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Law, Medicine, and Thoughts: East and West

September 26, 2012

Nearly every blog post written on this site has concerned itself with the realm of the thoughts and how they play a significant role in one’s psychological state and one’s spiritual life.  It occurs to me that some more background information might be appropriate at this point.

As an Orthodox spiritual father confessor, it is my task to assist each of my spiritual children in examining the inner world of their thoughts, in order to get to the root of the behaviors, emotional reactions, and motivations that tend to define their lives.  The ancient fathers tell us that it is in the thoughts that our primary spiritual battle is fought.  And in this, they are simply being true to scripture: “the heart is deep” (Psalm 64) and “for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22).

Yet today, this essentially Biblical teaching is not emphasized in every corner of Christendom at all times.  Although Saint John Cassian, known in the East as Saint John the Roman, wrote extensively and profoundly about this teaching, his writings in Latin became a minority voice in an increasingly savage world where the outward law and order of Roman society became a mythic ideal, seemingly more practical and accessible than the elusive inner world of the thoughts. This, in part, explains why the quality of the thoughts is not emphasized in most of the Roman Church. The Roman Catholic experience of confession is not so far removed from the mindset operative in a court of law where guilt or innocence is to be established, so that justice might prevail.  In this spiritual courtroom, the particular context, circumstances, and behavior are considered important.  Thoughts, unless they lead to some action, are considered neutral and have no real ultimate impact on the final outcome. From this perspective, the benevolent priest is required to act as a judge and must weigh the context, circumstances and mitigating factors surrounding a particular act confessed.  These factors help determine the gravity of the sin involved or if a sin was committed at all.  In this setting, one must know such a behavior is sinful, possess the requisite freedom to act, and finally, commit the act in question. A strange paradox results: the thoughts are not emphasized, but the entire atmosphere surrounding confession and even the nature of confession is as logical, rational and well-ordered as a legal codex.

In the more philosophically minded East (with philosophy understood as a genuine love of wisdom, rather than a love of concepts) and in the birthplace of, not law, but medical ethics, confession is radically different. This is true because the ancient fathers recognized that the Church is not a courtroom to uphold justice and moral behavior, but a hospital to heal the sick and broken.  In the mystery of confession, Christ is invisibly present as the chief Physician Who binds, heals, and forgives sins as He did in the countryside of Palestine two thousand years ago. The priest, like the Apostles with Christ, acts as witness, but also as an instrument, loaning Christ not only his mouth to speak, but most importantly his heart to be illumined, so that he might provide the necessary healing remedies. What is essential is not the legalistic distinction between right and wrong, but the ontological distinction between health and sickness in the broader context of the process through which the believer is purified of the passions, illumined by the Holy Spirit, and deified in Christ.  In this process, the grace of God is all-important. And in the presence of the uncreated Grace of God, we are beyond the rules and laws of this created world, but in a noetic realm that bears the stamp of divine goodness, compassion, holiness, and love. In this context, the mode of operation is not primarily rational and intellectual, but noetic. This is also why Orthodox Christians ask pardon for their sins, both voluntary and involuntary—something that makes absolutely no sense from the more legalistic Roman perspective.  In the setting of Orthodox confession, however, spiritual apprehension trumps intellectual comprehension.  In fact, the context or circumstances surrounding sin are not only inconsequential, but are even considered to be excuses and an obfuscation of the real issue: one’s heartfelt repentance.  Perhaps an analogy can illumine this point.  Suppose, you are in a very serious car accident and as a result you’ve broken your legs.  The Western legal procedure would examine the circumstances surrounding the accident with such questions as who’s at fault?  Was a law broken? The Eastern therapeutic approach would focus on the two broken legs and doing what is necessary for the legs to be healed and for future breaks to be avoided.  Now, if the proper mode of operation is a legal system, the Roman approach is appropriate.  However, if the mode of operation is therapeutic, the Orthodox approach would be the sound one.

So, how do we resolve this dilemma and determine which view of the Church is the correct one?  The Orthodox teaching concerning the Holy Mystery of Confession is derived from the ancient fathers who in turn had experienced the Uncreated Light.  In the Orthodox tradition, these “friends of God” are the only true theologians for they witnessed this Light and reached a level of theosis.  For the Orthodox, a theologian is not someone who receives advanced degrees in theology but one who has reached a great state of grace and boldness before the Lord, like the Prophets, Apostles, and Saints. And what do such theologians say?

Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Do not despair because of stumblings. I do not mean that you should not feel contrition for them, but that you should not think them incurable. For it is more expedient to be bruised than dead. There is, indeed, a Healer for the man who has stumbled even He Who on the Cross asked that mercy be shown to His crucifiers, He who pardoned His murderers while He hung on the Cross. “All manner of sin,” He said, “and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men,” that is through repentance…Christ came in behalf of sinners to heal the broken of heart and to bandage their wounds. “The Spirit of the Lord,” He says, “is upon Me to preach good tidings unto the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim forgiveness to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind,” and to strengthen the bruised by forgiveness…Our frail nature would not be strong enough if God’s justice were to rise up to take vengeance. Therefore He employs mercy, since at all times we are held by debt.”  This is the empirical theology of the East, disinterested in speculation for speculation’s sake, based entirely on the experience of God’s love by the deified, and directed solely to the healing of the human soul.

The Roman tradition, on the other hand, maintains that one’s intellect can grasp the very essence of God.  Therefore, their theology is based upon intellectual, rational pursuits through logistical formulations.  One need only read certain passages in Blessed Augustine, Anselm or Thomas Aquinas to appreciate this method.  Historically, the Roman tradition concerning the legal view of confession, sin, and redemption comes from Blessed Augustine whose thought was given fuller expression by Anselm and Aquinas.  For these thinkers, salvation is a matter of propitiation.  Anselm postulated that God’s justice was offended by the sin of Adam and Eve.  Therefore, an angry God must be vindicated.  Since man committed the offense, man must make amends in order to satisfy the requirements of divine justice.  Yet, the offense was so great, in light of the fact that the one offended was God, it would take God Himself to restore a sense of justice.   This is how Anselm concluded the God-man was necessary in his work Cur Deus Homo?

These are two radically different understandings of ecclesiology, sin, and the role of the Church.  The way the thoughts, both good and bad, influence human life in an ultimate sense can be properly understood only within the therapeutic framework of the Orthodox East.  It is an understanding found in Holy Scripture, handed down to us by the ancient fathers, and lived in the mystery of confession and the mystery of the Church as the unique hospital for souls, readying the faithful for the full and flourishing health of paradise.

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