The moral horse and the doctrinal cart

Once again, Fr. Stephen gets my juices going:

In early centuries, [the catechumenate, that process by which we initiate persons into the life of the Orthodox faith,] lasted as much as three years. Surprisingly, it consisted primarily in “moral instruction” (teachings on how to behave). Instruction in the doctrines of the faith did not take place until after Baptism! The assumption behind this was (and still should be) that catechumens needed spiritual formation before they were ready to receive doctrinal instruction. This assumption has been greatly weakened in our modern culture.

We labor under the myth of being an “information-based” society. We imagine that we are deeply informed, have ready access to massive amounts of information on the basis of which we are able to make free and well-considered decisions. This over-simplification of our human experience is deeply flawed …

Catechumens, if given only a diet of information, … fail to thrive. Above all else, it is the practice of the faith that makes faith possible.

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jn. 8:31-32)

“Abiding in the word” (keeping the commandments, engaging in the practices of the faith) is the necessary pre-condition for “knowing the truth.”

This suggests to me that we set our minds to become “perpetual catechumens” in which we give our attention to the softening of our hearts rather than inundation of our minds …

The heart’s learning is the true point of salvation. Information does not save us – but there is such a thing as “saving knowledge.” We speak of this, formally, as “holy illumination.” It is the consistent teaching of the Church that holy illumination is our desired path to God.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, ‌The Perpetual Catechumen

Had I read this 25 years ago, I’d have wondered what kind of squishy Kum-Bah-Yah cult taught such things as "spiritual formation before doctrinal instruction."

Not a digression: I remember a rather fringe figure in my Evangelical years, Col. R.B. Thieme, Jr., teaching sometime in the 1976-79 range that "God loves nothing better than doctrine in the frontal lobe."

I didn’t believe him — but I lived as if it were true, or as if enough doctrine in my frontal lobe would eventually cure my disordered life. It never did, and it never would have. The trajectory it put me on was that of an irascible "discernment blogger" with a hot steaming mess of a private life. Only the lack of a consumer internet spared me that fate.

When I entered the Orthodox Christian faith some 20 years later, I did so expecting to get my doctrine straightened out, having seen a couple of fundamental flaws in my prior approach — the kinds of things you can’t un-see — and having somehow gained an implicit trust in the Church.

But for some reason, early in that same transitional period of my life, I saw in re-reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce that I needed to forsake one particular moral failing, lest it make me the kind of person who wouldn’t even like heaven had he inherited it. In that regard, Anglican Lewis — and his message to my imagination, not my intellect — was my Orthodox moral catechist.

And now, twenty-four more years down the road, Fr. Stephen makes perfect sense to me. To my surprise, "Orthodox" Christianity turned out not to be all that much about doctrine. Beyond the Nicene Creed, there are few doctrinal dogmas. We are conspicuously apophatic, a tendency that Col. Thieme presumably would have anathematized.

What it is about is — well, you’ll just have to come and see.

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3 thoughts on “The moral horse and the doctrinal cart

  1. I hope I am not misunderstanding Fr. Stephen, but he reminds me of some “evangelical” missionary many decades ago lamenting in a newsletter that they had people who said that they now believed in Christ, “but we can’t baptize them because….” I can no longer remember precisely, but it was something to do with their behavior: perhaps they had too many wives, or they were still drinking alcohol, or…. And my reaction at the time was: “how can you expect people to behave like Christians when they aren’t Christians? they haven’t yet been baptized.”

    1. Hello again, Alan.

      I think you may have jumped to a conclusion. The long catechesis in the early Church, focused on morality, was for people who had believed and who, in that sense, were Christians (though baptism awaited).

      We must still assume that new converts need moral instruction. I heard a story about an adolescent Orthodox boy who, in sacramental confession, said that he had “cheated on my girlfriend” — and yes, he meant that they were fornicating unaware that it was a sin, and then he fornicated with another girl behind the girlfriend’s back. This was a child of the Church with poor moral bearings. Newcomers may be worse off, especially in matters of sexuality today.

      I don’t get the feeling that reception into the Church, in Fr. Stephen’s blog, is contingent on perfection in following the new-found moral knowledge. How could it possibly be?

      Newcomers also probably are introduced in catechesis to some of the ascetic practices of the Church before baptism/Chrismation as well.

      24 years into Orthodoxy, I still find the moral and ascetic demands (using “ascetic” broadly, as including prayer and psalmody) as formative or more formative than doctrinal dogmas.

      That’s not to invite anyone to attempt a Pelagian self-salvation through moral and ascetic efforts apart from the Church and from doctrine; it’s just to summarize the Gestalt of Orthodoxy from my perspective.

    2. Coincidentally, I encountered something at a Russian Orthodox site this morning that may further elucidate what I (and Fr. Stephen) were trying to say:

      “If God waited for us to understand Orthodox theology correctly before He began healing our soul, I don’t think anyone would ever be saved. In fact, it is only as we begin to draw near to God (in response to the work of the Holy Spirit) that we begin to be healed (mentally, morally, spiritually–in all areas mangled by sin). And as we are healed, we are actually able to understand–no that is not the right word–we are able to know God more and more as God Himself is (insofar as God can be known by human beings). And we also come to know ourselves. Which comes first is a kind of chicken or the egg problem.”

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