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Christianity, sin and morality

21 December 2014

There is a controversy about Christianity and morality in the Orthodox blogosphere right now. It seems to have started with a blog post by Fr Stephen Freeman, Sin is not a moral problem, and to have escalated from there, though I may be wrong about that. The most recent post in the controversy that I have found is Fr Stephen’s Why morality is not Christian, where he answers his critics.

I’m not writing this with the intention of entering that particular controversy, but rather to apply an Orthodox take on morality to the question of “moral regeneration” in South Africa, which was all the rage a few years ago, but seems to have dropped out of sight recently.

One of the books I have found useful is The freedom of morality by Christos Yannaras. The notion of Christianity being closely tied to morality has been strong in Western theology, and led to the dominance of the “satisfaction” theory of the atonement developed by Anselm of Canterbury and later elaborated by Calvin of Geneva. Yannaras says that the satisfaction theory:

… was first formulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), drawing mainly on Tertullian: man’s sin is a disturbance in the divine ‘order of justice,’ and at the same time an affront to God’s honor and majesty. The greatness of the guilt for this disturbance and this affront is measured according to the dignity of Him who is affronted; so God’s infinite majesty and justice require an infinite recompense by way of expiation. Man, limited as he is, could not possibly provide such an infinite recompense, even if the whole of mankind were to be sacrificed to satisfy divine justice. Therefore God himself undertook to pay, in the person of His Son, the infinite ransom for the satisfaction of his justice. Christ was punished with death on the Cross to make atonement for sinful mankind.

As I have noted elsewhere, in this approach sin is seen primarily as something that God punishes us for, rather than as something that God rescues us from, and I think that is similar to the point that Fr Stephen Freeman is making.

I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that the controversy that has arisen over Fr Stephen Freeman’s articles is mainly in North America,  and one of the critiques was written by Dylan Pahman, who is a research associate at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as assistant editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. Now just a glance at the web page of the Acton Institute fills me with misgivings, and whatever it is, it is not Orthodox. I’m not sure that Lord Acton (the 19th-century Roman Catholic liberal historian, for whom it seems to be named) would altogether approve either.

I may be reading too much into this, but I think that Christos Yannaras had these trends in mind when he wrote (1984:131):

Going by the example of America and the pietistic basis of the ‘gospel of wealth’ that took shape there, one might venture to make a further assertion. The whole of mankind lives today in the trap of a lethal threat created by the polarization of two provenly immoral moralistic systems, and the constant expectation of a confrontation between them in war, perhaps nuclear war. On the one side is the pietistic individualism of the capitalist camp, and on the other the moralistic collectivism of the marxist dreams of ‘universal happiness.’ At least the latter refuses to cloak its aims under the forged title of Christian, while the name of Christianity continues to be blackened in the sloganizing of even the foulest dictatorships which support the workings of the capitalist system, upholding the pietistic ideal of individual ‘merit’.

When Yannaras wrote that the Cold War was still going strong, and since then the neoliberal ideology has strengthened while the Marxist one has weakened. The Bolsheviks attacked Orthodoxy mainly from without. They distanced themselves from it, and tried to exclude it from society and marginalise it. But it seems that neoliberalism is using different tactics, and is trying to infiltrate Orthodoxy, and undermine it from within.

How does any of this relate to the Moral Regeneration movement in South Africa?

Perhaps it was a response to public perceptions of moral degeneration — corruption in goverrnment in business, the high incidence of crime, and especially violent crime, in society. There is rape, domestic violence, armed robbery and other crimes, and all this seemed to suggest a need for moral regeneration. So the government, wanting to be seen to be doing the right thing, started a movement for moral regeneration.

The problem with this is that in a multicultural society it is very difficulty to get agreement on what constitutes moral and immoral behaviour. To give just one example, some people see abortion as a human right, while others see it as the denial of a human right, the right to life. In trying to find a definition of morality that everyone could agree on the Moral Regeneration movement came up with a statement so wishywashy as to be practically meaningless. This should suggest that moral regeneration is something that should be left to civil society rather than government agencies, and it is not something that the government ought to be spending lots of money on. But that should not be an excuse for immoral behaviour by people in government.

In the Orthodox Church, promoting moral regeneration might take the form of training priests in hearing confessions. A priest might ask a penitent specific questions, like “do you throw rubbish out of taxi windows?” The danger of asking such questions in a culture of what Yannaras describes as “immoral moralistic systems” is that the question might be understood as yet more moralising, and that is the danger that Fr Stephen Freeman points out. For Orthodox Christians, moral regeneration is not a goal, but it is a by-product of the new life in Christ.

In St Paul’s letters there is often a clear division. He begins by saying what God has done: transferred us from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 1:13), blessed us with all spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3) . Then there is a “therefore” — because God has done all this for you, therefore you ought to live worthy of the calling by which you have been called. Morality is not an end, and it is not even a means to an end. To the extent that it is found, or ought to be found in Christians, it is a by-product of the end.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 December 2014 12:03 pm

    You make some very important points here. Yannaras has been on my to-be-read list for years, but I am rather wary of his characterisation of Anselm. It’s a long time since I’ve read much of or on Anselm, but I do seem to remember that he is open to a more nuanced reading, something that Father Oliver Herbel has recently raised here:

    Nevertheless, even if Anselm is not ultimately responsible, the basic point still holds that many people in our society understand sin as something God punishes us for, rather than saves us from.

    What I find rather lacking in this whole discussion is the role of virtue and how the ascetical disciplines of the Church are intended to form us in virtue, particularly in our contemporary society. But I still need to get my head around some of this properly.

    • 21 December 2014 5:21 pm

      I hope I’m not being entirely flippant if I say that Anselm is an example of contextual theology. He was trying to explain the incarnation in a way that made sense to people in the culture of his time, where “honour” and “satisfaction” were prominent values. The problem is that later generations tended to universalise that explanation, and made it the dominant, if not the only one.

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