Orthodox Study Journal~~Youth Issue 10/ March 2020

Man’s Ethos Of Freedom

St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructed his catechumens at one point as follows:

“True religion consists of these two elements: pious doctrines and virtuous actions. Neither does God accept doctrines apart from good works, nor are works, when divorced from godly doctrine, accepted by God. What does it profit a man to be an expert theologian if he is a shameless fornicator; or to be nobly temperate, but an impious blasphemer? The knowledge of doctrines is a precious possession; there is need of a vigilant soul, since many there are who would deceive you by philosophy and vain deceit.” (Cyril of Jerusalem, 1969, pp. 119-120).

Heresy was one of the reasons why the Church established and enunciated its doctrine in a very clear and unequivocal way. The doctrinal system of the Church contains

  • dogmas decreed by the Councils that opposed heresy and
  • all the other doctrines that the Church always proclaimed as being part of the message of salvation that she addresses to the world.

These include The Triune God, the doctrine of creation of angels and man, man’s fall, the divine plan of salvation, Christ’s person and work, the Church, the Virgin Mary, the Saints, the Sacraments, and Orthodox eschatology (the “last things”).

The ‘knowledge of doctrines’ is inextricably bound up with the growth toward theosis. It assures truth, provides discernment, protects from error and guides the Church and the individual Christian towards theosis. But, since Christians are in different stages of belief and understanding, our attitude towards ‘knowledge of doctrines’ differs from individual to individual.

Moreover, every individual connects himself with freedom. Freedom when defined in its moral and philosophical sense is the possibility of choice and preference. We also observe that our freedom can only exist in the relative sense due to the fact that every being which has a beginning owe its existence to some other being (e.g. our biological relation with our parents). This being the fact, mostly we use the experience of others as a guiding factor to take our decisions. This is due to the moral constraint where we are conscious of the fact that we live in a society which follows a rule to respect the freedom of others as well. We take care that our choices will not conflict with the freedom of others so that order is maintained and there is no chaos.

But this in the actual sense is no freedom to many in today’s times, especially the youth of today define freedom as the choice where they are free to do whatever they wish without regards to any rules. It is, for them the right to choose whatever they like be it in terms of education, friends or relations, lifestyle etc. To be free, for some again means to do anything even if it is an irresponsible action without having to think that it could be a wrong choice; an action that can harm.

In such a case, moral values are under attack, i.e. we see that some set of moral values at one point of time lose credibility at another point of time. It remains just as a social convention. Flattery and dishonesty have become a part of our everyday life. People don’t dwell on the moral quality of life. Today’s motto of ‘do your own thing’ and the principle of instant gratification fostered by our consumer society causes more harm to the ethics.

What is the reason for such differences arising among a set of values or morality/ethics at different times, among different groups of people? How is ethics defined in a society?

The scale of objective virtues or values[1] known as ethics which determine the morality of the individual is the result of religious, philosophical or scientific interpretation of problems to do with the behaviour of the individual in the society. Ethics may arise out of a philosophical interpretation of man’s ethos, or it may result from a given body of religious law determining how man should behave. It can also be a science, the branch of so-called “human sciences”, which tries to find the most effective values for the best organisation of men’s social coexistence. There are two preconditions for application of ethics: authority and convention. The supreme authority can be “divine” in a religious or mythological sense; it can also be represented by party leadership, or by the impersonal principle of state power. If we reject authority, then we are obliged to accept the conventional character of social ethics. The rules of behaviour for the individual follow an agreement or convention, either conscious or dictated by custom. We accept, on utilitarian grounds, ideas about good and evil, which may be those put forward in particular case or those by experience. And we constantly seek to improve them, using philosophy or science to study the manifestations of social behaviour.

Distorted understanding of freedom has damaged our lives and darkened our understanding. We have blindfolded ourselves in such a way that we cannot connect to the actual reality even if we wish to do so. Due to all these factors the two basic building blocks of any society, the family and the church, are being undermined and suffer unrelenting attack.

The truth of the Orthodox Christian Church is that Freedom[2] is infact a reality connected to man. Man is in the image of God. In the teaching of the Holy Fathers, the image is closely connected with freedom, independence. And this is what characterizes man. In patristic (holy fathers) thinking the definition of freedom is different from the secular meaning as defined above. It is clear that ethics as defined above separates the ethos or morality of man, his individual behaviour and value as a character, from his existential truth and hypostatic identity i.e. from what man is, prior to any social or objective evaluation of him. The ethics leaves outside its scope the ontological question of the truth and reality of human existence, the question of what man really is as distinct from what he ought to be and whether he corresponds to this “ought”.

Does human individuality have an ontological hypostasis, a hypostasis of life and freedom beyond space and time?

Does it have a unique, distinctive, unrepeatable hypostatic identity which is prior to character and behaviour, and which determines them?

Or is it a transient by-product of biological, psychological and historical conditions by which it is necessarily determined so that “improvement” in character and behaviour is all we can achieve by resorting to a utilitarian code of law?

If we accept morality simply as man’s conformity to an authoritative or conventional code of law, then ethics becomes man’s alibi for his existential problem. He takes refuge in ethics, whether religious, philosophical or even political, and hides the tragedy of his mortal, biological existence behind idealized and fabulous objective aims. He wears a mask of behaviour borrowed from ideological or party authorities, so as to be safe from his own self and the questions with which it confronts him.

According to the Fathers, freedom as a possibility of choice is the indication of the imperfection of man’s nature (fallen nature). Only God has absolute freedom[3], since God is uncreated. ‘God is uncreated’ means ‘God is unbounded by any “necessity” including his own existence’. Since we are created, such a reality does not exist for us i.e. we do not have absolute freedom. But man, within his limits can, as far as possible acquire absolute freedom, only when he is reborn in Christ, when he becomes a dwelling of Trinitarian God and a Temple of the Holy Spirit. Then, by grace, he becomes fatherless, motherless and without genealogy. Thus freedom in patristic teaching is the possibility of the person determining his existence. And since by our biological birth there is no possibility of our living this out, therefore it is by spiritual birth, which takes place in the Church, that we acquire real freedom. Moreover, it is by our own will that we seek this new birth, which is clearly higher than the biological one.

Since in the Orthodox Church morality is not an objective measure for evaluating character or behaviour, but the dynamic response of personal freedom to the existential truth and authenticity of man, we do not use the term ethics/ethical life but this kind of ‘spiritual living out’ by our own will is the ascetical living of every Christian defined by the Church. This understanding is detailed with example in the next article of this issue. Ascetism in its simplest form of understanding is that as children of God, we have significant duties towards the manifestation of the true meaning of what it is to be a human being. To be truly human is to be righteous, pure, truthful, and good. Simply stated, it is to become by grace what God is by nature. In other words, it is to struggle to grow towards the infinite perfection of our Creator. We are called to “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48).

Therefore, asceticism has purely dogmatic/doctrinal character, because it concerns the correct evaluation of concepts. Someone must know exactly what these concepts are, what type they are, and what relationship they bear to the reality that they symbolise or express.” When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine/dogma lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian. The whole struggle is, as Vladimir Lossky so eloquently put it, to “live the dogma”.

We see this in the history of the Church. Many people accept dogma in order to be saved, but they do not observe the ascetical teaching of the Church connected with the dogma.

“But what connection does this dogma – the Holy trinity, the incarnation, all these things – what connection does the dogma of the Holy Trinity have with man’s therapeutic treatment (i.e. the ontological question of the truth and reality of human existence, the question of what man really is as distinct from what he ought to be)?

What saves is ascetical living which includes the doctrine/dogmas of the Church as a therapeutic treatment of man. For man to be saved means that he becomes “safe and sound”, or whole, and realizes to the full his potential for existence and life beyond space time and conventional relationships: it means conquering death. The insatiable thirst common to all human existence is a thirst for his salvation, not for conventional improvements in character or behaviour. This is why for the Church, the question of ethics takes as its starting point the freedom of morality—freedom from any schematic valuation of utilitarian predetermination.

The strange thing is that most of the Orthodox Christians today in ignorance, live the ethical life rather than the ascetical life defined by the Church, and at the same time have become very much involved in moralising.

In this context with only ethics, moralism develops[4]. For e.g. If we ask: “Why ought I to be unselfish?” and you reply “Because it is good for society,” we may then ask, “Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?” and then you will have to say, “Because you ought to be unselfish”—which simply brings us back to where we started.

Similarly, if we consider only dogma that is separated from ethics, speculation prevails. Since it is viewed with the idea of being theoretical and not concerned with our everyday living, it just remains vague. For e.g. the view prevailed that the dogma exists and we ought to believe the dogma so as not to go to Hell. It is believed among many that God is such that, we shall go to Hell, if we do not accept the dogma, even though we are good people and that God punishes us for not believing in dogmas.

Thus, practical living should include the understanding of the dogma or the doctrine of the Church. The doctrines/dogmas help in discernment. So as to guard the right path of faith, the Church has had to forge strict forms for the expression of the truths of faith: it has had to build up the fortresses of truth for the repulsion of influences foreign to the Church (these definitions of truth declared by the Church have been called, since the days of the Apostles as dogmas).

In the discourses of Mar Philexenos of Mabbug we read thus, “As for the cure of our soul, the commandment of the word of God urges us to cure its diseases and to heal its passions and to satisfy its hunger with the nourishment of doctrine, to give it the drink of the knowledge of God, to clothe it in the clothing of faith, to put on it the shoe of the preparation of hope, and to rear it in good habits and in the fullness of all virtues, and in the obedience that prepares [it] for the work of the commandments of God. For while our inner actions are holy and our outer actions are pure, let us become vessels prepared for the spirit of God, so that it may dwell in us purely and in a holy way, while through knowledge and wisdom we heal the diseases that occur within us, and heal the wounds of sin from our soul.”

 To conclude in the words of H.G Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios, “He thus “was seen on earth and had concourse with human beings” (Baruch 3:38), so that men may no longer need to rely on their own notions for their view of self-existent, making up doctrines out of conjectures and guess work. Rather, convinced that truly God was manifested in the flesh, let us believe this alone to be the ‘mystery of Godliness’, the faith handed over to us by the Logos-God Himself, in direct face to face conversation with the Apostles. Let us then receive the teaching concerning Transcendent Nature, given to us through a mirror and as in a paradox (ainigmatos), through the most ancient Scriptures concretised as Law, the Prophets, and Proverbial wisdom, as a witness to the Truth revealed to us reverently (eusebos) apprehending the sense of words, in accord with the faith (hos….pistei) set forth by Lord of All, let us guard that faith in literal and untampered purity, regarding the slightest deviation from the words traditionally handed down as the highest blasphemy and impiety.”.

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[1] Christos Yannaras on Morality

[2] The person in the Orthodox Tradition, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos

[3] ibid

[4] Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Empirical Dogmatics of the Orthodox Catholic Church, according to the spoken teaching of Fr.John Romanides, Volume 1