Father Sergius Bulgakov, who, as a young man, returned to the faith following a flirtation with Marxism back in the early 20th century, came to an understanding that the Christian faith is not to be understood as a moral structure, but as a matter of true existence. This distinction is deeply important in Orthodox understanding, and has been a hallmark of Orthodox teaching, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Few matters of the faith draw out this distinction as clearly as considerations of the atonement. Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin, and thus the essential nature of the atonement, are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith, though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of scripture on the point.
St. Gregory Nazianzus, in the late 4th century, was not unfamiliar with this image of the legal debt being paid, but he, himself, dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the church, but one of the primary architects of the ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as odd on this point.
Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, makes the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather, the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the fall, but rather, entered the realm of death, as God, Himself, had warned, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”
Theories of the atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West, and more recently, in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis, verging on nonexistence, itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the good God who loves mankind, and our preference for death over life.
I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say the faith that was delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.
Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is, in fact, this correlation between truth and existence. I am not well enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others, as well—I have to drink the water from my own cistern. But this understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary, Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the elder Sophrony.
Their teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement, in modern terms, of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by scripture, should someone so require. But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding.
The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion, or rather, a religion of death. For as soon as our existence has moved away from God and is grounded in something else, God, Himself, has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence, or He is no God.
There were those within liberal Protestantism (I think of Paul Tillett, in particular), who sought to make the correlation between existence and God, but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cipher, such as Tillett’s Ground of Being, and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as ultimate concern, as Tillett did, even as well-intentioned as it was, is only to have spoken in human terms.
I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillett helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific for them. Indeed, it revealed God as God, and not simply something that I cared about. Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving toward nonexistence. It is the scriptural correlation between sin and death.
This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal spirituality, but is, instead, communion with the God who is, and apart from whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it, because they do.
By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology, or even philosophy, and to its proper place. To exist is to love. As Metropolitan John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context, we are able to move toward authentic existence—a mode of being that is not self-centered, nor self-defined, but that is centered in the other, and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence, itself. Sin is a movement toward non-being.
In contrast, to know God is to love, and its greatest test is the love of enemies, as St. Silouan taught, “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”
This is not to re-interpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead, to understand that Christ is, as he said, “The way, the truth, and the life.” His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence, which is found only in communion with God.
This is a rescue of the atonement, from obscure legal theories of divine wrath and judgment, and restores it, properly, in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.
It presses the question upon us all. What is the truth of my existence? It presses us toward living honestly and forthrightly before God, not finessing ourselves with carefully-wrought excuses and religious half-measures, but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.
The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions, this is not its truth, nor the life that is taught by the fathers, the scriptures, nor the words of her liturgies. “In God,” the Scriptures say, “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God, or there is delusion. And even delusion, itself, has no existence, but it is mere pretense.
Glory to God!