Regular readers know the high esteem in which we hold Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman, and how much inspiration we’ve drawn from his writing, especially over the past couple of years. If it’s true that God often speaks to us through unexpected vessels and out of our blindspots, then he represents something of that for me. Which isn’t to suggest that his perspective is always a sympathetic one, merely that when it isn’t, I find myself feeling curious rather than threatened.

Usually I reserve a weekender spot for one of Fr. Freeman’s reflections, but his recent riff on “Existential Despair and Moral Futility” warrants an entry all its own, as he addressed head-on two of the most common reservations I hear about the theology we espouse on this site, namely that we wallow in “existential despair” and preach a gospel of “moral futility.” Some have termed this “Christian nihilism,” a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, but the basic thrust is: you’re too dark. Where’s the light?

I tend not to put much stock in defending charges like that (online at least) — you usually just end up galvanizing one tribe and antagonizing another rather than convincing anyone of anything, thereby amplifying genuine darkness — but Freeman was able to do so with enviable humility and clarity, drawing out the underlying hopefulness that critics so often miss:

Our life is fragile and exists only as a precious gift. We have no existence in-and-of-ourselves and are thus utterly and completely contingent beings. This rather obvious conclusion has been frequently reinforced over the course of my life and ministry. I have buried hundreds of people. Death is a fact of life. However, our culture maintains a pretense and delusion of self-existence, even imagining that we somehow invent ourselves. It is a good marketing strategy as we sell mounds of trash for people to use in their efforts of self-definition.

I do not despair of life and existence itself, except in the sense that it is anything other than pure gift. As such, to stand at the edge of the abyss of non-existence seems to me to be among the sanest efforts ever undertaken. We cannot possibly understand who and what we are until we also consider the fact of our death…

Those who struggle to believe that there might be such a thing as life after death have failed to ponder just how absurdly improbable life before death truly is. Our existence shouts the reality of a Giver of Life — all life. Our non-existence proclaims the emptiness of any claims to the contrary. I hope in God. In Him, there is no despair. But only in Him.

He then moves on to the second accusation, probably the more highly charged one in Christian circles, the idea that “we make very little progress of the moral sort in our lives.” This assertion, which falls under the category “moral futility” or in our case #lowanthropology, can (understandably) be heard as a denial of human growth, and therefore a refusal of hope, which seems on the surface to be antithetical to belief in a living God. As Freeman tries to make clear, it is in fact the exact opposite:

The track of salvation is not, by and large, one of moral improvement… The moral life, if rightly understood, cannot be measured by outward actions. The Pharisees in the New Testament were morally pure, in an outward sense, but, inwardly, were “full of dead men’s bones.” When morality is measured by dead bones, it is still nothing more than death. However, the path that marks the authentic Christian life should be nothing less than “new life,” a “new creation.” This is a work of grace that is the result of Christ “working within us to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)…

The Elder Sophrony once described this by saying, “The way up is the way down.” The spiritual life is a paradox. The excellence of the Pharisees was met with condemnation from Christ: they could not see their own emptiness. The emptiness of the weak and “sinful” was met with mercy and healing. Their acknowledged weakness made the working of the power of God effective in their lives. What passes for a “moral life” in our culture, is little more than the successful internalization of middle-class behavior. “I’m doing ok,” we think. It is quite common for those who are “doing ok,” to feel generally secure and superior to those who fail to do so…

Just as we cannot make ourselves to live, neither do we make ourselves better persons. An improved corpse is still a corpse. Our repentance is born out of the revelation of our emptiness and the futility of life apart from God. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “Man is mud that has been commanded to become a god.” It is the impossibility of that task that allows the heart to cry, “Have mercy on me!”

Of course, existential despair and moral futility are not my self-description. They are terms chosen by a detractor. I believe that mud not only can become a god, but that it has – many times. This is the work of God who hears our cries and works within us, doing what He alone can do, just as He alone gives us the life we live and breathe at every moment. It is not despair because every moment of our present gifted existence shouts and proclaims the goodness of God, the author of being. It is not futility because with God, all things are possible.

Alcoholics Anonymous refers to this as the difference between God-confidence and Self-confidence, recognizing that, when it comes to spiritual matters, the language of improvement is the language of measurement is the language of control is the language of faithlessness.

So the way up truly is the way down. The Christian life is not a journey into personal (or collective) betterment in which our need for God diminishes with each step forward, but an honesty-driven descent into the blessed dependence and I-can’t-You-can trust in God that some call faith. This is also known as the journey out of entitlement into gratitude, and perhaps it’s less like a movement than a fluttering (and often rude) awakening to the realization that we stand not at the bottom of a staircase but the edge of an abyss, hands open to receive, again and again, the only Gift worth getting.

No, not a new Pulp record, but an old one: