Last year it was Susan Smith. This year it was two teenagers who made the country reel with disbelieving horror at the news that they had thrown their newborn baby into a dumpster. The action itself was shocking, but what was perhaps even more disturbing was the fact that none of the usual justifications -- poverty, an abused childhood, mental instability -- could be found. Here were two popular college freshmen from affluent families. Where was their conscience? How could they have done such a thing?
Today's media carries a consistent menu of cases which, if less dramatic, beg the same questions. They have prompted a sober evaluation of our moral condition, which is the subject of a recent book by Robert Bork, descriptively titled, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Critics charge that it is bad humored and pessimistic, but the book is a best-seller, indicating that his assessment is finding a broad consensus.
What has caused this moral degeneration? In an incisive essay, "Can
We Be Good Without God?" (Atlantic Monthly, December 1989), author Glenn
Tinder suggests that some insight can be gained by examining the triumvirate of
Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, whose collective effort to scour the human
consciousness of any thought of God has contributed significantly to our present
moral crisis. The influence of this triumvirate has been even more powerful and
more transparent in Russia, whose moral degeneracy has advanced beyond our own.
In examining this tragedy, Solzhenitsyn writes:
The character of the Russian people
.. was continuously oppressed, darkened, mangled during the entire Soviet
period. Openness, straightforwardness, a natural ease, a heightened simplicity,
an easy disposition, a trusting resignation to fate. patience, endurance, lack
of aspiration to axternal success, a readiness for self-reproach, for
repentance, humility in heroic deeds, compassion and magnanimity -- all these
began to leave and seep out of our soul. The Bolsheviks harassed, exhausted and
charred our character -- above all, they scorched out compassion, the
willingness to help others, the feeling of brotherhood; they made us more
dynamic in only the bad and cruel. (The Russian Question, 1995)
But while Nietzsche, Marx and Freud certainly accelerated
the moral decline of Western civilization, they did not generate it. Our present
crisis is, rather, the culmination of a process which began in the Garden of
created in the image of God, was endowed with free will, because he was created
to reciprocate God's love, and love must spring from a free will; it cannot be
coerced. Now, man's love for God is principally expressed through obedience, and
God gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to exercise this obedience when He forbade
them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Had they obeyed, they would have grown in
virtue unto full perfection. Instead, they succumbed, through pride, to the
temptation of the Evil One, and ate the forbidden fruit. So dire were the
consequences, that for the rest of their lives (and, as we know, they lived for
hundreds of years) they mourned their disobedience: they were expelled from
Paradise, they were made subject to the discomforts of cold and heat, hunger and
thirst; Adam had to toil in the sweat of his brow, and Eve had to endure the
pains of child bearing; and, what was most lamentable, they no longer had direct
communion with God. And these consequences were passed on to succeeding
generations, wherein the propensity for sin gradually increased until, with the
exception of Noah, the people had strayed so far from the path of life, that God
caused a flood to consume them. But even the generations that sprang from the
righteous seed of Noah, these, too, vexed God by their disobedience. As a
result, a veil fell over their eyes; their understanding was darkened, even as
we today see through a glass darkly. Finally, ".. the soul, having fallen
away from the Commandments into disobedience, was delivered, as Saint Gregory [Nazianzen]
says, to love of pleasure and to the independence which fosters error"
(Abba Dorotheos). Is this not what we see today?
For a child, the consequences of disobedience are usually very evident (assuming the parents are watchful and concerned), and therefore serve as an effective deterrent: a spanking, withholding of allowance, being sent to one's room, extra household chores... As adults, however, the punishment we receive for disobedience is less immediate, more abstract. In the words of Abba Dorotheos, "Disobedience begets perdition," or, as Saint Paul expresses it, The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). As we mature, we are expected to develop self-control, to know right from wrong and to act according to the dictates of our conscience, which is the law of God in our hearts. Unfortunately, the current moral climate does not support such efforts. Instead of relieving our conscience in the Mystery of Repentance, we muffle our sin with excuses and self-justification, or we conceal it behind such euphemisms as "misconduct" and "inappropriate behavior." We become artful in reinterpreting God's laws to accommodate our pleasure-seeking behavior, or we contend that certain laws do not apply to us. And so we excuse our disobedience
towards God, towards the Church, our parents, our spiritual father -- without acknowledging the great damage this causes to our souls. Consistent disobedience, without true repentance, blunts and eventually warps the conscience, resulting in moral decay, and eternal death.
According to the Holy Fathers, the remedy for the soul which has been injured in this way is, very simply, obedience. "Just as the result of disobedience is sin, so the result of obedience is virtue. And just as disobedience leads to breaking the commandments and to separation from Him, who gave them, so obedience leads to keeping the commandments and to union with Him Who gave them" (St Maximos); and "Obedience is the resurrection of the dead" (St Thalassios).
Solzhenitsyn is calling for the moral regeneration of Russia. The current picture is gloomy, but he sees a glimmer of hope in those pockets of spiritually healthy young people that have by God's grace escaped the ravages of that country's Marxist-atheist ideology. Our own country is in a similar state of moral crisis. If we wish to be of any benefit (and we should), we must begin by restoring our own soul to spiritual health. Let us beware of the dangers of disobedience and heed the voice of our conscience that we may enjoy eternal life in the love of God.
Subscribe (and order back issues) to
Order Books from Orthodox America
If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society