Replacing Vices with Virtues

 

“As the other passions come to birth, we must curb them and make our minds tranquil; we must banish anger, passion, grudges, enmity, malice, evil desires, all licentiousness, all the works of the flesh, which, according to St. Paul, are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, drunkenness and carousingings.

It is fitting, therefore, to force out of our souls all these vices and to be eager to acquire the fruit of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, modesty and continence. If we shall thus purify our minds by constantly chanting the lessons of piety, we shall henceforth be able, by preparing ourselves beforehand, to make ourselves worthy to receive His gift, great as it is, and to guard the good things which are given.

(St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, p. 36)

Vices vs. Virtues

“Let us rather avoid greed, through which injustice thrives and justice is banished, brotherly love is spat on and hatred of mankind is embraced. Let us avoid drunkenness and gluttony, which are the parents of fornication and wantonness; for excess of every kind is the cause of insolence, and outflow is the begotten child of plentitude, from which fornication and wantonness are hatched. Let us avoid strife, division, seditions, whereof plots are born and murders begotten; for evil crops grow from evil seed. Let us avoid foul speech, whereby those who are accustomed to it slip easily into the pit of evil deeds; for what one is not ashamed to say, one will not be ashamed to do either, and what one enjoys hearing one will be drawn into committing. Let us abominate these things and spit upon them, but let us love the Lord’s commandments and adorn ourselves with them.

Let us honor virginity, let us attain gentleness, let us preserve brotherly love, let us give lodging to hospitality, let us cling to fortitude, let us cleanse ourselves with prayers and repentance, let us welcome humbleness that we may draw near to Christ; for the Lord is near to those who are of a contrite heart, and He will save the lowly in spirit. Let us embrace moderation; let us practice the judgment and distinction of the good from the bad. Let the soul be undaunted by the evils of life, especially if they are inflicted on us on account of Christ and His commandments, for we know that justice will follow, and it is thanks to them that we are easily carried up to heaven.”

(St Photius, The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 71-72)

The Problem of Profanity

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. 

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  (James 3:5-12)

In just about every generation, writers comment on how bad things have become – as if there were a previous age in which things were better.  That probably is a human thing, as far back as Seth who really could think things were better in his parent’s day, but even in Paradise there was a serpent and sin.  St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, who died in 1783AD,  laments the disrespectful language he was hearing in Holy Russia which he claimed had become commonplace.  He would not believe how tame the profanity he laments sounds today and in fact for many would not even count as profanity.  His words remind us we should be mindful of what we say.

Profanity has become commonplace – a thing that is extremely unbefitting Christians – as to say “By God!,” “God be upon it!,” “As God is my witness!,” “God look after it!,” “For Christ’s sake!,” and many others. And these are said by some people quite often, even in every utterance. Such profanity is nothing but a satanic plot devised to dishonor the name of God and for the destruction of man. You should guard yourself from swearing in these and other ways.

When there should be need for you to affirm the truth, let Christ’s words be for you, Yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh from the evil one (Mt. 5:37). (Journey to Heaven, p. 15)

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:34-37)

Even A Little Charity is Good

Total black and white, all or nothing thinking is not in the Tradition of the Church always viewed as wise, correct, true or loving.  There are many examples in the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church where they note wisdom, truth and love require of us a more nuanced understanding of the Christian life.

Additionally, Christians have been plagued in their piety by all types of doubt and worry about their own motives for doing good.  We give to charity, but want people to notice our generosity.  We give to charity but mostly because it is a tax break for us.  The deed is good, but the motive wrong.  So is the blessing taken away?  Or what if we have good intention to be charitable, but not the means?  Are our intentions of no value?

The desert mothers and fathers in particular often put forth godly wisdom to counter the the exacting doubts of our minds.

A brother said to Abba Poemen: “If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons denigrate the deed as being done to please men.”

The elder said to him: “Even if it is done to please men, let us give the brother what he needs,” and he told him this parable:

“There were two men, both farmers, living in one city. One of them sowed and reaped a small crop of poor quality, while the other neglected to sow and reaped nothing. When there is a famine, which of the two will be found to live?”

“The one who reaped a small crop of poor quality,” the brother replied.

Said the elder to him: “So it also with us; let us too sow a little even if it be of poor quality so that we do not die by famine.”

(Give me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 235)

Even if we give only a little to charity at Christmas it is still a blessing for the one in need.  It is also a blessing for the one who gives.

Caring for the Sinner

 

by Robert Morris (1989)

“When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question.”  (Blaise Pascal, in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 39)

Robert Morris’s painting, Private Silence/ Public Violence, which I saw some years ago at  the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, is certainly timely.  The many recent reports of sexual misconduct by famous people shows how people keeping silence enables public violations/ violence to take place.  The #Me Too Moment has blossomed, rightfully disgracing some while empowering others.  Pascal writing in the 17th Century points how change can take place – by showing people from what point of view their behavior is wrong.

The Evils of War

St. Justin the Martyr
St. Justin the Martyr

Christians have in their long history experienced all sides of war – being attacked as well as sending forth armies to defend and protect themselves.  The early Christian centuries saw Christians persecuted by the empire in which they resided: the Roman Empire brought to bear on the Christians all of the weight and might of its power to contain and eliminate them.   At least as far as I know, the early Christians did not call their fellow Christians to strike back at the Empire in armed resistance.  There were no calls to take revenge or to fight evil with evil, death with death, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.

The persecuted Christians defended themselves through the writings and speeches of the apologists, such as St. Justin the Martyr.   Despite seeing their fellow Christians martyred by the Empire, I’m not aware of any early Christian calling for or organizing an armed defense.  Certainly they would  have been aware of the armed rebellion by the Maccabees from the Scriptures.  That was a Jewish example of how to respond to persecution – but the Christians didn’t follow that path.  Miraculously, without an army or call to armed resistance, they survived and continued to gain new adherents.  The witness of the martyrs and confessors continued to sew seeds in the hearts and minds of other Romans which yielded a harvest of faith in God among more and more of Rome’s denizens.

40 Martyred Soldiers of Sebaste

Only with the Emperor Constantine and the legends of his vision do we see an Empire being conquered by the cross with a use of force.

In later centuries, once the Empire itself embraced Christianity, the Christians found themselves with new moral dilemmas as to what it meant to be a Christian soldier and what it meant for Christians to go to war or to defend their empire.  The Christians did not lose or forget the morality of the Gospel commands, but they struggled with how to apply it to their new found position of power.  In the year 300, it was forbidden by the Empire for Christians to be in the army.  By 400, it was required that to be in the Roman army you had to be a Christian.

One early Christian writer who did write about the moral dilemma for Christians being in the army and going to war is St. Augustine (d. 430AD).  Apparently Augustine found that it was not war in itself which was wrong for Christians, but the motives and passions which guided the Christians which could be sinful.

“For Augustine, soldiers in battle must be motivated by charity, love of neighbor, and even love of enemies. They must not delight in the blood sport of war or be motivated by revenge.

‘The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance and the lust of power.’”

The moral problem as St. Augustine describes it is what war does to us internally.   We can be changed by war so that we take some pleasure in the the violence we do against our enemies.  We rejoice in their suffering and believe our wrath is godly.  We come to find joy in destroying those that we have come to  hate.   It appears that for Augustine, the issue is losing the sense that we are defending the innocent and those who can’t protect themselves and coming to enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on those enemies we hate.  It is dehumanizing ourselves and our enemies which itself is morally wrong.  This is one of the evils of war – changing the very reason one goes to war and what one does in war into an evil.  When war raises our own sinful passions and those passions take control of our behavior, then war causes evil to exist in us.

At first blush, Augustine seems hypocritical. He decries violence in the name of self-defense but allows killing in battle and says it is not murder. For Augustine, intention and authority are key. When an individual sheds blood with vengeance (motive) or without permission (authority), that person commits a sin; but as a tool or delegate of the state, the soldier can kill without sinning, so long as the soldier does so dispassionately (without taking delight) and in service to the common good.”

(Mark J. Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?, p 169)

This is a very treacherous moral path.   We can lose justification for our fighting in war if we allow sinful passions to take control of our reasoning.  But it also is possible that leadership may have the authority to declare war and do it for wrong or evil intentions.  The individual does not surrender responsibility for what he or she does to authority, but can without malice obey authority to serve others who cannot defend themselves.   None of this glorifies killing, or makes war a good.  The world is not perfect; it is fallen.  It is in this world that we have to function and make choices – difficult and hard choices.  We can make wrong choices, or right choices for wrong reasons, as well as wrong choices for right reasons.  Whenever their is choice to be made, we answer ultimately to God’s judgment.

The question remains: What level of force is allowed to stop others from committing evil?   When is lethal force morally correct?

The defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from  inflicting evil upon people.  The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be wrong.  Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends.  We can take men and women and remove from them moral reasoning and empower their sinful passions to commit acts of violence without having any remorse. The military has become quite successful at training its soldiers to accomplish their mission.   That might be the key to military victory.  But therein also lies part of the danger and evil of war.  It is not only what we do to our enemies – it is what we do to ourselves that is the problem.   In war we can encourage sinful passions to take control of ourselves.  We can turn off our moral reasoning in order to accept or justify whatever behavior we engage in.  We can dehumanize ourselves, not just our enemies,  in order to win a war. But, as the Lord Jesus asks . . .

“what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”  (Mark 8:36-37)

We can train soldiers to win wars, but we bear responsibility if they lose their souls in the process.   Physical death may not be the worst end for the soldier. Those who die in battle are hailed as heroes.  Those, however, who live and are emotionally and spiritually wounded, are sometimes pitied, sometimes forgotten, sometimes incarcerated, sometimes left homeless.

Certainly this tells  us we have as a nation not only a responsibility to defend ourselves from evil, but we also have an obligation to tend to the men and women we send to war – to help them deal with their passions, moral dilemmas and regrets not only while in the military but when they return to civilian life.  It is wrong to send young men and women to war, to make them killing machines and then to fail to help them return to society.  The cost of war is not just supporting our military in the actual combat.  It also means funding the care for the souls, hearts and minds of those who return from war with their moral, spiritual or emotional lives broken or in turmoil.    The nation has a responsibility to rehumanize all who might have suffered because they went to war.

The cost of war and the evil of war can be the damage it does to us, to cause us to be less than human.  The war may end, but sometimes it does not for those wounded by it.

Christ raising Lazarus

Choices

Sometimes we come to a crossroads in life where we have to make a decision as to which way to go.  It may not always be clear to us which is the “correct” path because more than one path may seem good to us.  We might decide we don’t want the responsibility for making the “wrong” decision and therefore seek counsel from a spiritual father.  In doing so we might imagine that the responsibility for the decision can then fall upon our spiritual father and all we have to do is obey what advice is given.   But sometimes, the wise spiritual adviser knows it is better not to make the choice for the disciple but rather only to present possibilities and put the responsibility for the choice on the disciple.

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, “An inheritance has been bequeathed to me; what shall I do with it?”  Abba Poemen said to him, “Go, and after three days come to me, and I will give you counsel.”  And the brother came, and Abba Poemen said to him, “What counsel shall I give you, O brother? If I tell you to give it to the church, they will make feasts with it; and again, if I tell you to give it to your kinsmen, you will have no reward; but if I tell you to give it to the poor, you will have no further care. Therefore go and do with your inheritance what you please, for I am not able to advise you rightly.” (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2),  Loc. 661-65)

Abba Poemen advises,  yet leaves the choice to the disciple who then bears responsibility for the decision.  Poemen, even though asked by the disciple to advise,  is careful to leave the choice to the disciple and also the responsibility for the decision.

This thinking we also see in our Lord Jesus who teaches using parables.  We have to think about the parables and what they mean and how to apply them to our lives in 21st Century America.  Teaching moral living through parables calls the disciple to exercise their God-given gift of free will and to make real choices in life.  Parishioners aren’t meant to be kept as children all their lives who must be told what to do by the clergy.  They are fully responsible disciples who need to learn the Gospel lessons in order to apply them to every situation and every moment of their lives.  God gave us free will and rational thinking – we are to put them to good use.   If God wanted us to be automatons, He would have created robots, not humans.

Matthew 20

If we constantly speak on contemporary issues and tell parishioners how they must think about everything, we fail to teach as Jesus taught.  We are to teach and proclaim the Gospel in order to empower the parishioners to apply those lessons to their lives, to their decision making, to their life choices.  They need to learn what is essential from the Gospel in order to learn how to apply the lessons to their own lives.   When the preachers decide that contemporary issues are the proclamation, they set aside the Gospel.   As one aphorism has it, “When I preached repentance, nothing happened.  When I preached joy, nothing happened.  But when I preached the Gospel, some repented and some rejoiced.”

Great Lent: Returning to Christian Morality

“It’s rare to hear a rip-roaring Sunday sermon about the temptations of the five-course meal and the all-you-can-eat buffet, or to hear a high profile pastor who addresses the sin of greed in the frank manner of, say, Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D.:

The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the bare-foot. The money you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people as you can help.

Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public services. He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance. There are conservative Christians today who seem terrified of even remotely criticizing Wall Street tycoons and high-finance buccaneers, lest such criticism be interpreted as an endorsement of the Democratic Party’s political agenda. But a Christianity that cannot use the language of Basil – and of Jesus – to attack the cult of Mammon will inevitably be less persuasive when the time comes to attack the cult of Dionysus. In much the same way, the Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitable seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases – on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists. The Christian perspective on gay sex only makes sense in light of the Christian perspective on straight sex, and in a culture that has made heterosexual desire the measure of all things, asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry.” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pp 289-290)

Porn and Sad Sex

The New Year: time for resolutions, or maybe just the firm resolution to change the direction of one’s life.  We are as Orthodox prayer taught to spend the remaining time of our lives in repentance.  Certainly one form of media “entertainment” which Christians need to wean themselves away from is pornography whether soft or hard.

According to PACIFIC STANDARD magazine  (Jan/Feb 2013), in a study done through Indiana University which covered years from 2006-2008, respondents who reported watching x-rated movies were about twice as likely to engage in casual sex as those who claimed not to watch porn.  The study is interesting because many who watch porn would say it doesn’t affect anyone but themselves.  This study says otherwise – people who watch porn engage in more casual sex than those who don’t.  That finding isn’t surprising, but people who watch porn and claim it doesn’t affect anyone else, need to think about the partners with whom they engage in casual sex -porn obviously has some effect on the people seeking casual sex and their partners.  Porn affects what we do with others – it is a form of media that effects how we view others and our relationships with them.

Interestingly people who reported that they were over all “very happy” did not engage as frequently in the casual sex even after watching porn – the effects of the porn were pronounced among those who felt only “pretty happy” about themselves.   The less happy one is the more one engages in casual sex after watching porn.   Those who considered themselves “’not too happy’ were almost seven times more likely to be sleeping around.”  So those finding themselves with casual sex partners, keep in mind your partners may simply be not too happy with themselves rather than interested in you.  Then of course maybe you are engaged in casual sex because you are not happy either.

While the culture may be comfortable with random people meaninglessly hooking up, Christians are supposed to be coming to terms with their sexuality in terms of love, reproduction and God’s will.   Porn does not fit well into a godly understanding of sex.

Watching porn and then engaging in casual sex is at best selfish acts of seeking satisfaction and sexual release.  No report that casual sex did anything to improve happiness.  Is casual sex therefore the behavior of the sad?   Sex may momentarily, due to releasing hormones in the body and the right chemicals in the brain, have an intense uplifting effect on those who are feeling none-too-happy.  But it does not long term change one’s disposition no matter how much one uses sex or sexual partners to satisfy one’s self.

What we do, what we watch, what we think, how we relate to others are never just personal choices for they always have social and spiritual consequences.

War, What is it Good For?

Edwin Starr asked the right question in 1969, when he rocked us with his lyrics:

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Say it again y’all

War, huh, good God
What is it good for

Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

War, it’s got one friend
That’s the undertaker

War can’t give life
It can only take it away

E.O. Wilson, the indefatigable defender of biological determinism, in the June edition of DISCOVER magazine, takes on a different question from Starr’s.   His article is entitled,”Is War Inevitable?”,  and unlike Starr Wilson thinks war has served such a powerful purpose for humanity in evolution that now war is in our genes.  The article is an excerpt from his new book, THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH.   His bottom line is depressingly enough: “We simply took what was given us and continued to multiply and consume in blind obedience to instincts inherited from our humbler, more brutally constrained paleolithic ancestors.”  It reminds me of the much discredited 1968 book The Population Bomb in which the Ehrlich’s predicted massive famine and starvation in the 1970’s and 1980’s because the earth could not support the growing human population.  The world has added 3.3 billion people since 1970 and their predictions like many religious end time prophecies failed.  Turning lemons into lemonade, they claim that due to their book the world took the growing population problem seriously and changed its ways enough to stave off starvation.

EO Wilson who has championed biological determinism also once predicted that eventually they would find a gene that would determine everything about being human, including a gene that would differentiate believers from non-believers.  Even that idea has fallen from popular view among many geneticists who recognize the truth about genes determining behaviors is far more complex than originally imagined.

I give DISCOVER magazine credit for following the Wilson article promoting biological determinism in regards to war, there was a rebuttal  by John Hogan author of THE END OF WAR.   Hogan totally acknowledges the brilliance of Wilson in biological studies, but thumps Wilson for perpetuating “the erroneous- and pernicious- idea that war is ‘humanity’s hereditary curse.'”  Wilson in a new book claims, according to Hogan, “that science can help us achieve self-understanding and even, perhaps salvation.”  Maybe science is religion after all.  Hogan writes: “Wilson actually spells out his faith that we can overcome our self-destructive behavior and create a ‘permanent paradise,’ rejecting the fatalistic acceptance of war as inevitable.”  But Hogan believes Wilson’s deterministic bent is wrong and ending military conflicts is far more possible than Wilson thinks.

I am reminded of the arguments of Raymond Tallis in APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY that evolutionary biologists ought to take evolution seriously and recognize that in fact the human species has evolved to the point of consciousness which means humans now can guide their own continued evolution and are no longer determined completely by genetics.   As Tallis wrote humans now lead their lives rather than simply live them.   Biological determinism is a philosophical presupposition not a scientific fact.  War is not biologically inevitable.  Humans are capable of making conscious decisions that are not determined by genetics.

I wrote extensivley about Tallis in my blog series which began with THE BRAINLESS BIBLE AND THE MINDLESS ILLUSION OF SELF.

While science has certainly brought about many technological inventions that have improved life on earth, faith that science can “save” the earth and accomplish something religion did not or cannot do, always seems to fail to take into account that humans will be humans.  Scientific humans will make as many errors in moral judgement as religious humans, and perhaps even more since they will rely on humans to decide all ultimate values.  Human hubris has proven itself enough times in history to make us realize it is a fact of life with which we must contend whether we look to science or religion for dealing with human failings.

I hope this summer to read Wilson’s new book as I try to read at least one book from current scientific writings each year.