Word Magazine December 1974 Page 9-11


By John Boojamra

The discussion of Christian morality has been forcibly raised in recent years by the many public national moral crises in American life. Both Watergate and Vietnam, apart from their political significance, have been debated vigorously on a moral level, as have the actions of men such as William Calley and Daniel Elsberg. Added to these is a more direct attack on what has been traditional Christian morals standard with regard to sex, marriage, and the value of human life. In a sense we can welcome these challenges as an occasion to more seriously consider Christian life and values in the context of a society which no longer affords the external support of social pressure. We must ask not only what is morality? What is moral? Or what are the sources of Christian morality? But rather how do we as Orthodox parents, priests, and teachers shape the discerning Christian person? That is, the person who acts and behaves in a manner, not only in keeping with a particular set of laws or rules, but who acts in keeping with the pattern of the Christian life, a life lived towards God and other men. We shall see that sin defined as the breaking of a law is quite secondary to this understanding. Sin or immorality is the breaking of a relationship; first, the relationship with God, and second, though inseparable from the first, the breaking of the relationship with men.

Christian morality has its source in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ and is directly related to who He is. Christian morality may in certain respects reach the same conclusions as that of non-Christians, but the source motivation, and strength for its fulfillment remain the person of Jesus Christ and the authority of His teaching. Christ tells us not just to love one another, but to love as “I have loved you.” (John 13:34.)

It is important for both parents and educators to move from the idea of Christian morality to the actual process of building this Christian life and Christian values in their children. We must recognize the fact that morality is a thing which cannot be taught in any formal sense for sure, we can teach moral rules and precepts, but not a way to look at life or a way of life. Morality like personality development is a process, and a very complicated one at that, of growth and development which takes place throughout childhood and even into maturity.

In teaching Christian morality we must take into account three factors which can be summarized as — 1) the psychological nature of the child, 2) the moral values of the New Testament, and 3) the world in which the child is growing up. The child is both a child of God and a child of the world and the two must be taken seriously.

We must have some idea of what the child is as a psychological being — this is the raw stuff we have to work with. Before we can discuss this Orthodox personality we must have an idea of what the natural limitations of the child are at each successive stage of his development. What kind of reasoning characterizes each stage? At what age level does a certain behavior manifest itself? These questions are of course important for any parent or priest in attempting to help a child grow in a particular direction. We cannot deal here with a stage approach to child development, but a brief example will clarify what I mean by the importance of this understanding.

At the earliest stages the basic motivation of the child to learn, to love, to play, to act in any way must come from within him. The goal in dealing with this age must then be to encourage the natural motivational tendencies of the child. All of us carry over much of our attitudes and behavior and values from our childhood upbringing and it seems to be that, what I like to call, the “what’s in it for me approach” must somehow be related to that famous and almost universal “goldstar” syndrome. Kids are taught to do things for external rewards, in this case, the ever-present “gold-star.” If you have seen the children’s movie ‘‘Charlotte’s Web,” you’ll recall that the rat Templeton responded to each of Charlotte’s requests for his assistance with “What’s in it for me?” As fundamental to any Christian moral and personal development we must try to encourage an internal motivational system, not dependent on external rewards, which have no fundamental relationship to the action being performed.

To get some idea as to how to do this, the parent or the teacher must allow himself to enjoy what the child enjoys. The reward must be in the activity itself or directly related to the activity. To paint for a gold star will destroy creativity. The reward being separate from the activity can often make the activity itself an intolerable burden, as so often happens to many adults whose work bears no relationship to what they enjoy doing; the salary has no immediate relationship to the nature of the work itself. Seeing this in relationship to the Kingdom of God we must be careful to avoid presenting heaven as a reward for doing good or being good. Our good actions spring already from our life in God, from our prior orientation to Him. The same is true when God is made the great rewarder or punisher — he becomes the horrible ogre who can often never be satisfied in his demands. Consider how the fear of punishment might hinder the growth of a healthy Christian moral life in the child and the adult and why so many people identify Christianity with discipline or fear of punishment.

How do morals grow? The encounter between parents and children is the main area. Even though it is true that many other factors, especially friends, play a role in this, the family is yet the most important. The extent to which the child grows in moral judgment depends upon the manner in which his parents deal with him. For instance, if the parent responds to the disobedient child with the withdrawal of love then the child will grow to use love as a weapon, withholding love from people who disappoint him. The withdrawal of love results in the child’s uncertainty of his own worth. He can only find love and hence security by fulfilling a “good boy” role. This “law and order” approach is not very mature, but is terribly secure. On the other hand, if the parents try to explain to the child the consequences of the action, which the child has not yet experienced, he will know what to expect if he behaves in a certain way. The consequences may be inevitable or may be a designated withdrawal of a privilege — “I will not read you a story tonight,” etc. Moreover, the parent can attempt to explain the child’s feelings to him and bring them out in the open. “Bad” or angry feelings do not go away by being ignored or having parents tell us we should be ashamed of such thoughts. They must be faced and recognized as a real force in human life. Making the child feel guilty about his feelings will not put an end to them and will make him distrust himself. Before evil can be dealt with, it must be discerned either within ourselves or in the world. As he grows older he will be able to sort out for himself the consequences of his actions and how to deal with negative feelings.

From a purely human and healthy psychological point of view the child should grow to be an adult who can trust his feelings, who is innerly motivated, who is not paralyzed by the fear of losing someone’s love or the need to please others. This is the basis for an open personality which is able to freely approach God and men in love and receive love.

The development of morality is related to and part of the development of personality. Here “models” plays a major role. The relationship of young people and children in religious and moral development is tied to this notion on several levels. One of the most important types of learning which takes place in such a relationship is what is called “identification.” This has long been considered a major factor in personality development, but no real research has been done into the effect of this on faith life. While learning rules and principles of behavior, a child also acquires a set of deep-seated motives or attitudes which comes to characterize his approach to life. These motives or basic attitudes appear to be learned mainly through relations with “significant others,” people who have importance in a child’s life and to whom he feels a strong emotional attachment. We need not go into this process here. I would merely like to affirm that modeling is “copying” of another person. It is not just imitation of another, it is an identification through emotional involvement. Imitation is copying a specific action. Identification is the normal process of acquiring appropriate social roles in childhood. Faith in God is a mystery and a gift of grace, but one of the ways in which this gift can be mediated is through identification and inter­personal relationships.

In our teaching we aim to use the saints as models. The notion of the “community of the saints” of which the Church teaches we are all part is the affirmation that we already share the life of Christ with His saints. They are the models, and above all these men the God-man, Jesus Christ, is the model par excellence. This is both the mystery and the wonder of the Incarnation which we must make our own and real to the children.

If the Church is truly concerned with nurture or the growth of a person’s life, then the theory of modeling and identification becomes fundamental in the selection and training of priests, and teachers and the education of Christian parents for family life. What kind of person becomes essential, even allowing as the Church has and must for the graceful action of God in the lives of men? The parent is then the indirect model for the growth of the child’s personality, but the parent is also directly responsible through word and action for the development of or nurture of more specifically Christian attitudes. Forgiveness is one of these. No one can doubt that this is absolutely fundamental to the understanding of Christian faith. The sacraments of Communion and Confession, God’s coming to us with forgiveness is the opening of new life to us and the basis for all authentic life. Asking forgiveness becomes an extremely telling action. The child needs to feel forgiveness, and that is more easily communicated by acts than by words. He often needs help in accepting forgiveness so as not to be left with the punishing act. He must be helped back into the social situation from which his action or deviant behavior had excluded him. This is a direct analogy of God’s loving care and reacceptance. Here parental understanding of the sacrament of penance or confession is an excellent guide. The child’s ability to understand the sacrament will be in direct proportion to the experience of forgiveness and deliverance from his parents.

Let us now consider more specifically those elements which consti­tute the broad outline of a Christian morality. I do not want to discuss right and wrong in regard to specific issues. I must point out that Christianity is not a religion of law or morality; it is a religion of life and life in all its fullness gained through the God-man Jesus Christ. Many people like to interpret religion in terms of the value it has for society. For instance, many see the value of Christianity in that it teaches people to lead good lives, and hence serves a valuable social function. This is the farthest thing from the purpose of Christianity. If it is part of Christianity, it is an outcome of the main thrust which is the purpose of this discussion. The goal of faith and of Christian education is to help the new Creation, the new humanity to grow; our Lord offered to make us “new men” and this is the key to any understanding of Christian morality. Orthodox anthropology has been patterned on this growth towards the perfect man, Jesus Christ. The new humanity is the mystery of the Incarnation — a life lived full, a life of love towards God and towards other men (Matt. 22:34-40). This is the fundamental law in the scripture as our Lord phrases it.

The source of the characteristics of this new man are in the Scripture. Christian morality is defined in Scripture as righteousness. And righteousness though not identical to, cannot be separated from spirituality. We can see this in the Sermon on the Mount where our Lord makes an identity between Himself and others in needs and outlines with “Blessed” the characteristics of the new humanity (Matt. 5:3-12). These are not a series of moral propositions, but a description or a statement of who and what the “good” man or the God-directed man is. Indeed, in our Lord’s words our spiritual life is not merely defined in relation to God His father, but in relation to our neighbor. Hence the point of the Good Samaritan. So then the elements of the Orthodox personality have their source in the Scripture, and are defined in reference to the life in the world. No one is righteous in a vacuum. Righteousness is never an abstraction; it is righteousness in the social context. Let us think again of the Beatitudes and Matt. 25:31-46.

Christian spirituality is the pursuit of a life with God, Christian righteousness is tied to this and it is a pursuit of a life towards our neighbors. This new humanity which our Lord came to offer is then a life, an open life, in relation to ourselves, to other men, and then to God. Hate is a sin. We all agree. But there is no law against hate. But, in fact, it violates the fundamental nature of Christianity. It is disruptive of the individual, the social community, and of our life with God.

We must now consider a third point. Man, by God’s design, is essentially a social being and there is an interplay between society and the individual. In the world in which the child grows things change and values change and structures change. We can all think of elements of modesty which are purely cultural and not really questions of right and wrong. These elements change from age to age and culture to culture. The length of a skirt, for instance. I am sure we can name others. On the other hand, we often face a world, a society of a social system which violates the very fundamentals of the Christian faith. If we are to take Christian education seriously we must see that society influences the way children think and the values children unconsciously absorb. Hence we must look not only to changing or shaping the children but to changing and shaping the society in which they live. The social world then is seen to have spiritual and moral analogies which we as Chris­tian parents and teachers must be aware of. Think of the subtle influence of materialism, consumerism, racism, and unrestrained competition on our children and their ideas of other people and the value of other people. I am saying that we as Orthodox people must fight those things that are evil in the world and that we must attempt to create a society which is more congenial to the growth of Christian personalities.


Christian Education is more than the depositing of doctrines and facts in the children as if they were pots or jars. It is a two-fold effort to 1) communicate and see to the cognitive development of our people and children as well as 2) their Christian growth and nurture — helping them grow strong in a new way of life, liberated from the values of the world to build a new life with God and with other men.

I have tried to develop this theme around three areas: the child, the Scripture, and the world. The nature of man is determined by his relationship with God and his relationship with his world. Neither of these is a static, a rulebook relationship. The world is not all black or white and the relationship with God is as varied as the people who pursue it. There are no easy answers; there are no rulebook ways to holiness. Most important, we must teach our children to ask critical questions about their lives and about their world. To do this they must first have the necessary foundation in the Christian family and the Church.