Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Nexus of Moral Discernment in the Church

Fr. Jonathan Tobias

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Or, "How Ethics Should be Done by a Conservative Apostolic Church"

Today, in the sophisticated world of the West, there is a profusion of anxiety about the future, and about what is really happening underneath the simplistic reports on the evening news. There is a foreboding sense of danger on many horizons, and a rising level of unease about society and the state of the world.

The level of anxiety is not acute, since it is not enough to motivate real action, but it exists as background static. This static colors the thinking of contemporary men and women ... it punctuates their speech ... and it everywhere obtains as the prevailing mood in modern art and literature.

And while contemporary society will not approach the Church with its questions, at least not in an explicit way, the questions remain: "What is right, and what is wrong? Where is goodness to be found, if it exists at all? Where have we gone, in our headlong descent into a technological age, and what have we become? How much time do we have left?"

There is no question as to whether the Church should answer these questions. It should be self-evident that one of the chief endeavors of the Church, especially its leadership, should be the effective discernment of the difference between right and wrong, and the meaningful critique of modern values and trends.

The whole corpus of Holy Tradition is exemplary of this Divine expectation. Statements about moral issues from the Holy Councils, the Fathers, and Monastics fill the pages of ecclesiastical history. Their historic witness stems from the example of the Apostles themselves, who left written imperatives in their oral tradition and written Epistles. One of these statements is famous for its abrupt and pithy style. St. John the Evangelist, in his first letter, states simply to the faithful, these few words -- "Test the spirits, to discern whether they are of God" (1 John 4.1).

Our Lord Himself emphasized the urgent need for moral discernment in the Church. In the Gospel of St. Luke, He said this to the multitudes in the Sermon on the Plain:

When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, 'A shower is coming'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12.54-57)

Here, in the simple words of Holy Scripture, we witness a curious unity that links the discernment of what is right and good, and an apocalyptic awareness of the moment in time, both in the present and the future. And it is this "curious unity" that produces the basis of what we call the "prophetic witness" of the Church throughout the ages. Indeed, the common strain that binds the kerygma, or "proclamation," of the Prophets, the Apostles, the Fathers and Saints is this very unity. It is a unity of ethical analysis and apocalyptic apprehension. It is a spiritual linkage of mystical perception with an intellectual critique of culture.

And without this unity, the prophetic nature of the Church's moral discernment will of a necessity remain unheard. It will simply become just another intellectual formulation, just another "considered opinion" on ethical issues, amongst the many, many others.

There is no denying that we are proficient at "interpreting the appearance of the earth and sky," as our Lord did say. This is the interpretation of current events and "things at hand." It is the work of analysis, in which concepts are broken down into smaller and smaller parts. It is, as Blaise Pascal once said, the work of the "geometrical" temperament, a way of thinking that is marked by intelligent abstraction. It is the legacy of Western thought, and should be appreciated for its great achievements in science and technology.

We should note that Our Lord did not denounce this kind of thinking. He did not prohibit us from "interpreting the appearance of the earth and sky." Rather, He censured us, in this parable, for stopping at the level of this thinking, and not going on to complete it with the "interpretation of the present time." Pascal would say that our ethical statements are often lacking the temperament of finesse--the quality of intuition and spiritual critique.

It is often said that modern culture has very little interest in approaching the Church with moral questions. It is also said, just as frequently, that this is so because modern culture is fundamentally secular, and places no value on the opinion of the Church.

There is no denying the antipathy of modern society toward the Church. But it is the nature of prophetic witness to overcome all cultural and linguistic barriers. If the voice of the Church is truly prophetic, and truly discerning and apocalyptic, than any person who is open-minded will stop and listen, and consider well the voice of the Spirit. He will hear the words resonate in the heart, the very center of his soul.

This is always the psychological effect of the Word of the God, if the moral expression of the Church proceeds from the mind of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. This Word is the voice of eternity as it impinges upon the existential moment, and it must and will be heard. This has always been the experience of the Church throughout the ages: No matter how pagan or how reprobate the society which received the prophetic word, the Voice of the Spirit resounded, and the people responded. Open-minded persons heard clearly the call to truth and goodness, and they heard, with fear and trembling, the apocalyptic warnings of God's judgment to come.

It goes without saying that presently, this receptive response from society is not forthcoming. And today, we have to go beyond the usual facile complaint that society must be "too deaf and insensitive." We should consider the very real possibility that the problem is more profound: we should entertain the fact that society is not listening, because it never does. This is precisely the nature of a materialistic, decadent society, so we should stop wasting time complaining about the fact that modern man shows little interest in spiritual matters. To complain like this is akin to complaining that tornados are destructive, or that pollution is toxic.

It goes without saying that we should go beyond this glib lament. The real reason why society fails to show much interest in the "moral proclamations" of the Church is that our proclamations are too frequently comprised of ethical analysis alone. To be sure, our proclamations and opinions are usually produced by scholarship, professional dialogue and hard intellectual work--which are worthy endeavors to be sure--but they are not the composite result of the ethical analysis joined to the higher endeavor of mystical apprehension.

There is a fine intellectual tradition of ethical inquiry that has been bequeathed to the West from the philosophy of Aristotle. And through the magisterial work of St. Thomas Aquinas and the "school men," the ethical categories of philosophy have been adopted by the Western Church. Because of these, Western secular society has been able to think clearly on matters pertaining to natural law. They have been guided, in everyday ethical matters and jurisprudence, by the Ten Commandments, no less, for as long as they accepted the classic authority of Western Christendom, they saw in the Ten Commandments a plenary statement of natural law.

But times have changed, and western society--as you may know--is no longer "western." Recently, in an odd and telling metaphorical event in Alabama, there was much that was represented by the juridical demand for the eviction of a stone monument bearing the Ten Commandments from the State Supreme Court. The removal signifies the reality that there is no longer an allegiance to a theological basis of natural law, and that natural law as a value is in profound decline.

Western society has moved profoundly beyond the aegis of Christendom, and even the memory of that age. The old Roman synthesis of Church and Society no longer obtains. In its place is a deeply and darkly secular age, which looks upon the Church as just another obsolete institution, an artifact of a superstitious age, whose exit from the historical stage can't come quickly enough.

What we must accept is the arresting fact that if Christendom has become but a memory, then the ethical method which relied upon the actuality of Christendom has become obsolete. That plain and unattractive fact is the very reason why our ethical statements and moral pronouncements are heard as simply another voice in the din of the agora. We are paid attention to as just another of many interest groups ... just another institution ... merely another constituency with an ethical opinion.

The Church has found itself in such a dismissive age before. In the generations before "Christendom," before the society of Christian Rome, the persecuted Church of the martyrs and catacombs had much experience with a society that was just as indifferent and oppositional as the modern age. In that time, the Church was never shy about proclaiming its ethical and apocalyptic opinions, the fruit of its moral discernment. The character of these pronouncements, however, differed from the ethical statements of today. The difference is so significant that modern histories of ethics often claim that in this period, there were very few writings concerning ethics.

While I find such a claim disagreeable, I am not surprised. In the writings of the undivided Church, modern ethical scholars will not find much that is written in the language and categories of scholastic ethics. They are looking for anachronisms, which they will not find. But they have found a key for us, to unlike the conundrum of our time. Unwittingly, they have pointed the way to the simple, mystical and existential witness of the early Fathers, as a standard for moral discernment in this age.

In the tradition stemming from this earlier generation, we find that ethics simply does not exist as a separate academic category. It is not an artificially defined discipline. Neither is the work of dealing with "social issues" given over to committees of professionals, academicians and scholars. Doing so would have been practically impossible, to be sure, but the Fathers also knew that moral discernment went beyond the pale of philosophy. In fact, they subsumed the enterprise of ethical thinking under the subject heading of "praxis," or the doing of the Faith. "Praxis," in turn, was tied inextricably to "theoria"--a word meaning vision, a mystically experienced theology.

In the writings of the Fathers, there is a consistent expectation that the Christian who is given the grace of this vision, is then able to apprehend the substance of Holy Tradition, the revelation of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Accordingly, the witness of such a "deified" or "in-godded" Christian, who is properly called a saint, is in complete agreement with the witness and experience of all the saints--because they have all apprehended the same thing.

It is not surprising then that the heart and nexus of moral discernment remains perfectly consistent throughout the ages. The Holy Spirit is the same, yesterday, today and forever, and the Spirit's articulation of Holy Tradition brings to bear upon every age the same eternal truth.

The Fathers of that early age were careful to locate the primary place of moral discernment firmly in the office of the episcopacy. To be sure, every Christian is called upon to test the spirits, and to judge for himself what is right. But in the dogma of the Church, the episcopacy is expected to be the keenest witness of Holy Tradition to the present generation.

St. Dionysios the Areopagite made this expectation clear, and for a particular reason. He stated, without apology or reservation, that the episcopacy should have attained the highest levels of morality and spirituality. Having attained this, the episcopacy is able then--and only then--to apprehend the mystical truth of theology.

St. Dionysios draws an arresting correspondence between the 3 ranks of clergy with the three stages of spiritual growth. The first stage is that of "purification." In this stage, the Christian is aware of the forces in his own life, and in society around him, that contend against the Spirit. This stage corresponds with the diaconate.

The second stage is that of "illumination," and it corresponds to the priesthood. In this stage, the Christian is able to recognize truth and meaning in reality. He is able to discern the "logos," the divinely-ordained design and destiny of that which is created. He, in turn, is able to guide others to illumination.

The third stage is that of mystical union with Christ, and it corresponds to the episcopacy. The Christian is here inspired by the Holy Spirit, and he experiences "theoria," or the "vision of theology." Accordingly, he is given a profound awareness of the contemporaneous voice of apostolic tradition. Indeed, this is why we recognize the episcopacy as the vessel of the unbroken, continued presence of apodosis, or the apostolic witness of Holy Tradition.

Of course, it should be said that this schema of St. Dionysios does not discount the fact that there are many Christians who have been purified, illumined, or given the grace of theoria. Neither does it discount the tragic possibility that some bishops, priests and deacons may not have attained their corresponding stages.

The schema of St. Dionysios leaves us with two very clear points. One is that moral discernment for all Christians requires a faithful pursuit of spirituality, according to the teachings of the Church. The other point is that the leadership of the Church must experience the vision of theology, in its most mystical meaning, or else the moral discernment of the Church is reduced to a mere, ethical analysis.

The process of deification, which figures as the single, all-encompassing imperative of the undivided Church, inducts the Christian into a truly ecclesial epistemology. In such an epistemology, the soul has achieved independence from the passionate distortions of the world, which so often confuse and darken discernment. The soul has been enabled to take a truly realistic view of the world and its members. It is unhindered by completing philosophies or "spirits," whether these are consciously learned or tacitly accepted. It apprehends reality, and is not distressed by contemporary values, nor is it conditioned by contemporary forces. Finally, it communes with the Holy Fellowship of the Trinity and the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. It hears the contemporary voice of Holy Tradition, and the Spirit's trenchant criticism of society at present.

In short, deification alone prepares the soul for theology, and imbues it with the agency of moral discernment--an agency marked by the unity of ethics and apocalypse.

For this reason, St. Maximos the Confessor called this true theology nothing less than the mystical vision of the Trinity ... it is unforgettable spiritual knowledge, written into the very summa of the servant-hierarchy of the Church.

If there is any time that calls for the clear sight of moral discernment, it is this moment. People are anxious, and they should be, because they are sensing the ubiquitous symptoms of a culture in decay. For centuries, the society of the Renaissance and the so-called "Reformation" has stood as an over-arching culture over Europe and the New World. But now, the energy of this culture is leeching into decadence, and the pillars of Church and the classic world are disappearing from view. Loyalties to society in general are giving way to liberation movements and interest groups. Violence and crime occur on the neighborhood level in too many neighborhoods, and too many of the victims are children. Governments are full of good intentions, but have less and less power to achieve them. Our economy is built on mass production, and we are required to consume in mass quantities. Self-discipline and respect are evaporating values, as our celebrities appear in ever-increasing levels of unkemptness, undress and disordered lives. In the arts, the hero has largely disappeared: literature is filled instead with characters possessed by self-loathing and a hatred of life. The visual arts have turned away from the sublime, and are now typified by Andy Warhol's minimalist definition: "Art is what you can get away with." Relationships are characterized now by demands and financial contracts, instead of commitment and joy. Too many children can now be described as "semi-orphan"--they are members of families with no stability, no rituals and customs, and not even a consistent set of parents.

There are many questions coming in from this world, to be sure. How will they be answered? Our Lord once looked upon the people of Israel, and He lamented their state of confusion. In the Gospel of St. Mark, we are told that when Our Lord went ashore, "He saw a great throng, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and He began to teach them many things" (Mark 6.34)

There is a great throng around us, in this moment, and truly, they are like sheep without a shepherd. They are confused, and do not know which way to go. Should we not have compassion for modern man, and "teach them many things" from the Words of Christ?

Is it not up to us, who are living at end of this civilization, to listen to Heaven enough, to witness its Vision, so that we can "know what is right" on this Earth?

Fr. Jonathan Tobias is an Orthodox priest and edits the Second Terrace blog.

Read the entire article on the Second Terrace website (new window will open).

Posted: 22-Oct-06

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