Posted by: readerjohn | September 18, 2011

Christianity in a radically different key

I have cited and quoted Fr. Stephen Freeman a great deal in this blog. His quiet learning and wisdom (not the same thing) have made him one of my very favorite Orthodox bloggers.

With Friday as an exception (which I nevertheless cited and quoted yesterday), he tries to “write within the known bounds of the Eastern Orthodox faith.” So when he uses his distinctive trope – “Christ didn’t come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live” or simply “morality is not Christian” – that is a bit shocking.

His expression is not any part of standard Orthodox “insider lingo,” but I’m convinced that it truthfully teases out something that’s deeply Orthodox, and helps makes sense of it.

Early Saturday, he re-posted a longer, more systematic discussion of this general idea, which he introduces thus:

In recent posts I have contrasted morality with ontological, as well as existential, etc. I’ve had comments here and elsewhere in which people stumbled over the terms. The distinction offered is not a private matter. Orthodox theologians for better than a century have struggled to make these points as being utterly necessary to the life of the Orthodox faith. The following is a small article of mine that tries to do some of the same. In a nutshell: morality is “life according to rules or reasonable philosophies.” The Orthodox contention is that morality fails to describe the true nature of the Christian life. Rather the world ontological is more proper: it means have to do with the very being of someone – their essence. What we need is not a change in behavior (morality) but a change in who we are (ontology). Christ came to change us, not reform us.

Morality does not use Orthodox means – it’s all in the “head.” It is rules. Ontological change requires that our very being or existence (thus the word existential) be united with Christ, His life becomes our life and thus we live a new life. Once this fundamental approach is understood, so we can begin to under the mysteries of the Church and the true character of our life in Christ. Thus this article – a meager thing meant to be of some help.

He then begins with an exploration of “the nature of things”:

1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court. [This is about as pointed as Fr. Stephen gets about other views; I believe it's aimed at the view of the Atonement that God the Father punished God the Son, whose sinlessness made His punishment infinitely valuable, so that He would not have to angrily punish us but could fictitiously pronounce us "innocent" because someone else had already suffered our punishment.]
2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.
3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.

Then

Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral.

I concur.

When I encountered Orthodoxy, I soon (not immediately) felt in my bones this huge difference. And I felt in my bones, as well as believing in my head, that Orthodoxy was right. As I think I’ve written elsewhere, it sprung me from the Calvinist “Angry God” trap, rolling back my spiritual clock to my original, childlike confidence that God loved me. (That’s why I annotated point 1 of Fr. Stephens 3-point “nature of things.” It’s close to my personal core.)

That’s not the whole story, but a big part of the story, of why I left behind nearly 50 years of Evangelicalism and Calvinism. It’s also the tacit reason I often rail, especially at Evangelicalism (a target-rich zone for railing): I persist in the belief that there are devout Evangelicals that are ripe for the same epiphany, if I can just find the right words to open their eyes.

I know a lot of people who, in our current fearful climate, believe that Islamic Jihad is the truest expression of Islam, and that any Islam that appears moderate is either lying or is a watered-down inauthentic version.

Evangelicals have done a remarkably good job of defining the terms so they’re seen the same way: “Evangelicalism is Real Christianity®, and anything else is bogus or watered-down.”

So I also rail because because of (not against) secularists and lapsed Christians, some of whom are true seekers after wisdom, but are turned off by Evangelicalism and believe such P.R.

“If Evangelicalism is Real Christianity®,” they reason, “then its repulsive features (e.g., Church Lady prissiness combined with its leaders’ suspiciously-frequent forays into debauchery; or political aspirations; or ….) are faults of Christianity, and any Christianity that doesn’t exhibit them is inauthentic by definition. I want nothing to do with Christianity.”

That’s sound reasoning, but from a false premise. I want those wisdom-seekers to know this:

  • Your fascination and admiration toward Jesus are well justified.
  • Evangelicalism was born in America’s 18th century frontier revival tents, and is not Real Christianity®. The good things about it (and there are some) are largely the result of its unacknowledged inheritance from historic Christianity, like the kid born on third base who think’s he’s hit a triple. (Except that Evangelicalism sometimes takes off from Third to steal Second.)
  • Real Christianity has not disappeared from the earth, and it’s increasingly easy to find in North America. It’s Orthodox, and it’s the source of what’s right about Evangelicalism.

I’m oversimplifying, to be sure, but I’ve got the arc of the story right, and “I’m stickin’ to it.”

Fr. Stepehen does not rail at things. I can give you nothing better to ponder on Sunday than these, my personal thoughts, and now stepping aside, Fr. Stephen’s full piece.


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