Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is Lack of Morality Due to Natural Causes? What are Orthodox Ethics?

Recently there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about lying that I found interesting. Dan Ariely and his colleagues have conducted research on lying. What they found is that everyone has the capacity to be dishonest and almost everyone cheats if only just by a little.  This is driven by two motivations.  We desire the benefits that can be gained by cheating such as rounding up our expenses on our expense report or our billable hours or exaggerating our insurance claims. Opposing this we want ourselves to be viewed as honest and honorable people.


In one of his experiments he took a group of 450 participants and gave him his standard task where they were paid based on the number of correct answers and asked to report their own results.  In this study half of them were asked to recall the Ten Commandments and the others were asked to recall ten books they had read.  In the group they asked to consider ten books the results were normal showing a tendency to cheat.  But, those who were reminded of the Ten Commandments, none cheated.


What this says is that our remembrance of God matters and we need to pay attention to the small and hidden forms of dishonesty if we are to follow the commands of our God.  It is not the flagrant misbehaviors that cause us trouble but the small ones the occur daily.


There are some who ascribe to naturalistic ways for us to act with goodness towards others. Paul Zak in Moral Molecule has found a correlation between trust of others and a chemical in the brain, oxytocin.  By simply giving participants in experiments inhalers with this chemical, a group's behavior can be changed.
So what is the significance of this for Orthodox Christians? We do accept that we are all sinners but do we think that our solution comes from a chemical in the brain? Is there a chemical than can control lying? What would be the benefit if there were?


For Orthodox our ethics are understood from the perspective that salvation is our ultimate goal. This is based on the Incarnation of Christ who showed us the image of God in which we are created.  Through His teaching and way of live we find the way to overcome our sinful tendencies.  Christ calls us to be perfect like Him as we are made in His image and likeness. We are to live according to His commandments.  He came to help us lead a virtuous life so we can be accepted into His kingdom of eternal life.  Not only did he appear in human flesh, but, after His Resurrection and Ascension, he sent to us the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  It is though the acquisition of the Holy Spirit that we have the power to overcome our moral weaknesses like lying. This is the "chemical" we need as Orthodox Christians.

For Orthodox Christians the whole purpose of moral law, like always being truthful, is to help us gain eternal life with Christ in heaven.  The ascetic efforts we put forth on our part is what allows the Holy Spirit, the grace of God, to work though us. It is called Synergia. In this way we can be like those who do not cheat when reminded of the Ten Commandments in Mr. Ariely's experiments. We do not seek for chemical additives for the effort but self-discipline aided by grace as this is the only way we will find unity with God.


We should not condemn ourselves or others for this selfish approach, because we know that we are all sinners as the experiments show.  What we are asked is to recognize our shortcomings and to seek God's forgiveness and to work with His grace to change our way of life.


One way we can keep His commandments ever in front of us is through unceasing prayer.  We have been taught by the Church Fathers that this can be obtained though the practice of the Jesus prayer"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."  If we learn to practice this through a daily prayer routine where we repeat it over and over again each and every day for at lead 30 minutes, we will find that we can have this prayer present in us at all times.  It can be with us when we are making out insurance claims, filling out an employment form, filling out an expense report, or taking a test of any kind. The result will be like the experiment with the Ten Commandments. 


Orthodox life is not about following laws but seeking the Holy Spirit through prayer  and worship so it is active in us at all times.  When it is, we become perfect in the image of God. We become Christ like.



It is through a life of ongoing prayer and repentance we attain the virtues and perfect our union with God. Attaining the virtues, our communion with God is continually perfected. We know that we do not become fully human until we have achieved the state of Theosis, the mystery by which we “become by grace everything that God is Himself by nature.”


Fr. Harakas, modern Orthodox Theologian, points out that achieving a moral life requires will, self-determination, and commitment and that there are many means which work together towards the achievement of a moral life. They include at least the following: prayer, study, having a father confessor, knowledge of Scripture and Holy Tradition



More on the Jesus Prayer and Daily Prayer


1 comment:

  1. Fr Joiner,

    I have been learning and practicing the Jesus Prayer and reading from the Jordanville Prayer Book for a few months and it has been wonderful for the development of my faith and prayer life. Blessings, kelly

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