Thoughts on Morality, Beauty, & Mission in the Orthodox Church

  1. There is no such thing in the Orthodox Church as the study of “moral theology” or “Christian ethics.” These are Roman Catholic and Protestant inventions, and that of a rather recent date. Instead, it is more proper to say that there can be no discussion of morality in any truly meaningful way apart from its place in the trajectory of Theosis, or “Deification.” Theosis, simply put, is the universal witness of the Church that human beings have been created, from the beginning, to share by grace in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. This means that everything God is by nature, human beings are called to be by grace. Theosis is thereby a Trinitarian mystery, for by becoming one in Christ, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, human beings achieve salvation by having been reconciled to the Father. “For in Christ, God has reconciled all things to Himself.” (2 Cor. 5:14). All of this happens on a personal basis as believers enact on a daily basis, their repentance as an existential turning of the mind and heart, from the darkness to the light.
  2. Furthermore, morality from an Orthodox Christian perspective, cannot be properly understood or “posited” within the Western ideological categories of either conservatism or liberalism (or anything in between). The unfortunate polarization that has taken place between the two within the postmodern world is a false dichotomy. Even more tragic is the extremely negative politicization that has taken place by those who espouse liberal or conservative values. Morality in the Orthodox Church can only be seen, as we shall hopefully see, from a strictly Christological viewpoint. In other words, it is the “GodMan” Christ Jesus Who is the full and perfect revelation of righteousness, justice, and truth. In this way, we do not try and argue with or convince others about the rightness of one moral conviction over another, but only about the living person of Christ Who is the way the truth and the life. “For in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. “ (John 1:4,5). “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6).
  3. As the “New Adam,” Jesus Christ is the perfectly enlivened and glorified man. Having been crucified upon the Cross, buried in a tomb, and risen from the dead, the Son of God made flesh has opened the way for every human person to follow Him in His deification of human nature. Through the baptismal grace of repentance, every believer is called to make his Passover from the old to the new by putting off the “old man” and “putting on the new man” which is Christ Jesus Himself. “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27). Having done this, Christians transcend the law through the infinite love of God and aspire towards Theosis. “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisee, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
  4. The idea of morality as a commonly accepted, conventional “norm of behavior” is foreign to the Orthodox mind because it eliminates the possibility of true Theosis, for Theosis is a mystery that transcends the idea of “good behavior.” Just as an athlete must not mistake training for the race with the race itself, so the Christian must not mistake the starting line of the commandments with the finish line of deification by grace. “Why do you ask me about what is good? Only One is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments… If you would be perfect, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me.“ (Matt. 19:17, 21).That which is “immoral” within the testimony of the Holy Scriptures is thus so because every sinful thought, word, feeling, and act is an obstruction to the unending mystery of being perfected in Jesus Christ.
  5. The “law of God” as revealed in the Old Testament is the law not in any kind of legislative sense, but in the sense that it is a way of life that belongs to the covenant people of Israel. Conversely, whenever the living image of the GodMan Jesus Christ is removed from the moral aim, the differentiation between what is lawful and unlawful becomes meaningless. In this case, whatever moral ideology has the highest social ascendency will itself determine, for the rest, what is moral and what is not.As a believer becomes perfected through repentance he passes through the stages purification, enlightenment, and union with Christ. This process includes the acquisition of the virtues, which are spiritual gifts of God’s goodness that have their source in the person of Jesus Christ, such as, charity, humility, mercy, temperance, chastity, diligence, and patience. “O Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”
  6. According to the holy fathers, the passions that have come about on account of the fall are contrary to human nature because every passion is a failed virtue. Pride is failed humility, lethargy is failed diligence, gluttony and drunkenness are failed temperance, lust is failed purity, and avarice is failed mercy. To conquer the passions one heals them by turning them “right side up.” This is the deeper meaning of repentance in that it shows how repentance is not simply the cessation of bad behavior, but as a continual turning of the mind, heart, and will towards the goodness of the Lord. “I call heaven and earth as witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” (Deut. 4: 26).
  7. As the perfectly deified human and the source of virtue, Christ is the source of all true beauty. “Thou O my Christ, art more beautiful than all the sons of men.” (Matins of Great & Holy Saturday). The more one gains the virtues, the more one also begins to share in the divine beauty of Christ. From a personal standpoint, then, every acquired virtue has its own power or “dynamism” on account of its inner beauty. For once again, the virtues are not simply platonic “ideals” that float high above in some ethereal, immaterial realm, but are the incarnate manifestations of God’s goodness within the life and actions of every Christian believer. As these virtues thereby become personalized, (or “hyposticized”) by believers, they become attractive to others. “You are the light of the world. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in heaven.”
  8. All true mission in the Church involves the witness of both words and deeds. For apart from virtuous deeds, words have no meaning or power. In this way, the preaching of the apostles was true because it was holistic. They preached the gospel not only with their mouths, but with the manner of their living. In the book of Acts, St. Luke emphasizes the fact that the preaching of Sts. Peter & Paul was true because the words they spoke were attended by their willingness to suffer for their preaching. In this way, the manner of their living was itself was a revelation of the gospel of the Christ’s Cross. Contra wise, when ones way of living becomes dissonant with the message of the gospel, then the gospel is reduced to information. Information saves no one.
  9. The world in which we live is awash in information flow through emails, texts, commercials infomercials, billboards, television, radio, social media, and the like. Many faith communities have rushed headlong into this information wash by using the same tricks and selling points, by turning worship into amusement and by turning the message of the gospel into self-help therapy. In affect, the work of mission becomes akin to carrying out an advertising compaign like any other. Orthodox Christians, however, remember that the gospel is not simply better information that helps us secure happiness and success, but that it is the power of Christ to overcome sin and death.
  10. Through repentance, and the gaining of the virtues, Christians become the message of the gospel themselves, through their own death and resurrection in Christ. This is the way we understand the calling to “make disciples of all nations” as found in the Lord’s Great Commission.

Fr. Paul Jannakos

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