


    I think what you identify is a critical question. What is implied, but not explicit, thus far in the conversation is the “why” of morality. In listening to the dialogue both public and within Orthodox circles, there is a sense that morality exists for itself, or as a path to something bigger, but no one has connected the two.

    Morality involves our obligation to “not me” – society or individual. It is exactly a focus on self that morality is designed to inhibit. The essential element of the fall of humanity is a change in our focus from a continual contemplation of our Creator, to a contemplation of ourselves – our own wants and will.

    Our morality, as ascetical behavior, is facilitative of theosis because of this function – because our will, our self-focus (hedonism if you will) needs to be extinguished. And so, hypermorality (pharaseeism) is equally a sin – because the focus is still squarely on us.

    What Fr. Stephen has written, to me, resonated very deeply – not because it alleviated our need for morality, but because it draws attention to the purpose of morality – the purpose of the Law, as a measuring rod for ourselves as well as a delineation of the path toward theosis through a self-mortification – not physically, but the mortification of our will. I see in his writing the connection between morality and theosis, which serves to enhance, not eliminate, the importance of morality in my estimation.

  7. Dn. Ezra Avatar
    Dn. Ezra

    Christ “has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. ” Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p.20.

    Christ’s “love has as its goal the ontological rebirth of man from within, not the ethical improvement of man…from without. (although this is an inevitable fruit of true spiritual rebirth.)” Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: the Lives abd Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece, p.16.

    It appears you’re in good company, Fr. Stephen.

  8. Alan Avatar

    Sorry you see it that way Robert. When Arius got punched in the face, I wonder if some saw that as “uncharitable”?

    If you follow that site on FB, they make jokes of things that are of the utmost importance. They (sad that often, you don’t even know which of their authors is doing the commenting) often display a flippant, irreverant, juvenile attitude towards everything. It seems obvious to me that they’re more interested in debating things and stirring up controversy than they are in educating people about The Church.

    Many of us left Evangelicalism because we saw that attitude on display every Sunday. I’m DEEPLY troubled to see all of those guys carrying that attitude and those actions into the Orthodox Church.

    You might be interested to know that when Fr. Stephen became Orthodox, he didn’t blog or write for a number of years after he converted. Seems like a good practice that I wish the O&H guys/gals would have followed.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Marty,
    Yes. Precisely.
    The weakness in the “moral” criticisms coming my way, are their failure to speak about the inner character of morality – that the Law is spiritual. How does the Christian keeping of the commandments differ from an atheist living by his own standards? Is it only in the content of the letter? Or is their something actually within the character of the Law itself. I would say that the Law is sacramental in nature (or something like that).

    I have seen good use of the commandments, and I have seen a moralistic, neurotic use of the commandments. One gives life, the other does not. It is worth more writing, no doubt. But, an article is not a book, nor the last word.

    When children are young, you can tell them to do something, “Because I said so.” It doesn’t work past a certain point. Our culture is seriously “post-Christian.” “Because i said so,” is insufficient in our public discourse.” It’s possible to say what I have said, as well, but couch it in so much patristic language and quotes, that it would pass muster for the nervous, but it would not do what it needs to do.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is much in what you say worth noting. I very much appreciated the bold language of JPII when he described ours as a “culture of death.” It was some of the best preaching the culture has received in a long time. Better, I think, than the environmental warnings that seem to top the bill when our Ecumenical Patriarch speaks (though there is something of a death wish in our abuse of creation as well – I think it is called “sin.”).

    I believe the teaching of the Tradition is correct and not to be changed. But we have to think long and hard how to teach it and present it to the world in which we live.

  11. Devin Avatar

    Your original arricle was the topic of a vigorous discussion on one of the Orthodox Fackbook groups last night 🙂 I think there was a fair bit of misunderstanding and a certain degree of people putting words in your mouth.

    That kind of stuff frustrates me. I doubt any of them emailed/messaged you directly with question or concerns. They just take to the interwebz and argue against straw men, making wild assumptions.

    I’d post your response there, but I ended up leaving that particular group. There was a pattern where the majority of posts were links to some theological article (almost alway from an EO author) where they all just take turns tearing it up. It’s like the doctrinal gestapo.

  12. Jeff Avatar

    It seems the ‘ middle ‘ ‘ well – being ( vs being and ever well being, which Cause is God), in Maximus is where the struggle is,

    “He affirmed motion’s teleological perfection without denying man’s freedom from the blindness of necessity; he acknowledged man’s fallibility yet he upheld man’s ability to receive God’s grace and to accept the divine invitation to salvation; he admitted the premises of apokatastasis without the obligation to follow its conclusion, for “since nature and person are not identical, the restoration of nature does not of necessity entail the complete restoration of every person.”

  13. Phil Avatar

    I follow Dylan’s Everyday Asceticism blog and find it both sensitive and helpful. He’s very smart and generally a careful reader and his reflections on the Fathers are often very insightful and bring their life into the modern world in a challenging way. So I was surprised to read such an obtuse response from him on this question. I suspect it’s the dissonance with his (baffling) commitment to Acton’s project of morally justifying our Modern order that is at play.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Alan, the punch to Arius was indeed deemed to be uncharitable in the extreme. St. Nicholas was deposed and all of his charity and other deeds would not have mattered had it not been for the intercession of the Theotokos to get him out of prison and restored to the episcopate.

  15. Paula Avatar

    Alan, I completely agree with you. The O&H group is displaying a distressing egotism lately, and are themselves very unwilling to receive criticism. I think it’s sad when another Orthodox blogger reaches out and publicly questions a fellow blogger’s work.

    Many years to you, Fr. Freeman!

  16. Amanda Avatar

    Moralism is a trap…and maybe people would understand this more if they were running in the kind of circles that I do. I homeschool my five children in the bible belt, and I live among homeschooling families who have left the public arena precisely because they feel it is morally bankrupt. In response to this there is a very strict moral code among homeschoolers in the South. You will not find a more moral environment…and yet there is this underneath subculture that is very dark. It is a type of smug elitism. I once listened in on a conversation about an “evil” that was being committed, and the outrage being expressed against the moral infraction was legitimate. But when I said, “That man is me,” I was run out of the conversation on a rail. I wish I could write a post that everyday people would recognize…because believe me, moralism is wreaking havoc out here among housewives and plumbers and farmers.

    If anything Fr. Stephen I think you are not hard enough on us lazy Christians…moralism is a cheap, easy, and false religion. And yet we are not free to be immoral… it’s not either or, but both and. It seems to me that the best morals are the ones with which we continually struggle. And maybe here is a truth, morality should always show us our sin, not reassure us of our greatness.

  17. Dallas Wolf Avatar
    Dallas Wolf

    This Pentecostal thinks your discussions are timely and helpful.

    I think the contemporary American church (pick your flavor) is operating at an sadly low level of human consciousness. It is fully engaged with and focused on mundane morality (milk) and little concerned with mystic contemplation (meat) leading to theosis.

    If you are catching flak from both Western Latin and Orthodox Christians, you are probably on the right track.

  18. -Seraphima Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    The confusion between morality – which is a social construct – and divinity – which is to what God has called us – is a current example of the effect of a subtly wrong – but eternally consequential – teaching.

    It is the same type of error that the Pharisees made in emphasizing the need to keep the external laws of God, instead of emphasizing the need to acquire a humble and contrite heart before God. As Jesus explained, they are both of God, but the latter fulfills the former and is, therefore, the greater.

    This error in emphasis was generated – and is now perpetuated – by those within the church who think that they understand right teaching, but do not.

    In your posts, you are making an effort to counteract this wrong-teaching and its impact on the souls of men.

    May the Lord bless you with a humble and repentant heart as he speaks to us through you.

    In Christ,
    – Seraphima

  19. Ioanna Avatar

    I’ve been a fan of your primary argument of how morality isn’t Christian for some time. In fact, I use your blog “Why Morality Isn’t Christian” for a blog discussion day in my Public Speaking classes instead of simply covering the chapter on Ethics in the textbook. Living life as a Christian is more about following a certain set of rules in the proper way and I won’t say anything further because I’d only be quoting you. 🙂 The misunderstandings that I’ve been seeing of your latest posts by others who are Orthodox seem to still be steeped in their Protestant ways of thinking. It’s sad and unfortunate, and I couldn’t understand why the justifications for tearing into you and putting words into your mouth in an online forum were being made in response to the question that was raised to simply ask you directly on your blog. Yet who of us that are converts don’t have those Protestant vestiges to dig out of ourselves and heal from (in addition to healing from everything else within ourselves on top of it all?)?

    I left Protestantism because I got tired of being given anywhere from 2% milk to water colored with white paint being passed as milk in my desire to find meat. Never apologize for giving us good stuff to chew on!

  20. Alan Avatar

    Phil, thank you for that bit of information. It makes things much clearer to see.

    Michael, thank you for setting me straight on the matter. I appreciate that as well.

  21. Sophia Avatar

    I have always been struck by the observations of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott that morality is learned, mediated, relationally. Our innate sense of guilt, as well as hope in being able to make reparation, builds up in how we relate, and are related to, as children. This also helps us come to respect others as existing in their own right, not just extensions of ourselves, and relating to them in that way. But this kind of relational ‘morality’ can also be devastated there, creating deep inner uncertainty. Interwoven into that are the spoken (and un-spoken) rules passed on to us by our parents, mentors, society. But, to the degree we are primarily seeking secure relatedness as little ones, and fail to receive it (for all the reasons inherent in our fallen world) the degree to which we imbibe those rules may have more to do with coercion and/or placating compliance than a deep security in our being loved. Morality becomes a bargain, as Michael Bauman noted in the other post, and can even serve to keep us away from our deepest wounds. Doing right to please our own sense of ourselves seems to have little relationship to truly loving others…and the latter is so much harder in my experience!

    If Holy Scripture tells us that we are able to love because first we are loved, and if Christ’s commandments are exhorting us to love God and love the other, I can not see how true ‘morality’ is not deeply linked to our inner lives, relationship to God, and trust in His love. It runs counter to every neurotic belief that we have to be beaten into doing good things, but grace has always been scandalous. I am not saying our will is not involved. This is what I love about Orthodoxy….God provides, God comes to us, but we also do everything in our power to go out to meet Him. At least, that is how I have understood and experienced it.

  22. Byron Avatar

    “And maybe here is a truth, morality should always show us our sin, not reassure us of our greatness.”

    A wonderful observation and statement, Amanda!

    And thanks to Fr. Marty Watt and others here for very helpful insights.

    As always, many thanks to Fr. Freeman for pushing us to deeper truth in relationship with God.

  23. Warren Aldrich Avatar
    Warren Aldrich

    I had been a “Christian” for perhaps 40 years before someone helped me understand the meaning of being “in Christ” and it was a few more years before I started to understand my identity in Christ.
    Being a moralistic Christian was extremely wearing and produced weariness. Knowing my identity gives life and joy.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for citing the “Why Morality Isn’t Christian” article. I didn’t say anything this week that I’ve not written before – I just managed to say it louder, I think.

    But I recognize the anxiety out there – like the home-schoolers mentioned above. The moral order is collapsing (and being replaced with an alien one). Some feel this as a call to man the barricades (the barbarians are coming). But Orthodoxy had either to be about the Resurrection or out of business. The walls of Constantinople fell – but the gates of hell do not prevail. And that image is not a defensive one – It’s hell’s gates that are doing the crumbling. I’m interested in gate-smashing!

    And on an even more serious point – I think that a moralistic approach is often too shallow. I’ve been a confessor for many years. And I work in some pretty dark places as a volunteer. The dark, shameful secrets that stalk the hearts and histories of even the very moral are often untouched by the law.

    Let’s take the pederast (child molester). Almost always, this person was once a victim. We “learn” our darkness rather than invent it. Command him not to do it again. And he will hate himself and despise himself. And do it again. And again. And almost all the men sitting on the jury will be addicted to porn, and so on. This was the power of Dostoevsky. He collected terrible little stories out of the newspaper of his day. When Ivan Karamazov makes his frightful arguments against God and Heaven (“I refuse the ticket”), the cases cited were drawn from real events in contemporary 19th century Russia. And they could have been around today – because there has been no moral progress if you look beneath the surface.

    And if we don’t dare look beneath the surface and address the true darkness and its true character, we’ll get nowhere. I love Dostoevsky because he ripped the mask off of moral society. My God, we have come through such a period of priests and bishops being defrocked for their dark sins, and others who have not been held to account for covering it up, and we expect the culture to listen to us when we lecture them about morality? It embarrasses me. I feel we have to go deeper (and deeper) or just shut up.

    We have just witnessed, for example, the revelation of the role torture plays in our official policy. And the people most in favor of it are conservative Christians (because, I think, they have become overwhelmed by their political passions). I am a conservative Christian. But I’m embarrassed. Am I to defend torture and then turn and lecture our culture about morality?

    I quickly grant that I can write in a more balanced manner sometimes. Though, I think, I can balance my voice to the point of silence. I haven’t been given that commandment yet.

  25. Chris Avatar

    Ah, the trap (or tyranny) of language. Thank you for these excellent thoughts Fr. Freeman! I feel like I understood what you were trying to convey in your first article on this, but I can see how it might be easy to misconstrue. It seems our overly rational minds fixate so strongly on the precise and literal use of every single word that we often miss the bigger picture. What sets Christians apart is not our moral precepts, which can be found in virtually every major religion of the world and which many atheists also follow, but our desire to achieve communion with God. I thought you made that point fairly well. Of course, you do not advocate a postmodern “do whatever makes you feel good” worldview, you are simply stating that Christianity, in the Orthodox view, is about more than morality. We become moral by coming closer to God, we do not come closer to God by being moral.

  26. -Seraphima Avatar


    Your children are fortunate, indeed, to have a mother and teacher who is so attuned to morality’s proper place in the Lord’s will – and to the darkness of soul that it brings when misunderstood.

  27. Max Avatar

    Unless I have misunderstood, Seraphima’s subtle dualism between morality as a “social construct” vs. divinity is gnostic antinomianism par excellence. Fr. Stephen has made no such dichotomy. For crying out loud, read St. Maximus. Read Aristotle, even. We ascend to God *by means* of virtue, not in spite of it. This is not a social construct but is grounded in the telos of human nature – it is objective and subjective, external and internal at the same time.

    This, I take it, is what Fr Stephen means in saying that the Law is “sacramental.” It’s basically what St Maximus means when he discusses the natural law. It’s no mere construct: it’s a true icon or conveyor of Truth. Palamas would go so far as to say it is even a providential *means* of theosis, a bearing of divinity to us through body and the natural, material order of things.

    Better yet, read MacIntyre’s classic “After Virtue.” Rejection of teleology, and hence of genuine standards of virtue (or morality, if one prefers) is at the root of the modern project. If we denigrate the struggle to live virtuously in order to emphasize theosis, we rob Peter to pay Paul. It’s right to say theosis is granted by God (the crux of Palamas’ criticisms of Barlaam), but that needs to be taken in the sense that virtue is necessary means to deification, even if it is not sufficient in itself. It’s the difference, according to Maximus, between “well-being” and “eternal well-being.”

  28. Robert Avatar

    A side note: if reading Dostoevsky seems overwhelming, give Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries a try. Over the course of the series of short stories Fr. Brown shows himself to be much in line with Fr. Zosima and teaches much the same lesson.

  29. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick Avatar

    Paula, you wrote: “The O&H group is displaying a distressing egotism lately, and are themselves very unwilling to receive criticism. I think it’s sad when another Orthodox blogger reaches out and publicly questions a fellow blogger’s work.”

    We’re very interested in criticism, and accept it when offered! But like anyone else, if we disagree with the criticism, we may respond.

    As for responding to other bloggers, well, this is pretty normal in the “blogosphere” (a word I detest, but there you are). There’s a lot to be gained from exchanging ideas, and composing well-thought-out responses can be quite valuable. I really appreciated Dylan Pahman’s debut post for O&H. Whether one agrees or disagrees with it, I thought it was well-argued and also very much respectful of Fr. Stephen’s work. He engages what he has to say without making it personal in any way.

    And yes, I will plead guilty to the charge of egotism. I’ve got lots of sins. Feel free to list them anywhere you like.

  30. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Of course the person seeking theosis behaves differently than a non converted person. It is not a behavior grounded in morals which would be living by the Letter of the Law which kills but by the Spirit of the Law which is life. We are different and our behavior is different because it springs from the well of Living Water not from societal rules. It may look similar to the casual observer but it is much different. As a friend of mine said, I do not do those things because I do not feel like doing them, not because I am not allowed to do them. I take your point as supporting living by the Spirit and not by the Letter as the mark of Spiritual growth and that societies morals play not part in it.
    Also I take your comments as addressing the shifting moral standards of society. When I was young there were many things that were simply unthinkable to do. Society has now changed where those things are now acceptable behavior. A person trying to lead a moral life on today’s standard would have drifted significantly from the norms of society 60 years ago.

  31. Deacon Antonio Arganda Avatar
    Deacon Antonio Arganda

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    I think that you are onto something and that it is why you are being attacked. Atheists that I know are extremely “moral” people. Orthodox Christianity is not about external behavior but rather about what happens in one’s heart. Humility and meekness and the theosis to which they lead us are not morality. Being “nice ” people is not our goal. Divinization is the goal.
    Thank you again for your contribution.

  32. Debbie Avatar

    Some people are seeking truth and healing. Some people just want to be right for their own purposes.

    All of this reminds me of St. Paul’s epistles and the battles he fought, the slander he endured, or endures.

    Thank you for your writing. Keep it up, please.

  33. Amanda Avatar

    If Brothers Karamazov does not obliterate moralism disguised as Christianity nothing can. I read it and wept for my sins.

  34. Byron Avatar

    I need to read that one, I think. I’ve known of it for some time but never cracked it open!

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Indeed. The making of the Law into an “idea” and abstraction notion to be considered, etc., fails to see the proper being of what we deal with. I said it’s sacramental, trying to find words. If I would not be understood, it would possible to describe it as something like a living force – far more than like an abstract idea. It is the Modern world’s abstraction of everything that turns it into nothing. We cannot change the Law, because we didn’t create it. It is written into everything. Lewis called it the “Tao.” Bold man that he was.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Andrew,
    Respectfully. The problem, I think, was the writer’s failure to understand my article or to think it needed a “balance.” The article is part of not just a longer set of articles, but even part of a conversation that has been going on here for 8 years, covering 1600 articles. The “balance” is there. If not in every article, it’s because I can’t say everything in every article.

    If each article is to be critiqued for what it didn’t say, then we’ll all fail. But the response article did not deal with what I did say. Therefore, I suspect the author did not understand.

  37. Red Avatar

    I am finding it difficult to respond here without being less that generous toward your detractors FrStephen. I will just ask that you do not change the way and content of your writing. Many of us need it.

  38. Roman Avatar

    There are many things within Orthodoxy that I find attractive, one of them is the practice of emptying oneself in order to receive Christ. The christian struggle, as I have understood in my short year of learning orthodoxy, is not a moral one but one of self denial. Putting to death our ego. The aim is unity with Christ. In order for this to happen we must make room within our hearts for Christ. This, as I have understood (I might be wrong) is the point of “the law”, to prepare our hearts for Christ. It is not meant to make us like Christ. The struggle to free oneself from the passions is akin to the bride preparing herself before the wedding. Our struggle with the passions is important but it is not the point, the point is our unity with Christ.

  39. -Seraphima Avatar


    Forgive me. I am little familiar with the references which you site, but I would like to read them.

    And, I suspect that there may be a confusion of terms regarding my statement that morality is a social norm. Let me more clearly define the way in which I use this term – and please forgive my many words.

    As I use the term, the mores of a society generally refer to the accepted social behavior of a given culture or group of people. This group behavior can be conceptually defined as its morality. Morality is normative. That is, it is the normal behavior of a group of people – the behavior which most people in that group agree to display.

    The morality of a group may or may not be virtuous.

    The morality of a group may or may not conform to one’s understanding of the natural law.

    By way of illustration, one commenter here mentioned that when she countered the questionable belief\behavior of a self-professed group of moral Christians, she was dismissed from that group. She was dismissed because she did not conform to the moral norms agreed upon by that group.

    Was the morality of that group virtuous?

    Did the morality of that group conform to the natural law?

    Are the practioners of that morality on the path to theosis?

    I have no idea.

    But I believe that what the Church teaches is that the only truly virtuous behavior comes from God, Himself.

    And the only way that I can participate in this Godly behavior is by acquiring the grace of the Holy Spirit of God.

    And the only way that I can acquire the grace of The Holy Spirit is by continually repenting of my sins and – with a broken and contrite heart – crying out to God to have mercy on me, a sinner.

    If ever I am fortunate enough to acquire some small measure of the grace of God’s Holy Spirit, then, perhaps, morality and virtue and natural law will, for that moment, collapse into one.

    Then, all my words and thoughts and efforts will fade into meaninglessness, and I might, praise God, be a smidgen closer to theosis.

    If my understanding of morality is not Orthodox, please help me see my error.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I must say, though I despise inter-Orthodox debate (it is a distraction and frequently scandalizes the faithful and leads to sin), the responses from people, clearly stating a very good understanding of what I have said, and articulating it quite well, does my heart good (literally, my heart needs some “good” – certainly less blood pressure). Nothing is of greater encouragement to me than to hear people “getting it” i.e. understanding the true nature of our life and salvation. I am far from the only one who writes this – I’m just a drop in the stream of Tradition – but I thank God for the growing rivulets! May they become rivers of Living Water.

  41. William Jeff Hurst Avatar
    William Jeff Hurst

    Fr. Freeman,
    I appreciate your response and I deeply value what you are do here—I an new to all things sacramental and feel like I have been a man in desert too long, with no nourishing springs to drink.

  42. Max Avatar


    Given your clarification I think we’re on the same page. If by “morality” you mean actual mores, then yes these are at least socially-situated (I would never say that does not make them in some cases binding, of course).

    What I think we need to avoid is the tired old Protestant Law-Gospel dialectic: a kind of semi-Marcionite understanding that the Law was intended to trap us in moral guilt so that God could justify saving us from himself. That’s Anselm. That’s Calvin. That’s Edwards. It ain’t Orthodoxy. Consequentially all of my works are “as filthy rags” and what matters is just ‘sanctification,” i.e. theological jargon for conforming to the pietistic Christian subculture.

    I could see a similar undermining of the Orthodox moral tradition (moral in the sense of “virtue”) by those who’d suggest that morality really is just “mores” and so, since we’re all about theosis (a shibboleth like “justification” for a Protestant) we can forget timeless moral imperatives (deride it as “moralism”) and just conform to outward “mores.” That was the gyst of Fr Robert Arida’s infamous blog post on the OCA website two months ago. This is how liberalism creeps into the Church, and our own hapless self-understandings can easily be our own undoing if we do not take seriously the full breadth of our sacred tradition.

    That said, my initial response was slightly ill-tempered and harsh. I apologize. . . That was just my end of the semester grumps as I finished grading papers before rushing home for Christmas break.

  43. Christopher Avatar

    “Therefore, I suspect the author did not understand.”

    I don’t suspect he did – I think he rather takes you to be negating morality and the Law despite his pleas to the contrary. Also, as you say it’s thin gruel indeed – I needed more “meat” than what he offers (and has the Fathers offering) at a very young age and I suspect most people do.

    What I find more interesting than the authors essay is Fr. Hans Jacobse’s input. To me it reveals just how hard we want hold onto to a sort of “moralistic” answer when it has become useless. Fr. Han’s does such good and important work on the front lines of the anthropological debates within and without Orthodoxy (especially lately within) – yet, I fear “we” are losing those debates. The proponents withing Orthodoxy for all the “good” the culture has to offer (e.g. WO, “compassionate” and “pastoral” approaches to civilly married homosexualists that in fact affirm them, etc.) seem so moral, so compassionate, so reasonable. Fr. Hans I think could use some more weight behind him when he confronts the “Orthodox Episcopalian” problem because too much of what he does (and I do) is a sort of “that’s not the Tradition”/scripture/Fathers proof texting, which is really moralism in the end.

    I too want to personally thank Fr. Stephen for pushing this “thesis” – one that really started to resonate with me back with “we will not make the world a better place” this past summer. Fr. Marty, I think your short post here and on the other blog also was very good.

  44. Max Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I hope I am not coming across as one of your detractors. I think you just hit a nerve for some of us at a particularly sensitive moment. I alluded to the controversy surrounding Arida’s post above, not to mention Rome’s Synod on the Family this past fall, among other tensions in the Church and across Christian confessions regarding traditional morality/ethics. Those of us who seek clarity in such matters can be easily put-off by what can sometimes seem like studied ambiguity. I’ve not intended to accuse you of that here, but the concern is ever present.

    Truth be told, the dearth of materials available pertaining to the study of ethics in Orthodoxy has constituted a crisis for me over the past few years. There is no Orthodox equivalent to, say, John Paul’s “Theology of the Body” or Humanae Vitae or the revival of the Natural Law tradition in modern Catholic scholarship. And that doesn’t strike me as a particular strength of ours. . . and I really am not willing to blame it on the fact that the West is just more “moralistic” than the East, as I’ve heard some say.

  45. Christopher Avatar

    Oh, I forgot to say: what about “supramoral” instead of “unmoral”? Perhaps too “geeky”… 🙂

  46. Max Avatar

    I am in favor of “supramoral.” Or transmoral. Or paramoral. . . except that last one sounds close to something unmoral.

  47. Christopher Avatar

    Max says:

    “Those of us who seek clarity in such matters can be easily put-off by what can sometimes seem like studied ambiguity. I’ve not intended to accuse you of that here, but the concern is ever present….There is no Orthodox equivalent to, say, John Paul’s “Theology of the Body” or Humanae Vitae or the revival of the Natural Law tradition in modern Catholic scholarship. And that doesn’t strike me as a particular strength of ours. . . and I really am not willing to blame it on the fact that the West is just more “moralistic” than the East, as I’ve heard some say…”

    I am very sympathetic to what you say here Max. However, I think that there is more than perhaps you realize on the one hand, and that what Fr. is pointing to us here is the underlying foundation, the “why” of anything that can then stand up and be counted as an Orthodox “modern anthropological ethics”.

    Frankly, I don’t think we will have to wait much longer because the situation vis-a-vis the culture is forcing Orthodoxy, at least here in America and Europe, into a real crises – even if most of the bishops seem oblivious and all the EP seems to be doing is cruising around the black sea and blessing the culture’s panic over “the environment”…

  48. Wayne Avatar

    All I can say is that this Lutheran keeps returning to this blog for insight from an Orthodox perspective and your piece on ‘moralism’ hit a nerve with me possibly because of my Lutheran Confession but I think also in the way it exposed Puritanical/Western sensibilities on “progress”. It also made me really think about the difference in externals between an Atheist and a Christian and if it is simply following the rules and being kind to others I fail in comparison to many Atheists out there. If that’s all Christianity is about then I’d rather find another way to spend my time more profitably.

  49. xenia Avatar

    Father Bless! I really like what you said, and I do think that Orthodox are struggling with morality within the Church, here in the United States the character it takes is that we are being pulled by two standards: that of the Church, and that of the World. The World has legalized things that God has strictly forbidden. People don’t understand choice and even priest speak about certain things as being a choice….in a sense i don’t think was ever meant in the Church. Mainly we are tempted more so to indulge since it really wouldn’t be a crime anymore and the Church is seen as a backward superstitious organization not rooted in reality.

    I have been reading your post with interest as I am in therapy and dealing with some deep scars and also dealing with political realities that distort what it truly means to be human being. I am African American. I get prejudice from the liberals (who hate God) and from the conservatives (who only love the God they have created in their own minds).

    I do not think you are saying anything different that what St. Theophan the Recluse has said, St. Seraphim of Sarov or even St. Paul himself….in fact that passage where he talks about how the law and faith, and whether if we live by faith we should disregard the law. I think that Im so happy to have read what you wrote because it makes me more vigilant to be mindful of what is going on in my heart, by being moral on the outside, and conformity to the “form” of civic morality, that I’m not in fact losing my soul…that Im dirty inside, and God wants us to cleans what is truly inside of us.

    Recently we celebrated the life of St. Akakios, who was severely treated by his elder, and died, and by a miracle, through the prayers of St. Akakios, the elder reformed his heart through the grace of God and there was a change in his harsh abusive character as a result.

    I think it is good to warn people not to become complacent. When you try to Be Good, you wind up being False to Yourself and to God, but that doesn’t mean that on the other hand, you should just run out and become a swine in the mud. I think it is a middle path, walked in prayer, unceasing prayer and repentance. I mean the picture we have of being good is rigid and calcifies our heart, and makes us judgmental…I think we need to just be…we know what God requires of us, these are the moral standards of Our Orthodox Christian Community the commandments….as we struggle to make these commandments a part of our Be-ing, and seek to acquire the Virtues, understanding that we most importantly must seek to be Reconciled To Christ our Maker…..that is what we are truly struggling for..and by reconciling with Him we acquire the Holy Spirit. it is a process, and extreme humility is necessary so everyone i have read has exhorted to us. It’s not how good we look in the mirror or to our boyfriend or to our friends or to society. it is what is happening to our heart a mystical reforming, like the way Jesus reformed the eye of the man blind from death. (who actually saw the mechanics of the thing-He spit on some dirt made mud and suddenly the man had eyeballs.)

    I think that is what is happening and it requires our participation. The Morality of our Church is a medicine, a behavioural spiritual medicine, and we are helped greatly by the sacrament of the Eucharist which may act as a sort of booster. In vacinates us from the world and begins the mysterious work of reforming us back into His Image.

    So how it helps me in my therapy, your posts is that it helps me to be cautious, not to think that it is me that is changing and that whatever change is happening is happening for the sake of God and requires my participation, which is mainly obedience to the Lord and the Statutes He set For Us in the Church. It’s really great to be able to say All Glory to God…..it takes the weight off my shoulders, so to speak, I’m not so afraid of other people’s praise or criticism. So Im grateful for your post, and I beg God on Your Behalf that You stay on the ladder and reach the Heavenly Kingdom! And please pray this for me as well.

  50. Chrys Avatar

    The Pharisee was not indicted for being “wrong” when he gave thanks to God for his virtues. Nor was the Publican praised for the moral failures which rightly required repentance. Rather, the Pharisee was indicted for relying on his own (moral) behavior, upon his own efforts. Even “perfect” behavior, if enacted “on one’s own,” is but an extension of Adam’s fall, who sought to “grasp equality with God” by his own efforts, to be “god” on his own. Jesus, Who was God by nature, did not, but embodied the perfect humility that makes true communion possible. And it is only in and by communion with God that we are transfigured, divinized, and able to do what is truly “good.” It is only by living in communion with God that we become what we were made to be: vessels of His grace. This requires repenting of the deep, deep ego-centricity and self-centeredness that lies in all of us – no matter our outward behavior. (It is worth noting that there can be myriad reasons for doing what we call “good” which may ultimately be simply self-serving. If my own reflections are indicative, I would say that there is very little that I do that would be called “good” that is not, ultimately, self-serving.)
    In many ways, our initial repentance is like an iceberg – it is a reaction only to the small portion that is outwardly visible, missing the vast selfism that lies hidden beneath. Outward righteousness (which is about as far as self-righteousness can go) can never establish us before God – and will, since it is driven by our own self-assertion, alienate us even further. We need to repent of the autonomy that moves our hearts in so many difficult to discern ways.
    At the same time, outward sins and immoral behavior are also indicative of a lack of spiritual health and the need for repentance. Both outer behavior and inner disposition require repentance. And repentance, as the Publican found, always relies on the unfathomable mercy of God.
    Yet if we live in communion with God, we will do the things He is doing. This is my understanding of the discussion of the judgment, of the sheep and the goats. The sheep were behaving and doing as Christ, moved by His love in their hearts. So the behavior remains a “diagnostic” – but not the source – of the divinized life.

  51. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    Father Stephen,
    I deeply appreciate your blog and all of the comments your avid readers add. I rarely add something due to by busy travel schedule but always read.

    What you are doing here is deeper than you realize. You are helping us form a dialog and a message that communicates the true Christian faith in a new and different age – one where traditional western Christianity is largely discredited and had lost its voice, and open defiance to traditional morality reigns in the guise of freedom. The tired arguments of Protestants offer almost nothing…but we Orthodox have yet to articulate the Christian faith properly to today’s generation in a way that resonates. I see your work here as hashing this out – a necessary process. There is a way to do this, I am positive.

    I just spent ten days in China this month where 88% of the population profess no faith….in contrast to u sin America, in that space of their lives there is nothing. I sensed they are getting ready to hear the truth. All around were Christmas decorations in the malls and airports…people wonder what it all means past the empty drive to increase commerce. Developing a clear and powerful message that cuts through the empty modern materialism and moralism here in the US might be important for other cultures to hear…for the modern Chinese are the greatest example of being extremely Moral and also Faithless.

    In spite of all that is happening around us, I am very positive. What we are developing here is important.

    Thank you to all.

  52. Panayiota Avatar

    Thank you father. Your blog, especially the recent topic of morality, has indeed shown what true freedom in Christ means.

  53. Emma @ Words And Peace Avatar

    For once that someone speaks with meat, about the depth of the real Christian life, sad to see so many didn’t get it.

  54. Mormon to Orthodox Avatar

    This idea of morality as a human construct is so foreign to my way of thinking. I still believe this is where my misunderstanding of Fr. Freeman’s articles is rooted. In response to the question, “What is the difference between a moral atheist and a moral Christian?” I would answer that the Christian recognizes that true, objective morality comes from the Divine, since without God all things are permissible.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    oohh. How about “meta-moral.” 🙂

  56. RC Avatar

    In pondering your last few articles, Father, and reading the “critique” linked above, it seems the main misunderstanding is about the *purpose* of morality. Does morality “get us” anywhere? Why do we “call” people to be moral? Does it produce something in us that wasn’t there before? Is it because it makes life easier for everyone? As noted, an atheist can certainly be moral; perhaps more so than anyone else. Does that somehow make them ontologically closer to God (which should, unquestionably, be our only concern)?

    This conversation has brought to my mind some thoughts from St. Seraphim of Sarov. He says: “[E]very good deed done for Christ’s sake, [is only the] means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. But mark, my son, only the good deed done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ said: He who gathers not with Me scatters (Luke 11:23).”

    St. Theophan the Recluse, speaking of our ontology, says: “I suppose that you remember and still keep in mind that a Christian is not an ordinary person, being formed instead from nature *and* grace. I would like to clarify something for you at this point: Those who are saved, that is, those who will enter the eternal Kingdom of God, are only those in whom grace dwells; not secretly, but openly, permeating our entire essence and becoming even outwardly visible, absorbing, as it were, our entire nature.

    Heed the word of the Savior! He says that the Kingdom of God is like when a woman had added leaven to dough. Once it has received the leaven, it does not rise all at once; it will do so in its own time. The leaven within it permeates the dough little by little, and the entire dough becomes leavened. Bread baked from this is light, aromatic, delicious. It is exactly the same thing with grace which has been added to our nature: it does not permeate everything all at once; instead, it does so little by little. Then, once it has permeated everything, one’s entire nature is filled with grace.”

    What you have been doing is drawing our attention to the ultimate purpose of what we do and why we do it. We aren’t trying to “become better”; we are trying to become gods. And that only happens by grace, not by being moral. Morality is the fruit of being that “mixture” of nature and grace that St. Theophan describes. If it’s not that, it isn’t of much purpose and, as you noted, could even be dangerous.

  57. Isaac Ward Avatar
    Isaac Ward

    Bless, Father..

    I was slightly troubled to see all of this dust-up. Scandalized may be too strong of a word, but slightly troubled, yes. In a way, this all might have been useful for me. I’ve long thought my opinions were so awesome, they were to be shared across the Internet. This time, I had to sit on my hands and resist the temptation to ‘join the fray’. I questioned for a while if I should even post this.. but I ultimately decided I want to share a brief anecdote.

    I engage with a good friend of mine who waffles around the spectrum between full-blown atheistic nihilism to Buddhism. I know he doesn’t want to hear about morality. He does, however, believe in searching for the truth. He believes that there is truth that holds cosmic importance. He believes in a spiritual realm, but has long-held assumptions about Christianity and Christians that are just cringe-worthy.

    Yours are the really the only Christian writings I can share with him. And I really can’t help but feel that if he ever becomes Orthodox, it’s going to be because someone finally showed him that Christianity isn’t about a ‘better’ way or a ‘better’ life or a ‘better’ future as long as he satisfies some moral obligations. Thank you for providing that.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree. It’s hard sometimes to understand how understaffed Orthodoxy is in real trained “theologians.” For one, we’re very small in America. England is producing some really good scholars, but they are mostly Patristics people (which is very good). And, interestingly, theological ethics is not historically been an important area in Orthodoxy. My own background and training including studying with Stanley Hauerwas (theological ethics), though my concentration was primarily with Geoffrey Wainwright (Systematic Theology). I probably do more “theological exploration” or some such thing than is common among Orthodox. I use my training and apply it in an Orthodox manner. I generally like the effect.

    I’ve seen a number (increasing) of young scholars. There’s a growing number of Orthodox professors of philosophy in the US. But Russia and the Balkans are still crawling out from under the oppression and limitations of the Communist period. Though I would say that the single most productive Orthodox writer/theologian of the 20th century was Staniloae in Romania. His stuff is starting to add up in English translations. He’s incredibly good.

    In his own way, Elder Sophrony was more “creative” than the average Orthodox writer. He’s sometimes been criticized for this. But he was writing from the depths of a saint’s knowledge (I look for his canonization). He pushed the theology of personhood to an amazing level (and lived and embodied it).

    I’ve just gotten a book by Philip LeMasters that I’m looking forward to. He was at Duke for some of the same time that I was. There is also Tristam Englehardt, an Orthodox professor of ethics in Texas (a real piece of work!).

    The development of ethics in the West has not been so much a matter of moralism, I think. But scholasticism tended to break things into categories, then study the heck out of them. Orthodoxy has tended to be more wholistic – and always suspicious of creativity.

    My creative use of language (at least Orthodox-wise) clearly creates problems for some. But I’m just doing what God has appointed me to do. It is of some small use. Orthodoxy has only spoken English since 1962 (the year the first book in English on the Orthodox Church appeared). We’ll be doing more in a generation or two.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Gosh, I love you people! Glory to God! I read these comments and think, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

  60. David Avatar

    Father Stephen –
    As a Catholic, I have found your articles to be a breath of fresh air and “radical” in the best sense of the word – to get to the root of. For many of us Christians we have gotten lost in a moralistic scholasticism that that is like a big tree with many different branches but no roots.
    Thank you so much for your courage to raise and examine these issues.
    Thank you!!

  61. Karen Avatar

    Indeed, Father, people “getting it” is by far the rule from what I have seen doing some very brief Internet searches on your name and this blog series. The vast majority of hits are those re-blogging your posts and/or commenting on some helpful “aha” moment triggered by one of your posts. The negatives are very hard to find (really practically nonexistent and truly not worth mentioning).

    It’s very clear to me you do what you do in order to nurture spiritual life in others (and, undoubtedly, if your experience is like mine, the truth you seek to express nurtures your spirit as well). Nobody is perfect, and nobody can be all things to all men. My personality and vulnerabilities are such I often struggle to accept that and perhaps you can relate. All we can do is be faithful to that to which we have been called. (In that regard, I agree with Fr. Aidan’s comment to you on the O&H comments thread as well.)

    At points in the years since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve been drawn into a few of those despicable “inter-Orthodox” debates online. I’ve always come to regret it as a colossal waste of time in the end (or worse, if I’m tempted to comment on some controversy, throwing fuel–sometimes unwittingly–on a destructive fire). I’ve had to learn a few things the hard way (and not just in this area). My Rector has also discouraged that kind of reading, but he has always held up your blog as an example of the sort of thing we should read for our spiritual good health. I’ve never in the nearly eight years I’ve been following your posts, had occasion to regret visiting your site.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Karen, thanks. You’ve been a great friend and commenter on the blog for these many years. I had no idea what this would become. Interestingly, Fr. Aidan first got me writing…doing guest posts on his first blog. Unleashed a monster…I’m so glad he’s blogging again. In truth, I almost never read anyone else’s blog…I don’t have time. Inter-Orthodox debates are a waste of my time and a distraction from doing really useful things. They easily spin out of control and invite very unhealthy comments. And they create spiritually and emotionally dangerous places. The comments community here (despite my occasional grumpiness) is one of the great joys of writing. Writing is ok. Being read is better. Having conversations on the topics that are of interest to me is the best of all. And if others are getting something out of it…then what could be better?

  63. Eric Avatar

    Perhaps contemplation of all that is Good and True and Beautiful is of greater benefit to the soul than exercising ourselves over what us ‘moral’?

    We are sleazily distracted
    Lord have mercy

  64. Eric Avatar

    Perhaps contemplation of all that is Good and True and Beautiful is of greater benefit to the soul than exercising ourselves over what us ‘moral’?

    We are so easily distracted
    Lord have mercy

  65. Eric Avatar

    My apologies, Father Sephen
    Although my autocorrect may have stumbled upon something 🙂

  66. Josh Duncan Avatar

    It’s strange to me that you have received this criticism. For me, you are putting words to what I have already been experiencing in fits and starts. Making moral progress is not the goal of Christianity, though I thought it was for years. Even after I realized it wasn’t it has taken me a long time to let that lesson permeate my life. I’m not Orthodox, but I see much good and much help in what I’ve been reading. Thank you.

  67. David Avatar

    Blessings to you Fr.,

    Those texts were very challenging, and they did what they had to do. What is the point of reading something if it does not change us, challenge us or bless us ? I hope thoses questions of morality will arise again, I found them very ”good” (I’m in need of a better word).

    Thank you,

  68. Christine Avatar

    Your writing have been nourishing. Thank you.

  69. Christine Avatar

    *has been*

  70. Hilary Avatar

    A devout Californian is just like a Southern Baptist — bragging about how good they are while telling the rest of us what we’re doing wrong. It doesn’t surprise me that you’ve received such a negative response from wordy people who have to be right about all things. Discussions about Christianity are just supposed to be safe little things where we proudly stroke our chins and say “the word in Greek is actually” and start sentences with “I used to” or “I think” or “I,” “I,” “I”…. God, that bores me. When nothing about the gospel is boring. Give me meat.

  71. Dino Avatar

    I probably don’t even need to restate that I have nothing than the greatest admiration and deep appreciation of Father Stephen’s writings. It is a rarity in the English language for someone ‘spoilt’ with reading all this in the original Greek to encounter these truths spelt out so graphically. It makes for a freshness without deviation from the original notions -a terrific combination. I habitually recognise [in these articles and comments] St Maximus, St Macarius, Athanasius, many of the Philokalic fathers, St Silouan, Elder Sophrony, Aimilianos, while obviously reading a contemporary American carrying this tradition the way it deserves… Many aspects pertaining to contemporary and historical issues have been clarified in a manner that I found invaluable…
    That many are scandalised and often require clarifications or invite confrontation is, of course, no problem at all… Besides, it is a conviction of the Tradition that our very salvation would be doubtful if it wasn’t for others attacking us and if every one had nothing but great admiration and deep appreciationit for our words. 🙂

  72. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    The gift in Christ of eschatological life disrupts our language and our normal expectations for “spiritual progress.” Stand your ground, Fr Stephen! 🙂 http://goo.gl/PpPAKl

  73. Fr. Hans Jacobse Avatar

    EDITOR: Please use this edited response.

    Christopher, the commandments are the banks of the river. You degrade them at your own peril. That’s the answer to the “but why?” question. There really is no other answer and it is confirmed through experience regardless of whether one obeys or breaks them.

    This, then, is existentially true and thus real. It is not true because we believe it is true; it is true because it is true. Our only relationship to this existential reality is one where we either understand it or are ignorant of it.

    It doesn’t bother me much that sometimes this ignorance is manifested as rigid moralistic structures. That reduction is a function of the desacramentalization of creation, where paradigms that mimic the face of Christ replace the life-giving Word of God; where systems replace creativity. Yes, it is indeed a type of idolatry where the life-giving spring is plugged with a muck that hardens into concrete, but it still has no bearing on the existential reality I mentioned above.

    Fighting against these structures is fighting yesterday’s battles. They are no longer dominant in the culture. Everyone is a post-modernist these days, and those that aren’t live in a past where the only ones who hear them are the like-minded but they are graying and won’t be around in another 20 years. Their children are not listening.

    I look at this question in terms of the cultural detritus that post-modernism leaves in its wake. Clearly the solution is not a return to the rigid moral structures; the paradigms that emerge as a result of a desacramentalized Christianity that is unable to uncover the knowledge that can heal the soul.

    But neither is the solution to posit the commandments against a generalized notion of love and acceptance that diminish the important and function of the commandments. That confusion leads to such things like the attempt to legitimize sodomy we see in some quarters of the Church. (We should not formulate our responses to paradigmatic moralism merely as a negation.)

    I deal with too many young men confused by the moral relativism of post-modernism (to the point where it has damaged their souls) to diminish the importance and necessity of the commandments. Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice St. Paul says, and then be transformed by the renewing of your mind (“mind” is nous in the Greek). One follows the other, and the way that we know how to conform our behavior to Christ (the “offering” of our bodies) is by the commandments.

    Once this happens (it works hand in hand), Christ is increasingly encountered and the experience of authentic transformation — wholeness, self-integration, meaning, focusing of talents and creativity, purpose in life, victory over addictions, all the constituents that define man as authentically man — can take place.

    This is why the commandments are important.

  74. Peter Avatar


    The whole earth is filled with his glory!

    I really can’t understand the confusion on this whole topic. I guess old habits and ways of thinking simply die hard. We are called to a transfigured life. We are co-laborers with God because our ontological root is incarnational. Do we all know this? How could the life of Christ be only about or reduced to morality? If our faith is only about morality, it really is nothing but another set of beliefs, whether religious or secular. What Orthodoxy is not; is a set of ideas competing in the marketplace of ideas.

    The Church has as her center the risen Christ. We behold his glory. We participate is his glory (John 17.) How can we make this anything less than what Christ has done?

    “Who has bewitched you?” “Having begun in the spirit are you now made perfect by the flesh?” The faith of Jesus Christ is a maximalist faith. It was never intended to be reductionist is any way.

    Any reduction is a counterfeit. Accepting this substitute, we go back to the “weak and beggarly elements of the world” because a counterfeit can only be comprised of that. (i.e., no ontological root)

    We cannot reduce our faith by limiting salvation to morality, just as we cannot reduce our faith by not living in repentance and renewal. Morality has always been a substitute for the life in Christ, “they have a form of Godliness but deny the power thereof.”

    Let us guard against a kind of patristic fundamentalism. We will reduce our faith if we do not. This is in no way is easy, but the challenge of our faith is to live it; to make known what can do known. The only way to do that is to bow your knee and live the life that says “not my will, but your will be done.” This is difficult.

    An authentic life (first and foremost, personhood in Christ is utterly authentic) will never be reduced to a mere quoting of the Fathers but will be about a life offered or” poured out” in a “new and living way.”

    Anyway, I’m really dismayed that people are dismayed.

  75. Ken Kannady Avatar
    Ken Kannady

    fr. Freeman: Thank you for revealing a missing part of my life. Indeed, morality can be twisted into something unrecognizable, however, as Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits.” Humbly, I am your Western Catholic Brother ! Ken

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Hans,
    The commandments are indeed central. It is the “how” of the commandments (how they work) that has been the topic of my articles. I think you get at this with attention to the desacramentalization of the world. It’s a very useful direction in the conversation. In my own writing, trying to help others see the sacramentality of the world and of the path of salvation is a constant struggle. My foray into the language of the “unmoral” Christian has been that we might rightly see what a moral Christian should look like.

    I think some others, in their own cultural anxiety, have imported into this conversation their habits of the culture wars – something that – as you note – we have largely lost. But that is the ephemera of culture whose pendulum swings to and fro. Because the commandments are indeed true (and not just agreed), I think that the pendulum will swing again because nature will give it a push. We are already pushing civil law to the point of the ridiculous. I think it will become yet more so, but I also know that its own silliness will provoke a response. I personally think that the response will become quite ugly and that the culture war could begin to look like Europe of 1918. (That is roughly when it began).

    But we must be about teaching the faith and helping the faithful walk the path of salvation. For me, this includes turning them aside from a false moralism and towards the true path of the life-giving commandments in the fullness of their sacramental power. A little paradox will be required from time to time. Thank you for your thoughts.

  77. Byron Avatar


    I like “sleazily distracted”…. LoL!

  78. Fr. Hans Jacobse Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Pendulums swing on a clock that works but I think the culture is too broken where that kind of regularity can be trusted anymore. I agree though that nature will push back and probably push back hard. I also think that our trajectory towards conflagration that you indicated will most likely lead either to submission to Islam or subservience to the Strong Man unless something happens to divert it which is entirely possible but not something I see. We all are in Wiemar now (speaking of post-modern Christendom).

    Maybe part of our differing perceptions is that I have never worked in a convert parish. Paradigmatic moralism have never been an issue I have dealt with on a parish level. My battles were always with secularized Orthodoxy where morality was viewed as having some authority but not enough to compel anyone to change their behavior in any meaningful way. This leads to the same kind of dimming of sacramental awareness (secularism is the blindness to the sacred dimension of creation) that afflicts the builders of static moral paradigms.

    Protestant dominance is over. Even Evangelicalism will fall most likely through a split between Christian ideologies of a Reformed flavor or Progressive ideology (an inversion of the Christian moral tradition).

    I think the only hope is recovery of the non-material dimension of reality, the spaces and places that faith penetrates. I don’t use the word “spiritual” here intentionally because that word no longer has any precise meaning in common discourse. That non-material world has structure and is infused with personality and power that reveals itself as beneficent. It challenges the materialist assumptions that hold a great deal of authority in the broader culture (including the Orthodox) not because they are persuasive on their face, but because the notion that anything can exist apart from them has become incomprehensible. This, by the way, is the true ground of the culture wars.

    So the only way to penetrate this fog is to become more pneumatikos — spiritual in the true meaning of that word — which means that the only way the world will comprehend that our word might be true and worthy of listening to is if we heal the sick, raise the dead, feed to poor to the point of sacrifice — all the constituents of the Gospel (and thus the Last Judgement).

    We are becoming as removed from the God of Abraham as the world was when the Gospel was first preached. Paganism however, at least in post-modern Christendom, is a cultural (intellectual, moral) impossibility because the revolt is not against the narrative derived from experience with the elemental forces of nature, but against the cultural memory of the one true God. The only option that remains at this point in history then is nihilism. We fight against the forces that embrace death as the solution to the vicissitudes of life.

    That is why a recovery of pneumatikos especially in authority and power is necessary. It’s the only hope we have.

  79. Eugenia Parish Avatar
    Eugenia Parish

    SO——LOve covers a lot of issues how to
    utilize this central principle is paramount. What I’ve experienced in my 30 plus years working with the “marginalized” in our society is that there is” Good” in the what our culture deems the “Worst” of us.
    It’s apparent that there is more emphasis on SIN in our culture and indeed Orthodoxy rather than redemptive love. There are those that who never experience it in their lives. There are NON- Christian/Orthodox who give more hope through acceptance/non judgment and specific ways to do it. Can we do any less? Lord have Mercy.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    FR. Hans,
    Well said. I think that my experience would indeed be different in other parts of the culture. Though, I’ve often seen that a cultural Protestant-lite suffuses everything. I was an Anglican for 18 years, serving both in the North and in the South in non-Evangelical parishes. My experience there differs greatly from that of convert Orthodox. But the same cultural stuff was present. Interestingly, there are differences morally only about “what” is moral, not about “how” morality works. And a conservative morality seems little more suited to salvation than the liberal form. We need life from the dead.

    I don’t think the culture will embrace Nihilism at all. It takes too much courage to be a Nihilist. No, I think something far lighter and more insipid will inundate us. We will drown in mediocrity, boredom, and banality. Our Weimar is a dull place, punctuated mostly by the angry barks of Left and Right, all of whom go home, watch their porn and feel wretched.

  81. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Hans,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I hope I did not imply that I or we are to ignore the commandments. I should say that my questions was “dialectical” – I was putting myself in the place of an unbeliever or a believer with false assumptions (say about WO, homosexualism, etc.) and asking why their morality is ‘false’ and the Tradition’s is ‘true’

    I think you are absolutely correct when you point out that most of these folks are post-christian (or christian with certain modernists assumptions they are trying to mix in). I have realized of late that when I discuss these things I have been merely pointing to the “banks of the river” to use your analogy – I have been assuming that the flow of the river is understood. Perhaps I should only speak for myself when I said this and not have included yourself. I am realizing that the “fear of God” (the weight of the flow from behind) and the “hope of God” (when the river pours forth into the abundance of the sea) is something post Christians don’t assume or understand. Not sure about the “innovators”, but they are not getting something crucial.

    Speaking for myself, (obviously I am not a pastor and do not deal with people as you do) I need to think and speak about the commandments in a different way – one that emphasizes the fear and hope of God (the flow of the river) and not spend too much time pointing to shore because that leaves the unanswered “why” out there.

    This “problem” is particularly important when I think about raising my young children, or in my relationships with my family and fellow parishioners (and not necessarily debates on the internet). I think Fr. Stephens long serious of posts and your reply has helped me think about the “sacramental” nature of morality…

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thinking about children. I wonder how many of us teach our children how to lose? Can they do it without self-loathing? Can they accept it with grace? Can they love the game more than the winning? Can they rejoice at someone else’s winning as much as their own? These are thoughts of a night. Blessings to all

  83. Jacob Avatar

    I clicked the post comment button on The OH blog site. I hope my comment shows up there. I post it here so both sides can benefit, so I hope. Hope it shows up here and there and helps rather than hurts:

    My wife and I don’t argue as much as we did early in our marriage. Time seems to work things out as we get to know each other as two become one.

    Most of our arguments would get so heated until finally we would realize we actually agreed. Pah’ching!!! Like two pots clanging together, or rather two heads head butting each other.

    This is what we ended up calling it when we found ourselves arguing in agreement. “Hold on, we are pah’chinging again.”

    But we were so focused on our own perspective during the arguing that we ended up wounding the other before we realized we were seeing the same elephant from a different side.

    Sounds to me like Dylan has pah’chinged with Fr Stephen. I hope the two and the supporters of both can kiss and make up as my wife and I have on multitude of occasions.

    As alluded to in Dylan’s article regarding slaves to sons, which I agree with his perspective, there are the 3 stages of development I have come to learn in my recent conversion and Chrismation to Orthodoxy, those of Repentance (understanding our shortcomings in keeping the commandments and law of love Christ taught from the Mount of Olives; not to be confused with the “bewitching law of Moses” some have alluded to in error as they defend Fr Stephen), of Illumination (which few Protestants understand in the Orthodox view), and Divination or Theosis (which level I believe and hope I correctly understand Fr Stephen is alluding to in his article).

    As stated, I am a rookie Orthodox. I am new to this blog as well. I have actually been listening to the excellent lectures of Fr Andrew’s O/H archived podcasts this past week. I have found them most excellent Fr Andrew. I hope my wife listens to them.

    My wife is not convinced of Orthodoxy yet. She is still struggling with certain things. “Blow ups amongst the Orthodox” like this are one of her hurdles. She actually told me about these two blogs today (12-20-14). Though I have been Chrismated into the Church, she is the one who reads the blogs.

    Having said that, is there any possibility of dividing the blogs into levels of Repentance, Illumination, and Theosis?

    No? No. I can see how difficult that would be. Maybe bloggers and podcastors could self rate their posts like the movies do: you know like rated G, PG, PG-14, and R, etc. Maybe some kind of organizing especially for the new inquirers and new converts to at least have an idea of what they are about to expose themselves to.

    I say this a bit tongue in cheek, not to be rude or disrespectful, but with hopes to lighten the mood to make a point.

    The modern Non-Orthodox world is mostly a shallow creek and barely understanding the depth of the Orthodox ocean they now find themselves diving into. It is easy to see how people can pah’ching here. If the Orthodox pah’ching like this, how much more for those who pop in for the first time or even their first year?

    Well, I’m not sure if I completed my thoughts well enough. I’m actually at my second job posting this during some down time. I hope I helped somehow and I hope Dylan will take his argument to Fr Stephen’s blog for clarification prior to roasting him in a separate blog.

    Dean Martin’s Roasts were quite fun and entertaining to hear and watch. We don’t need entertainment or coarseness, but I hope the Orthodox roasts can be more collegiate and gentle, especially for those of us still on baby milk.

    Thank you for allowing me to post.

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the suggestions. 🙂 I have a rule on the blog never to criticize another priest. In the course of 8 years I have never posted a critique or response article to another Orthodox website, and have only done so in this last instance because it is a fellow Ancient Faith blogger. That said, I consider it a bad practice and a distraction to have blog-on-blog debates. It creates confusion, to say the least. I know that it is popular in some quarters, but I think of that as being similar to the talking heads on the 24/7 news cycle who chime in on everything, talk past each other and wind up never saying anything.

    The comments section of the blog is where reasonable conversation takes place (it’s why we have it). And there are rules on my blog for how that conversation should happen, including politeness, etc. Those are described in the Rules for this Blog on the sidebar. My early experience in blogging, etc., was that there was a tremendous amount of rudeness and cruelty in many places. It seemed that most mean people wanted to write blogs or hang out in internet forums. There were no police. I started this blog to create a safe place and a place with reliable information, and some creative evangelism and apologetics – a teaching forum. It has been a success as we measure those things.

    This latest event has been a small embarrassment to me – in that it was unusual and unexpected. I was not notified before or after of the other blog. I stumbled upon it by chance on Facebook. We are working on a policy on Ancient Faith to prevent this in the future. It disrupted my work and created a distraction that I am not very good at handling. I trust it will be settled in the next day or so.

    On the other hand, there has been some good. The comments section has been almost a feast for me. The articles in support deepened my work and validated its approach. But I can promise that this way of engaging the Orthodox faith will not be a part of my blog in the future. It is not the ministry I was blessed to do by my bishop and not one that holds any interest for me.

    I think that there will shortly be rules in place, at least within Ancient Faith, that will assure this to be the case.

    May God deepen your walk with Him and bless your family. I apologize for any difficulty or upset this has caused. It is unnecessary and unbecoming.

  85. A.J. Avatar

    Thank you so much for your wonderful post. There is so much merit within it for all of us to digest. I truly enjoyed it.

    I want to engage with these ideas a bit because I think there is great understanding to be gained from yours and your wife’s example of love and unity here – and how it is in many ways EXACTLY indicative of the love within the Orthodox Church that IS NOT found outside of Her. Let me explain.

    First, it is important to understand that Orthodoxy has very few precious dogmas which guide Her life, and that there is great room within Orthodoxy for what is called “Theologoumena,” or Pious Opinions. Therefore, “Blow ups amongst the Orthodox” such as this are not quite the hurdles they would appear to be – for their results are not – and will never be – what they are for Protestants or secular culture – who are unable to remain unified despite pious opinion, and indeed become sectarian and polemic in the face of them, seeking to disallow perspective.

    Such is not the case within Orthodoxy. Both Fr. Freeman and Dylan are allowed interchange on these issues…and for the most part (with some exceptions) I think the dialogue has been constructive – if not challenging. But challenging I suggest is good.

    It is unfortunate that as Americans we come to view conversations and perspective on such issues from a Western historical paradigm which has deep backgrounds of Protestant division and sectarianism. While we may not be aware of it, it has infected our lives on almost every level, from politics to marriage and divorce.

    What we see within Protestantism and American secular life informed by it (politics + marriage) is an unwillingness to remain united in love – and a specific emphasis on sectarianism. Sectarianism within protestant churches gives a veneer of unity at the expense of true unity. One won’t see a lot of disagreement within a single Presbyterian church because at the drop of a hat – those who have differing opinions will separate from one another and either form a new “fellowship” where all members agree on some minor doctrinal, liturgical, sacramental, creedal or administrative point. This preserves “peace” within the church by allowing little in the way of healthy communication or healthy love between brothers and sisters in Christ. It simply pushes us to avoid unity – seek individualism and schism – and become polarized in opinion so that healthy discussion becomes truly impossible – because we never allow it.

    In 25 years as a Protestant, I personally experienced church splits 10 times over relatively minor doctrinal or non-doctrinal issues. What I unconsciously – but wrongly – learned from these experiences was that conflict and disagreement was bad…and indeed open communication that led to disagreement would (and possibly “should” – I was told) lead to separation in worship, liturgy, etc. etc.

    I think this is the general ideological underpinning of much of Protestantism – that simply conveys the message that separation and disunity – silence and lack of communication – are preferable to unity in disagreement, and a value on open dialogue that does not overtly threaten unity on dogma.

    In fact – it is my belief that this symptom of Protestant thought is the true reality behind American divorce rates – as it has bled out from those churches into the unconscious and conscious thought processes of the social order. Modern marriages are defined by similar beliefs displayed in fractional Protestantism. My proof? Protestant divorce rates match secular rates at 45%. Roman Catholic rates are 28% where a magistratum disallows divorce except by their rule. And yet in Orthodoxy, where divorce is permitted under okoinamia, but neither encouraged, divorce rates are 14% . Protestant churches and secular orders show by their actions that difference of opinion is unbearable and incompatible with loving unity and that separation is preferable to open communication and mutual understanding.

    Such thought is foreign to Orthodoxy, which loves and remains united in the face of open communication and allows for pious opinion in many areas. If the result is frank and constructive – even challenging dialogue – so be it. This is far preferable to the fractionalism, sectarianism of the Protestant traditions or the totalitarianism of the Roman Catholic tradition, neither of which allow for freedom of thought in love – while still upholding unity in Christ.

    In relationships of any kind there is healthy communication and unhealthy communication. This is as true of the Church as it is of a marriage. One values and upholds unity without stifling opinion – the other values individual thought and identity, as well as separation – either stifling opinion or simply avoiding the necessity of living together in love despite differing perspectives.

    Taking the example of marriage – healthy communication (such as between you and your wife) allows two people to remain united and communicative despite differences because of overarching agreements on love, unity and a common vision of life together. Two can “pa’ching” and that is okay in healthy relationships. Even when my wife and I disagree on the manner in which one should do certain things within our household, our actual emotional, spiritual and marital health is displayed not in our disagreements, which will occur, but in our ability to converse about it – sometimes in hard ways – but to ultimately be comfortable with space for perspective and in the end – the ability to live together in love despite those differing perspectives, pursing our common vision of love.

    An unhealthy relationship with unhealthy communication either 1) allows no discussion or differing perspectives; 2) allows differing perspectives to destroy overarching values of love, unity and commonality of vision; and / or 3) creates an environment where either silence or separation are the only solution to differences. It disallows “pa’chings,” disallows free thought, disallows freedom in love. One must either agree, shutup or pack one’s bags.

    Indeed, perhaps there is some “pa’chinging” occurring here…and yet without such communication – we would never know that we agree – or where we agree. Indeed…without such communication between you and your wife – you would never be aware that you two were “pa-chinging.” For me – even in difficult discussions with my wife – I find hard and honest communication to often be the most fruitful for understanding and further unity – much more fruitful than a nod and a wink in which we really are not honest with one another and by which we continue to grow apart.

    The difficulties you are pointing out – the perception of conflict within these discussions by inquirers or those outside of Orthodoxy – are real. However, I think ultimately, if one is honest with oneself, they are exactly indicative of the true unity of faith and love that most are seeking from Christianity, but to which they have no practical experience – seeing in the world at large unhealthy communication and thinking that sectarianism and fractionalism will occur in Orthodoxy in a similar way.

    But Orthodoxy communicates its differences with an underlying foundation which is not available to the outer world….which will always unite us and trump our opinions, without disallowing such opinions and communication about them. In the end, Orthodox Christians can speak openly – but when the Church speaks dogmatically – we humble ourselves to the unity and infallibility of the dogma of the Holy Spirit.

    Thus, the discussions that have occurred in these blogs – while they may have been clumsy – have both a value and a place within Orthodoxy. There is no need for Fr. Stephen and Dylan to kiss and make up…for they have not disagreed fundamentally from one another. They are united…they confess with One mind – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no “blow out” here as I see it. Only an open exchange of ideas. If some individuals get caught up in the moment – we must be patient and forgive them. But we must never stifle one another or stop communicating openly and forthrightly – as we have done in Ecumenical Councils over the entire history of the Church. We would do so at our own peril and end up reliving the angst which permeates culture outside of our communion.

  86. Anthony Avatar

    Love open dialogue to clarify misunderstandings. But first, those who attack Orthodoxy or evangelicalism because of misunderstanding, must have missed something in their specific circles. Over 20 years ago, in Christian counseling training by Dr. Larry Crabb, author of “Inside Out” and numerous other extremely thought provoking books, I recall the need to go beyond outward morality to a Grace inspired transformation. Dr. Crabb also shared insights from ‘the desert fathers’ at that time.

    Concern in context of Franky Schaeffer’s regular attacks on CNN, in his books and articles, against his Mom & Dad and almost all Orthodox and evangelicals, would be a misunderstanding of throwing out morality under the guise of spirituality of the ‘atheist Orthodoxy’ some are now preaching. There is sadly now even a book out by ‘an Orthodox Bishop’ promoting homosexuality.

    I appreciate the ‘balance’ and open loving honest discussions among Christians. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware shared at an evangelical seminary, we can all humbly learn a lot from one another.

  87. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    I think moral systems are just ideas and constructs designed by men for men. Morality is useful because a society can’t really operate without some way to talk about legitimate limits on human behavior. However, no moral scheme can discern a human heart.

    Even the most “moral” person cannot make dirt divine. Communion with God in prayer, participating in His illuminating grace makes us alive in a Godlike manner.

    Morality may seem to correspond somehow with God’s commands, laws and decrees, but only in appearance. A holy person needs no moral instruction because they have a more substantial way. That way is living in the embodied truth who is Christ through the Holy Spirit.

  88. MV Avatar

    Just wanted to say that I have enjoyed your writings very much and they have helped me in my journey towards orthodox church. I live in a very secular part of the world and I think your style of writing is exactly the kind we need around here. Thank you for your words!

  89. Barbara Avatar

    A.J., thank you for your comments. I think they are very insightful and profound. There is a difference between strong silence and weak silence, healthy communication and unhealthy communication. I think we suffer greatly from patterns of unhealthy communication that force us into weak and distancing silence or even more unhealthy communication.

    Fr. Stephen, I don’t often comment on your blog, but I read you faithfully and I believe you have given me a lens that illuminates so much of my spiritual reading and my experience. I am very grateful to you.

  90. Sophia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen and Fr. Hans, thank you both for trying to bring the truth of the sacramental, spiritual, reality of creation to the deepest levels of moral and existential wrestlings. I feel you are both trying, perhaps in different communities, to show how it matters (in every sense of that word).

    For what it’s worth, I came into Christianity, and then later Orthodoxy, testing it hard in about every way I could think of. I was not terribly willing to be converted but something had taken root inside me and I couldn’t deny it. (Now I don’t know how I lived without the faith, and can only thank God). What brought me in, finally, (in addition to the grace of God–of course) was the combination of seeing that psychologically, this was the only form of Christianity I had experienced that didn’t seem to have some kind of in-built propensity towards causing a split in the person, and also never split our body from the rest of our spiritual being or the rest of creation. It leads to wholeness. This, for me, has become my area of attempted apologetic, in a world of psychological suffering greater and lesser, to show that the existential reach of the Orthodox faith touches us in the deepest levels of the psyche–and beyond.

    Respectfully, what I myself wonder about, constantly, is how do both of these ‘spiritual illnesses’ (if one might call them that) which you have both described–that of a kind of world-weary cultural Orthodoxy losing touch with its grounding in the commandments, and that of a stringent morality born out of replacing life in Christ with a set of rules. show up in the lived life, internal and external, of the person? If post-modernism has tried to lay emphasis on experience (I heard a theologian differentiate the other day between Scripture and personal experience which sounded odd to my now Orthodox ears since Scripture is filled with people transformed by experience of God?) if we speak directly to this, addressing each person in their deepest concerns, might we not use a ‘post-modern’ platform to recoup the existential import of the faith (until it has been sufficiently tasted to become a trustworthy path and experience). If we regain the concept of soul, of personhood (forgive me, I speak without clear definitions of either), can that be a pushback against nihilism, including the self-nihilims that can take place in stringent moral ‘rules’ systems?

    Please forgive me, again, for any lack of clarity. I am thinking aloud somewhat, inspired and grateful for the conversation being had here and the tone of respect and sincere inquiry, that makes me feel part of a much larger community than I am sometimes aware. It is actually healing for me to read these comments in light of the more polemical conversations I have sometimes stumbled into, and shows a wonderfully different possibility that restores my faith in inter-Orthodox ‘internet theology’. God bless you all.

  91. Alan Avatar

    Fr Stephen (and Dino),

    I’m going to post here a quote from Dino from the recent post “why sin is not a moral problem.” Dino posted this comment to that post on 12/09 at 11:47 AM.

    “To clarify a little, this [ “I” progress. He heals… But “I” am the absence of God] does not mean we needn’t struggle to align our entire being with Christ. The battle is fierce, but it is God-centred rather than self-centred, joyous and thankful and hopeful rather than despondent or conceited.”

    This comment from Dino was INCREDIBLY helpful to me and the reason I’m posting it here, is because it’s obvious that most (all??) of the critics only read this one post and have never bothered to read any of Fr. Stephen’s other posts. The above comment from Dino was very insightful and it would have been helpful, I think, if the critics had ever seen it.

  92. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    One of my great joys in this blog is how the community of comments has evolved. There are the “regulars” – which changes with time – but gives a great stability to the conversation. There are occasionals who always bring a lot. The are early-time inquirers who usually find wonderful patience but whose questions keep the conversation fresh.

    Dino often delights me. He’s our go-to resident Greek, often with his finger on untranslated treasures. Most of all, the is a common mind that pushes the conversation along and generally much further than the article itself. I often think of the article as simply a discussion starter.

    I was thinking about all of this earlier today and realized that an important aspect of the blog is that it does not represent an “opinion.” Though I “push the envelope,” I generally do not offer my opinions on things – but rather seek to offer a teaching, even if it is a development or new way of saying something old. It was of interest to me, for example, that though I had pushed our language with the word “unmoral,” the articles supporting it (from Fr. Aidan and Fr. Alexis) confirmed it.

    I was reading a talk given by Archm. Aemilianos (yes, Dino), on being a theologian. He said that we have to digest the Fathers, and truly make them our own. I get frustrated occasionally, particularly by “internet Orthodoxy” when someone with no true insight or training questions a very solid teaching by questioning, “Where is that in the Fathers?” Or by cutting and pasting half-a-dozen quotes, taken out of context that refute what you’ve just said – this was the case on my discussion of “morality.”

    Such ignorance and misuse of text is appalling. But sometimes, frustratingly, the only answer is “I cannot cite chapter and verse and give you a quote for what I’ve just said…” The simple reason being that what was just said is the result of actually digesting and understanding two dozen fathers, etc. It is the result of knowing what you’re talking about – which seems to be a fairly novel concept in some quarters.

    Our goal is not being able to use a search engine and assemble quotes from the Fathers. Our goal, ultimately, is to know what they know and in the manner that they know it. This is true theology. It includes ascesis and prayer and a life-lived.

    The lack of such true knowledge combined with the ubiquity of search engines is another reason I have no interest in internet debate. It will not yield the fruit of true knowledge – and only true knowledge abides. The rest is but a puff of wind. My life is too close to its end to need more wind. Only what lasts is of value to me.

  93. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is the genius of the Church that the fullness of the truth is often articulated in paradox in which two seeming incompatible or opposites form the whole. Fully God and fully man being the chief.

    We do not follow a Hegalian dialectic. Even less a binary one.

    Thus many disputes from Martha and Mary forward are not either/or but both/and.

    Many heresies begin by “taking sides”

    Clearly there are dogmatic understandings on Christology, ecclesiology and even anthropology that are not subject to such treatment, but as AJ points out, those are small in number even though they are truly fundamental.

    The moral/unmoral seeming dichotomy is in the both-and category.

  94. Aaron I Avatar
    Aaron I

    Father forgive,

    I had not intended to push the “opinion” example so far as to make your post seem as if it had its basis as merely an opinion…or was in some way a personal novelty…but simply to show that dialogue as such within Orthodoxy has a special place which is frightenly absent or impossible outside Her.

    I believe you have truly tapped into a perennial truth (teaching) of the nature of Christian life….”in which there are some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures…”

    From my eyes it seems that there is simply a disparity here between those who aren’t quite on the right “frequency” in their lives to “get it” right now. I think everyone is always six months, a year or a set of challenging experiences away from receiving the gift of discernment through tribulation that may set the spiritual conditions so they will finally see and hear what once- “though seeing-they do not see, though hearing, they do not hear or understand. ”

    As Paul said, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”

    So, I wonder, as a point of learning for myself, do not such teachings still fall under theolougumen, even when they are well founded -but non dogmatic teachings of the church? Do they not represent spiritual meat which might too be made clear to others who “think differently” in time and towards which we must with patience and long suffering continue to point to – even as you yourself have done here?

    Which brings me to a final observation about the immense grace you have exuded in all of these discussions. In the face of many detractors -some overtly hostile- you have nonetheless remained mindful of Christ and your calling to be gentle as a dove- in a way which gives me great encouragement and joy.

    Thank you for your ministry here.

  95. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are dogmas of the faith – which tragically many fail to take further than their surface – treating them more like an algebraic formula. But the life we must live is to know the faith – the dogma are verbal icons – they never state mere rational bounds but contain within them the life-giving presence of Christ. True theology is learning to pierce the mystery.

    From within that mystery it is possible to teach. A theologeumenon is more than an opinion. It is undogmatized truth (otherwise it’s just delusion). The give-and-take model is something of a Hegelian exercise in rationalism. Western theological tradition lives on this stuff – and it does wonderfully rational things. But it never reaches the truth. Even when it states the truth, it doesn’t know how to reach it (reason can’t go there).

    When Orthodoxy departs from its way of life, and it’s way of entering the truth (trading rational discussion for the Orthodox way) we flounder. It is one of the reasons the Fathers make such frequent use of paradox and contradiction (the parables of Christ already contained an element of this). A paradoxical statement of the truth prevents reason’s entrance so that we can find our way.

    It’s hard to write in such a way that this paradox and contradiction is maintained – I only get there once in a while. But I feel like I’ve completed an icon when it happens.

    After all of this, I think I should say, “We must be unmorally moral.”

  96. Dino Avatar

    I praise God’s mercies that you too found that notion so beneficial (it is emphatically not mine), it comes from the Elder Aimilianos of Simonos Petras and his disciples yet again… “I” progress. God heals… But,

    “I” am the absence of God

    Also, the fact that self-centered struggle axiomatically results in one of these: either (1) downcast despondency or (2) conceited pride;
    while the God-centered one is recognized through the fruits of joy, thankfulness and hope is also mainly his.
    Of course these notions are found throughout our tradition –worded differently every time- and were stated here because they clearly support strongly all that Father Stephen is conveying to us and they do this in equally satisfyingly jarring language.

  97. Dino Avatar

    Indeed, that language of paradoxes is just like “completing an icon”. And like icons, we needn’t imagine any creation ex nihilo but we can base our painting on the existing treasures of the Church. You have done this beautifully using the patristic notions of “from mud to light”, or “playing with God”, “dying to become human” etc. or creating more contemporary –yet still thoroughly patristically grounded- ones such as “no Bible in the Bible”, or “sin of democracy” etc…

  98. Bruce Newman Avatar
    Bruce Newman

    “I think that there needs to be a heftier diet out there.”

    The simple relief I feel reading this one remark that gives semantic shape to my desire of years is not unlike the feeling of someone receiving a last minute pardon. I find that a heftier diet is usually eaten alone but I prefer it to all the spiritual junk food eaten with clueless crowds.

  99. Robert Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    “Meta-moral” is indeed very good way to put, considering the paradoxical nature of our faith, indeed of the very fullness and superabundance ‘fabric’ of reality. Words, thoughts, our contemplation, theology, morality, etc. – these cannot contain God, nor the life which springs from Him. There’s always a ‘beyond’ a ‘more to it than this’ aspect to our life in Christ, and this is because of Him whom we worship. It’s this ‘over and beyond’ aspect – if neglected, misunderstood, or minimized – that will turn morality into moralism, theology into rationalism, prayer into works, etc.

    These words from Fr Andrew Louth about Mary – that ‘she is not simply the ground’ – so well illustrates this meta reality, and a stark contrast to dead moralism:

    “The Virgin is the place of God, the shrine at which we worship – not her but the one born of her…. Mary is, if you like, theotopos – ‘place of God’! But in truth, she more than that, she Theotokos, the ‘one who gave birth to God’. She is not just an edifice, an impersonal temple, in which God is found and worshipped; nor is she simply the ground that was fertilized, the fleece on which rain or dew fell – she is not a passive instrument in God’s hands; She is God’s partner in the conception and birth of his Son.” (from A Celebration of Living Theology – Festschrift in Honor of Andrew Louth,, 2014 T&T Clark, p 75)

  100. Jon Avatar

    Checklists are for children. We are transforming, hopefully, into compasses if you will. That by love and surrender we begin to detect “true north” though never perfectly hitting the mark consistently. Great article.

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