'Virtue' in Christ - a gift and an obligation

by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

In these difficult historical circumstances that all of humanity is experiencing, there are two theories mainly which are formulated and disseminated with almost the same missionary zeal. On the one hand there is the theory of rivalry and the open clash of religions and civilisations. On the other hand we have the theory concerning the attempt to balance differences (whether they are religious, cultural or socio-political) through the upholding of a so-called 'unifying' model. No matter how much people have tried to call this 'globalisation', it has not convinced us of its genuineness or overall value. And it is not only the anonymous crowds of 'deprived', 'underprivileged' and /alienated' who are not convinced, but also renowned intellectuals, artists, religious and social leaders on the world stage (regardless of whether we are speaking about the 'third', 'second' or 'first' world!).

Objections therefore concerning both these theories have not ceased being expressed in various ways, denouncing all phenomena with the same sacred indignation - not only the rising incidence of terrorism but also the increasing plutocracy.

In light of the pandemonium of 'news' and the legendary power of 'communication', the Christian is called to soberly express an opinion in accordance with the Gospel of Christ, and sacred Tradition which has 'interpreted' it (not only for internal consumption, but for humanity as a whole) through a host of institutions that were chiefly developed in the first blessed millennium shared by Christians in common.

These authentic institutions and the corresponding representative customs of the Christians underline emphatically, on the one hand, the necessity of 'communion', not simply between /citizens' (a thoroughly secular concept), but clearly between 'persons' (a concept totally open to transcendence). On the other hand, Christian ethics, which dictate a universal 'communion of persons', does not confine itself to the horizontal, i.e. things of the present world (no matter how dynamically this is understood!). The major feature of Christianity is catholicity, yet not in the sense of fullness (cath`olou), but rather in terms of that which is highest and final. In the theological vocabulary of the Christian Church, the Aristotelian cath'olou has been radically replaced, through the divine Incarnation, by that which is both divine and human, the theanthropino. Only such a synthesis of the horizontal and the vertical would be able to steadily ensure unity, peace and justice, which nonetheless unfortunately still remain the most unattainable objectives of history.

Yet, in the face of the moral, social and metaphysical chaos signified by the two mentioned theories (terrorism-plutocracy), Christian vigilance and sincerity does not find it difficult to formulate its own 'third way'. And this way of course has nothing in common with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's policy of the same name. Nor does it have anything to do with Cavafy's so-called 'judicious adjustments' of secular diplomacy.

The astonishing and, in terms of dynamism, incomparable 'third way' of Christianity is the ascetic way of Orthodoxy. This however is not to be understood as a theoretical teaching or hollow ideology. It is above all the practical application of the theoretical precepts (in accordance with the notion that praxis surmounts theory), having self-blame as its only method (an approach which makes you search for the cause of what is bad not in others, but in your own self!).

We of course expect an ascetic approach like this from within monasticism, as the vigilant expression of Christianity par excellence. However, it is no less binding for other Christians living in the world. This is because Christian ethics are one and the same for all the faithful. If we look at it carefully, we shall see that self-blame is nothing more than the human expression of the divine self-emptying or kenosis, as taught to us by God incarnate in 'utter humility'. This is the fullness of His truth, or in other words the full appearance of His glory. This is what shows forth the 'Lord of heaven and earth' as the redeeming 'Bridegroom of the Church.'

Therefore the aim of every struggling Christian in the world, as members of the 'Church militant', cannot be any personal achievement, individualised and cut off from communion with the other members of the one and undivided Body of Christ. The greatest gift and blessing for each of the faithful is only to 'participate' and share with others at least a 'portion' of the blessings of the entire communion of the Holy Spirit, which unites all into one kingdom.

Clearly, we all participate in the communion of this kingdom, not according to the degree of 'merit' of each person (which is in any case nonexistent), but rather according to "the measure of Christ's gift" (Ephes. 4:7). So, no matter how honest our efforts may be to fulfil the divine will - by nullifying our own will - the relevant reward can never be a kind of 'payment'. It is always grace alone, and indeed grace that is unsearchable and inexplicable!

At any rate, the 'cutting off of one's own will' and 'self-blame' are but poor 'imitations' of the only Sinless and inimitable Christ. For this reason, they can ensure a truly creative renewal of the fold' and 'decaying' world and human beings themselves.

Only in this way can the Christian, without being "conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:2), enter all the configurations and fields of today's terrorised world, in order to become "all things to all people", as the Apostle Paul said, so that he might "by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). For, according to the Christian understanding of salvation, the individual faithful are not redeemed in isolation and of their own accord! Rather, the faithful are redeemed according to the degree that they contribute and participate in the salvation of fellow human beings, for whose sake Paul again states that he was willing to even become "anathema" (Rom. 9:3).

An attempt was made above to identify as much as possible the clear position that the conscientious Christian is obliged to take today, in a world of complete confusion and disorder, where blatant impasses are now presented as something 'established', under the guise of almost immovable 'institutions'!

We therefore spoke about a creative 'imitation' of the inimitable God-Man, by developing the notion of the 'communion of persons' (through 'self-blame' and 'humility') as the unique possibility for 'peace' in the present life, as well as for eternal salvation in the next.

From the analysis that we have already made, one can now easily understand why we placed the word virtue in quotation marks. This signifies that the word has a prehistory. And we cannot use a word properly unless we know its former history.

From the etymology of this very ancient Greek term, we can see why the Christian cannot use the word virtue without some 'reservations', when characterising the moral quality of his or her thoughts, actions or feelings. When we then use the word 'virtue', as we often do (in speaking about Christian virtue, a virtuous person etc), we must remember the derivation of the word itself, and give the appropriate explanations, so as to make correct and just evaluations. Let us then look at the etymology in question.

The Greek word for virtue (arete) comes from 'Aris', one of the mythological gods of the ancient Greeks, known in the west as Mars. He was the god of war, and so virtue' was initially considered to be a manly feature, as it referred not to spiritual and moral qualities of the soul, but rather to the physical strength of the body. Similarly, in Latin, the word for man is vir, which is why virtue is called virtus.

However, whether or not the ancients used the word 'virtue' to refer to physical strength or, later on, to the spiritual grandeur and courage of men and women, what matters is that they always appraised the one, single person, in his individual structure and operation. Thus the 'totally alone' person was judged according to his or her phronema and accomplishments - regardless of what occurred with those around - either as a brave hero, or else as a timid coward.

According to the moral evaluation of the human person before the time of Christ, therefore, the human being was judged, as a rule, in and of himself. it was as if the person was a 'meteor' who fell from the skies without presuppositions, no matter what the known or unknown influences of the past and the environment may have been on his 'character'. In other words, no matter what the hereditary factors may have been, let alone the apparent and non-apparent effects of upbringing and education, which were given programmatically in the context of an organised 'City State'.

After Christ, this supposedly 'objective' view and evaluation of the individual - allegedly completely free of any 'ties' or 'dependence' - proved throughout the centuries of the history of civilisation to be not only totally groundless (a pure utopia!), but also irreverent, if not inhumane! For, such an evaluation silently rejected from the outset every notion of the deeper communication between the divine and the human, regardless of how the role of the divine is understood in 'human formation', and by whom.

Those among the ancients who were sober and 'divinely inspired' sages never rejected the value of the mystical bond between God and the world. On the contrary, they characterised it as an 'umbilical cord' to the source of life. And if this was not acknowledged, how could deeper existential relations between ancestors and descendants, if not between people in general, be appreciated?

The superficial and rather theoretical axiom that 'God does not mix with man', together with the popularised belief concerning 'enmity' between the two ('the divine is jealous'!) in a sense assign life in the present world not only to boundless loneliness, but also to inconsolable rivalry.

In contrast to all this verbosity and rhetorical ideological constructs of anti-God and materialistic thought in antiquity, the central teachings of divine Revelation (Old and New Testaments), have spoken directly about two unprecedented and unbelievable (according to human logic) truths about God:

  1. The 'creation of the universe out of nothing' by the Uncreated Trinitarian God.
  2. The creation of the human person 'in the image and likeness of God'.

Both these vital truths of divine Revelation clearly put in place a final end to the boundless loneliness mentioned earlier, supposedly caused by the indifference of 'God' for the world.

The invisible God, who is above space and time, is no longer the Great 'Absentee' in the history of the world. He became human in order to 'deify' the human person. These two impossible and unbelievable teachings for human logic (Nature-History-Philosophy), were possible and existent in God, constituting the "mystery which was kept secret since the world began" (Rom. 16:25) of the Love of God which is called Grace. We have, in other words, not payment or reward for our alleged 'achievements', but a gift that cannot be repaid. Something that no one could possibly expect, since no one deserved it. The relevant passage of the Gospel is categorical: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). That the divine Incarnation is entirely without presuppositions - which many theologians have misunderstood even to this day - is based precisely on this paramount statement of the Gospel.

However, the Church of the New Testament preaches with infinite gratitude the two mentioned unprecedented truths, which reveal the limitless love of God for humankind. It is the same Church that has, at the same time, never ceased to be amazed by this love. This is why it continues to chant, as it always has:

"How was the unconstainable contained in the
womb? How is it that He who is from the bosom
of the Father was in the embrace of the Mother?" Christmas Hymn).

At any rate, it was only from these truly unheard of truths of divine Revelation that God's wisdom, omnipotence and inconceivable glory could possibly be revealed. Only in this manner could God be proclaimed as He who "is everywhere present and fills all things".

Concerning all of the above, it was no longer possible for any human virtue -whether hereditary or acquired(!)to be considered an exclusive personal feature. All good 'qualities' are in fact blessings which come directly from the source of life and immortality, who is God alone. For this very reason, the greatest privilege of the human person is precisely to be made worthy to 'partake' and 'commune' the blessings of the 'communion of persons' in God and according to God. This moreover was also the basic purpose of creation out of nothing: for rational beings (angels and humans) to partake of, and commune in, the blessedness of the kingdom of God. That is why, following the fulfilment of divine Revelation, the name of God par excellence is no longer the 'Lord of hosts' or 'the Almighty', but rather 'EMMANUEL' (which means God is with us!). This permanent co-existence and co-journey of the divine and human was the subject of the ultimate doctrinal formulation of the 4th Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon, with its Christological dogma concerning the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, which occurred 'unconfusedly', 'unchangeably', 'indivisibly' and 'inseparably', according to the well-known term .of the Council.

from Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 25(5-6), May-June 2003
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archbiocese of Australia

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