Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, I characterized the fundamental difference between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity like this: For the Christian East, God is, most essentially, a God of absolute self-denying love. For the Christian West, God is, most essentially, a God of absolute order, most especially, absolute moral order.
This understanding of God in the West is a legacy it inherits from Augustine of Hippo, who began to develop this picture of God as he began to marry Platonic philosophy with Christian theology. That legacy has been carried on by men who stand as his successors, like St. Anselm, or even St. Thomas Aquinas.
Even the reformers carry on this same Platonically-influenced view of God in their various theologies. When I closed, I said that Christians in the various Western traditions are, by and large, very unaware of how this view of God impacts their faith. They do not know how significantly this view alters the apostolic understanding of who God is, what He is like, and the role that we human beings play in His life.
As I say, this goes back to Augustine, and let us investigate that a little bit. First of all, Augustine’s God is not one who is, by nature, selfless and other-directed. Instead, He is very much like the ultimate reality of the Greeks, like the already-mentioned Good of Plato, or Plotinus’ One, or even Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. The God whom the Christian West inherits from Augustine is one who ultimately is focused upon Himself—upon His own perfection. Everything he does is motivated by His need to preserve the absolute order that His perfect nature demands.
This understanding of God permeates Western Christian life. I found it exemplified on an evangelical Christian website that I visited just earlier today. In his teaching about the nature of God, this particular minister proclaimed, and I quote: “Above all things, God is jealous of His own holiness.” If you are paying attention here, you will notice that I am equating holiness with perfect order, here, but in truth, that is exactly how the West has come to understand God’s holiness. What makes God holy is the impeccable moral order of His absolute moral perfection.
As we shall see shortly, this view of holiness has powerful implications for the Christian West’s basic understanding of salvation, and of the believer’s relationship with God.
I think that, again, our investigation of these implications may be helped by first having a look at the contrasting Eastern Christian understanding of divine holiness. Certainly, Eastern Christians know that God is absolutely, morally perfect. That is an aspect of His being, not just that we understand, but it is an aspect of His being that we experience in our ascetic and sacramental embracing of God. We often, literally, tremble in the presence of His perfection. But our experience also teaches us that His moral perfection flows from His self-denying, self-forgetting, other-directed love. It is this love, which is the source of His perfect moral virtue, of His truth, His absolute goodness, His ultimate righteousness. Jesus makes it clear in the gospels, that perfect morality flows from perfect, selfless love. As he says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40. You see, the Lord tells us plainly here, that one who loves, fulfills all of God’s moral commandments. Why? Because such a person is like God—completely selfless. If I love God with all of my heart, and allof my soul, and with my entire mind, there is not a smidgeon of me left to focus on myself. I become wholly other-directed, just like my morally perfect creator. The selfish desires of my own will, which are the source of all my moral imperfections, disappear.
The fulfillment of the second command—to love my neighbor as myself—naturally follows. When I became Orthodox, I discovered that I had spent much of my life misinterpreting this commandment of Christ. Like so many others, I had taken Jesus to mean that I should love my neighbor with the same fervor, and to the same degree that I love myself—and I love myself a lot. But what Jesus is really saying is that I should be so selfless, that I live only for my neighbor. In my neighbor’s presence, I recognize only one existence—his, or hers. All my concerns are for him. I keep none for myself. When I empty myself of me, I become my neighbor.
God commands us to love him, and our neighbor, like this, because this is the way He loves us. We are everything to Him. Certainly, we are creatures who have dishonored him by our sinfulness. We have willfully chosen separation from him, and willfully embraced the death that comes as a result, and we can never measure up to God’s flawless morality.
But that does not make God stand aloof from us in disdain. He does not retreat from us, hotly displeased by the way we have marred His perfect universe. Instead, He responds just like the good Samaritan, who brings healing love to a wounded Jew, a Jew, who just like the rest of his people, hates Samaritans, as we can read in Luke 10:25-37. By the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the Holy Trinity selflessly reaches out to heal us of our great disease of death and sin, restoring us to intimate communion with the Godhead, and with each other.
I have heard Western critics of Orthodoxy say that Orthodox Christians do not recognize the Holiness of God. They say that in our Orthodox focus on God’s love, we forget about God’s justice. But that is not the case. It is just that, for us, God’s Holiness is His selfless love, which is ultimately concerned with healing and redeeming us. As for justice, well justice is a devotion to setting matters right, restoring things to their proper state and their proper relationship. In our Eastern perspective, when God unselfishly empties Himself for our salvation, that is just what He is doing. He makes it possible for us to be right again, to return to the mystical union with God that we were created to experience.
Of course, the reason Western critics accuse the Orthodox of not paying enough attention to God’s holiness and justice, is that they have a much different view of both holiness and justice, an outlook that comes from Augustine and his successors. As I said earlier, the West interprets God’s holiness, as His unapproachable moral perfection. And what is more, God is first and foremost concerned about preserving His moral perfection, and protecting it from all infringements. As for justice, the Western understanding of that also comes from the Greek philosophers. To the Western mind, God’s chief goal is not the healing of broken human creatures. Instead, it is the re-establishment of the moral order which he conferred on creation in the beginning, an order which Adam and Even messed up.
Let me once again make the contrast plain and clear before we continue. In the Christian East, we find a God of perfectly selfless love, whose supreme objective is to heal humankind, and restore it to intimacy with Him. In the West, we discover a self-concerned God, who is above all things protective of His own righteousness. When it comes to humanity, His main concern is righting the wrong human beings have done to Him. True, even in this Western view God’s saving of His own honor results in the salvation of at least some human beings, but their salvation is secondary to healing the wound they have given God. This understanding of God and the nature of salvation is evident in the teaching of Augustine. We will begin to examine that next time.