From an interview with Fr Thomas Hopko.
You can be a presence of forgiveness and mercy, but you can also be a presence of the opposite. In order to be a presence of mercy, you must admit tragedy; you can’t just explain it away in terms of genetics, or economics.
Could you explain what you mean by evil?
In Orthodox theology, we speak about evil, or sin, as either voluntary or involuntary — conscious or unconscious. We would not define sin as the cold-blooded, freely sovereign and intellectual act whereby I perpetrate some evil — destroy someone’s life, for example. It’s much more complicated. One of the points of the Adam story is that we are not born in Paradise. It is anything but Paradise. A child of a hysterical, drug-addicted parent is going to be born drug addicted as well. There is a tendency toward “evil” in us, biologically, psychologically, genetically. Father Alexander Schmemann used to say that the spiritual life consists in how you deal with what you have been dealt. We’ve all been dealt something. Our theological claim is that where you have a good measure of faith, and love, and forgiveness, you can restore human nature. You can pass on a more healthy, integrated, peaceful, joyful humanity to your progeny. You can be a presence of forgiveness and mercy, but you can also be a presence of the opposite. In order to be a presence of mercy, you must admit tragedy; you can’t just explain it away in terms of genetics, or economics.
There is a freedom: what you do with what you have. It’s not a sovereign freedom as though I were just emerging as a pristine pure angel. No. But the point is if you could see the causes and influences, you would come to the conclusion that there is a great deal of victimization, but at the same time, there are opportunities for people to break the chain of evil, to forgive and not to allow it to go on. Sartre says you make a choice every second. A choice about what? A choice about what you are going to do about where you are. At the very heart of that choice is always going to be an act of forgiveness.
In The Pillar of Fire, Karl Stern writes that what the modern person cannot accept is forgiveness and grace. We would rather take our punishment, as it were. God says, “No, I forgive you whether you like it or not.” That’s the only fire of hell — this loving forgiveness of God. That’s why Jesus says there is only one unforgivable sin — the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And what is that? It is the unwillingness to be forgiven and to forgive. The proud cannot accept grace.
Much is being written about the need to forgive oneself. Does that make sense in Christian terms?
Of course. Forgiving oneself means accepting forgiveness from God — and from other people. Evagrios of Pontus, a fourth-century writer, said that there are in us many selves, really, but at base there are two: the real self, which is the Christ-self, and a legion of other selves, which are the Adamic selves. What happens when we hear the word of grace is that we are split down the middle. We don’t want grace because of the pain we have to face, the fears and so on. But one of the things that happens — one of the lies of the Devil, so to speak — is the conviction that we are not worth it. It isn’t for us. We are too bad, worthless. Then there comes a point, as Evagrios said, when the Christ-self needs to be convinced that “yes, I exist, and I am acceptable,” and so to have pity and mercy on those other selves.
Do you see a difference between evil or sinful acts and a larger attitude that chooses darkness rather than light? Evil is not outside of us, isn’t that so?
For many people evil resides in someone else. But I think your distinction is very good, because our understanding of the Christian view is that we will sin until we die. Even baptism is for the forgiveness of sins “all the days of our life.” Baptism puts us in the context of forgiveness and mercy, which then allows what is called the invisible warfare, the unseen struggle, to go on. You are going to be sinful — that’s why Jesus says “seventy-times-seven.” It is inherent in the human life. Sin is to be expected, but the loving of the darkness is not.
In the Christian view, we are reconciled, we are forgiven. Paul Tillich, in a sermon on the parable of the sinful woman and the Pharisee, points out that repentance comes after being forgiven. It is not a payment in order to be forgiven.
It’s both. However, it’s important from our perspective what the woman in the parable then does. She does not live happily ever after but enters into a life of tremendous struggle.
Chrysostom says you are baptized in order to struggle. Take Mary of Egypt, the classic example of the forgiven harlot: she went into the desert and wept the rest of her life, not to win God by her tears, or to earn forgiveness; not to make reparation; but out of the love of God for being liberated and for the sense of what sin really is and the desire not to fall into it again. One problem in both the liberal and the fundamentalist forms of Christianity is the absence of an ongoing ascetic dimension. If you don’t have to pay for your sins because Jesus has, this can open the door to a life of profligacy. The more liberal line is: this is the way I am; this is the way God made me. God loves me, God forgives me, and so there’s nothing for me to do but carry on with my life.
What do you mean by the ascetic dimension?
It is making nothing an end in itself except God, that is, ordering the natural passions to their proper end, which is God himself, and love itself. The passions are part of our nature but must be directed in the service of love, love meaning the good of the other, the affirmation of the other. This nature must affirm the truth, the reality of things the way they are. The metaphysical base is a communion of love and being and truth for which we have been created. To say “yes” to that is the deified life. But to say “yes” to that, in the fallen world, means that you must, as Saint Paul says, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. You must kill the ego. The “old Adam” has to die, and he always dies kicking and screaming. The multiplicity of these false selves must be exposed, and that is not easy. The evil of other people has to be named and forgiven, which is also not easy.
In the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, you find that the moment of grace is usually a violent moment. To see things clearly, to realize, as O’Connor says, that “even the virtues will be burnt up,” very often requires an incredibly violent act. We often need to be shaken into that realization. It seems to me that that’s the meaning in the scriptures of the trials and sufferings and afflictions and so on — to have people realize what and who they are, really. That’s the ascetic dimension, because the minute a person says, “I will work to show mercy,” every devil in hell will work to try to stop him.