Word Magazine May 1989 Page 10-11


By Dr John Boojamra

Have great care of your children. We live at a time when much freedom is given to expression of thought, but little care is taken that the thought be founded on truth. Teach them to love the truth. Macarius, Russian Letters of Direction

The theme of the quote given above could easily have been written today, but, in fact, it was written in the nineteenth century by a Russian monk, Macarius of Optino; it is perhaps one of the best and simplest statements relating to Orthodox ethical and moral education. It says simply that what is “right” and what is “wrong,” and its presentation to youth, ultimately depend upon what God is and what His revelation indicates about us humans. It should be kept in mind by both parent and teacher that Christian morality is not relative. It is absolute, precisely because it is tied to the revelation of the Divine Will. Our moral life is an expression of our faith; this affects profoundly our approach to morality and moral education.

Our main problem in teaching ethics is to remain faithful to this New Testament approach, on the one hand, and face the ambiguity of life in a world fallen away from God. The New Testament, unlike the Old, considers motives more than actions. While the Old Testament morality is mainly juridical, the Gospels consider the action as only a symptom of the real sin or virtue which is found in motives, intentions, and in the spiritual condition of the soul. In this sense, moral action is not absolute, but quite relative.

The nature of the child and the ideals of Christian education can be best understood from the account of Christ’s childhood given in the Gospel of Luke.

“And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on Him,” (Luke 2:40). From this description of our Lord’s early development we can draw certain principles to guide the teacher in his psychological approach to the child. The goals at which we must aim are the development of the child’s abilities to think reflectively, and to make a moral decision. Mere rote memorization does not help. Good teaching must stimulate the child’s ability to make a moral judgment on the basis of a proper perspective of reality and Christian moral principles.

“Wisdom” means basically developing the child’s ability to transfer theological and moral precepts from class to his own life. For instance, through the study of the parables and their application to “every day life”, the child will learn to relate them, on their own, to new problems. Class discussion is an ideal method for this. The teacher is merely to guide, allowing the class to work through the problem itself. Unless the students come to their own conclusions, the principles will remain meaningless and abstract. They truly become their own only when they use them. Here Sidney Simon’s Value Clarification Techniques are extremely valuable skills for the church school teacher.

“And he went down with them. . . and was subject to them. . .” (Luke 2:51). This passage concerns the Christian virtue of obedience. Theologically, obedience finds its moral necessity in the Holy Trinity — the Son is obedient to the Father. That the child learns obedience is important for his life as a citizen of heaven and as a citizen of an earthly kingdom. Christian obedience implies legal and social obedience within the bounds of his commitment to Christ. Obedience to a human authority is relative, whereas obedience to Christ is absolute. Obedience for the Christian must be a conscious exercise of responsibility and free will in relationship to other people.

Christian training in obedience is a training in the capacity of choice, or moral judgment: you either obey one authority (your parents, your teacher, a rule of conduct, your conscience, a church discipline) or another authority (your desire, emotions, appetite, social standards, etc.) (Lectures in Orthodox Religious Education, S. Koulomzin).

The goal of teaching obedience is not submission, but responsible action, which may imply disobedience where authority is in opposition to the Gospel. The person is therefore required to make a moral choice. Thus, we can see the necessity, while living in a secular world, to give the child the ability to reason reflectively. “Without the use of reason. . . moral development becomes fixated at the immature level of conformity to group mores or of obedience to a rigid, irrational conscience,” (How Moral Life is Formed, by R.J. Havighurst). This is precisely a totalitarian morality — immature, unreasoning, and finally inhuman. No Christian could accept this kind of morality primarily because it is not free and is determined by an authority outside of rather than the person’s judgment and discernment.

“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men,” (Luke 2:52). To help the child to attain a life in favor with God is the goal of our moral training. This relationship is of ultimate importance. It includes love, trust, and humility as foundational personality characteristics which I refer to as pre-theological virtues.

Living a life “in favor with God” implies that the child has developed a healthy relationship of love with the people with whom he has contact. We cannot separate love of God from the love of men. It is in interpersonal relations that the child’s Christian faith must be externalized. Moral behavior is nearly always social behavior, involving a response to other people in various situations.

There are thus three aspects of morality. Harmony with God, harmony with men and harmony with self. It is generally on the first and third aspects that Christian morality differs from the morality of a secular society.

Since it is a fundamental Orthodox precept that morality rests on God, it is necessary for the teacher of ethics to present the faith intelligently. This is foundation for the development within the child of a deep belief in, and awe and worship of, God. The teacher must inculcate in the child the feeling of something that is beyond his own person, an authority, if you will.

Morality must be presented to the pupil as a “wholeness of life.” The idea (and its internalization) is important for the child, both religiously and psychologically. The “whole” personality is the healthy one. What this means in Christian terms is simply that the Christian, in leading a “whole” life, is basically consistent in his actions and beliefs. Within this concept of “wholeness” can be included specific problems involving moral questions, such as sex, race relations, and political issues. The “whole” Christian personality would look at all these problems in the same light, applying the same theological principles to their solution. To summarize, it is the teacher’s job to see that the child assimilates the faith in a thoughtful manner. For this purpose there are definite and specific materials which can be employed for the presentation of moral principles.

The most important of these source materials for moral life is the Divine Liturgy. Its importance rests on the fact that it possesses a reality of grace which by faith we affirm is readily available to support the child’s spiritual development. According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the Church considers the Liturgy to be the first religious school. “If Orthodoxy is to be experienced and understood as life in Christ, it is in the Church and not elsewhere that this formula has its real ‘term of reference’?”

Another important aspect of the liturgy which is useful in moral development is that of the visible gathering of the community. Of course, the Christian community is only one of the influences on the child’s moral life. The community, however, as a moral force is recognized to have great influence. If the child is a member of the community, then he must realize that when he sins, he in some way hurts the entire congregation of Christians. Moreover, the goal of the church school must be to make the child aware of his place and responsibility within that community. Any child who belongs to a group will tend to take on the characteristics of that group and fulfill its moral requirements. A boy in the Boy Scouts, for example, will play the role of a Scout. If the child is an active member of a church, he will play the role of the church member. This is what C.S. Lewis would call “good pretense” which will hopefully develop into “good reality?’ The Christian community owes the child congruency in its own behavior.

The transforming power of prayer and the Liturgy can develop moral conscience. The prayer life of the Church must be made known to the child. The transforming reality of prayer can apply to all situations, especially if the child believes that God wants him to change and be “good?” Hate, envy, pride, etc. can all be fought and overcome with prayer.

The Sacraments must be explained to and experienced by the child. All of the Sacraments are in some way moral aids by means of which God’s grace restores order in the human personality. Particularly important in this sense is the act of repentance, and the Sacrament of Penance, which involves a recognition that something is wrong and has to be changed.

In addition to the liturgical life of the Church we have the example of the saints — those who have successfully struggled in the moral Christian life. The child cannot experience the faith in abstraction. He needs concrete examples to relate to in order to help him to understand and apply moral principles. Children need real, human heroes. If they can identify with the saints through common feeling and common situation they will make an effort to imitate them. More importantly, the child must experience this sanctity not only in distant historical figures, but within his own family and his own Christian community. The study of the lives of the saints and the doctrine of the communion of the saints are important because they show the child that he is not alone, he has the whole moral support of the Church — including the saints — fighting with him. Saints are real people who suffered and accomplished their mission in real time.

The teacher must bring into any discussion of the moral life involving saints the truth that the essential nature of the moral life is tragic. The saint and the potential saint (the Christian) must necessarily fight the world in its fallen state. The qualities which the saints exhibited are generally not those recognized as virtuous by the world. Their qualities are, nonetheless, those which all Christians should emulate. Through the lives of the saints the church school has a method of reorienting the child away from the values of the world — toward those recognized qualities of the spiritual life as expressed most clearly in the Gospel.

Another important source of moral training is the Holy Scripture. The New Testament is by far more valuable than the Old, because the ethic presented in it is clearly stated and is precisely the one we desire our Orthodox children to make their own. The child can actually see the life of our Lord and His disciples through the eyes of the four evangelists. In the life of our Lord as given in the Gospels, we can ideally illustrate the ultimate love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The moral teachings of Christ are generally clear though not readily understood by the children. If they are not, the parents and teacher may make a comparison between the parables and the life of a saint or a certain incident in current events. In any story either from Scripture or the lives of the saints the theme must be obvious and relevant to the child and his own life situation.

The Christian family remains the chief transmitter and organ of formation of Orthodox morality. This is so because, from his earliest life, the child will imitate attitudes and moral beliefs found among members of the family.

As the child gets older it is the parent’s responsibility to explain to the child why something is wrong. It is dangerous for the child’s moral development simply to have arbitrary demands made on him. The child, if he knows the reason and explanation for various moral demands, is more likely to resist temptation than the child who has unreasoned demands made on him. If the child is told why a certain act is wrong and not simply that it is wrong he will be able to transfer the reason to other moral situations. The Christian individual is not the one who learns moral commandments, but the one who thinks about and evaluates and discerns.

To summarize, it is the function of the Christian parents and educators to make real to the child the living power of “good” and the destructive power of “evil”. The child, in order to live an intelligent, morally effective Christian life, must be taught basic moral principles, which will enable him to make a rational analysis and ethical decision on a specific and unique situation. The teacher must encourage the class to think reflectively on a problem and, finally, guide it to a decision on the basis of Christian examples and Christian principles. Through group discussion of current social-moral problems and the use of books such as CS. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Russian Letters of Direction and the Orthodox Christian Education Commission’s Time for Decision and Fire Upon The Earth, the process of reflective moral thinking can be encouraged.

The whole goal of Christian moral education is the transformation of the child into a “new” being. For this purpose the Church makes use of the Liturgy, the lives of the saints, the Scriptures, and the Christian family, all of which reveal the person of Jesus Christ whose life is to be shared by all Christians.

Dr. Boojamra is the Chairman of the Archdiocesan Department of Christian Education.