My last podcast was on the topic, “The True Self and the Story of Me.” In that I introduced a distinction between the heart, which is our true self, and the narrative or the story of my thoughts and emotions, the story I keep telling myself, which we call the ego. This is a fairly common use of the words in many Orthodox spiritual writings today. So I’m going to continue this today and use it as a way of thinking about what we mean by the word “moral.” This talk is entitled, “The Death of the Moral Man.”
We begin with a quote from the Orthodox Burial Office, which says, “There is no man who lives and does not sin.” There are many reactions to the pain of our existence. I try to remember from hour to hour that I live among the “walking wounded,” or as is sometimes stated, “Everyone you see is fighting a difficult battle.”
One of the great pains for active believers is the struggle to be moral. This struggle becomes all the more painful as we become aware of our inner life. We profess belief in the commandments of Christ only to discover that within us lives a judgmental Pharisee. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to some standard, and in these comparisons, everyone comes up short.
If you find yourself to be a judgmental person, judging others, then I dare say that you judge yourself even more harshly than you judge others, and I would be willing to wager that you’re not happy about either. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to this inner standard, and in these comparisons, we come up short.
We come repeatedly to confession, bearing the same sins. We feel like we are repeating ourselves. We carry the shame, often unrecognized, of yet one more period of failure. We want to change but we don’t.
Well, this scenario could take a thousand different forms. At its core is our expectation that the mind, that is the thoughts and emotions, or even the ego, to use the terms we used last week, can and should be brought into some measure of Christian performance. There are things at which our thoughts often excel.
We can master a system of thought or belief and defend it against those things which present a challenge to it. We can do the same with people – maintaining a sort-of version of “canon law” in our head against which their behavior can be judged. It is this comparison and judging, this systemization and defense that the mind truly loves, and it can be very good at it.
If we occupy the mind with “religious things,” even “Orthodox religious things,” then we easily begin to think that we are being faithful. We start to think of ourselves as trying, and we judge our failures, such as anger, hatred, or envy as mere stumbles than can be corrected and adjusted. For we say to ourselves, we know better.
This is certainly better than doing nothing, but it’s often more harmful than good. The local parish is often a community of neurotic minds, psychically rushing about trying to do good, but hurting one another in the name of God as the ego works desperately to meet its needs and feed its self-created narrative, which means that the parish is often not a safe place.
For the purposes of this podcast, I am choosing to refer to the ego’s struggle to behave as the “moral” man. I often use the word “moral” and “morality” to describe the life that we live when we live it as an effort to conform to external rules and norms. It is a struggle that even unbelievers may and do undertake. I have met many “moral” unbelieving people. There is nothing particularly Christian about being “moral.” I have said elsewhere, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good, but in order to make dead men live.”
St. Paul takes this approach when speaking of what I’m calling the moral man. He does not counsel us to try and do better. There is no scheme of moral improvement in all of Paul’s writings. His language is quite clear. He says this:
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.
That’s from Colossians 3. St. Paul’s language of “putting off” and “putting on” is in fact the language of Baptism. We “put off” the old man and “put on” Christ. We are “clothed in righteousness.” This language comes up repeatedly in the service of Baptism.
This language differs greatly from that of “moral” striving. To put to death “covetousness,” is quite different than trying not to desire someone else’s property. The language of “putting to death,” is rooted in our being, and it is ontological, rather than in our decision-making or in our legal selves. St. Paul’s language implies that something within us and in our very being needs to be changed and changed profoundly.
The ego’s efforts to behave itself have little to nothing to do with such an inward, profound change. Non-believers can and do adopt sets of rules and endeavor to keep them. There is nothing particularly or uniquely Christian about moral efforts. This is one of the great weaknesses of those versions of Christianity that are largely extrinsic in nature. Theories of salvation in which an extrinsic atonement is “accepted” or followed by a life of moral effort do not rise to the level of St. Paul’s “putting to death.”
The ego loves narrative – all of its greatest skills can be employed in destruction, construction and revision. Stories of conversion are extremely well-suited to such an existence. Those of us who are adult converts are easily enthralled with the story of our own conversion and just as easily enthralled by the ongoing narratives of others, but something in this is missing.
Our lives can be like a Jane Austen novel. A narrative moves along with great drama. Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet and the whole cast, holding our attention, now up, now down. Whom will she marry? Will she be bereft of love forever? What will we wear to the dance? Is Mr. Darcy Orthodox? And so the drama unwinds.
When the drama of the Christian life comes to a happy ending, its conversion, there stretches before it the “ever-after” years or decades of our life. Without the drama, the thought of settling down in the heart, praying, and restoring the mind and emotions to their proper state can seem rather boring.
Of course, there will always be ecclesiastical scandals, debates, and small parish dramas to feed our disorder and stave away the fear of boredom. But all of this is to move away from salvation. It is just a form of “Orthodox” damnation. Here the Macarian saying is helpful. Macarius says:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace – all things are there.
Life lived in the heart is a progression into the treasuries of grace. A moment of paradise outweighs all the pleasantries of the ego’s drama. Getting past the darker fears and wounds of shame and its kin, bringing thoughts and emotions to occasional calm, allows the work of the heart to begin. All of the drama can be brought to quiet. It doesn’t matter.
All of these distractions are just that – distractions. The dragons and lions, poisonous beasts and treasures of evil to be met there are greater than those we face in the early battles of the ego. In the heart, we stand in the very place of the angels, the kingdom, and the light when we engage in those deep struggles of the heart.
That battle is not at all the same as moral improvement. The moral man and the immoral man is put to death. The life that is hid with Christ in God is the new man. He is more than moral. He is good. He is no longer dead. He is alive. And it is for this man fully alive that Christ died. We’ll continue listening and talking about this in coming weeks. Glory to God.