There is an organization called the Tolkien Society. It has existed since 1969 and regularly meets to share studies, academic papers and lectures about Tolkien and his works, often to include the Christian and religious aspects. Many of these papers are published and I was reading one the other morning by an author named Anna E. Thayer. In her paper, she wrote that Tolkien and other writers after him who are devoted to writing heroic fantasy are writing in a world “disenchanted with morality.”
I hear people often say, “We are a country without morals” or “we are losing our morals.” But I think that is actually too light a way to say it or even think about. I know what they mean, but I think they are really speaking to something deeper we are losing than what we commonly think of as morals or morality. What is going on speaks to much more than what we should think of as a moral issue or problem, but rather a pervasive sickness we are suffering from.
I would like to first start with a basic understanding of how commonly think of morals and morality. In today’s culture, we seem to equate any type of moral judgment as an inappropriate judgment. We seem to confuse Christ’s teaching of “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) with discernment or judgement of circumstance or issue versus a person. Christ’s command that we should not judge was more about negatively judging the entirety of someone’s person based on our perception of their faults while being prideful and blinded to our own. He was not talking about wisdom and discernment of circumstance. As an example, if someone commits adultery we can safely judge it as morally wrong. Again, as Eastern Christians we know that sin is a sickness problem, not a legal problem. Understanding poor moral behavior as sickness that impairs our relationship with God rather than “breaking the law” so to speak, should keep our hearts soft and help us temper sweeping judgment of an entire person because of a single poor action.
Disenchantment with morality speaks both to our rebellious will, not nature, and, to an extent, the way religion, Christianity specifically, has been taught to us. Our Eastern Christian understanding about our human nature is despite sin, our nature remains fundamentally good. Sin did not damage our nature. It is our will, or ability to choose correctly that is damaged. We have now a tendency to run away from God or chose opposite of what God would have us do. The irony of course is that we often construe what God would have us do to be constraining, boring, or painful as opposed to understanding it is for our own good. The Israelites perceived the law the same way. God gave the law to them for their own good but they rebelled against it. This holds true today because we often are either taught, or we perceive, our faith as one of rules to follow, or legalistically, as opposed to a complete way of life meant to draw us into union with God.
If you tell a child not to do something, or not to touch something, many will naturally want to immediately do what they were told not to do, or touch what they were told not to touch. It seems teaching in this mode of communicating negatives does not always work so great. But this is how many of us first learn about our faith. One of the first things I encountered when I was young and in Sunday school was The Ten Commandments - a list of the ten things you should never do. I did not understand them on a deeper level being about how we love God and love each other. I understood them simply as God’s main rules. The Top Ten. You follow them and you will not get in trouble with God. A lot of us never get past this legal mindset. This happens among our faithful despite the richness and depth of our sacramental life which is more about a noetic encounter and union with Christ not an enhanced set of rules and rituals.
Being morally good is a good thing on the surface. What is bad for us is if we fall into a self-righteous mindset because we believe ourselves to be morally good. That is what the Pharisees did. They were self-satisfied in their adherence to the law but it deadened their hearts. They did not understand God as a God of love, where moral behavior reflected love of God, but as a God of rules. Understanding morals and morality as a set of God’s rules to begrudgingly adhere to, as opposed to behavior that is a natural result of a deep desire to have union with Christ breeds, in general, two types groups of people –those that try to follow God legalistically thinking they are doing the right thing, and those who reject the so-called rules altogether and rebel against God as evidenced by their abandonment of many morals and moral behavior. Both of these groups do not understand that Christianity is not a mixture of law and psychological principals; it is something that is telling you how to feel and how act; it is much deeper than that; it ontological, it is about being. Father Stephen Freeman reminds us:
“The world is not about who and what is right or wrong. It’s about what truly exists and what does not. Existence and being (ontology) are what matter, not what is legally correct. God is the “only truly Existing One,” and our salvation in Christ is a movement towards ever more true existence. This is the meaning of “eternal life.”[i]
So misunderstanding, or worse, being disenchanted with morals and morality speaks to something much deeper that is going on. Misunderstanding speaks to “missing Christ.” In John 5:39 in the dialogue with the Jews, Christ tells them that they were seeking the Scriptures to find eternal life but missed finding Him. When we read the Scriptures like a text book and try to follow the rules as some sort of external moral authority, we miss experiencing the Scriptures and participating in them sacramentally through our worship and services, as a means for the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to the truth of Christ and draw us to God. Disenchantment with morality and this open rebellion to right behavior is nothing more than a continuation from the Garden of Eden to seeking life apart from God, life on our own terms. A descent into poor morality is a manifestation of rejecting God.
We need a better understanding of morals and morality to both understand and appreciate the depth of this and why it is a problem. Poor moral behavior and open hostility toward God, Christ and Christianity is self-evident and does not require explanation to understand. But the decline of Christianity in our country is in part because of legalism and how Christianity is taught and preached legalistically. Legalism does not speak to the need we have spiritually and people who reject Christianity and seek more “spiritual religions” often do so because of a legalism that lacks an understanding of grace and comes with condescending and rigid morality they cannot live up to.
Morality in its essence is simply to be Christ-like in all situations. To be Christ-like is to live sacramentally and grow in Christ where we become and more like Him so our choices and behavior – and morality – flows as natural as breathing because of who we are and who we are becoming. It’s about becoming “enchanted” with Christ so that as we truly love Christ, we become like Him. Disenchantment with morals and morality at its core is disenchantment with God. For those who are indeed disenchanted, we, as Christians, need to present Christ to the world in a way that make people want to know Him and His Church, not as set of negatives, rules, legal constructs or anything else that is a turn off. But we can only do that is we are drawing nearer to Christ sincerely on a daily basis without any agenda but loving God. I heard a popular political pundit who came to faith say one time on TV, that she simply now shares what she believes not because she is trying to convince anyone of anything, but just because she believes it is true. It is kind of like if you read a great book or see a great movie, you tell people about it in your enthusiasm because you want them to have the same enthusiastic experience you had; not because of any other reason.
I am an idealist, I admit. But nothing will convince me different than that the more we sincerely love Christ, despite our brokenness, the more will act like Him naturally, and the more will be moral in the deepest sense of the word.