In his recent blog article “The Un-moral Christian,” Fr Stephen Freeman criticizes the tendency to reduce the Christian life to obedience to moral rules. “The nature of the Christian life,” he declares, “is not rightly described as the adherence to an external set of norms and standards, even if those norms and standards are described as being ‘from God.’ The ‘unmoral’ life of Christians is a different mode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as by how it does.” I was reminded of a letter C. S. Lewis wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths:
The bad (material) tree cannot produce good fruit. But oddly, it can produce fruits that by all external tests are indistinguishable from the good ones: the act done from one’s own separate and unredeemed, tho’ “moral” will, looks exactly like the act done by Christ in us. And oddly enough it is the tree’s real duty to go on producing these imitation fruits till it recognizes this futility and despairs and is made a new (spiritual) tree. (Quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence, p. 100.)
Two trees that appear identical in every external respect, yet one is is doomed to destruction and death. What is the difference between the redeemed and the unredeemed person? They exist differently. One is alive, the other is walking dead. One has surrendered his will to Christ and been regenerated in the Spirit; the other still lives in the world and abides in a self-chosen mode of damnation. No doubt the latter could, by an exertion of will, produce more good works and become an even better moral person; but unless he is born anew by the Spirit, he will remain incapable of producing the fruit of eternal life. And as our Lord warned us: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 7:19).
How then might we properly describe the unmoral life of the Christian? Fr Stephen provocatively answers, “It is about being a god“:
This, of course, is shocking language, but it is the Christian faith. The life of a fish is about being a fish. It is not about swimming or breathing water (though these certainly are part of a fish’s life). But a man with a special device can breathe water and swim for days without ever becoming a fish. In the same way, the Christian life is not about improving our human behavior, it is about taking on a new kind of existence. And that existence is nothing less than divine life.
The life of resurrection … life in the Spirit … life in the kingdom … life within the Holy Trinity. Here is the heart of unmoral Christianity—not improved behavior but the freedom of the children of God. We have died with Christ and our life is now hidden with Christ in God. The world worries about morality and teaches the desirability of right behavior. But baptism brings a new mode of existence, a life beyond death in the risen Jesus: “We eat Christ. We drink Christ. We breathe Christ. We do all things in Him and through Him.” As St Seraphim of Sarov memorably taught, prayer, fasting and works of mercy have their essential place in the Christian life; but they do not constitute its goal and end: “the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”
Fr Stephen’s eschatological perspective leads him to an understanding of the Sacrament of Confession that moves beyond moralism. “Confession is the sacrament of repentance, our turning to God,” he writes. “It is not the sacrament of the second chance and the harder try.” I might put it in a somewhat different way: confession is returning to our death in Christ. We offer to the Lord the corpse that we are and submit to being slain anew by the Spirit. We would prefer to lead a moralistic existence. As the Israelites yearned to return to the flesh-pots of Egypt, so we, despite all we have received, yearn to return to the simple existence of prescription and laws. Yet God will not be satisfied with anything less than our death, for it is in our death that he comes to reside. As Fr Stephen expresses it in his earlier article “You’re Not Doing Better“:
St. Gregory of Nyssa once stated, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become a god.” This is not the story of progress. We are not mud that is somehow improving itself towards divinity. There is nothing mud can do to become divine. And if we were honest with ourselves, we don’t even become better mud. … What is happening in our spiritual lives is not the perfecting of a better “me.” It is like a comparison between mud and light. Really great, truly outstanding mud, can only ever be mud. It never becomes more “light-like.” …
“I do unite myself to Christ,” is the statement candidates make at Holy Baptism. These are the words of mud speaking of the most wonderful possible gift. That we should become gods is Christ’s gift to us, not our achievement. It is a reality birthed in our muddy souls at Baptism. And what is birthed in us is a new creation, not really the mud man at all. … The life in Christ is not at all about improvement. It is rather more about failure. … The spiritual life is not an improvement of the moral self, it is the finding and the living into the true self (the New Man), birthed in us through Christ. We lose the moral self in order to find the true self. We confess our moral weakness and there we find the true strength of the New Man. We empty the moral self and understand that even its best effort and performance is but “hay, wood and straw” (1 Cor. 3:12).
Yesterday Dylan Pahman published a respectful critique of Freeman over at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. He finds Fr Stephen’s approach a bit over the top. “To be more than moral, as Fr Stephen is using the term, nevertheless requires first being moral,” he writes. He agrees that the goal of Christian life is love and freedom, but we do not start there. As the Scriptures teach us: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). Only as we mature and gain victory over passions may we one day say with St Antony: “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear.” Over against the evangelical gospel of the starets of Oak Ridge, Pahman poses the everyday ascetical struggle of repentance, prayer and fasting.
Pahman invokes the wisdom of the spiritual Fathers, yet the eschatological dimension seems to be missing or at least pushed far into the background. Instead of proclaiming our death and resurrection in Christ, he invites us to do the best that we can, in the hope that eventually grace will be fully internalized:
What the Fathers seem to be saying is the following: You would like to be deified but you do not know the way? You wish to love as a true child of God but you cannot? Learn from those who have walked this way before you. They began by fasting and praying and trying to fulfill the commandments, with much fear. Over time, these became a habit, internalized as a second, virtuous nature. Or rather, as the tarnish of passions is more and more cleared away from the image of God within you, your true nature as a child of God will shine through, restored in the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is firstly a matter of his grace, offered to you through the mysteries of the Church, but it is also a matter of synergia—you must cooperate with the work of this grace; you too must act. And in acting moral, you become more than merely moral, transfigured by the grace of God within you.
In his response to Pahman’s article, Fr Stephen says that he finds nothing in the response with which he disagrees and acknowledges that perhaps he did overplay his hand. But I would personally like to encourage Fr Stephen to stand his eschatological ground. We do not just end with theosis, after a lifetime of repentance, hard work, and purification. We begin with theosis; we begin with our death in Christ and our baptismal resurrection; we begin with our re-creation by the Spirit. Life within the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit is not reserved for the spiritual mature who have perfectly purified the passions and achieved impassibility and holiness. It is given freely and unconditionally to all who have surrendered themselves to Christ Jesus in faith. The Apostle Paul speaks clearly of this gift in his letters:
For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:9-14)
We do not become unmoral by first becoming moral, as Pahman suggests. The dead tree can only produce dead fruit. We must first be slain by Christ. The baptismal impartation of the Spirit precedes the fruit of the Spirit. In the Church the kingdom is both here and not yet, yet already we have received, declares the Apostle, the “fullness of life.” Only within the eschatological mode of existence, bestowed in baptism, may we speak of the ascetical struggle in a way that avoids the moralism that flows from death and leads to death.