God says, “Get out of the way!”
Author’s Note: This post expands a comment I wrote earlier, and adds some input from Jack.
Reader’s Note: The religious/spiritual aspects of what follows in this post are written from my own perspective as an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).
Length: 5,000 words
Reading Time: 17 minutes
As I was reading through Jack’s well-written post, I was reminded of the main reason why I don’t see how these kinds of discussions and disagreements can possibly lead anywhere productive, given that people are all over the place in terms of how they view broader spiritual issues, the spiritual life in general, their overall approach to religion and spirituality, and the like.
The Basic Problem
Essentially, the basic problem is that as we proceed from the general to the specific in these kinds of discussions — that is from the 30,000-foot level to the ground-zero — aka, “my-life-and-my-kid’s-lives”, tyvm — we encounter what I conceive as “the wall of disagreement” — that is, a barrier beyond which one cannot go without compromising one’s core beliefs and convictions.
Most of us here are pretty firm adherents to our particular type of Christianity. Many of us likely see the perspectives — when it comes to convictions of the faith — of others here as something that ranges from problematic to perhaps heretical or even outside the word “Christian” — on all sides. We suspend that, to a degree, for the purposes of having a useful and cordial discussion on a higher, 30,000-foot level, but those discussions can only go so far before you reach the “frontier zone” where, if you continue to proceed further, those core elements are subject to being compromised, and one has to choose between (a) whether to keep going or (b) whether to “pull up” and say “here, and no further”.
Most of us realize that in the context of an internet blog and its related discussion, and even a set of internet resources that can be described collectively as “Christian Red Pill”, or what have you, it is most sensible for us all to choose choice (b). However, this handicaps the ability of the “Christian Red Pill” to do much other than entertain a very basic discussion on the 30,000-foot level.
This is often a source of genuine frustration for some participants who, from time to time, become impatient with these high-level, theoretical discussions. We see this when commenters express a strong interest in developing more concrete approaches … only to find that there is no consensus at all about the latter because of the “wall of disagreement”. This philosophical barrier can leave some of them embittered and jaded about the entire discussion.
It’s a simple reality that nothing discussed in this medium is worth even contemplating any sort of compromise of our respective core principles to achieve or clarify. There simply is no justification for that. So it is the sensible and best approach to stop, go no further, and acknowledge that beyond a certain point, it’s separate ways. In fact, this is the basic reason why we have so many ‘doxy’s and denominations. There’s a practical reason why Christ prayed for unity in John 17:20-23.
As I was trying to point out in my last post, Constructing a Framework of Options (2021 March 15), we can compare notes about the same empirical phenomena we are encountering, and we can also compare anecdotal experiences and observations. But once we get to the level of prescriptive action, we hit this wall of disagreement because this area is deeply and inherently involved in several aspects of personal belief. These aspects include…
- One’s religion, denomination, or doctrine.
- How one defines, views, and approaches one’s personal faith.
- Our mental concepts of spiritual states and processes (e.g. justification, redemption, sanctification, etc.). For example, if we were to ask the question, “What is the difference between iniquity, offense, sin, transgression, and trespassing?”, there would be no clear consensus. Most readers might not think there is any difference at all.
- One’s spiritual practices and disciplines.
- How one fits all this into one’s life approach in general.
- Many other related issues.
All of these aspects are most definitely not shared by the readers of this blog and the posters in these comboxes. So when certain topics and issues come up, we get into areas that really are much less fruitful for discussion, and are much more ripe for wild disagreement precisely because they touch on these kinds of issues on which we so deeply differ, and which are, in turn, so deeply formative in each of us.
It really is a wall of separation between us, and I do not think it is surmountable — at least not in the context of these discussions (in the parousia, of course, all differences will be surmounted one way or the other as all things are reconciled in Christ). In understanding the wall of division, as we move right up adjacent to it, I think we can discern some of the main facets of our disagreements, which can be helpful in order to understand each other better, and to understand why overcoming disagreements about these kinds of things, on the “ground zero” level, is virtually impossible to do.
A Brief Comparison of Religious Standpoints
In this section, I’ll briefly review how legalism/jugmentalism is contained in the practiced stances of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy.
Many of the prevailing Protestant (including many of the “I am not a Protestant, I am just a Christian”) types of theologies feature a kind of “tent-revival Christianity” which arose from the Second Great Awakening in the United States and the approach of people like Charles Grandison Finney (August 29, 1792 – August 16, 1875). The impact of Revivalism on the subsequent history of American Protestantism, which is beyond the scope of this post, is both massive and seminal, yet not widely understood, particularly by many who are outside the Protestant traditions and who tend to view Protestants through the lens of 1517 rather than through the lens of the Second Great Awakening.
In any case, under the revival approach to Christianity popularized by Finney, one is typically categorized either as “saved”, or “not saved”, in a more or less “total” and complete sense based on one’s expressed and sincere, personal faith in the “finished work” of Christ on Calvary, and therefore the inability of it to fail. This approach therefore does not see “salvation” as a process which must be “worked out” (c.f. Philippians 2:12), but rather as a one-and-done event. Thus, the term “unsaved believer” is a laughable oxymoron.
Sanctification is not discussed often, but is generally regarded as something that might come later, and is entirely distinct from what is referred to as the separate event of “justification”, or “being saved”. Sanctification is thus described, not as a state of contented holiness, but as a process of spiritual maturation. But the process itself is not constitutive of whether one is “saved”.
The evidence of the effectiveness of one’s “being saved” (i.e., whether one is actually “saved” or not, despite what one may think) is assessed by means of “one’s walk with Jesus” — i.e., whether one commits sins, serious ones, after being “saved” … in which case, perhaps one was not actually “saved” at all.
If a serious sin should ever come to light, or make inroads into the life of a believer, it is contained by the belief that he/she was never truly “saved” to begin with. This allows the congregation to exclude the offender from (true) fellowship, and absolves the congregation from any responsibility to discipline, teach, and correct the prodigal, since he/she is considered to be an unbeliever.
Of course, this is generally imposed in a rather strict way, because one who has actually really been “saved” would not, per this view, ever engage in a serious sin thereafter, due to such sin being inconsistent with the total transformation which is seen to have come about by one’s having been “saved”.
This approach creates temptations for one to monitor one’s behavior carefully in order to comply with the requirements of the moral law — not as a means of “being saved”, but rather as a means of evidencing to oneself and others that one has “been saved”.
This results in an approach to the faith which is constantly trying to separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, in order to determine who is “actually saved” and who is “just roleplaying”, including one’s self. All the while in this process of scrutiny and separation, one must claim that one is avoiding legalism and one therefore tends to spend a good deal of mental energy constantly convincing oneself that one is not behaving legalistically in applying strict scrutiny to the degree of compliance of oneself and other “putative” “Christians” in light of the requirements of the moral law.
This creates an unending tension between the unavoidable reality of human sin in the lives of flawed human Christians, on the one hand, and the understanding of this theological system which claims that this is impossible if one’s salvation is actually real, on the other. This tension, and the paradoxical contradictions which create it, tend to foster extreme levels of “supposedly non-prodigal son” syndrome, and precisely the kind of comparing oneself to others which lies at the heart of the admonition against judgmentalism to begin with. Worst of all, this approach places this ontology at the heart of the religious experience.
However, this approach has gained a widespread appeal for several reasons.
- It creates a social order characterized by an appearance of godliness that tends to bolster self-esteem, faith, and social participation. (This is why evangelicals have a stereotype of being sharp dressers.)
- The theology and social order is ideologically protected from the ravages of personal sin within the community.
- Most of all, it creates a powerful sense of belonging (i.e. to the elect) to those within the congregation.
In my view, this problem underlies many of the difficulties currently being experienced by Christianity in North America today. This “Holier Than Thou” flavor of religiosity that was characteristic of the 19th and 20th century Protestant church experience produced a reactionary bifurcation of staunch fundamentalists and moral relativists, which in turn, led to the secularized churchianity we have today — flaccidly compromising in both doctrine and practice. Furthermore, within the specific contexts explored by the Christian Manosphere (i.e. “How can a Christian man find a spouse?”), this approach has a substantial impact on viewpoints and perspectives, which I will turn to in the final section of this post below.
By way of comparison, the Roman Catholic approach to these matters has a different set of issues that can, under some conditions, veer into a legalistic/judgmental mindset for a different set of reasons. But I’ll refrain from focusing on these issues because they aren’t that influential either in these threads or in American culture generally — even among Catholics in the U.S. themselves. It is not influential because most of the mainstream “Novus Ordo” mass Catholics (not “TLM” Catholics) have a religious mindset that follows one or the other Protestant approaches, de facto, in the period following Vatican II (ca. 1965).
My own tradition — Eastern Orthodoxy — has problems of judgmentalism, too (there’s a good reason why the Gospels are so hard on judgmentalism), particularly in our “uber-dox” fringe. But the main thrust of the faith is not laced with a kind of legalism like the one described above. As I will discuss next, Orthodoxy tends to view these kinds of things as a question of corruption — whether one is indulging the passions or not in a way that creates a spiritual block inside of us which interferes with or entirely shuts down the process of gracious transformation in Christ — and not as legalism, or whether one is “following the rules”, either in the revivalist sense of “proving” that one has been actually “saved”, or in the juridical sense of avoiding punishment/cultivating a reward. But while there is, of course, always room for the problems of either the younger prodigal son or of the elder “non-prodigal” son to emerge, that is an issue for all Christians at all times — we are always in need of constant repentance, until death.
We are all always prodigals!
In Eastern Orthodox soteriology, the idea isn’t either (a) that one can’t become a “true” prodigal after one has been “saved” (we do not follow the tent revival model of Christianity), or (b) that one can kind of duck the issue by pursuing prodigality because one has faith in God’s “ultimate” forgiveness/mercy/love (or something like that), provided that one has a proper orientation towards works, law, and grace, according to 16th Century Swiss and German standards. Instead, the central Christian concept of sin and grace is that one’s prodigality is a function of one being alive.
We are all always prodigals!
One commenter described it in this way.
“There is a comic book adaptation of the Prodigal Son story that ends with the father telling the older brother, “In his disobedience your brother is alive. You, in your resentful subservience, are dead. Do you think God wants mindless worshippers who can only follow instructions?”
I’ve been the classic elder son for a long time. Followed the rules, didn’t get any results out of it, ended up resentful toward God. Now I’m trying to discover a way out of living like that.”
Yes, the “non-prodigal” son (aptly portrayed by the elder brother in the parable) is, in fact, as much of a “prodigal” as the “prodigal” son is, in the eyes of an all-knowing, eternal God who knows all hearts and knows all of time. The sins of the “non-prodigal” are different from the sins of the “prodigal” in form and type, and most obviously the “non-prodigal” commits his sins while being optically close to the Father, while the “prodigal” does not, but both are still sinful, both have strayed from God. The lesson for religious people is clear — do not be the “non-prodigal” son, who appears to be close to God and considers himself to be, but is mired in the sins of judgmentalism, presumption, pride, contempt, and the like. It is is the same general array of sins that Christ identifies time and again in the Gospels when discussing the Pharisees, and this is not surprising, because this is the one category of sin that comes up almost endlessly in the Gospels for constant derision, ridicule and warning. This is precisely because, unlike the sinners who throw themselves at the mercy of Christ, people like the elder “non-prodigal” son do not even believe they are in need of the same mercy, and thereby do they gravely, gravely err in the eyes of God. In some ways, the “non-prodigal” son is perhaps even worse off than the prodigal son, because he never comes alive, and never learns to love the Father God.
The core underlying sin here — which the parable of the prodigal son clearly identifies as at least equal to the sins of prodigality committed by the younger son, and suggests that they are even more serious precisely because of the failure of the “non-prodigal” to even see himself as being sinful in this way — lies in judging others as being more sinful than we are ourselves. When we compare our own sense of worthiness to our perception of others, we magnify the differences in sinfulness between us, which are rather small in the eyes of God. In His eyes, we are all seen as the prodigal sinners we are, and who are more or less equal in this respect. Jesus called this habit of judgmentalism “hypocrisy, which is the leaven of the Pharisees” (c.f. Matthew 16:6; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; and Galatians 5).
Getting out of God’s Way
The Eastern Orthodox perspective on dealing with the archetypical problems of “prodigal” and “non-prodigal” is to avoid both by cultivating holiness instead. That is, one doesn’t add to the problem intentionally by piling on more prodigality intentionally. Neither does one go about being a self-contented, arrogant stickler. Instead, the focus is to try to avoid falling into either pitfall through one’s growth in theosis/holiness. In Orthodox soteriology, the pursuit of theosis is viewed as consisting primarily of “getting out of God’s way” so that He can transform you by means of his grace, which is where constant return, constant repentance, and constant forgiveness all are a part of the daily spiritual experience of an Orthodox.
Orthodoxy proceeds from this premise to endorse one’s personal effort and cooperation with grace (which we call “synergeia”) because Orthodoxy views salvation as an ongoing process due to the lived reality of our human sinfulness. That is, grace is open to us following baptism, but true transforming grace is not forced upon us (nor against our will, like the Calvinist understanding of salvation). It must be cooperated with, and every decision is a decision to either cooperate with this transformative power, or not to do so — that is, either to adjust our ego, will, and habit such that the Holy Spirit can do its work in transforming our hearts, minds and bodies from the inside out, or to choose to do things in our minds, hearts and bodies that limit, obstruct, thwart, or interfere in His work, and, in some cases, shut down His work altogether. If one does not relinquish the will to auto-determination, and thereby “get out of the way” of this transforming grace, then one is not transformed by it, and if one does that consistently and repetitively, one can close the spigot of grace entirely.
As you can see, the Orthodox approach is not “rules”-based, per se, but rather the focus is on avoiding the kinds of thought processes, acts and habits that one can do which inhibit or “get in the way” of the transformative grace of God, and which therefore halt and, over time, can even reverse the process of spiritual transformation that God works in one following baptism. This is what it means for the believer to conform to the will of God concerning our sanctification. (1st Thessalonians 4:1-8)
In Eastern Orthodox spiritual practice, a great emphasis is placed on the practice of vigilance or watchfulness (“nepsis” following 1st Peter 5:8), which involves maintaining a stance of alertness and attentiveness to one’s thoughts and the focus of one’s “nous” (described below) so as to avoid patterns/strands/chains/cycles of thought that can lead, eventually, to strongholds of bondage and/or difficult temptations to sin in various ways, which run the gamut from sins of pride, to avarice, to greed, to lust, to anger, and the like. All of these begin with thoughts, and with the help and grace of the Spirit, we can get better over time at identifying the kinds of thoughts and thought chains/dynamics that lead to them (e.g. buying into false narratives, deception, denial of the truth, dishonesty, false convictions, fear, idolatry, insecurity, lying, psychological displacement, psychological dissociation, psychological projection, shame, solipsism, etc.).
The thoughts themselves are readily apparent to us, but for many of us, the underlying nature and motivations of these thoughts remain lurking below the subconscious. But as we grow and mature, we become more aware of these defects, and we must consistently reach out to God to “come to our assistance and make haste to help me”* to shut down our individual specific dynamics of thought and spirit which may potentially lead to an eventual sin in thought, word or deed, and the disturbance this brings to the entire process of transformation by grace which God is working within us constantly after our baptism.
The Struggle of Faith
Sins are of course a violation of the moral law and must be repented of and forgiveness for them must be sought, but the main problem with sin isn’t a judicial condemnation (which has been taken care of by the Cross), but rather the impact of sin in blocking, interfering with, retarding or shutting down the work of grace which is trying to transform us into a holier and holier version of ourselves in heart, mind and body by means of grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t a “law mentality” the way a Protestant would describe that, but it also isn’t a kind of “led by the heart” mentality, either, in terms of “one’s heart being in the right place” — it is a true spiritual struggle, a spiritual war, a process in which salvation is not “won by works”, but rather is gradually made increasingly present, made increasingly observable and tangible, in the life of the individual Christian by means of God’s transformative grace, provided that one has not blocked/prevented/retarded that process by means of one’s own sins to the point where the process breaks down.
Hopefully, by now it is clear to the reader why Orthodoxy sees the day-to-day life of the Christian as an ongoing spiritual struggle.
- It is a consistent struggle to become more self-aware, and to remove those aspects of self that get in the way of God’s transformation and grace.
- It is a continual struggle to not place obstacles (sins) in the way of the operation of grace inside of us which retard or reverse the process.
- It is a constant struggle to resist recasting this struggle as a struggle to “obey rules in order to maintain purity or holiness, or to get a reward, or avoid a punishment”.
As I noted above, this struggle means practicing the avoidance of sin by maintaining a stance of “nepsis” or alertness to one’s thoughts and mental and “noetic” state, and proactively calling on God constantly to help you overcome sin when you face specific temptations to sin, or, preferably, when you recognize a mental dynamic or chain of thought that will eventually lead to a sinful thought, word or deed, on a daily/hourly basis. In this, the Christian is relying on God, not his own efforts which, of course, alone will fail, but also is required to take the initiative and ask for God’s help. This involves…
- Maintaining vigilance of oneself, and especially one’s thoughts and one’s “nous” (which is a word that describes one’s faculty for spiritual sight and communication — ones’ spiritual/soul eye), and where that is focused.
- Maintaining an attitude of open communication with God on a constant basis by keeping the “nous” focused on God (and not in passionate engagement with the world of the senses and/or the world of thoughts and memories).
- Constantly turning to God as a prodigal son with a repentant spirit on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, depending on our struggles, confident in God’s mercy, but also cognizant of our constant need for it and the help which is always springing from it as a gift when we ask for it in humility with a spirit of acknowledged need for it.
In practice, the discipline, vigilance, and self-denial which is necessary for sanctification and Shalom inevitably causes suffering in some form or manner, and this suffering poses an additional layer of complexity to the struggle. However, this is another topic for an upcoming post.
What does this mean in terms of how people approach the problem of finding a spouse in the current environment, and specifically the issue of how one approaches the challenges of the current dating market, the sexual revolution’s aftermath and the like.
I think it means an Orthodox can only endorse avoiding sin to the extent possible — not, as described above, for legalistic reasons of “earning salvation”, but rather so as to not block/retard/reverse the process of transformation at work in us through the Spirit’s action. When sin arises (and we should expect it VERY frequently in this culture, given the specific challenges we live in), we should avoid falling into the role of the “non-prodigal” son in judging the weaknesses of others in the face of this very challenging culture, but instead, we should gently encourage repentance, seventy times seven times.
In terms of the “brass tacks” question of actually finding that spouse, there isn’t an easy, overarching, turnkey, accessible-for-all solution that will yield the desired result, but this isn’t really the church’s problem to solve. The church doesn’t tell you how to get a job, buy a house, invest in your retirement and so on. Sure, one can scour the scriptures and find useful general guidance there, but the Bible isn’t a real estate investment analytical tool, a retirement portfolio analysis, a career counselor, or the like. These are human challenges that we must meet with our humanity, and that includes an aspect of worldliness which is inevitable due to living in the world, yet one where we must engage in the delicate dance of not becoming so worldly that we are spiritually tainted by the world and its values/ways/norms in a way that ends up retarding that ongoing transformative process of grace that is taking place inside of us.
Again, we have to try to avoid sin by always keeping God in remembrance and reaching out to him to help us when we feel temptation coming, not with the mind to avoid running afoul of rules and their punishment, but rather to avoid blocking the process of gracious transformation. At the same time when we sin ourselves (and we will, in this culture), we need to be faithful enough to return to God immediately in repentance and ask for his help, and then to remember that when we find ourselves in temptation in the future to ask with humility for his help in real time, constantly acknowledging our own weakness and our total need for his gracious assistance and forgiveness. And finally, we need to be gracious in our approach to others who are also failing in their struggles with temptation in the teeth of this very challenging cultural environment, and encourage them, as fellow sinners, to reach out to God for help and assistance, as the case may be, and not with the eyes of a supercilious judge who is overlooking or denying his own sinfulness, as did the elder “non-prodigal” son.
It’s a tap dance spiritually, for certain, and in a culture where sexuality is now one of the major culturally besetting sins (the other main ones being pride, greed, materialism, and vainglory). Thus, the process of finding a spouse, which is culturally tied together with sex due to the tie-up of the SMP and MMP, is going to be very fraught with these issues.
As a Christian, you’ll need to be able to walk the tightrope in some of these tricky areas, and repent when you inevitably fall. You’ll need to help others when they inevitably do as well, instead of approaching others with judgment, hectoring, superciliousness, superiority, chiding, and everything that reeks of non-humility (and which therefore brings more judgment on oneself).
But I think this is very hard to do in the context of some Christian theologies where the reality of ongoing sinfulness among Christians presents different kinds of challenges.
In any case, as I stated at the outset of this post, this is where we generally hit the wall in these kinds of discussions, it seems to me. There is a point where we part ways, spiritually, with each other, in terms of such fundamental issues that we cannot see things the same way. We can understand our differences better by diving into them with an open mind so that we can understand each other’s perspectives, but we can’t see things the same way. It seems to me, the chasm between our spiritual constitutions and our non-shared environments will impact not only how we approach the “options” that are on offer, such as they are, but also how we will approach the prior threshold question of, “How should one approach the question of how one should approach the options?”, and so on. Thus, we descend into the swamp of meta-realities.
What this means from a practical perspective in terms of the overarching discussion here is that one can’t, at least from an Eastern Orthodox point of view, endorse any approach that features considering the problem with the premeditated idea of sinning in order to reach a specific worldly goal — that is the opposite of a repentant attitude. However, it also means that one is to be very forgiving of someone else who trips due to their own weakness in this difficult environment, even repeatedly, by gently encouraging that person to understand that their weakness is shared, and encouraging them to turn to God in repentance for help in overcoming the temptation to sin. And then doing this seventy times seven times, not with increasing exasperation and a chiding, hectoring tone, or even worse a judgmental one as we watch them fall into the same pattern repeatedly, but always with gentleness and patience, as we see from Christ himself in dealing with people in serious sin.
How often have we played the role of the so-called “non-prodigal” and chided the “sinful” person in their sins or lecturing them? Few things p!ss God off faster than when we claim to be less sinful than others, either directly or indirectly, as this is hypocrisy, as I described above, and it forms the core of Christ’s endless, fierce, passionate critique of the Pharisees — a theme that runs from one end of the Gospels to the other, and is continued by St. Paul.
How much of our discussion is “getting in God’s way” of speaking to us and working through us?
- Σ Frame: Psychological Projection and the Mirror Effect (2017 December 9)
- Σ Frame: Revealing Her Unencumbered Beauty (2018 June 26)
- Σ Frame: Patheological Weddingsday – When wanton treachery brings shame, not honor. (2020 October 14)
- Σ Frame: The Relinquished Life (2021 March 8)
- Roosh Valizadeh: What Is Orthodox Christianity? (2021 March 25)