“For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25)—here is the heart of Orthodox Christian ethics, Christos Yannaras passionately avers. This may come as a surprise to many. Surely ethics has to do with right and wrong, virtue, and the doing of justice, whereas this counsel of Christ has to do with the spiritual life. Yet Yannaras refuses to separate the the spiritual and ethical. “Morality reveals what man is in principle, as the image of God,” he writes, “but also what he becomes through the adventure of his freedom: a being transformed, or ‘in the likeness’ of God” (The Freedom of Morality, p. 24). It’s not that Yannaras does not recognize moral obligation; but he refuses to reduce the ethics of the Church to conformity to natural law or static societal code: “All the exhortations and commandments in the Gospel have as their goal love, that dynamic transcendence of egocentric individuality whereby the image of God in Trinity is realized in the human being” (p. 56). The Son of God summons humanity to a far deeper, more radical conversion:
The first thing that Jesus preaches is a message of repentance, because this is the precondition for participation in the Kingdom of God, in the Church. … Every page of the Gospels stresses the need for repentance and faith—the need to escape from imprisonment in our own egocentricity and to trust in God, giving ourselves over to Him.
This radical conversion which leads to salvation requires at the same time a painful loss: Christ affirms that in order to save your soul, you have to lose it (Mt 16:25). What this means is that you have to reject the deep-rooted identification of yourself with your individual nature and with the biological and psychological defense of the ego. It means renouncing all reliance on human strength, goodness, authority, action or effectiveness. Whoever wishes to live must lose his life—the illusion of life which is individual survival and self-sufficiency—in order to save his life as personal distinctiveness and freedom: “let him deny himself and take up his cross.” Acceptance of the cross and the voluntary death of all human self-assurance confers life in its most powerful and effective form. But, above all, losing your life means renouncing individual attainments, objective recognition of virtue and the sense of merit, which are the mainstays of our resistance to the need for communion with God and trust in him. (pp. 58-59)
Yannaras understands the moral life as death and resurrection: we must die as biological hypostasis that we might be reborn into an uncreated mode of personal existence. As long as we are determined by autonomy, legalistic morality, and the desire for survival, we remain imprisoned within our fallen nature. Even the quest to cultivate virtue can be exploited by us to avoid the death-to-self that we must freely embrace. Hence the profound truth and necessity of asceticism:
The aim of asceticism is to transfigure our impersonal desires and needs into manifestations of the free personal will which bring into being the true life of love. (pp. 109-110)
Asceticism is the struggle of the person against rebellious nature which seeks to achieve on its own what it could bring about only in personal unity and communion with God. The rebellion of our nature attempts to supplant the possibilities for true life which are divine grace, a gift of personal communion and relationship. Every absolute, autonomous natural desire goes back to that first revolt of autonomy: “In the day ye eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ye shall be as gods” (Gen 3:5). Through asceticism the Christian reverses the movement towards rebellion and self-deification; he resists the tendency in his nature to become existentially absolute, and dynamically puts his personal will into action so as to restore his nature to communion with the grace of life. (p. 112)
The practice of asceticism is so much more than the moderation of desire. The rebellion of human nature occurs in the hidden depths of the human being and is rooted “in the natural will, in unconscious desire, in instinct, in the sexual drive and in the blind need for self-preservation” (p. 113). We cannot reason or negotiate with the old man. We cannot improve him, and we certainly cannot sanctify and deify him. He must be put to death.
And lest we begin to think that Yannaras is proposing some kind of self-help sanctification, he makes clear that all of our ascetical efforts are grounded upon the sheer grace of God:
Any systematic pursuit of “improvement” in man through his own individual will and effort, of taming his nature through his own powers, is condemned by nature itself. Man on his own cannot cease to be what he “naturally” is. His attempts to overcome nature through his individual powers makes him a prisoner of the same rebellious autonomy of individuality which brings above the corruption of nature. This is also why every anthropocentric, autonomous morality ends up as a fruitless insistence of an utterly inadequate human self-sufficiency, an expression of man’s fall. By contrast, Christian asceticism rejects the deterministic dialectic of effort and result; it presupposes that we hope for nothing from human powers. It expresses and effects the participation of man’s freedom in suppressing the rebellion of his nature, but that work itself is grace, a gift from God. Thus human ascetic endeavor does not even aspire to crushing the rebellion of man’s nature. It simply seeks to affirm the personal response of man’s love to the work of his salvation by Christ, and to accord with divine love and the divine economy, albeit to the infinitesimal extent permitted by the weakness of his nature. (p. 114)
To think of sin, therefore, as a violation of the moral law trivializes the deadly matter of sin. Yannaras suggests that it is best described as the failure to realize the Imago Dei. As the archer misses the target toward which he is aiming, so the sinner fails to achieve the good he truly desires. Sin is the loss of the eschatological end “which for human nature is its existential self-transcendence, taking it into the limitless realm of personal distinctiveness and freedom” (p. 33). This falling away from being into an existence of non-existence cannot be adequately expressed by juridical language. The legalist is obsessed by the need to conform to a deontological code and thus prove his self-worth before his God; but the gospel intends participation in the abundant life that Christ has promised to his disciples (John 10:10).
Yannaras’s understanding of the moral life is well captured in his interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the pharisee and the publican:
Those who have “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Lk 18:9) exclude themselves from the Kingdom. They themselves have shut themselves out of the wedding-feast and remained content with their virtues, with the self-satisfaction afforded by their moral attainments. They have no need for God except to reward their individual performance. This is why the Pharisee, who keeps the Law faithfully, is not justified before God, even though he is “not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers,” but indeed “fasts twice in the week, and gives tithes of all that he possesses”; for he does not justify his existence as a personal fact of communion and relationship with God, beyond corruption and death. The Publican, weighed down as he is by a multitude of sins, is justified because he feels his own inadequacy as an individual and seeks God’s mercy, that is to say participation in the life that is grace, a gift of love (Lk 18:10-14). (p. 59)
The pharisee embodies the obedience of conventional morality. He has fulfilled the Law, yet his existence stinks of death and self-righteousness. The publican has nothing to offer God but his moral bankruptcy, yet he returns home justified in the sight of the Lord.
The repentance that begins with the acknowledgement of failure must be clearly distinguished from the repentance of guilt. We may feel guilty that we have broken the law; we may regret actions we have done and harm we have caused. Yet such guilt is easily remedied. All that is needed is an apology, restitution, acts of expiation, and change of behavior; and if that does not suffice to relieve the guilt, then perhaps a few years of psychotherapy may be in order. But the repentance of which Yannaras speaks issues from the existential depths of the human heart, acknowledging failure in the project of personhood and the casting of oneself upon the mercy of God within the communion of the Church:
Participation in the theanthropic body of Christ, in the existential unity of the communion of saints, is not secured by individual merit or the objectively recognized “virtues” of the individual: it is secured by repentance, by the new attitude of trust in God—when, through the Church, the Christian entrusts to Christ his whole life, unsuccessful and sinful though it is. Repentance does not mean simply the “improvement” or even “perfection” of individual behavior and individual psychological feelings, or the strengthening of the individual will. All these can come about while a man still remains a prisoner in his autonomous individuality, unable to love or to participate in the communion of love which is true life. Repentance is a change in our mode of existence: man ceases to trust in his own individuality. He realizes that existing as an individual, even a virtuous individual, does not save him from corruption and death, from his agonizing existential thirst for life. This is why he takes refuge in the Church, where he exists as someone loving and loved. He is loved by the saints, who give him a “name” of personal distinctiveness and take him into the communion of their love despite his sinfulness; and he himself strives to love others despite their sinfulness, to live free from the necessities of his mortal nature. …
Thus the Christian does not fear sin with the psychological fear of individual guilt, the complex of depression over individual transgression which lessens the “moral worth” of his individual self. He knows that Christ, the Mother of God and the saints love him despite the fact that he is a sinner—Christ loved him in his sinfulness “unto death on a cross.” He knows that in the Church his sin becomes the starting point for him to experience the miracle of his salvation by Christ. He knows that, even in its most “virtuous” manifestations, the reality of the human state is all sin, all failure and “missing the mark,” and that “Christ alone is without sin.” He fears sin only as deprivation of the potentiality to respond to the love of Christ. But a “fear” such as this is already a first step toward love. (pp. 41-42)
Martin Luther could not have said this any better. We are not justified by our works. We are justified by faith in the merciful Father within the communion of love that is the Body of Christ.