Christos Yannaras - The Freedom of Morality
Part IX- Abyssus Abyssum Invocat
September, 2003- I went to St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Mission in Sunnyvale not knowing what to expect. From the outside, it appeared to be a converted Protestant church with a steeple. I had just been to an Ignatius Press conference and was psyched about being Catholic, but still a little conflicted about the fact that I was going to an Eastern Catholic church and was planning on becoming an Eastern Catholic monk. I entered the church and found that it was like any other church of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: no pews, lots of icons of impeccable taste, and a gorgeous iconostasis. I began to venerate the icons.
When I came to the icon of Our Lord in front of the iconostas, a priest came out of the sanctuary wearing a riassa and sporting a very trim haircut and beard. The first thing he said to me (and I am not making this up) was:
"You used to be a seminarian, didn't you."
I froze. Was this man clairvoyant? Did I have it written on my forehead that I had left seminary nine months earlier and would be entering a monastery in another six months?
"Yes, Father," I replied, "how did you know?"
" I used to be a Marist seminarian a long time ago."
Needless to say we talked to almost two in the morning after All-Night Vigil was over. He gave me one book, not the only or the first book on Orthodox theology I have ever read, but maybe the one that tied many themes together for me in my own mind. The book was Greek theologian Christos Yannaras' work, The Freedom of Morality, and while it has great flaws like any book, it is one of the most prophetic Christian works ever to confront modern thought.
I can here talk about various themes of the book, but that is not the point of these posts. The point is what I perceived was said, and its affect on how I believe and think. The main theme that Yannaras is trying to get across is: the Gospel is not what you think it is. That is, life in Christ is a relationship and not a system. You cannot buy off God (as I have said many times in the past), and you cannot enter into a relationship with Christ on your own terms. We can say this until we are blue in the face, but we will never understand it. The life of the "old man" of the flesh is our constantly forgetting and reminding ourselves of these things. Yannaras is trying to shake us out of this complacency in our relationship with God, Christ, the Church, and society in general.
One of Yannaras' main targets, infering from the title of the book, is modern moral theology. There is one chapter in the book where he cites that many early editions of St. John's Gospel do not include the story of the woman caught in adultery, implying that many early Christians rejected this story as false because the woman showed no sign of repentance. Yannaras uses this episode to make a key point in his book:
The ethics of the Gospel have as their aim the transfiguration of life, not merely a change in external behavior or punishment of behavior disruptive to social harmony.
I pause here now to reflect how this concept re-formed how I approach my spiritual life. In traditional Western Christianity, there is a temptation to conceive of sin as "strikes on your record" and virtue or good works as "brownie points in your favor". Since sin is an infinite offense against an infinite God, the temptation of Western spiritual practice is to focus exclusively on "not sinning" and "wracking up points" so as not to have to spend time in purgatory and enter Heaven quicker. While this is an exaggeration, it is a very real one. That is how I thought about these things when I was a teenager reading St. Alphonsus de Ligouri.
Many authors of the East, however, are very clear that this is not the case. The important thing is to be formed in the image and likeness of God, and that will almost inevitably involve falls into sin and repentance. As Yannaras writes when talking about confession:
...[T]he healing of such perversion in the sensory organs of life cannot result from binding conditions and obligations to show some objective "reform", which inevitably keep man confined to the impasse of individual effort and individual morality. It can only come through gradual understanding and dynamic experience of the truth of the mystery [of repentance], through bringing one's sins to the Church again and again until one gains real humility, and this humility encounters the love of the Church - until life does its work, and the deadened nature is raised up.
In other words, repentance and all morality is ecclesial: it is NOT about me. I am a pile of filth as an individual; as a person in communion with the Body of Christ, I am born a new creature. That is the message of Yannaras' book. And that changed how I approach my own struggles day in and day out.
The book does have its flaws. Yannaras seems to have never met a Western theologian he liked, and a phenomenological philosopher he didn't like. Some of his arguments paint the Western Church in broad, sloppy strokes, comparing the best of the East with the worst of the West. This is an unfair if very common error that Orthodox theologians commit. He also even gets to the point of accusing Chartes Cathedral of being decadent Western scholasticism in stone and stained glass; a very specious argument to say the least.
Still, it is a book that must be read. If you are Orthodox and haven't read this book, you need to buy it right now (here's a link). Western Christians should of course also read it. It will help you understand that our approach to God is a coming together of opposites that approach one another in love and trust. As Yannaras so eloquently puts it:
As the Christian explores the bottomless depths of human failure through immediate experience, he realizes the magnitude of the possibilities of love, and he dares to make the leap of repentance. Thus he meets complete acceptance in the infinity of God's love for mankind: "He who knows the weakness of human nature, the same has had experience of divine power," says St. Maximus Confessor. Salvation is when two infinite magnitudes come together: here alone does "one deep call to another."