What should consume a Christian’s interest is not self-produced virtue or belief, but rather truth. Virtue can very easily become autonomous; the ever present danger in pursuing the virtuous life for the sake of virtue itself. Likewise private belief has the same element of self-sufficiency, is every bit as isolating in nature. Truth is different. Truth involves the total reality of life. One cannot move away from truth in one part of his life but remain moving towards truth in another part of his life. When one has a relation with truth the relation is all consuming. It is a matter of one’s “mode of existence;” i.e. their total being.
A primary example of a life divided can be seen in the lives of many Christians (not excluding myself). Some Christians focus all their energy on “believing” the gospel; attempting to have faith by mental fiat; by intellectualizing themselves into the kingdom. Others focus all their energy on “performing” the gospel in their pursuit of virtue, with little care given to their emotional and/or psychic involvement with the faith. Thus dichotomies are constantly formed within Christian circles and one will hear of them often—“It is by faith that we are saved and not by good works,” or its counterpart, “It is by good works that faith is actualized and effectual unto salvation,” etc. But neither of these ideas are true in their isolation. Truth is not divided.
Individual virtue does not in itself indicate a saving change in a person any more than private agreement to a “correct” set of theological axioms. Christianity forever guards itself against either avenue of reductionism. The faith does not consist in one’s imaginary life, but in one’s “real” life—whether the focus is mental or physical. It is not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus,” nor is it enough to perform good works. There’s not a devil in hell that does not believe in Jesus and perfectly evil people can perform good works all the time.
This odd, and frankly ‘invented,’ dichotomy disappears when the incarnation of Christ is brought into focus. The fact that God became man forever settles the issue. Chistos Yannaras in his work entitled, The Freedom of Morality, provides a section which sums it up beautifully:
“God became man so that the nature of man should be transformed—mind, senses and reason. Man’s individual effort and virtue can only ‘improve’ his outward behavior. It is unable to transform his nature, to do away with the existential self-sufficiency of nature bounded by individuality, to transform his mortal and corruptible flesh into the flesh of incorruption. This transformation can take place only if man is grafted into the body of Christ, the existential reality which creates life as a personal communion, rather than life as individual survival … What makes someone a Christian is not his private virtue or ideas or convictions, but the fact that he participates organically in the life-giving body of Christ, being grafted into the liturgical unity of the Church.”
Yannaras covers a lot of ground with this short paragraph, touching on many elements of the Christian faith that simply cannot be divided to suit one’s private understanding of the faith. That God became man forever settles the issue of whether or not our bodies and their activity in this world matter. If God was only interested in our spirit or our mental faculties He could have easily “distributed” His saving knowledge (indeed many believe this is essentially what He did), or simply appeared as a disembodied spirit (as many early heresies claimed). If our flesh and blood does not matter in the scope of our salvation then there was no reason for Christ to come in the flesh, much less to be crucified in the flesh. Having destroyed death in His own body, Christ’s gift of salvation involves the giving of eternal life to our whole being. This new life is an existential reality of “communion” with God—God is Trinity, His being is communion, the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We as children are empowered and invited to partake of His divine nature, His communion. And the avenue God has given us to enter this relationship is through the Supper—the Eucharist of his flesh and blood.
It is through the celebration of the Eucharist that the existential reality of unity with God is achieved, going far beyond both our individual good works, and our individual belief. This is why human beings could never accomplish their own salvation because our salvation requires a transformation of our being from corruption to incorruption—no amount of thinking or acting could ever effect this required change. It is not a matter of faith vs. works. The whole idea of faith vs. works is an invention of men who determined to reduce the Christian faith to manageable bits which they could master according to their own efforts. So, to end where we began, the focus of the Christian life ought to be the undivided truth. God is truth. To strive for existential congruence with God’s nature is the hallmark of the Christian life.