Does Goodness Require the Possibility of Evil?

 

In a world in which the action of choosing is exalted above all else, it is not surprising to hear that “evil is necessary in order to have the good.” I have seen this conversation, cast in a number of ways. It is stock-in-trade for some quasi-religious systems. I have seen it in spades in Jungian and Depth Psychology circles. No doubt, some bring this set of ideas along with them into the Orthodox faith. It is, however, a profound error.

Before looking at the nature of good and evil, it is worth seeing the problem involved when choice is inserted into the conversation. What happens in that approach is that we are no longer speaking about the nature of good and evil, indeed, both are relativized in importance. Everything quickly revolves back to the nature of choosing, and makes the actions of our will the center of the good. Thus, there is no true good or evil, only good choices and evil choices. It is a narcissistic ontology – a system of thought in which we ourselves become the center of attention.

This is where, for me, some very fundamental matters of Orthodox thought are helpful. The “Good” is a term that ultimately applies to God. God is good and the source of all goodness. Indeed, goodness has a place in the “philosophical trinity.” That trinity is truth, goodness, and beauty. These are the three properties of being. God alone has true being. Everything that exists does so because God gives it being. Creation thus has relative being. The purpose (telos) of all created things is to move from relative being towards greater likeness and union with God in the truth of His being. In theological terms, we speak of this as “eternal life.”

It is in the context of these understandings that the Fathers speak of evil. Evil is not a “thing,” nor something that has any existence or being at all. To think about evil, it is necessary to understand that all of creation (ourselves included) is in motion (kenesis). Everything moves and changes (in terms of being). The proper movement for all things is towards its end in God (its telos). This is a movement towards greater truth, beauty, and goodness. Evil, on the other hand, is a movement away from proper being, a movement away from truth, beauty, and goodness. However, it is crucial to note that this is a movement, and not a thing.

Our movement towards God (which is what is described as doing good or being good) does not in any way require a movement away from God. Indeed, it would be absurd to suggest that non-being is required in order for being to exist.

In systems such as Depth Psychology, “wholeness” is often used to describe the proper goal of life. Its notion of wholeness is a reconciliation of good and evil. Carl Jung, in his language of mythic archetypes, dubbed this figure, “Abraxas.” It puts me in mind of a Star Trek episode (original series). Captain Kirk suffers from an accident in the transporter system where his “good” side has been separated from his “evil” side. The two caricatures (we cannot call them characters) fight it out for control of the Enterprise with rather predictable results. The goal of the episode is to put him back together. The subtext of the program is that we cannot function without our evil selves, even if they must be tempered. This is a far cry from Orthodox theosis.

It is entirely understandable that people cast about for answers in the problem of good and evil. We wonder, “Does evil serve a purpose?” The mistakes we have made, or even the terrible tragedies and catastrophes across our history would seem somehow more acceptable if we could see them playing a role in some later, greater good. Our faith does not reconcile evil with good. Rather, it tells us that good overcomes evil and moves towards its end in a manner that, while not abolishing evil from the story of things, makes the story to be what evil sought to prevent.

The story of Joseph in Egypt is a primary example. His brothers’ evil action in selling him as a slave to the Egyptians is “undone” or “overcome” after a fashion. He says to them, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” Of course, the Cross is the greatest of such examples. The powers of this world meant it for one thing, but the Lord meant it for His own great goodness – the redemption of all things.

As we tend to center our world (and ourselves) in the question of our choices, we are constantly tempted to justify those we feel were wrong. By the same token, we bring an anxiety about the choices that are yet to come. The power of goodness is not within our choice. We do not create the good – it is given to us. The impossible reality that surrounds our choices is seen when we examine the limits of our existence. We cannot see the consequences of our actions (beyond the most immediate circumstances) nor can we control the myriad of other events that will interact with any choice we might make. We are simply insufficient of ourselves to create good through our choices.

This does not negate the place that choice has in our lives. However, like everything about a contingent being, it is relativized. God alone is the source of the good, and whatever participation our lives have in goodness is His gift to us. We cannot weigh or consider the good in a manner apart from God. There is no such thing as a “secular” good.

The course of our existence is a movement. That movement is impelled towards the good through our desire for God (sometimes manifest simply as a longing for beauty, truth, and goodness). We make choices within the course of that movement, but only God can direct and make of our choices the good He intends. What we know of our choices are limited, often complex, and filled with uncertainty. It is God, to whom we commend ourselves, one another, and all our lives, who gathers our choices into His own goodness, truth, and beauty, making of them what we could never do of our own selves.

In none of this, however, is evil necessary. It has no being. It is only misdirection. It is a parasite. The Scriptures say this:

“This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5–7)

The communion we have with one another is rooted in our communion in Christ. He is the Good, and it is our participation (communion) in Him that is our good as well. It is this communion that “cleanses” all of our choices – the relative good and the relative evil – and sets them on the path of union with God.

Learning to live as contingent creatures, someone whose existence is always only relative, is best described and encompassed as the life of thanksgiving. The Scriptures say that, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In this, we give thanks, and commend the whole of our life to Him.

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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165 responses to “Does Goodness Require the Possibility of Evil?”

  1. Nicole Avatar
    Nicole

    Dear Father,

    Father, bless.

    Would it be accurate to say that the “ends do not justify the (evil) means”?

    Thank you in Christ,
    Nicole

  2. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    That is such a great point, Father, about how we cannot possibly know the ultimate ramifications of our individual choices. So many times I have made choices that I thought were good, and yet the outcome ended up unintentionally hurting myself or the person I meant to help. And this is only the outcome I can see with my own eyes. Who knows how that outcome then affects other people I cannot see through a sort of domino effect. So many of our contemporary elders teach us that everything we do that leads to good is done only through the grace of God and that we cannot claim any credit for ourselves, even if we were the “actor” in the good that resulted.

  3. Arnold Karr Avatar
    Arnold Karr

    It seems you treat good, the noun, and good, the adjective, as synonymous. Good choices, in most situations, are the choices one would reasonably make—as opposed to poor choices. Choosing the good, on the other hand, is not to choose that which rejects the good, or God. Sophie’s choice was not merely a poor choice but an affirmation of the false proposition that the choice between her son or daughter being murdered was hers to make. The Nazi officer had chosen evil and she was not obliged to participate.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nicole,
    Ends do not justify the means. Certainly.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Arnold,
    Yes. In this conversation, I am using “good” in that proper sense. The adjectival use of “good,” means something of a relative sort. Our language creates a lot of confusion.

  6. Randall Avatar
    Randall

    Your argument about evil not being necessary makes sense except for the early chapter of Job and the Micaiah Ben Imlah story in 1Kings. Is Satan not necessary, or not evil?

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah… Once again Shakespeare scores. In Hamlet Act 2, Sc 2. In the conversation with Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Hamlet says ” There is nothing good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”
    In context Hamlet is actually critiquing that way of thinking and the whole question of human choice being supreme. It is a deeply ironic scene that is frequently lost on the modern mind.
    Unfortunately, Hamlet replaces the actual difference between good and evil with an irresistible “fate”. Complete lack of choice and a Hamlet ends up as one of the bloodiest plays ever. Nine major characters die violent deaths.
    The Tragedy lies in the fact that Hamlet believes he is responsible for enforcing justice. That too tends in the same direction: that good and evil are equivalent and human will makes the difference.
    Yet the horrible outcome of Hamlet’s hubris is clear. Not only the death of many, but the loss of his father’s kingdom.
    In the end, in another irony, Hamlet opts not to be.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Randall,
    I’m not sure how those stories say anything about evil as necessary. Satan “does” evil – but even he was created good. He acts against the good and rebels against God but he is not a necessary evil. There is nothing “necessary” about him.

  9. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Precisely! There’s no metaphysical necessity of evil. The Good does not require evil to be good or to bring about the good; which is another way of saying that God does not require evil to be God or to bring about good. God is the good as such, and all else is good by reason of their share of participation in God.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Robert,
    Too have have thought through what this means. My musings on the will and choice in this context are, I think, very important. It is why I started the article off with the observation regarding choice. Modernity (in its own perverse way) helps us to imagine that good and evil turn on our choices, and that the will is the center of our being. As important as the will may be – it is not the center of our being, much less the cause of the good.

    That God is the true good frees us from the nightmare of our own will – which in a contingent creature of limited knowledge – can only be of limited use (important though it may be). It is one of the reasons that I emphasize that we do the good that we can see – the good that is at hand – and that is primarily discerned through the obedience to Christ’s commandments.

    We imagine ourselves as Lords of the world, the managers of history, the “makers of a better world.” This is simple arrogance and nonsense (and the history of modernity should have already taught this if we were not so ready to believe otherwise).

    God alone is good. We should desire Him and pursue Him with all that we have and all that we are.

  11. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Thank you Michael for those interesting insights into Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Fascinating! I recent read the play Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón De La Barca, a Spanish Catholic Priest and playwright from the 1600s. These same themes are explored in this work as well. The King reads in the stars that his newborn son will grow into a monster and destroy his nation. So the King takes pre-emptive steps and confines his son in a tower with chains on. This decision, which he sees as a necessary evil for a greater good, ends up creating the very monster he tried to prevent. It’s a Comedy instead of a Tragedy, so all comes around right in the end and the King’s son choses to not take out his anger at the way he was treated by his father and ultimately becomes a good King himself after all. But his Father nearly created a total disaster by trying to control the outcome of history because he believed the dire predictions of the stars. The whole play explores the themes of fate, choice, free will, good and evil, etc. But in this case, the Christian perspective is embraced over fate. I only learned about this play and playwright last week, yet he is apparently considered by many scholars to be second only to Shakespeare. I am asking myself how I could have made it through high school and college without ever even hearing about the man?! But I think it’s probably largely do to the fact that he has a very Christian orientation which does not align with our modern culture. No matter how great a playwright he may have been, his conclusions are now politically incorrect.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Esmee, I have heard of La Barca but never had the opportunity to read or explore his work. Thank you for bringing him up.
    What kills me is that Shakespeare is being rendered into “modern” English . What a disaster.

  13. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Michael, I read the 1865 translation by the English poet Edward FitzGerald which is available for free through the online Gutenberg Library. I thought it was good.

  14. Mary Benton Avatar
    Mary Benton

    Hi Fr. Stephen,
    This is a thought-provoking article. I have written on a related topic and I am now challenged to rethink my perspective. Please correct me if my thoughts, as outlined below, are in error. I do not want to mislead others.

    The perspective I have taken is that God created us to share in His divine life. The divine life is love – it is not just that God loves, but that God is love (1John 4:8).

    In our call to share in the divine Life, the Commandment we are given, called the “greatest”, is to love God and to love our neighbor (Mark 12:29-31).

    Love, to truly be love, must be voluntary, i.e. chosen at least to some degree. I do not mean to suggest that we can achieve perfect love by our own effort. If this were true, we would not need a Savior. Yet if we had no part in the process, Christ would not have commanded it. Our movement toward divine Life is a synergy of our choice and God’s gift to us in Christ.

    Hence, in order to love, I must be able to choose to not love. If there is no alternative to love, then love cannot be chosen. And this is how evil becomes not so much “necessary” but an inevitable part of human existence.

    Much of God’s creation does not have the option to love and therefore, beautiful as it is, does not move toward the divine Life. Daisies, for example, are beautiful creations, but they do not have the capacity to love or not love (or to be good or evil). They may still offer praise to God by reflecting His beauty, but they cannot fail to do this of their own volition.

    Although our ability to choose is often hampered by the sin/evil that has come before us, it is still part of our human nature to strive (or not) toward God. Only God can fully understand how “free” our choices are – so there is little point in judging ourselves, much less others. We can only cling to our Savior with faith that He will deliver us, despite our infirmities of body, mind, and spirit.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mary,
    I’ve had a similar conversation about this with someone on Facebook. I’ll share my take on it:

    Love does not require “not love” in order to be free. First off, love is not just one thing. It is many things. There are many ways to love. There is still freedom and choices that are made that do not include choosing not to love. Being free does not require the possibility of evil. Evil is certainly possible (we can move in a direction that opposes love) but it is not necessary to our freedom.

    I have reflected long and hard on this, particularly in my experience of hearing confessions. Often, people get bogged down in the “fight” or struggle with evil. But “not doing” something is never the same thing as true repentance. In fact, you can stay stuck “not doing” something. If, for example, you want to resist certain thoughts, it’s almost useless to try and “not think” those thoughts. You have to do something else in place of it. You must do the good. And choosing to do the good is never just one thing. The good is infinite – it is God. It almost never presents itself as a single thing.

    I seems to me that the logical problem in thinking about this is the notion of freedom required in choosing. Freedom is the gift of God: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” But if freedom necessitates evil in order to choose the good, then we would have to say, “Where the Sp[irit of the Lord is, there is evil as well.” That’s just not true.

    I hate to sound trendy – but we’re too “binary” about this. Freedom is not a limit – it’s freedom. It is in not pursuing the good(s) that we lose our freedom and become in bondage to the frustrating directions that are part of a movement towards non-being, etc.

    Is that helpful? Can you think of additional questions?

  16. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,
    Your comments are much appreciated. More questions abound. (Note that I don’t know how to italicize so I have used the * symbol for emphasis.)

    You wrote:
    “The proper movement for all things is towards its end in God (its telos). This is a movement towards greater truth, beauty, and goodness. Evil, on the other hand, is a movement away from proper being, a movement away from truth, beauty, and goodness. However, it is crucial to note that this is a movement, and not a thing.”

    Yes, this is the “proper” movement of all things. But how is it then that some things (creatures like us, for example) move “improperly”? What enables or causes this improper movement?

    First, assuming our premises about God to be true, it must happen because God allows it to happen. If we deny this, we are insinuating that there must be a power greater than God that is overpowering His intention for all to move toward Him. I think you will agree with me that we cannot accept this idea and still be Christians. Along similar lines is the argument that God is not truly all-powerful (as suggested by Rabbi Harold Kushner) or that He makes mistakes. Not acceptable in our Christian faith.

    Next, if God allows it to happen, then why? People have been asking this forever so I can hardly claim that I am the one who has the answer! However, I will think it through here. God could have predestined, i.e. purposely designed, some of His creatures to move in the proper direction and others to move in an improper direction. This too is unacceptable because we believe that He wills all to be saved (1Timothy 2:4).

    Next consideration… Since God wants all to be saved, i.e. to move properly toward Him, could it be that having to choose to move toward Him could be part of the plan of our salvation? But how could this be? How could allowing us the possibility of moving *away* from Him be part of the plan for us to move *toward* Him? Why would He risk losing some of His beloved to the direction away from Him unless it was a *necessary* dimension of our salvation, of His ultimate love for us?

    Is it safe to say that God does not force us to love Him? I cannot imagine forced love – the very notion is oxymoronic, like conceiving of a “cruel kindness”. At the same time, can we imagine that God is anything but completely lovable? Certainly not. So why would it be essential to our salvation to be allowed to move away from God and why would any creature choose to?

    Perhaps Biblical imagery can help us. The parable of the loving father and His lost (aka prodigal) son (Luke 15: 11-15). Why did the father let his son go and make such horrible choices? Why didn’t he force him to stay home to love and honor him as he should? Ah, but the great joy, the great celebration when the lost one chooses to come home and receives his father’s embrace – this is the true love! The other would only be a pretense of love, as expressed in the character of the older brother.

    It seems that God wants us to want Him. So much so that He allows us to get lost so that He can come find us and thereby experience how much He loves us. The daisies will always be moving in the proper direction but they will never experience the fullness of Divine love. We, on the other hand, have been offered the Divine embrace…

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mary,
    Yes, questions abound. Obviously, God created us with the ability to abuse our freedom (but Scripture tells us that “whoever sins is a slave to sin” so that freedom is not the “cause” of sin). It is suggested in St. Gregory of Nyssa that it is our ignorance that causes us to sin – that we “choose” a good which is not actually the true good. I lean towards that mode of thinking. We are drawn away by a false perception – our desires become disordered. Nyssa (who winds up with a universalist position on salvation) seems to see that when our distorted vision is healed, then we will choose the good.

    I have long (maybe always) been dissatisfied with the explanation that freedom requires the ability to choose evil. God is not the author of evil. God is the author of love. It is the distortion of our love (desiring towards the wrong thing or direction) that creates the distortion that we name evil.

    I also want to speak about all of this in a manner that does not put our will at the center of the universe. I do not mean to restrict it or discard it, nor even to say that it doesn’t have an important role to play. Rather, I want to say that its role is not the central thing that our culture wants to make of it. If anything, I would prefer to shift some of the emphasis towards “eros” (desire), something that gets downplayed in modern thought, but is extremely important in Patristic thought.

    I desire God. I long for Him. I would even suggest that everyone desires and longs for Him, even though they don’t always know that this is the desire of their heart. I think of the Orthodox prayer that says, “Save me, whether I want it or not!” What is speaking in that sentence? I want to allow us to quietly sift through these many voices we have within us. The will is a powerful thing – though, I think, desire is even stronger.

    It seems to have layers. If I’m making it a bit more complicated – then, I suspect, it’s because I think it’s more complicated than we often allow it to be. It is not simple in Scripture. That’s something of which I’m sure. If it were – we would not be having this conversation!

    Peace

  18. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your lovely response. I too am drawn to Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation, though I only remembered it once you mentioned it. 😉

    Certainly God did not create evil. That idea is absurd. My intent in my previous comments was not so much to focus on freedom or the will but to understand how we have gone so wrong and why God has permitted us to do so. Even if the problem is that we desire the wrong things, thinking we are loving when we are actually being selfish, the question remains why God allows us to make this error when the consequences are so extremely dire in terms of human suffering. We can cite the influence of the evil one but that still leads us back to the same question: why does God permit the evil one to distort out desires?

    I do not know. My reflections are, at best, grossly incomplete, and more likely totally misguided. But the underlying notion that all is out of love and all is for our salvation is one I shall not let go of.

    Not knowing is better for me in the end because it requires me to trust Him more than I trust myself. And that is the most essential and difficult part of a love that ultimately leads to the Cross.

  19. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    “Movement towards God…does not in any way require a movement away from God.”
    Perhaps I should not obsess about the word “movement”, but if one is moving towards God, would not one have to be moving from something, even if that something is just a non-existence?
    In other words, if “Evil…is a movement away from …truth, beauty, and goodness”, what is evil moving toward? And is that not a necessary thing?

  20. Grant Hudson Avatar
    Grant Hudson

    One of your best. 🙂

    Your articles help me keep my faith and have done for years.

    This is particularly enlightening, as Jung and ’embracing the shadow’ musters powerful arguments.

    Evil as a parasite is especially helpful.

    Thank you again. 🙂

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ook,
    The beginning point of our “movement” – and this I think is critical – is relative being. We could even call it mere being. We do not begin at a point of perfection (completion) but in a state of being that has been created for this movement: being, well-being, eternal being. Moving away from God is a movement “towards” non-being. However, there is no such thing as actual non-being, so that such movement can only ever be a movement towards a relative non-being. It is, essentially, a movement towards death.

    I do picture this as “movement” but the word used in the Fathers is “kinesis.” It can also be translated “change.”

    This is very much the language in Nyssa, Dionysius, and Maximos (and elsewhere) – at least that is where I’ve spent the most time reading with it. It is/was language and imagery that was borrowed from the common stock of Platonism, and altered for Christian understanding. I find it interesting to spend time thinking in these terms rather than much that has replaced it in later centuries, particularly in the West. For one, it is the language of ontology rather than legality. It’s also suggestive of a lot of things.

    Nyssa is famous for his unending movement towards God as the image of salvation. It’s the origin of CS Lewis’ “Higher up and Farther In.” As such, it specifically has a vision for movement that does not involve sin as a necessity.

    St. Paul does not seem to think in terms of “evil” so much as the problem of “death.” It is the entrance of death into the world – that allows for our bondage and movement away from God. I’ll think with that for awhile today and see if I can say anything useful.

  22. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    Thank you, Father. This is very helpful.

  23. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    Ook,
    As I understand it everything is created to move toward God. Sin made that more difficult. Those that resist God, move toward the nothingness from which they came. God’s life makes a full return toward nothingness impossible.
    In the Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis postulated that at the Judgement, those who wished to move away from God would be allowed to return to nothing.
    I do not know what the Church teaches on the final state of those who reject His love, grace and mercy.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    I do not recall Lewis postulating that possibility. It is, however, not part of the Orthodox faith. Formally, it is called Annihilationism and is not part of the received doctrine of the Church. As I’ve understood it, we hold that God does not take back what He has given.

  25. Justin Avatar
    Justin

    Fr Stephen,

    I may be making a category error (i.e. breaking the “evil” Venn diagram), but here goes:

    My dad repeatedly said that “we remember [the good parts of] life through the pain.” We can only physically see because white contrasts with black. We only understand pleasure because we feel pain. If there is no black, we don’t see white; if we don’t feel pain, we cannot understand pleasure; we cannot be happy unless we experience sadness. These “negatives” are required to comprehend the “positives.”

    My question is does this “contrast” also apply to good and evil? Is it a category error to put evil and good in the binary (or spectrum as it were). Can we truly understand “good” without “evil?” Is all that we call “evil” in reality evil as such or just a negative we don’t like?

    If the end of theosis is “no more crying and no more pain,” all light and no darkness, so to speak, how can we experience it as good? Or do we rely on our dark experiences in this life to contrast the life to come?

    I don’t know, maybe I’m over-thinkng it.

  26. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Ah yes! “Higher up and Farther In.” One of my favorite (of many) images from C.S. Lewis.
    Too often Heaven is portrayed as though it were a static “place” that, once we get there, there is nothing left to do but “rest”. In the Catholic Church, we have a prayer, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.” Taken too literally, it sounds rather sleepy and boring. (What is intended, I believe, is the notion of “rest” from the trials of this life but I’ve always felt that it fails to inspire. Heaven must be more than an escape from suffering!)

    Fortunately, God has allowed us saints who see much more. Great souls such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. “Mother” Teresa of Calcutta wrote of their faith in a Heaven where they would continue to give love in ways even greater than they could while living among us. This is a dynamic vision.

    I read yesterday about how, in our culture, we often have a negative connotation regarding the word “repent”. The author explained the origin of the word metanoia as meta (going beyond)+ nous (the mind). Repenting is movement beyond self toward God – rather than movement away from evil – which is not a thing.

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for offering your words that challenge and thus stir me into deeper reflection.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Justin,
    With due respect to your father – we do not know the Good by contrast. The good is not defined by “not-evil.” What he is describing is something of a pastoral comfort, a way of helping someone think more kindly of things they have suffered – but it is not theologically correct.

    We say of God, “in Him there is no darkness at all.” Certainly darkness is not required in order to see the light.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mary, Ook, et al,

    Forgive me for the following passage. It is dense, and may “make your hair hurt,” as I like to say. It’s a passage from the Catholic theologian, Eric Perl, on the thought of St. Dionysius viz. good and evil:

    On Dionysius’s view, there can be no actual desire for evil and therefore no positive activity which is evil. Following a common tradition of Greek thought, he argues that all desire is for some good. “And if beings desire the Beautiful and Good, and do all the things they do on account of what seems good, and every goal of beings has the Good as its principle and end, for nothing does what it does with a view to the nature of evil, how will evil be among beings” (DN IV.19, 716C). In other words, whatever is desired is by definition regarded as good, for to desire something means to take it as one’s good. “No one does what he does with a view to evil” (DN IV.31). As the scholastics would say, anything is desirable only sub specie boni. Evil qua evil, as what is not good, has no attractive or motivating power and cannot be a goal, a purpose, an object of desire for anything. Evil, therefore, cannot be the cause of any activity. Rather, as we have seen, all the activities of all beings take place in desire for the Good: “All things, by desiring the Beautiful and Good, do and wish all things that they do and wish” (DN IV.10, 708A). In the absence of any good at which to aim, there is no desire and hence no activity whatsoever.

    And this:

    To look for the cause of evil is to ask why it occurs. But evil is not something that occurs, but not-something that does not occur. It is not an act of non-love, but a non-act of love. As we have seen, whatever any being does, it does for some cause, and that cause is a good. As a non-activity, evil is precisely what is not caused to happen and hence does not happen. Hence there can be no reason why a being fails fully to love God, i.e. to be. There there were such a reason, the “failure” would not be a failure but an activity, and as such not evil but good. “Everything which is according to nature comes about from a definite cause. If evil is without cause and indefinite, it is not according to nature” (DN IV.30, 732A). Everything that is, insofar as it is, is according to nature, is caused, and is good. The causelessness of evil, conversely, is one with the identification of evil as a thing’s not fulfilling its nature and so not fully being.

    I have taken these quotes from an article on my dear friend, Fr. Aiden Kimel’s blog. I deeply appreciate his summation at the end of his article:

    Any justification of evil would render it intelligible and therefore good. Evil is fuliginous, opaque, aporetic, an impenetrable darkness and parhypostatic nullity. Our task is not to comprehend it. Our task is to flee from it, repent of it, and through knowing and unknowing seek communion with the One. “And so it is that all things must desire, must yearn for, must love, the Beautiful and the Good” (DN IV.10).

    None of this is easy to think about – and can easily seem so dense as to make you want to just walk away from it. That’s particularly one of the things I appreciated about Fr. Aiden’s summary. Evil is not intelligible (intelligibility is an aspect of the good). Perl’s statement that “evil is not something that occurs, but not-something that does not-occur” is perhaps my favorite quote of the day.

    I commend the whole article – and will gladly have conversations about it. St. Maximos the Confessor clearly knew the writings of St. Dionysius – and focused a great deal on St. Gregory of Nyssa (whom the 7th Council called the “Father of Fathers”). But, when you read him, you get the clear impression that this stuff wasn’t easy for him, either. These men are of particular note among those whom we would call “Mystical Theologians” – precisely because they take us into the very heart of the mystery of our existence in God.

    There are things that I tend to “hang my hat on.” – Evil has no true existence. is a primary example. I’ll say more later.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, would it be fair to say that, based on the above, evil has no ontological reality?
    At least since the Resurrection.

  30. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    I am so very delighted to read that you approach these things in a favorable manner Fr Stephen, that you are willing to bring it up even. Too often these matters are brushed aside, dismissed as ‘philosophical speculations’ intrinsically opposed to theology and spirituality. If greats such as Sts Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius, Maximus reflected on these and related topics in such a way as you describe, and wrote volumes about it, then why should we dismiss them so casually? It appears to me we would do this at our own loss, impoverishment, and peril.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    St. Dionysius would say that, inasmuch as something exists (has being), it is good. Inasmuch as it is evil, it fails to truly exists. So, there is not, properly speaking, an “ontology” of evil but a “non-ontology” of evil. But, it “lives” like a parasite on that which is good. Even the evil of the demons is a “lack” and a “failure” not a positive thing. But, inasmuch as they exist, there is something there that is good.

    For each of us, we are given the gift of being. We are also called to synergize (co-operate) with God in moving towards Him (Goodness, Truth, Beauty). Our failures or refusals to do this are “evils”. But they are not “things” – they are evil in that they are “not things.”

    One advantage that comes in acquiring this ontological understanding of things, is the inherent value we should begin to see in all that exists. Even in the worst human beings – their very existence is a testimony to goodness – never to evil.

    Also, the dynamic involved in understanding being and movement together, allows us to think and pray dynamically for others. Repentance is a movement in the right direction – a movement towards Beauty, Truth, Goodness. So, pastorally, when I’m counseling with someone, even if we cannot solve a problem and see our way through something – every movement in the right direction is a tremendous victory. It nurtures patience, kindness, and generosity, and mercy.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Robert,
    I have dipped my toes in all of this from time to time – particularly in teaching about an ontological versus a juridical approach to theology, etc. I rarely get as detailed as this article. I appreciate the encouragement.

    I wrote this after running across some conversations that were Jungian in nature (actually, someone was discussing some of Jordan Peterson’s work). I am not versed in Peterson so I do not address him or his work in this article and I don’t know enough about his stuff to try to take it on. It’s not an interest of mine. But when someone begins speaking of the reconciliation of good and evil as a model, and doing the usual Depth Psychology routine, my Orthodox ontology rises up and says, “Nope! This ain’t it!”

    This language and understanding runs throughout the major Fathers. St. Basil’s Anaphora is replete with it. They assumed it on the part of their listeners (at least the educated ones). Glad you like it.

  33. Matthew Porter-Valbracht Avatar
    Matthew Porter-Valbracht

    It seems to me that the fact that evil is not necessary is what makes it so tragic, and this is why attempts to “solve” the “problem of evil” ultimately fail, because they attempt to negate the tragedy of evil. Although God will turn all things to good in the end. The only true answer is the cross, where Jesus enters into the tragic reality we have created for ourselves. But to redeem it, not to erase it.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    Indeed. The following paragraph is Eric Perl’s summation on St. Dionysius’ account of evil as “non-being”:

    It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because cause it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justification for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we find it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deficient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.

  35. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father,
    As I read your article and the comments and questions, all I truly wish to say for now how grateful I am for your ministry. Food for the hungry!

    I hope my questions are not a divergence. However, I’m still putting some pieces together that I believe might be a fruitful endeavor. So here goes:

    The word “movement” and its association with the ontological movement away to or from God captured my understanding some years ago. It is the model I use when I speak of these things. I believe I had learned it from a confluence of your elaborations and those of my priest and catechist. And, I could be wrong (it’s been awhile since I read his work) but I believe St John of Damascus also writes similarly. But he employed the word “accidents”. If it is appropriate and helpful to answer this question, does St John’s perception provide a useful elaboration of what you have written? If so, will you help us (or perhaps it helps just myself) tie this in as well?

    Ironically, modernity’s capacity to twist such meanings often go unnoticed, until we have teachers such as yourself who can highlight the distinctions and help us pull together the fullness of these meanings.

    I have another question: the Greek word for change:

    I do picture this as “movement” but the word used in the Fathers is “kinesis.” It can also be translated “change.”

    In science there is also a long history using a similar word with similar meaning but I believe we have forgotten its original ontological meaning. It is the word “kinetics”.

    I wonder if our Greek commenters and/or you, Father, know whether there is a related etymology?

    PS: I love the Star Trek example of our folly. Amen!

  36. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Father, “My Hair! My Hair! AAAAHHH!” Forgive me, I just had to do that. 🙂

    In the post at 9:37am today, did you mean the following?

    I do not recall Lewis postulating that possibility. It is, however, not part of the Orthodox faith.

    Mary Benton: to make italics, enter before a word or phrase and after (but with no spaces). Hopefully, this comes through!

  37. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Okay, that failed. Let me try again, Mary!

    and will change the format of your post/sentence/word. So, if you use the letter b, it will be in bold and if you use the letter i, it will be in italics.

  38. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    And…any time you use “left arrow” and “right arrow” on your keyboard, it removes them. So one last try:

    Left arrow-letter (i for italics; b for bold)-right arrow…your word, sentence, paragraph…Left arrow-forward slash+letter (/i for italics; /b for bold)-right arrow.

    That format hopefully will come through. I’m not going to try again….

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron,
    Yikes! Absolutely, NOT part of the Orthodox faith!

    Sorry about your hair…

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    It’s very much the same word/etymology. The original word means to move, or movement (as a noun). But, interestingly, it seems to have held the meaning of “change,” for the ancient Platonists. Thus, you get the idea of God as utterly “still” – meaning, He does not change.

    A quick look at St. John use of accidents seems to be when he’s speaking of unique characteristics versus the essence of something. Which sort of puts it in a different conversation.

  41. Johnpaul Avatar
    Johnpaul

    An Orthodox friend refered me to this Blog, and this article is very very helpful!
    The Origin of Evil always bothered me, and I guess this would say that there is no “origin” of evil for the simple reason evil is a direction, not a thing. It also would explain why a lot of things are sinful that don’t “seem” sinful. They are moving away from God.

  42. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you for this article Father, on a very interesting and important subject.

    I have been thinking very much about the concept of freedom lately. My thinking has shifted in that freedom has to be considered more as a noun than a verb; that is, it is something to be embodied in the context of “becoming” closer to God, so to speak. I might even put freedom up there with goodness, truth, and beauty, and especially in light of Christ’s teaching on truth and freedom/sin and slavery.

    I would appreciate your thoughts, unless what I have written is too strange/opaque/unclear etc

  43. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    PS I guess I am trying to say that the notion of freedom has become more ontological to me where I used to think of it purely as a means to an end

  44. christa Avatar
    christa

    what about those who cry out ” get away from me satan” when facing temptations and actions? personifying thoughts and deeds as coming from satan. is that misguided?
    Truth is calling out to God ” help me, come to my rescue!” and crossing myself. I often hear satan taking the blame for our own choices and actions that deserve our confession and repentance. That is fooling ourselves, is it not?
    Thanks for taking on these topics and for the helps on our journey together.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christa,
    Our actions and words that impel us towards God are good, regardless of how we phrase them. I generally call on Christ to help me or the saints.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, and what are we to make of mercy in all this?

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    A summary of St. Dionysius’ thought on freedom runs thus:

    The being’s self-motion, its freedom, is its participation in God, the “providential” presence of God in it. So, conversely, the being’s failure to move itself, to enact its nature, is its failure to be moved by God, i.e. to desire God, and so to be.

    I’ll translate. 🙂 Our freedom is our moving ourselves towards God (truth, beauty, goodness). And this same freedom is itself providence of God working in us. Thus, our freedom is always a cooperation (synergy) with the good will of God working in us.

    When we do not move in that manner – our “non-movement” is an act of “non-being,” that is, it is contrary to God’s good will working in us. Actually, Dionysius would call it a “non-act of non-being.” It’s a failure to move rightly.

    Interestingly, this is in accord with how we understand the passions. The passions (false desires) act on us – we are being passive towards things when these things take us over. Life must be lived – which is an act of true freedom towards goodness. The passive response (enslaved to anger, greed, lust, etc.) is to not live – it’s a non-existence.

    Again, as I noted earlier, repentance isn’t just about “not doing” something. In fact, that kind of effort almost always fails. There’s the need to positively do something that we might truly live. Thus, when I’m counseling with someone who is wrestling with some sinful passion, we look for good things to do in its place. If we just sweep the place clean and put nothing in the house, the demon goes and brings seven more with him worse than the first…in the words of Jesus.

    It’s typical, for example, when someone is battling alcoholism, they’ll be told “90 meetings in 90 days”. And, if possible, multiple meetings a day. The meetings are the positive acts towards goodness that are filling the void that alcholism was creating.

    But, in Dionysius’ thought, it would always be wrong to describe sin as an act of freedom. God Himself is our freedom.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Too much for me to think about in a single day…

  49. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you so much Father, for providing me with all of that — St Dionysius as well as regarding the passions and counseling, and for putting the 90 meetings/90 days in that context! That is so powerful!

    I am thinking that it says that in all circumstances we may choose freedom which is a positive action of calling on God.

    My mind starts to boggle at this point … but thank you again, so much!

  50. Justin Edge Avatar
    Justin Edge

    God’s own existence negates “freedom requires evil (or at least the possibility of evil).”
    God is limitless freedom, the most free Being. He is freedom. And yet, there is not merely the absence of evil in Him, but absolutely no possibility of evil in Him.
    The true statement, using God Himself as our model, would thus be:
    “Freedom is the impossibility of evil.”
    (With the caveat, of course, that the statement not be misinterpreted to read that freedom is merely the absence of evil and nothing more).

  51. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    Janine,
    “My mind starts to boggle at this point … ”
    I think you speak for many of us right about now…

  52. George S. Avatar
    George S.

    The 2013 novel The Goldfinch (and 2019 film based on it) expound something of such contorted philosophy – that all the bad/evil we do contributes to “the greater good”.
    Do not read/watch without direction discussion aftewards with an Orthodox Christian spiritual father!
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Goldfinch_(film)

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Steve, Janine, et al
    I will say that I occasionally like to put out an article like this (usually on some aspect of mature, ontological or “mystical” theology) not to make things complicated or confusing – but – so that once in a while we actually come face-to-face with the mature thought of the Church. None of us lives quite at this level of thinking or consideration. But, we frequently make mistakes of reducing theology to something so manageable that it becomes not true.

    None of this is to encourage people not to read or study or contemplate. But, it’s important to chew on this stuff from time to time even if only to instill a bit of humility in us. O Lord, how manifold are Thy works!

    One of my recent experiences with this came out of pursuing the question of the ontology (non-ontology) of evil. And, as I did so, I discovered that I was understanding ever-so-much that I would normal just get glassy-eyed trying to read. What was the difference? In large part – I had several clear questions in my mind that were, apparently, the right questions.

    Theology – good theology – answers questions. The greatest problem in understanding it is having the right questions. That is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

    I appreciate my readers putting up with me doing an article like this from time-to-time. It’s healthy for me – and I’ve gained much in the study/writing. It’s also good to have some conversations about it. For one, this isn’t just speculation – it’s quite practical (the truth always is) when rightly understood.

  54. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I will say that I occasionally like to put out an article like this (usually on some aspect of mature, ontological or “mystical” theology) not to make things complicated or confusing – but – so that once in a while we actually come face-to-face with the mature thought of the Church. None of us lives quite at this level of thinking or consideration. But, we frequently make mistakes of reducing theology to something so manageable that it becomes not true.

    Putting up with you? No! It is *wonderful.* And I remain very grateful for the *real* … very grateful!

  55. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for your wonderful response to Janine’s question about freedom, and to my question about kinetics. I hope you’re not too burdened to explore/elaborate on St John’s thoughts about accidents which I believe pertains to this topic on evil and sins. But if it’s a burden or distraction, please put it aside, you’re on a roll (as you usually are!)!

  56. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Sorry Father, I did not mean to explode your head but I have been contemplating mercy and my absolute need of it lately. It seems to be an intrinsic attribute of God that allows, motivates and blesses us to move into greater and greater good.
    It is neither a sentiment nor any other emotion. I have found it to he at the heart of all joy and peace because truly “of my own self I can do nothing”.

    It may well be what allows us to ask the right questions and to hear the answers.

  57. Dan Avatar
    Dan

    Father Stephen,
    My hair hurts as well, but I also appreciate this type of article. Additionally, the link to the article posted on Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, while VERY MUCH over my head, contained the following from Dionysius:

    “What has fallen away totally from the Good can have no place among the things which are more or less good. Whatever is good in some respect and not in some other is in conflict with a particular good but not with the totality of the Good. It is protected by having within it some participation of the Good so that the Good gives substance to what lacks itself precisely for the [eventual] full share of itself. … And so it is that evil is not a being. (DN IV.30)”

    “Let us gather all these once more together into a unity and let us say that there is a simple self-moving power directing all things to mingle as one, that it starts out from the Good, reaches down to the lowliest creation, returns then in due order through all the stages back to the Good, and thus turns from itself and through itself and upon itself and toward itself in an everlasting circle. (DN IV. 17)”

    This makes me think – and please delete this comment/question if this is simply a distraction – how does the non-existence of evil (and yet the existence of all things, even if only relative existence) fit with an eternal hell? That what has completely fallen away from the Good can have no being, and yet God upholds and sustains all things – which begs the question (as I see it), can anything/anyone truly fall completely away from God? Also, the notion of the Good reaching to the lowliest of creation and returning to itself seems to beg the same questions.

    I do not pose this question in a pointed way at all (again, please delete this post if it is simply a distraction). I ask because the problem of evil seems to tend to be treated in a punitive way – the “solution” for evil is to punish it and return evil with evil for all eternity – and yet this tends to be referred to as justice (I apologize if I sound irreverent with how I have worded this, that is not my intention in the least). Obviously, one would want to avoid such a place/existence, but it tends to leave little room for much more than a desire to avoid punishment and torment.

    As one possible analogy, it makes me think of magnetics. An object can lose its magnetic charge, and therefore not be magnetic anymore. It would retain it’s inherent “object-ness”, but lose its ability to be drawn towards/into a magnetic field. However, this analogy still seems to fail, because Dionysius’ says that the Good reaches down to the lowliest (the non-magnetic) gathering all things once more into unity.

    Basically, I think what I am trying to ask is: how do ontology and soteriology relate within Dionysus’ understanding of God?

    Thank you for this article, and any thoughts that you have regarding these questions is much appreciated.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Can you reference some passages that you have in mind?

  59. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Saint Silouan may be helpful.

    Who doesn’t want freedom? Everyone does but few know what freedom consists of, and how to attain it… To become free, one must first of all “bind” oneself. The more you bind yourself, the more freedom your spirit will know… One must pinion the passions in oneself, so that they don’t get possession of you, restrain yourself so as not to harm your neighbor. People generally seek freedom in order to do what they like. But that is not freedom but the power of sin over you. Freedom to fornicate, overeat and get drunk, or be spiteful, use violence and kill, and so on, is certainly not freedom but, as the Lord said, “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin”. One must pray hard to be delivered from such bondage.

    …True freedom means constant dwelling in God.”

    I am reading “constant dwelling in God”, in the context of this conversation, as “constant turning to, and moving towards, God”.

    Michael, Saint Silouan also notes that we do not sin in order to love our neighbor more. Perhaps there is a link to mercy here? Is mercy not a grace? And grace an expression of love? Just thinking out loud.

  60. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    Thank you Father Stephen for all this, which keeps us awake and precisely in inner movement …
    I like, among others, this sentence:
    “God alone is the source of the good, and whatever participation our lives have in goodness is His gift to us. We cannot weigh or consider the good in a manner apart from God. There is no such thing as a “secular” good.”
    I hear that Good is in fullness and that it is above all not the “opposite” of evil even if this evil exists in a kind of ‘dynamism’ which is specific to it. This movement of evil, can we say that it is increasing, that it is amplifying ?

    When you speak of “relative good and relative evil”, cleansed by communion with Christ, it makes me think of this notion of “good and evil” completely relativized in the world, and which is put on the same level. I’m not sure I can see what is there …

    The living God, of the Good and the Good, is the God to come, who is always to come, and as he is infinitely more than anything that can be said of him, this is what makes him ceases to increase, to increase each of us and to increase each other. It is the wonderful “movement” of the gift of God.

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Byron, it is all of those things but the mistake I had made was to think of it is too abstract way. Mercy and all that you mention have substance, a substance that is eternal and therefore more solid than anything of this world. Just as the goodness of God has substance as evil does not.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Mercy is one of the Divine energies – thus, when we show mercy, we are uniting ourselves with God-acting-in-us towards other. It is indeed substantive.

  63. Ken Seigneurie Avatar
    Ken Seigneurie

    I have no problem with denying the necessity of evil, or even the principle that “it has no being. It is only misdirection. It is a parasite,” but, speaking from my own experience (i.e. I’m not making a veiled political statement), I do think it is powerful and a force to be reckoned with. It may be “only” misdirection or, my own metaphor, a vacuum, but a vacuum can suck the life out of a person.
    From Fr. Schmemann: “Evil is more powerful than the puny efforts of humans because we are all ruled by evil/death; liberal optimism and self-sufficiency is exposed as weak and solitary and deviant; the secular world is dark, absurd and dead, ‘protected’ from the grace and demands of God.”

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think anyone in the ancient world (i.e. St. Dionysius, etc.) would have ever underestimated the “power” of evil. They saw a day-to-day reality of brutality that we only see in movies. Nonetheless, to grant an ontology to evil, is, in fact, to make it good – which it is not.

  65. Grant Hudson Avatar
    Grant Hudson

    I’ve thought of a mathematical analogy which may help to clarify things:
    We are created as ‘1s’ but intended to be ‘100s’. God is at 100 (for the sake of the analogy).
    The gap between 1 and 100 is 99, but it has no existence as such — it’s a gap. We could call it ‘sin’ as it separates us from God, but it has no ‘beingness’, it’s something that is missing.
    The Cross fills that gap: thorough the Cross, God ‘reaches down’ and ‘makes up the deficit’ between his creations and Himself.
    ‘Why doesn’t God just create us at 100 in the first place?’ someone might ask.
    It’s because to create something in full immediately results in an inanimate object. Stones, atoms, gases and so forth: they fully ‘are’ from the get-go.
    Only living things are created with room to grow, to breathe, to choose, to explore, to reach. As ‘1s’ we reach toward 100 and are aware of the gap; as ‘1s’ we are filled by the Cross and brought up to eternal life.
    Stones are already with God, in a sense; living beings are like the Prodigal Son, separated from God and free to wander away — but also to be welcomed back, the Father rushing out to greet them eternally.
    The ‘problem’ of evil and suffering isn’t therefore a ‘thing’: it’s the absence of a thing. That ‘thing’ is God.
    Hope this makes sense and helps.

  66. Laurie Wolpert Avatar
    Laurie Wolpert

    Wendell Berry had a poem that I thoughts was very orthodox. It was easier for me to understand than some of the more complex theology, but I think that it ends up in the same place.

    Hate has no world.
    The people of hate must try
    to possess the world of love,
    for it is the only world;
    it is Heaven and Earth.
    But as lonely, eager hate
    possesses it, it disappears;
    it never did exist,
    and hate must seek another
    world that love has made.

  67. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Father your words “…repentance isn’t just about “not doing” something. In fact, that kind of effort almost always fails. There’s the need to positively do something that we might truly live”, brought to mind a story about a drunk monk in Mount Athos and St Paisios.

    Once upon a time on Mount Athos there was a monk who lived in Karyes.
    He drank daily and got drunk and caused the pilgrims to be offended. At some point he died and in relief some believers went to Elder Paisios to tell him with great joy that this huge problem had finally been solved.
    Father Paisios replied that he knew about the monk’s death, after he saw a whole battalion of angels who had come to receive his soul.
    The pilgrims were astonished and protested, and some tried to explain to Elder Paisios exactly who they were talking about, thinking that the elder did not understand.
    Elder Paisios told them:
    “This particular monk was born Asia Minor, shortly before the catastrophe when the Turks were gathering all the boys.
    In order not to take him from his parents, they took him with them to the harvest and in order for him not to cry, they put some raki in the milk so that he could sleep.
    As a result, he grew up to be an alcoholic. At some point and after dissuasive answers from various doctors not to start a family, he arrived at the Mount and became a monk.
    There he found an elder and told him that he was an alcoholic.
    The elder told him to repent and pray every night and to ask Panagia to help him reduce by 1, the glasses he drank.
    After a year he managed with struggle and repentance to make the 20 glasses he drank, 19 glasses.
    The fight continued over the years and reached 2-3 glasses, but he was still getting drunk with that quantity.
    For years the world saw an alcoholic monk scandalizing the pilgrims, God saw a fighter who with great struggle tried to reduce his passion.

  68. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father, on the side I thought it was in the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. But I just checked real quick, and it seems that he might have gone in more depth somewhere else. I’ll get back to you on this, here, if it looks promising and helpful.

  69. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    I did find one description in Book IV of the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, however this doesn’t show the full of his meaning with his usage of the word accidents. But here goes the first of possible exerts:

    [about whether there are “two kingdoms”] Again, one of these alternatives is necessary, either that they are at peace, which is quite incompatible with evil (for that which is at peace is not evil), or they are at strife, which incompatible with goodness (for that which is at strife is not perfectly good), or the evil is at strife and the good does not retaliate, but is destroyed by the evil, or they are ever in trouble and distress , which is not a mark of goodness. There is, therefore, but one kingdom, delivered from all evil.

    But if this is so, they say, whence comes evil ? For it is quite impossible that evil should
    originate from goodness. We answer then, that evil is nothing else than absence of
    goodness and a lapsing from what is natural into what is unnatural: for nothing evil is
    natural. For all things, whatsoever God made, are very good , so far as they were made:
    if, therefore, they remain just as they were created, they are very good, but when they
    voluntarily depart from what is natural and turn to what is unnatural, they slip into
    evil.

    By nature, therefore, all things are servants of the Creator and obey Him. Whenever,
    then, any of His creatures voluntarily rebels and becomes disobedient to his Maker, he
    introduces evil into himself. For evil is not any essence nor a property of essence, but an
    accident, that is, a voluntary deviation from what is natural into what is unnatural,
    which is sin.

    Whence, then, comes sin ? It is an invention of the free-will of the devil. Is the devil,
    then, evil? In so far as he was brought into existence he is not evil but good. For he was
    created by his Maker a bright and very brilliant angel, endowed with free-will as being
    rational. But he voluntarily departed from the virtue that is natural and came into the
    darkness of evil, being far removed from God, Who alone is good and can give life and
    light. For from Him every good thing derives its goodness, and so far as it is separated
    from Him in will (for it is not in place), it falls into evil.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Interesting use of the term “accident.” My first impression is that he is being less precise, with less in-depth analysis than St. Dionysius. That makes sense in that he is writing a general defense and teaching of the faith. But I’d be glad of more examples.

  71. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Yes I agree it isn’t the most explanatory and it doesn’t have the depth that I remember reading. –Still on the hunt. I’ll return later with something better if I can find it.

  72. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Dee/Fr Stephen,

    Re: Accidents

    It seems to me St John uses accident in the metaphysical sense – that evil is not essential, but rather accidental to creaturely being, will and nature. Similarly it can be said that whiteness is accidental to the being of a canine (e.g. there are also black and brown dogs). So I understand St John to say that evil is accidental, against a being’s proper nature, for “evil is not any essence nor a property of essence, but an accident” as he puts it. Which is another way of saying that to sin, to do evil, is inhuman, against human nature, unnatural. Bringing to bear the full implications of a sound and orthodox Christology is of importance here. Christ is fully free, fully human, the express image of the Father, and without sin.

  73. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    I remember this was an “aha” moment when you said it several years ago concerning evil having no existence and instead there only being movement toward and away from Life Himself.

    On reading your article, 2 things immediately came to mind. The first was “The Nothing” from the beloved children’s movie The Never Ending Story. It was the true monster and NOT the big, black wolf – who himself got eaten up by the Nothing, which ended up being the lack of belief by the readers.

    The other thing was your saying: “Jesus didn’t become one of us to make bad men good, but to make dead men alive.” I might have incorrectly paraphrased.

    I sympathize with those commenters who are fond of contrasting evil against good and seeing the value of evil in the mix. I believe they/we can still hold that paradigm if they substitute “death” for “evil”. For it surely makes sense that a brush with death (car accident, drug addiction, abuse, personal sins, etc.) would brighten and greatly clarify for the participant what is actually life and just how good it is to be alive. And an encounter with evil – with external or internal – is ultimately the threat of annihilation and not really about being labelled as bad.

    Here’s the thing: we’re anthropomorphic. We need a face. It’s not enough for most of us to fear non-existence as a concept. We need the ability to say that it’s the Grim Reaper we actually fear – and THEN to join in the chorus of praise that Christ has trampled down death by death – and to know that we can too in our lives – or at least be willing participants while He does it and we learn to cooperate.

    Another advantage I see of this substitution is the way it puts us all a) on a level playing field and b) in the same boat. Instead of us spending time playing God and judging who is bad or good, we can come to see that we’re all going to die and that the best we can do is to help save those around us from experiencing the true death.

    just some thoughts…

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Drewster,
    “We’re anthropomorphic.”

    Yes. I know that things are made of atoms, etc., but in my daily life, I think “chair” not “chair-shaped arrangement of atoms.” The same is true viz. evil and death. The danger comes when we start being too literal-minded with our operating anthropomorphisms and want to turn them into descriptions of “things as they actually are.”

    And, it’s always worth bearing in mind that the mystical theology of the Church that ponders and expounds on the actual nature of things does so that we might fully understand (are as good as we can) and to keep us out of trouble (of a metaphysical sort).

  75. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Yes and the problem we risk is no less as serious as creating God in our image, and to normalize death and evil.
    Lord have mercy on us, by your light we shall see light.

  76. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Robert,
    Yes indeed you have described essentially what I remember. Thank you! And there was a little more regarding the “will’, “subsistence”, “nature”, and “essence”. I found another source but haven’t had time to read it through yet. More soon stay tuned!

    Again thank you!

    Drewster, I understand the nebulousness and abstractness of “evil” and wanting to put a face to it. If I understand you correctly. In the Antiochian prayers, say the Lord’s prayer as an example, we say at the end “…but deliver us from the evil one. This would be evil personified (someone who manifests evil) as opposed to evil as a thing in itself. But I notice for some reason that the Greek prayers end with the word “evil” as the object rather than adjective.

    I think this is an interesting divergence. And perhaps it is preferable to say the ‘evil one’?

    Father, do you have thoughts on this difference?

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    The traditional English translation (as found in the classical Book of Common Prayer) has “deliver us from evil.” That model was a common basis for usage in most English language liturgies for a very long time (centuries). Orthodox liturgical us followed this pattern in its English translations at first.

    I’m not sure which jurisdiction first decided to render it “evil one.” “Evil one” is clearly the actual sense of the Greek in the New Testament. The word for evil “poneron” is accompanied by the definite article “to” – meaning “the evil” – “one” is needed in English to complete the sense of it.

    Theoretically, there is no “evil” that is not somehow involved in a will. Of course, modern English translations in the so-called “mainline” denominations are embarassed by the Lord’s Prayer clearly mentioned the devil. They would prefer not to think about such things.

    The OCA did not adopt this language until its most recent editions from St. Tikhon’s. The Jordanville Prayerbook has had this way for a long time.

  78. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    I hear you. And I agree…and yet there is that saying about how if you can’t explain it to your grandmother, then you don’t really understand it yourself. When I couple that with the ever-growing realization of how much we are God’s children above all else, I always strive for common parlance so that I can imitate St. Paul where he says to “be all things to all men” – or at least be able to communicate with them.

    The earth rotates on its axis, and yet most of us insist on talking about sunrises and sunsets. Who’s correct? I believe it’s more important that I learn to get up in the morning and go to bed at night because the sun has shown me how. There is of course much value to gain from the contemplation of the axis turning as well, but most of us keep our focus on the sun and moon.

    We are very visual creatures. We can’t see things like nothingness and unbecoming, but we can see death. I’m saying our understanding would be closer of we named death rather than look for the scapegoat of evil.

    sorry to be so obtuse, drewster

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, the “explaining it to your Grandmother” has always bothered mr a bit. There are somethings that cannot be communicated to others well unless there is a commonality of experience. That happens here frequently but not because Fr. Stephen does not “have it” but because I don’t. Fortunately Grace is communicable even when I do not have it at first.

  80. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Here’s the thing: we’re anthropomorphic. We need a face. It’s not enough for most of us to fear non-existence as a concept.

    As an aside, this seems to reinforce (for me) that evil has no being. We move to see, as Saint Paul says, “Him, face-to-face”, as a matter of salvation. God is incarnate, He has a face, He came to us. Evil lacks incarnation, and has no face.

    In another aside, I think my grandmother would understand this (and, being the direct presence of God now, I expect she quite literally does).

  81. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    I enjoyed this commentary a lot and it is an example of the kind of thought I come here to explore because i don’t find it anywhere else.

  82. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Byron, Michael,

    It’s worth stepping back for a minute to look at this situation in context. We’re having this conversation on a blog where everyone talks theology. Put us in a group of theologians and we’re NOT, but stick us in the local cafe next to the average person and we often ARE.

    Michael, most of these conversations would have been lost on my grandmother. Most of the people I grew up around would have argued about who was going to Hell, who was good enough to escape it and all that. To speak directly about evil? Forget about it. Way out of their league. “How should I know? I ain’t no minister!”

    So while I laud and very much covet this as a safe place for “aha” moments where we learn that there is actually no such thing as evil, let’s not forget about the prostitutes and tax collectors whose only thought is that they’re probably damned to Hell already. That’s all I’m trying to say here.

  83. John H Avatar
    John H

    Dan,

    In response to your query from February 3, 2021, if you wish to explore more fully the relationship between ontology and soteriology in the Fathers, please check out Father Aidan Kimel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, which has excellent discussions on questions regarding the universalism of saints like Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor.

    Dr. Ilaria Ramelli, in her extensive tome, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, views the metaphysical non-substantiality of evil as a basic foundation in the writings of all of the Fathers sympathetic to universalism. This follows from the notion that evil is a movement towards non-being. As God does not allow any one of his creatures to self-annihilate by moving completely into non-being, there must come a time, either in this life or the next, when a rational being experiences a metanoia and turns towards the Good which is God. Evil cannot be eternal because only God, as the Supreme Good, is eternal. To paraphrase Evagrius Pontus, there was a time when evil did not exist and there shall come a time when it shall disappear altogether.

    What are the practical implications of all of the above for Orthodox believers today? My own opinion—and in the interests of full disclosure I am not Orthodox myself—is that universalism is a permissible theologoumenon in Orthodoxy. No less an authority than Met. Kallistos Ware has written that it is permissible for Orthodox believers to hope and pray for the salvation of all.

  84. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Drewster,
    No doubt we are not theologians (although I would say Father and others, Robert for example, are). Nevertheless, if there was a way without looking like I was trying to “proselytize” in the manner that some Protestants use of argumentative persuasion and denigration, I would be broadcasting this understanding of evil and good as much as I could. I know one person, whom I love very much, is apparently exploring these questions, but won’t engage me in them, because of his negative experiences with (non Orthodox) proselytizers. So I wait in silence and pray for the Lord’s guidance.

  85. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Drewster2000, I completely agree with you. I also think that the key to communicating any of this to anyone is in the simplicity of the Incarnation. God has a face and came to us, bringing hope to the the prostitutes and tax collectors, so to speak.

    I would add that the most impactful things I’ve heard said in public concerning topics of this sort tend to be the simplest statements, rooted in love. A long-winded discussion typically goes over everyone’s head at some point. But it’s helpful that here we can have that discussion without too much fear of alienating others.

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Drewster,
    My wife is a grandmother and understands everything I write. There are lots of grandmothers who read this and understand it. Don’t be so doubtful about grandmothers. My own grandmothers were farming Baptist women. “Jesus loves you,” was about as deep as it got. Only one of them finished high school, I think (11 grades back then).

    I should add that I’ve volunteer many, many hours in a local drug/alcohol rehab teaching and working with people in recovery on the spiritual life in recovery. There were plenty of drunks and prostitutes among them. Sometimes the vocabulary was simplified – but I told them the same things that I write here – and they rejoiced to hear it.

    But – “death” works a lot easier in explaining the problem caused by sin.

  87. David Avatar
    David

    My father was not entirely correct when he chided us for being careless to close the door in winter. No, we were not letting in “the cold”. Rather we were letting out the life-giving heat. What is coldness? Nothing really, but the absence of heat. There is no hot-cold duality. There is only heat: more or less of it, and the terrifying possibility of its utter absence. Heat keeps us alive. It keeps everything from the mighty oceans to the merest molecules in a glorious motion of life. Heat is good and in its properties and its energies, it is a warming reflection of the Good.

    I am, my Lord, like a black and motionless lump of ice. Where is your light? Where the warmth of your presence? If you would shine your good and warming face upon me, then every lifeless particle would move again, and slowly, quietly, my stone-like nature will melt into a pool of refreshing life.

    A dancer silent rests upon a stage. Soft and pleasing tones flood the room, and as they light upon her, they propel her into the singular joy of movement. This is the movingmost of all movement, no mere travel from alpha to zulu, no vectors creeping back and forth along a number line, but full-person, every-dimension vitality. “Yes,” my hard and sophisticated heart says, “but she is moving from stage left to stage right, and before that from the dressing room to this place.” What a fool I am. Indeed she IS moving to and toward something: she moves TO THE MUSIC. And not just to it, but TOWARD it. And she lets it fill her every joint, and she and the music enter into union. There is no “from” here, only “toward” and “into”.

    My heart is a stone, my ears are bricks, my limbs but dried up wood. Yet if you sang again my name, I would hear and rise and dance to the sound of your voice.

    An image, a photo, full of color and light: there are shadows, but they are not darkness, just varying shades and hues of light. True darkness would be nothing, a faceless, aniconic vacuum. We fear that we will remain like undeveloped bits of film, a waste of material, an empty negative, a picture of absolutely nothing. We long for the light of his face to shine on us. When he appears we will be like him. The light of his face will expose us, and a new and beautiful image will appear: his image. No darkness, only light.

    Long have I lain in darkness, dimmed my eyes against the dawn, and doubted night would ever end. Open my fast-shut eyes, O Giver of Life, that I might see your ever-gaze linger on me and behold that you are there. May I leap at a knowledge too wonderful for me: that you are there, that the darkness cannot hide from you, that even night shines as the day when you are there.

  88. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mercy! Matthew 12:7-8
    Love God and neighbor: Matthew 22:36-40

    I am still chewing on these theologically. That and The Creed.

  89. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    What I learned from my granny, by Elder Grigorios of Docheiariou, Mount Athos:

    This granny taught me with her life and her word our forefathers’ piety: “Fasting is, my child, the basis of every physical exercise.” All throughout Lent, the grandmother and the whole house without oil. She taught me to light the candle, to burn incense, to light a candle in front of the icons, and to pray in the matins and the vespers. She pointed out to me prostrations as a prayer that God accepts. She taught me that if we do not listen to the six psalms for three Sundays, we will stop being Christians. “Get up, my child, the priest has passed, he’s heading up to Panagia, do not forget that last Sunday we also missed the six psalm.” She taught me to the psalms standing, respectfully, bowing. While the Gospel was read, she lit a candle, because she believed that the Gospel was the testament that Christ left to the world, and in the writing and reading of the testaments, which always took place in the evening, everyone held a candle for the author to see. She taught me that “Doxa Patri” (Glory to the Father….) is the greatest doxology and I should stand up and cross myself. She taught me during Lent, entering the temple, to do three penances, for the presanctified Bread that is on the Holy Altar.

    She instructed me, passing in front of a church, to cross myself and invoke the Saint of that church. Wherever I am, I should celebrate the day of the Epiphany like Easter Sunday. She told that many pious people saw the uncreated light in the early hours of the Feast of the Transfiguration. She pointed out to me on Sunday not to kneel, because the Kolyvades Saints taught us that Sunday is Easter. She taught me the right thing to offer the well-kneaded bread to the church, not with my bare hands, but on a white clean towel. He taught me when I make kolyva (boiled wheat), to have a candle and incense. She pointed out to me in the Sanctuary where I serve, my clothes should never touch the Holy Table, because -as she said- it is the throne of God.

    And so I give forgiveness to all the grandparents who told me: “Beware of the educated. “God will destroy the world because of them.” “The excesses of the demons are here” said Saint Amfilochios of Patmos. Lead your fellow man to God’s way and God will guide and teach him. No big mouth teachings. We live by what we were taught by our ancestors, that the Orthodox Church is the services, the wax candle and the incense and the candle that is lit in front of the holy icons. And I do not go further. If He wants, let God take me further.

    Lord, help. The waters are muddy and we do not see the beauty of the seabed. Lord, restrain the great intellectuals. Put a break on the evil that has befallen us in recent years. And we, your lovers, are steadfast and unwavering.

  90. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    Thank you for the homily. Of course, the majority of my American readers are probably converts, whose grandmothers would have been scandalized that they were converting to Orthodoxy. Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims remains a good substitute for an Orthodox grandmother.

    And, a word of caution: The Orthodox faith is not anti-intellectual. It is anti-sin and anti-faithlessness. It would be tragic to create an impression in these comments of something that is not true. It is for that reason that I’ve pushed back on some of these well-meant musings.

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Since 3 of my four grandparents were dead before I was born snd the fourth died while I was quite young never had any relationship with any of them.
    My maternal grandmother was part of the US government’s eugenics efforts which included running “Perfect Baby Contests” at state fairs that judged babies according to confirmation standards like cattle (white babies only).

    The difference I saw in the Orthodox faith versus all of the others is that the whole person is essential to the Orthodox phronema while the others pick and choose. The Orthodox faith requires intellect as well a deep sensitivity to the “unseen” dimensions of the human soul including the persistence of sin in the face of God.

    Intellect is an essential part of what it means to be human and will also be saved.

  92. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Fr Stephen

    We are all converts to Orthodoxy, some a few months old and some at adult age. I often ponder on what a great miracle it is for non-Orthodox to find their way to Orthodoxy and feel at home in this environment, when they have been brought up in a different way. I believe that any humble heart seeking Christ will find the way to the Orthodox Church.

    On intellect, like any other human faculty, it is a gift from God. I do wonder however, how it has been used by the Fathers. Christ chose non-intellectuals for His Apostles. At the same time the dogmatic teachings of the Church have been expressed by Fathers of great intellect, in addition to their holiness. Those who used intellect without enlightenment, ended up engaging in stochastic philosophy about God, which permeated Western Christianity.

    The image of the Church as a hospital where sick people enter to acquire their health is the easiest way for me to relate to life in Christ. I would be interested to understand how intellect relates to salvation and whether it is only an attribute of an educated person.

  93. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    The intellect, like everything we have, must be rightly used. That it is so badly used by so many only speaks to its power. Many people abuse food. Many people abuse sex. But without them, we would die. The same is true of the intellect. It has become fashionable in some circles of Orthodoxy to denigrate intellectual activity, as though it unnecessary or problematic. That, I fear, is ignorance doing its worst.

    St. Sophyrony of Essex, interestingly, generally required that all of the priestmonks at his monastery in England, earn a PhD if possible. A number of them hold doctorates from Oxford. He said, it is an educated country, and our monks will need to be educated in order to serve effectively here. He was quite wise.

    My own Archbishop (Alexander Golitsyn) was a monk at Simonapetras under the Elder Aemilianos. He had nearly completed his Oxford doctorate when he came to the monastery. He was going to drop out. The Elder insisted that he complete it. He became a great scholar, and a good monk.

    St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian were two of the most educated men of their time, and both were giants of the faith who demonstrated the right use of the intellect. Others, such as St. Maximos the Confessor, and others like him also demonstrated the same.

    I read a book last year, a 19th century travel account, by several Anglican clergy who were visiting on the Holy Mountain for an extended period. They brought up the doctrine of the Divine Energies (as taught by St. Gregory of Palamas) to the monks, including leading abbots. The Orthodox monastics had never heard of the doctrine of the Divine Energies. The authors went on to ridicule the doctrine and to assume that it would soon be repudiated by the Orthodox.

    That was an example of ignorance that had come about through the Turkokratia. The recovery of the fullness of Orthodoxy has involved great efforts by good and holy scholars who have worked for lifetimes to restore things that had been in danger of loss. I think of Dmitru Staniloae of Romania – a many of great holiness – who translated the Philokalia into Romanian, and also the entire corpus of St. Maximos the Confessor. I have met outstanding Athonite scholars – Fr. Chrysostomos Koutloumousianos, for one. There are others out there as well.

    I know of “bogus” scholars, whose thoughts are highly Westernized and conformed to modernity and yet who parade themselves as Orthodox. I’ll say no more about them.

    But, the dangers do not come from education – but poor education and the lack of good Orthodox-formed theologians to train them. Nonetheless, the Church is probably in better shape, intellectually, today than it has been for the last few centuries. I say that, in that most people are ignorant of just how bad things were over the last few centuries. They were – I think – the lowest point in the history of Orthodoxy. There were saints still, because God never abandons His Church. But the “Western Captivity,” as described by Fr. Georges Florovsky was real and we’re only slowly beginning to come out of it.

    Now – I’ll say again that there are plenty of dangers within the intellectual life – but they are best corrected by those who know enough to correct them. I’ve seen priests who were not educated who did harm, even though they were well-intentioned. They could have done a better job had they been better trained. What I think is true is that we should use everything God has given us for His glory and for the effectiveness of ministry.

    Orthodoxy, rightly lived, is true wholeness, the fullness of the human life in union with Christ. The grandmothers who warned that intellectuals would lead to the destruction of the world were likely correct – but they will not be living the Orthodox life. They will be married to the spirit of the age and serving the god of mammon.

  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    The word “intellect,” interestingly, comes from the Latin “intellectus,” which was consistently used to translate the Greek, “nous.” Today, people often mean nothing more than “rational” when they use it, which is not at all what it originally meant. There is also, today, a kind of “professionalization” of the intellect, in which standard party-lines of reasoning are put forward as though they were proven (when they are not).

    But, in terms of salvation, the nous (noetic is the adjective) is quite important. It is, according to the Fathers, the primary faculty by which we perceive God. So, the modern use of the word “intellect” has strayed far from its roots. The right intellectual tradition in Orthodox should be grounded in noetic perception. Thus, though, for example, I might write about being and goodness, providence, etc., actually perceiving those things is a noetic activity and not merely a Westernized intellectual (rational) activity. To perceive and understand these things noetically is very much part of the life of salvation (cf. Romans 12:1-2).

    My own writing, weak as it is, is grounded in noetic perception rather than just intellectual activity. I try to limit myself in writing only what I actually know – and by that – I mean perceive noetically. That means that there’s lots of stuff I don’t write about – and that – over the years – what I write might seem somewhat limited. It is, I think, a good to follow.

  95. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi Father, I noticed the phrase narcisstic ontology in this one. I came across the definition of altruistic narcissim recently on J Reid’s blog. It seems potentially relevant as a false feedback mechanism within misconceived Christianity, though I am not sure.

    Jerry Wise also has a really good short video on intergenerational trauma he posted last week

    My sister and I have begun discussing where we made ‘wrong choices’ in working to care for our dad during his rather horrific last 4 years of life. But I told her we can’t know that what would have happened with the other branch of any split in the road would have been better. There are so many variables, so many unknowns

  96. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Father your second comment very much clarifies the context of intellect for me, taking its original meaning. I am always confused with the multi-faceted use of “nous” in patristic writings as well as St Paul. In my simple mind I think of nous as the heart and what psalm 50 refers to, in verse 10 “create in me a clean heart, O God…”.

    The cleansing of the heart (catharsis) is achievable without education. We have uneducated Saints like St Anthony and the fathers of the desert, as well as recent ones like St Paisios and St Porphyrios. The difference between these Saints and the holy Hierarchs, St Photios, St Gregory Palamas etc is their “intellectual” ability from their education, to express in human language rather nuanced dogmatic concepts.

    Most of us (and I speak for myself) will never conceive the nuances of the Ecumenical Council pronouncements, nature (ousia), will, energies etc. We will go through life just confessing that we believe what the Orthodox Fathers believed, rejecting anything they did not, filioque, oriental monophysitism etc

  97. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    You are correct as to how many people will go throughout their lives, living the Orthodox faith with simplicity. Unfortunately, for those who have grown up outside of an Orthodox culture, and have been nurtured in modern education – there is simply no escaping the need for “renewing the mind” – a catharsis of the heart that also requires “rethinking” of many things. Modernity is a set of ideas rather than being either a period of time or a product of technology. Even uneducated people in American culture have been bathed and steeped in modernity – its ideas permeate the culture. With that comes a whole set of ideas that cannot be reconciled with the Orthodox faith. For example, the reality and truth of the sacramental life is quite foreign to modern culture. American Christians generally see the Eucharist as nothing more that an idea or a memorial and have a hard time coming to see the truth that it truly becomes Christ Body and Blood. That’s actually just a small example.

    Added to this is that American Christians are in an ocean of denominations and religions. Most of the Orthodox almost never encounter another Orthodox believer except in Church. There is no cultural support (like villages filled with believing grandmothers) for the faith. In order to raise our children, many of us have to become teachers who carry the great burden of nurturing the faith in a child who is beset with false ideas and a toxic youth culture.

    Probably the most difficult thing to practice here is simplicity – just as it would be difficult to practice peaceful love of enemies in a war zone. These things can be done – but they require ever so much teaching! Just today I met a young man at Church who said he had largely come to the faith through reading my blog – his background was atheism. I had such joy in the meeting!

    God keep us all!

  98. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father and Nikolaos,

    I’ve enjoyed and grateful for this conversation. Speaking as someone who had a ‘traditionalist’ Native American culture in the home, but schooled in the public school system, I vouch for the confusion that a child has when confronted with modernity. I was aware but could not name the beast and neither did my parents grasp it— they were not educated sufficiently to prepare me and my brother. Interestingly, that form of alienation forged a loving bond between myself and my brother that is unusual for this culture and our generation. We understood each other in ways that our peers could not and continue in our elder years with an enduring brotherly and sisterly loving friendship.

  99. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    Thank you P.Stephen for your comments on “the intellect” and the discussion with Nikolaos (thank you for prompting this!). A lot of lighting for me and a joy to receive this light.
    I appreciate this reflection :
    “Unfortunately, for those who have grown up outside of an Orthodox culture, and have been nurtured in modern education – there is simply no escaping the need for “renewing the mind” – a catharsis of the heart that also requires “rethinking” of many things.”

    We are also, in France, confronted with things similar to those which you describe. (but at the level of our respective countries …)

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