God or Virtue?

A leaf from an old calendar I just came across includes a quote from a Saint Theodoros. The well-intentioned sentiment his thoughts express pose something of a question, if not a problem. He says:

“Faith is a quality inherent in our nature. It begets in us the fear of God, and fear of God instills that keeping of the commandments which constitutes the practice of the virtues.”

Two things puzzle me about this teaching. First, the idea that “faith is a quality inherent in our nature” is hardly compatible with the biblical and patristic emphasis on faith (pistis) as trust, acquired through a constant and arduous struggle against our sinfulness (which does characterize human nature) and the negative expression of our passions, open as they are to demonic influence. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Heb 11:1; Rom 3 passim; Eph 2:8-9; 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:1-11; etc.), bestowed on some and withheld from others, for reasons we can hardly fathom (cf. Jn 8:47). Yet faith is also confident assurance in the saving message of the gospel of Christ, and that faith by its very nature must express itself in works of love (1 Jn 3:23; Jas 2:17). Grace is likewise a free gift offered us by God, to which those who are able respond with faith and thereby find their salvation in Christ.

Neither the gift of grace nor the response of faith, then, can be considered qualities “inherent in our nature.” Faith is a risk; it is often elusive and transitory, a conviction of the heart that remains ever fragile. It is a function not so much of human nature as of the human person (hypostasis), with that person’s inevitable struggle to maintain not only “belief” (credence) but trust in a God who allows so much suffering in the way of sickness, violence, natural disasters and untimely deaths. The struggle for enduring faith in the face of God’s apparent silence is perhaps the surest proof that such faith is not inherent in human nature. (A heart-rending account of that struggle can be found in Shusaku Endo’s book, Silence.)

The second part of St Theodoros’ statement is also problematic in that it can be so easily misinterpreted to suggest that the ultimate aim of Christian life is “to practice the virtues.” The progression seems to be: faith, which elicits fear of God, which then produces obedience to the commandments, all of which finally culminates in practice of the virtues. Read this way, as charting a progression along the pathway of spiritual life, this statement is little more than a recipe for moralism. It seems to say: We should rely on our inherently natural capacity for faith so that faith will engender in us fear of God. That fear, however, has a further purpose: to lead, inspire or drive us to keep the commandments. And insofar as we do, then we achieve the end or final purpose of Christian existence: to practice the virtues. Which all too often means “obey the rules,” and make sure others do so as well.

The quotation, of course, is taken out of context. And it’s highly unlikely that its author would subscribe to the kind of exegesis I have given it. He was probably speaking in a monastic context, where the inner life is to be increasingly structured by maturation in the faith that expresses the God-given, “natural” longing (recognized as such or not) that every human being has for participation in the life of God. A certain fear of God, in our fallen state, is often the only motivation that goads us to obey the commandments and thereby exercise virtuous behavior.

A problem arises, though, whenever this kind of exhortation is read in a moralizing way, as though acquiring “fear of God” were simply a means for achieving the ultimate aim of the Gospel and Christian life: to encourage us to “practice the virtues.” The unsurpassable merit in keeping the commandments and exercising charity is not merely that it leads to a virtuous life. The virtuous life is a means, not an end in itself. The end is and must be God — not a God who inspires fear in order to force us toward an attitude of obedience and virtue, but a God of infinite love and mercy, who calls us to be holy for the single reason that he himself is holy.

For us to enter into the realm of God’s holiness and to participate truly and eternally in his divine life (what the Fathers speak of as theosis), we indeed have to be freed from the sinfulness that holds us in bondage to corruption, and to purify and sanctify ourselves by observing the commandments in an authentic quest for a virtuous (holy) life. All of that, however, is achieved within us by the action of the Holy Spirit, who bestows faith, brings us into communion with Christ, and grants us in the end and for all eternity, “access to the Father” (Eph 2:18).

There is neither hyperbole nor false humility in the clergy’s admission during the anaphora of St Basil’s Liturgy, “we have done nothing good upon the earth!” Attainment of a genuinely virtuous life means an arduous, often frustrating and painful struggle to obey the commandments. Whatever fruit that struggle might bear, though, derives neither from qualities of our nature nor from a victory over sin that we ourselves have won. As that prayer from the Liturgy also declares, in words uttered by the priest but pertaining to all of the gathered faithful: “Thou hast permitted [us] to serve at Thy holy altar, not because of our own righteousness, but because of Thy mercy and compassions….” Whatever “morality,” whatever genuine virtue we may know and express in our life is a gift, granted not because we have in fact become “pleasing to God,” but simply because he loves us, despite ourselves. It is granted as an expression of the abundant mercy and compassion he has “so richly poured out upon us.”