What is the role of morality in Christianity?

edited December 2014 in Faith Issues
"Our culture sees morality as the rules and standards by which we guide ourselves. These rules of conduct are external and can be described and discussed. They are the rules by which we choose how to behave and by which we sometimes judge others. In this, everybody can be said to be “moral.” Atheists invariably adhere to some standard of conduct - it is just what human beings do. We are sometimes inconsistent and often cannot explain very well the philosophical underpinnings of our actions - but everyone has rules for themselves and standards that they expect of others.

But it is precisely this that sets Christians apart - that makes them “unmoral” (not “immoral”). The nature of the Christian life 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 differentmode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as byhow it does.

This “unmoral” life is not necessarily exception for its behavior. If this were not so, then an atheist “acting” like a Christian, would seem to be a Christian. Indeed, at one point in our culture, a "Christian gentleman" meant nothing more than a "gentleman." This is often the case in public morality. Most Christians seem to be little different from their non-Christian friends. They cannot describe how it is that they differ other than to say that they “think” certain things about God and the universe. But did Christ die only to give us certain ideas?

If the unmoral life is not about behavior, what is it about?

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."

From "The Un-Moral Christian" by Fr. Stephen Freeman


  • edited December 2014
    "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."

    Fr Aidan Kimel, https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/grace-moralism-and-unmoral-christianity/
  • edited December 2014
    I think Fr Andrew Stephen Damick of the Antiochan Orthodox wrote a piece answering Fr Freeman's first bit posted there. There's a few dangerous things said by Fr Freeman if misunderstood so Fr Andrew sought to answer those. I think we over philosophise things often. Lets just love, do good and read scripture and the fathers with guidance from the church. 

    I hope that all these blogs from Orthodox writers are for edification and not for subtle competition.
  • "Fr Stephen's December postings on "unmoral" Christianity have generated a goodly amount of internet discussion. Clearly some are uncomfortable with his presentation of the Christian life as something radically different than "being good" with the help of divine grace.

    Fr Stephen has his own distinctive and illuminating way of speaking of the mystery of our new life in Christ. The influence of John Zizioulas, Christos Yannaras, as well as Elder Sophrony, is fairly clear and has been noted by others; but what seems to have gone unnoticed is the influence of the Apostle Paul. Indeed, the discomfort that some have expressed with Fr Stephen's proposal of Christian unmorality reminds me of the discomfort that many expressed in the first century with St Paul's Torah-free gospel."

    Fr Aidan Kimel
  • "It is indeed a “new mode of existence” that is birthed in us through Christ. The weakness of the moralist’s approach is not that they are just trying to teach new tricks to an old dog, but that they are trying to teach tricks to a dog who is dead. Canis mortus est. This lends poignancy to the Southern expression, “That dog won’t hunt.”

    I seriously believe that all of this requires that we rightly understand the atonement. If it is not a forensic atonement, why then do we try to live as though it were? For my Orthodox detractors would all loudly proclaim the death of the forensic model and point fingers at the “West,” but they make their fingers pointless when they return to the very moralism that was born of that miserable metaphor.

    For if we died with Christ and we have been raised with Christ, how should we then live?

    That’s the question. And the answer can only be: “By a new mode of existence.” There’s nothing here that hasn’t been said before. And it was said by St. Paul. And still they gnash their teeth."

    Fr Stephen Freeman, http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2014/12/20/eschatological-eloquence-fr-aidan-kimels-response/#comment-80366
  • edited December 2014
    Few more quotes from the comments section

    "The weakness in the “moral” criticisms coming my way, are their failure to speak about the inner character of morality – that the Law is spiritual. How does the Christian keeping of the commandments differ from an atheist living by his own standards? Is it only in the content of the letter? Or is their something actually within the character of the Law itself. I would say that the Law is sacramental in nature (or something like that).

    I have seen good use of the commandments, and I have seen a moralistic, neurotic use of the commandments. One gives life, the other does not. It is worth more writing, no doubt. But, an article is not a book, nor the last word.

    When children are young, you can tell them to do something, “Because I said so.” It doesn’t work past a certain point. Our culture is seriously “post-Christian.” “Because i said so,” is insufficient in our public discourse.” It’s possible to say what I have said, as well, but couch it in so much patristic language and quotes, that it would pass muster for the nervous, but it would not do what it needs to do."

    Fr Stephen Freeman, http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2014/12/19/course-called-moral-response-critics/#comment-80149

    "I recognize the anxiety out there – like the home-schoolers mentioned above. The moral order is collapsing (and being replaced with an alien one). Some feel this as a call to man the barricades (the barbarians are coming). But Orthodoxy had either to be about the Resurrection or out of business. The walls of Constantinople fell – but the gates of hell do not prevail. And that image is not a defensive one – It’s hell’s gates that are doing the crumbling. I’m interested in gate-smashing!

    And on an even more serious point – I think that a moralistic approach is often too shallow. I’ve been a confessor for many years. And I work in some pretty dark places as a volunteer. The dark, shameful secrets that stalk the hearts and histories of even the very moral are often untouched by the law.

    Let’s take the pederast (child molester). Almost always, this person was once a victim. We “learn” our darkness rather than invent it. Command him not to do it again. And he will hate himself and despise himself. And do it again. And again. And almost all the men sitting on the jury will be addicted to porn, and so on. This was the power of Dostoevsky. He collected terrible little stories out of the newspaper of his day. When Ivan Karamazov makes his frightful arguments against God and Heaven (“I refuse the ticket”), the cases cited were drawn from real events in contemporary 19th century Russia. And they could have been around today – because there has been no moral progress if you look beneath the surface.

    And if we don’t dare look beneath the surface and address the true darkness and its true character, we’ll get nowhere. I love Dostoevsky because he ripped the mask off of moral society. My God, we have come through such a period of priests and bishops being defrocked for their dark sins, and others who have not been held to account for covering it up, and we expect the culture to listen to us when we lecture them about morality? It embarrasses me. I feel we have to go deeper (and deeper) or just shut up.

    We have just witnessed, for example, the revelation of the role torture plays in our official policy. And the people most in favor of it are conservative Christians (because, I think, they have become overwhelmed by their political passions). I am a conservative Christian. But I’m embarrassed. Am I to defend torture and then turn and lecture our culture about morality?

    I quickly grant that I can write in a more balanced manner sometimes. Though, I think, I can balance my voice to the point of silence. I haven’t been given that commandment yet."

    Fr Stephen Freeman,

    "I think that my experience would indeed be different in other parts of the culture. Though, I’ve often seen that a cultural Protestant-lite suffuses everything. I was an Anglican for 18 years, serving both in the North and in the South in non-Evangelical parishes. My experience there differs greatly from that of convert Orthodox. But the same cultural stuff was present. Interestingly, there are differences morally only about “what” is moral, not about “how” morality works. And a conservative morality seems little more suited to salvation than the liberal form. We need life from the dead.

    I don’t think the culture will embrace Nihilism at all. It takes too much courage to be a Nihilist. No, I think something far lighter and more insipid will inundate us. We will drown in mediocrity, boredom, and banality. Our Weimar is a dull place, punctuated mostly by the angry barks of Left and Right, all of whom go home, watch their porn and feel wretched."


    "There are dogmas of the faith – which tragically many fail to take further than their surface – treating them more like an algebraic formula. But the life we must live is to know the faith – the dogma are verbal icons – they never state mere rational bounds but contain within them the life-giving presence of Christ. True theology is learning to pierce the mystery.

    From within that mystery it is possible to teach. A theologeumenon is more than an opinion. It is undogmatized truth (otherwise it’s just delusion). The give-and-take model is something of a Hegelian exercise in rationalism. Western theological tradition lives on this stuff – and it does wonderfully rational things. But it never reaches the truth. Even when it states the truth, it doesn’t know how to reach it (reason can’t go there).

    When Orthodoxy departs from its way of life, and it’s way of entering the truth (trading rational discussion for the Orthodox way) we flounder. It is one of the reasons the Fathers make such frequent use of paradox and contradiction (the parables of Christ already contained an element of this). A paradoxical statement of the truth prevents reason’s entrance so that we can find our way.

    It’s hard to write in such a way that this paradox and contradiction is maintained – I only get there once in a while. But I feel like I’ve completed an icon when it happens.

    After all of this, I think I should say, “We must be unmorally moral.”"


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