Edit: Due to the controversy caused by Fr. Robert Arida’s original post, Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America chose to remove the post and replace it with his own reflection.  The overwhelmingly hostile responses remain.  You may read a pdf version here: http://holytrinityorthodox.org/articles_and_talks/Never%20Changing%20Gospel.pdf.

Fr. Johannes Jacobse recently asked his fellow priest, “Fr. Robert Arida: Why Don’t You Become Episcopalian?.  He objects to Arida and theologians of his ilk on a number of points:

Unlike the Episcopalians, Orthodox liberals prefer appearances of gravitas over politeness. When the Orthodox have a point to make, they draw out the big guns like theologian Fr. Georges Florovsky, offer allusions to recent thinkers like Fr. Alexander Schmemann, provide the obligatory criticism or two of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, cite a relevant quote from the Fathers — all the elements necessary to enforce civility through presumptions of authority and erudition.

Jacobse is correct.  Well, except for the final clause.  

Fr. Robert Arida, whose article “Never Changing Gospel; Ever Changing Culture, is the inspiration for Jacobse’s ‘dis-invitation’, hardly presumes to erudition.  He is one of the more erudite priest-theologians in American Orthodoxy.  Nor is citing theologians such as Florovsky and Schmemann a presumptive claim to authority.  These are figures to take seriously, and whose “authority” has been used to defend the very positions Jacobse wishes to maintain.

To further shock any reader who is aware of my conversations with Jacobse (the comments here are illustrative) I agree with Jacobse that Arida’s article leaves difficult questions unasked.  I even agree that they may be left unasked because they are deemed too offensive.  Further, I share Jacobse’s concern that what he dubs “gravitas” may unintentionally avoid necessary moral conversation.  Arida states:

A tragic consequence of these spirits [“alien spirits” which come from outside Orthodoxy] is a Christianity of ethical systems that usurp the voice of Christ and distort the beauty of his face. It is the saving and transfiguring voice and presence of Christ that we are expected to offer the ever-changing culture.

Running the risk of being labeled a “frenemy” by Arida’s “enablers,”1 I disagree with Arida, though in a manner that hardly endorses Jacobse’s conclusions.  Frankly, it is this disagreement that has made me hesitate to respond to Arida’s article which I read well before it was on the “Wonder” site.

Here is the core of my disagreement: Positing an opposition between ethical “systems” and the voice and beauty of Christ enervates the ability to do exactly that which Arida rightly advocates —  addressing the controversial “questions and issues that are presumed to contradict or challenge its living Tradition.”

This opposition is hardly unique to Arida.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Arida’s theological mentor (and a “big gun” according to Jacobse), has no patience for ethics or social justice.  In a conversation with a faculty member at the seminary of Schmemann’s legacy, I learned that no explicit ethics course was offered because ethics could be gleaned from the required patristic courses.  “Ethics,” says Zizoulas, “operates on the basis of the polarity of good and evil,” and while culture and time may affect what principles belong to the categories of good and evil, “there can be no ethics without a categorization of what ought and what ought not to be done.”  Since the unique, irreducible and free human person cannot be identified by the qualities of good or evil, nor, slips in Zizioulas, can their actions, “the notion of ethics automatically collapses.”2

Unfortunately, this opposition mischaracterizes arenas of ethical discourse that are not only sympathetic to an Orthodox ethos, but actually a substantive expression of it.  I simply do not think that opposing ethical “systems” and Orthodox theology, whether its anthropological emphasis on non-reductive and unique human personhood or its fundamental premise that theosis is a ongoing and transformative encounter with the person of Christ, is either effective or accurate.

On a pragmatic level, refusing to engage in explicit moral discourse does not reorient the discussion towards a person-Christology.  Rather, it simply leaves a vacuum filled by those who are deeply concerned with “changing” morality, allowing a kind of triumphalism where they can assert that they are defending Christian morality in the face of “vague” and “sentimental” assertions.  The comments on Arida’s post are an excellent illustration of moralist triumphalism without substantive theological or ethical engagement.

On a theological level, this opposition fails to take seriously our ever-present need to elaborate upon, discuss, explain, and wrestle with the implications of our individual and communal encounter with the person of Christ.  This is, after all, exactly what theology is.  Arida’s point is that this theological engagement with Christ and culture is ongoing and may lead us to greater understanding of both Christ, and our transformation in and into Christ.  Throughout our theological tradition, this discussion addresses what it is that we as Christians should and should not do.  Our theological forebears constantly wrestle with how it is that we relate to one another, creation and our creator in light of this personal encounter with the beautiful face of God in Christ.

This is ethics.

The fact that certain ethical systems may consider this experience more or less integral to their ‘system’ does not make unimportant or irrelevant a clear, disciplined, and perhaps even ‘systematic’ (a word too often reviled by many Orthodox) discussion of ethics.

Arida is perfectly aware that theology is the ongoing discussion of our encounter with Christ in and who we are as persons.  This is the very point of his article, with which I entirely agree.  However, by dismissing philosophy and ethics he fits perfectly Jacobse’s characterization and cedes ground that should never have been given over in the first place.

So I am asking that Arida and his “enablers” to please consider no longer furthering this dichotomous view.  Why?

Because these dismissals shortcut the very conversation Arida wants to happen.  Because denying the importance of ethical reflection allows room for the reactionary and shallow comments his article received, most of which claim the moral and ethical high ground vacated by an Orthodox theology so focused on the eschaton it rarely asks, what does that future mean now?  Kudos to Arida for boldly stating that we should be asking such questions.

But the explosion of vitriol directed at him highlights the resounding silence of so many Orthodox who refuse to speak out in even the most tentative manner. Why do so many Orthodox refuse?  Jacobse is right on the money, again: Orthodox do not address these fundamental questions because they are afraid to give offense.

However, it is not the homosexual, or the feminist (Jacobse doesn’t mention feminism in his article, but he certainly has elsewhere) who Orthodox fear to offend.  Rather, Orthodox are afraid to offend the very people who are so unwilling to engage in precisely the kind of thoughtful engagement Arida understands as pastorally necessary.  Orthodox are afraid of losing those whose faith is about unchanging tradition and moral certitude, and so allow them to dictate the terms of the conversation.

I have been attempting to have this conversation for years as a theological ethicist.  It has been an uphill battle every step of the way.  It is a battle not because Rod Dreher is right in thinking that American Orthodoxy provides no “strong basis for them [us “liberals”] to get a foothold and advocate for the kind of modernization that they would like to see.”  I have a dissertation and a number of articles which demonstrate the way in which Orthodox tradition offers a solid footing for arguments supporting female priests.  Nor is it a battle because Orthodox views of gender and sexual morality have not actually changed, they have.  Rather, if the reception of the few of us who speak openly on this topic (currently the wonderfully formidable Dr. Valerie Karras and the gracious theologian of blessed memory Elisabeth Behr-Sigel) is any indication, sympathetic Orthodox theologians are afraid of schism, controversy, or alienating and confusing the faithful by moving too quickly.  The regular insistence that “the faithful are just not yet ready” translates to a refusal to make them ready by avoiding the conversation entirely.

This avoidance plays right into the hands of rhetoricians such as Jacobse and Dreher. It allows the ethical vacuum to be filled with cries of maintaining the unchanging moral traditions of the church by those who want to preserve the status quo .  Jacobse, Dreher and others are explicitly unwilling, and are rarely ever challenged, to consider the possibility that their beliefs are themselves immoral.

To take back this ground, or rather, to establish that Orthodox who question are firmly rooted in the long-standing tradition of theological reflection on how to live our lives, we need to speak specifically to these controversial issues as moral issues about which we believe current church practice is insufficient and even damaging.  In other words, some Orthodox claim that the moral tradition does not change, and that homosexuality or the ordination of women is a sign of immorality, we need to counter with specific theological and ethical arguments about how ordained women might expand our vision of God and God’s work in the world in a way that enhances theosis.  Or why the shaming and social ostracism of celibate same-sex couples undercuts a beautifully unique way of living partnered before God.  Or how telling faithful, non-celibate, same-sex couples that they may not receive the Eucharist and may not attend liturgy until they seek healing for their sickness is at least ethically compromised, and very possibly destructive.

Or, how utterly lacking it is in Christian hospitality, kindness, compassion and self-control to invite those with whom you disagree to leave Orthodoxy and become Episcopalians so that “the Orthodox don’t have to fight the culture wars that the liberals want to drag into the Church.”  This is, after all, Jacobse’s purpose in writing: to invite Arida and his enablers to go elsewhere and leave the Orthodox (notice that Arida is now ‘not Orthodox’) alone.

I was once told by a priest that every priest “has a right to a peaceful parish.”  Apparently, Jacobse agrees, and the best way to attain peace is to remove those who are needlessly argumentative.  He so wants to avoid these conversations that he is not only dis-inviting openly feminist or LGBTQ folk (the latter dis-invitation is beautifully addressed over at A Queer Calling).  He is dis-inviting fellow clergy who dare to insinuate an openness that Jacobse self-righteously rejects.

This is bunk.  It is unethical and immoral bunk.  It is a violation of Christian virtue.

The simple gospel fact that Christ regularly ate with sinners (even Judas was at the meal considered the first Eucharistic feast) and was reviled for his behavior calls into question any such dis-invitation.  Jesus’s persistent and controversial hospitality calls into question every moment when reject those who we can only presume are invited by God.

This refusal to cast out the sinner from their midst characterized as unnecessary “sentimentalism” by Jacobse.  Having engaged with him elsewhere, I know this to be one of his favorite means of dismissal.  Jacobse consistently aligns himself with the moral virtue of ‘toughness’, of unflinching advocacy for the truth that makes no concessions to the soft, sympathetic virtues such as kindness, compassion or love.  At best, he seeks to spin his hard truth telling as a form of love, without ever seeming to wonder (or care?) whether it actually is loving, that is, whether his truth encourages theosis in others.

Dismissing as sentimental the desire to be kind and compassionate through our ecclesial practices replaces suspiciously American (and often supposedly masculine) virtues of toughness and ‘speaking hard truths’ with Christian virtues (supposedly, and perhaps disturbingly, feminine — perhaps this is why they are rejected by those who regularly characterize male homosexuality as an unnatural feminization).  Simply because a culture has once thought something virtuous does not mean it is a Christian virtue.3

Orthodox need to stop dismissing ethics, stop handing morality over to self-appointed police who want to keep Orthodoxy in line, “who will fight” anything that smacks of the Episcopalianism they rejected.  Instead, Orthodox need to develop an ethical language, even a ‘system’, which has at its center the person of Jesus Christ from whom the practices of love, justice, and mercy flow and return.  Orthodox need to do this by speaking concretely of the particular persons and relationships to whom love, justice, and mercy are denied or impoverished by particular ecclesial practices and theologies.

This will require bravery, a bravery Arida consistently shows.  It will risk jobs, friends, families.  Perhaps even more threatening for “progressives” as well as “traditionalists,” it will risk challenging the comfortable illusion of liturgical and ecclesial perfection (some scholars even use the term “infallibility” as a shameless correction to papal infallibility) which tends to thread through so much of Orthodox eschatologically oriented theology.

But, if Arida is right, that we must look to our eschatological future, then perhaps we need to reframe our ethical questions and ask: is it possible that when we are all feasting with God, we will be served food by the woman who bore him, Thecla the martyr, Nina “Equal to the Apostles”?  Is it possible that our wine will be poured by that flaming gay man who knelt with us on the other side of our church, or that cute lesbian couple we made so unwelcome that they had to leave our earthly communion?

If our vision might include such people, then we need to boldly ask, and answer, the questions Arida poses.

  1. I love this phrase by Jacobse. I am likely one of Arida’s enablers though he and I have never spoken (or written) more than pleasant greetings to one another. Arida himself would never be so ungracious as to label me a frenemy but his earnest friends might. 
  2. Zizioulas, John. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 81 and 82. 
  3. For an excellent discussion, see Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, Christians among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics

15 thoughts

  1. I see that the Orthodox have similar struggles to those I have written about in the Catholic church, although the rhetoric among Catholics has escalated in the wake of the Extraordinary Synod of the Family. The tragic thing about inviting individuals to leave for fear of schism is that schism is just expulsion writ large and upside-down: the logic is exactly the same. And whatever happened to the shepherd who seeks after the one sheep rather than settling for the 99 he has safe?

    I very much like your criterion for whether or not an action is loving, ie, “does it encourage theosis in others?” Is that your contribution, or is it a standard criterion in Orthodoxy? It strikes me as an excellent counterpart to the Catholic criterion that what is good is what promotes human flourishing, and I’m inclined to immediately pick it up and start using them together.

    Thanks for an excellent post!

    1. Gaudete: I was constantly warned about the danger of schism anytime I mentioned my work on the ordination of women. Really, anytime I mentioned even thinking about such a topic. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel who first openly broached the topic was acutely aware of the danger. It hangs like a threat over any suggestion of change within Orthodoxy, in large part because Orthodox history is full of schisms, large and small.

      I think that particular phrasing of ethics and theosis is my contribution but the underlying concept is hardly unique to me. If you want to read more, the August 2013 volume of the Study of Christian Ethics was a Special Issue entitle “Modes of Godly Being: Reflections on the Virtues From the Christian East. In it a number of scholars explore the theme of virtue and ethics within Orthodoxy.

      1. Thanks for your reply! I was unaware that schism has been a significant problem in Orthodoxy; I had the impression of autocephalous churches in mostly irenic communion, with occasional struggles that were less doctrinal than political, over against the highly splintered Protestant traditions in the West. (“Grass is always greener” and all that, I suppose!)

        Could you suggest a good brief introduction to the historical development of the Orthodox churches that discusses the problems with schism?

      2. Gaudete, most Orthodox books to do not discuss schism as such. It is usually under the rubric “heresy”. I like McGuckin’s The Orthodox Church, and some of the recent work by authors such as George Demacopoulos at Fordham, John Erickson (The Challenge of Our Past: Essays in Orthodox Church History and Canon Law) is a good if slightly dated set of essays.

  2. I was going to pull out some choice quotes to highlight, but then I realized I would have to quote pretty much the entire second half of this post. Beautiful and powerful writing as always, Maria. I hope you’re well!

  3. A basic pastoral responsibility is edification of the Body. A priest should understand that he has taken on a unique responsibility towards his flock. His soul is tied to each in such a way that his joy shares in theirs. Certainly, he has responsibility to guard the wellness of the flock but that isn’t a license to become a Grand Inquisitor who would reject Christ himself. And when we do we fail to discern the Body and our communion in the Mysteries is diminished along with the Body. By so adulterating the medicine we fail to cooperate with our Lord and His remedy for sin is rejected. Each soul lost is a diminishment of the catholic fullness of the Body. “Tough love” is not giving up on people. That is a failure of toughness, a failure to persevere in community.

    The concern with purity that drives many former conservative Episcopalians (of whom I am one) fails to begin with oneself … but relentlessly both fails to make a good start there while also externalizing that necessary growth in holiness in an abortive attempt to be the final sifter between the sheep and the goats. It is the very spirit of Schism for it fails of forgiveness which is the heart of community. That being said, it is outside of the competence of the Church to bless sin. God does not do so … He prunes it.

    The wisdom to know when to build up and when to crush down, this is the wisdom given to a true spiritual father. It is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit who acts through a man such that when he prays; it is not he who prays but the Holy Spirit who prays in him and so through all men who pray “in His name”. We ought not to make ourselves “staretz”. St. Silouan did not do so. The gift was recognized and honored by others even as was the gift of council found in the monk dishwasher, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.

    1. John, what saddens me about this entire conversation is the way in which Arida’s exercising of his pastoral responsibility is condemned. Arida recognizes that many of those who eagerly cast out are themselves seeking to grow in holiness. You are right, we cannot bless sin. But we may be able to see that certain things we thought were sin are not, that instead, they are places in which theosis flourishes. Arida is willing to look for the work of God where others are not, as essential to the exercise of his pastoral responsibility. I wish more Christians, Orthodox or not, would be so bold.

  4. You are absolutely incorrect in your statement “Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Arida’s theological mentor (and a “big gun” according to Jacobse), has no patience for ethics or social justice. In a conversation with a faculty member at the seminary of Schmemann’s legacy, I learned that no explicit ethics course was offered because ethics could be gleaned from the required patristic courses.”

    You insult the memory of most-beloved Professor SS Verhovskoy, Provost & Professor of Dogmatic Theology & Ethics at SVS, who taught an extremely rigorous two-semester course in Ethics required of all MDiv students during the entire “Schmemann era.” Having studied philosophy and bioethics with the Jesuits, I can say that, by comparison, Verhovsky was infinitely more systematic, dogmatic, and Patristics oriented than any ethics course I later took.

    Secondly, shortly following the death of Fr. Alexander, Fr. John Breck introduced elective courses in bioethics for the DMin & MDiv programs, and is the author of The Sacred Gift of Life, and Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics,” both available from the SVS Press.

    I have often – foolishly – engaged Fr. Hans on his site regarding the issues of genetics, epigentics, medicine, psychiatry, and bioethics, and conclude that he is unqualified to engage is such discussions because he is not familiar enough with the Patristic Fathers and Tradition of the Church. He typifies those who came to the Church over “issues” (e.g. homosexuality, ordination of women, etc.), and was prepared to “instruct,” rather than be “instructed.” Since I was unable to post my response to his article regarding Fr. Arida directly on his site (posting error), you can read my direct response here.

    1. M. Stankovich: my comments regarding Schmemann’s patience are from texts he has written himself. Zizioulas says similar things. Both spurn ethics as a systematic effort outside of ‘theology’ or ‘patristics’. My comments do not dismiss that there are other Orthodox who do value and teach ethics, such as Verhovskoy. However, his work in ethics is simply unknown to those other than his students. This does not dismiss his work, but certainly raises questions as to its availability and contribution to an overall Orthodox ethics. And I am simply reporting the discussion I had regarding current courses taught at St. Vlad’s.

      I am aware of Breck’s work. He is a New Testament scholar who is primarily writing reflections on ethical topics. What tends to pass for ethical reflection in Orthodox circles is a repetition of quotes from patristic sources with very little interaction with contemporary questions or issues which might challenge the suitability of simply quoting as if that is a sufficient response.

  5. We (the Church) need a ‘subversive hospitality’; an absolute refusal to shut the door on feminists and LGBTI folk but a constant continuation of the Invitation to enter the joy and presence of the Lord. And so, the opposite impulse to “show people the door” by withdrawing the “welcome mat” is simply not Christian or Orthodox or anything that can be done in Our Savior’s name. “Welcome the stranger” is right up there with feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned when it comes to actions our Lord expects of us. God is constantly inviting us into His Presence, doing all things to heal and save us; we cannot possibly call ourselves His sincere followers if we do the exact opposite and ask people to leave simply because we are uncomfortable with their insistence that issues thought once and for decided be opened and re-examined in the light of a prophetic call for justice and mercy.

  6. Sorry to be a little late to this post. The whole line — “Why don’t you just go someplace where they do things the way you so clearly want them to be?” — just drips of condescension and question-begging, and it is shocking to me that a moment’s reflection doesn’t stop people from using it. To say nothing of the fact that it is so often a way of not addressing the actual arguments.

    I might add that as an Episcopalian, I weary of hearing folks point to the Episcopal church in this way, though I understand how it arises.

    Thank you for your posts on this. I find them bracing and helpful.

  7. A wonderful analysis if the “ethical” problem we are facing. In my responses on other sites to the inflammatory rhetoric I have said that the commentators are in violation of the ethical commands of Christ to non-violence. Their use of canons, fathers, Scripture are employed as weapons and they are responsible for feeding violence against gay people here and in other countries as well as increasing the likelihood of suicide especially in the young. They are, for the most part, ignorant of Church history. We need to look at their practice in the light of the violence committed by Orthodox Christians against Jews, especially in the Balkans, Greece and Russia. Their are many avenues to follow in developing ethical responses and we need to begin.

  8. Never have I seen so many who ascribe to this Liberal Theology who either do not know, or who are ignoring the, “clear statements of scripture”. Scriptures that address directly, clearly, and concisely these issues they have with the church’s position on homosexual marriage

    Add to this all of the writings by Church Fathers over these last 2000 years, and it boggles the honest mind as to why such issues are being once again brought up for, “dialogue”.
    Where else, would Satan’s diabolical work be as effective than in the minds, and hearts of so many “liberal thinkers” within the church.

    I’ll not list those obvious scriptures here, neither in our tongue of English or in Greek, as so many will just intellectually hack them up to mean something other than they are, and that is that homosexual marriage is not blessed by God, and is a abomination.

    2 Cor, 4:4 “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God”.

    You who somehow believe that the church should change with the social times, really and truly do not see and realize (or refuse to) that God’s word is static. It has not changed. It is not a living document up for new interpretation (new light, as it were), and is not to be watered down.

    2 Tim 3:5-7 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

    2 Tim 3:16-17 (Aramaic to English Bible) Every writing which is written by The Spirit* is profitable for teaching, for correction, for direction and for a course in righteousness, That the man of God will be perfect and perfected for every good work.

    Hebrew 4:12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

    So let us cut to the chase here… The Church’s position Is, The Word Of God, and The Word Of God is, the position of the church.
    You who push this other gospel, and you who make issues of those things that have already been settled once already, and for all times have no footing in the Church. Do you want, or do you have no problem with homosexual marriage?
    Then the answer for you is very easy, and straight forward. As one Father Hans Jacobse wrote; Why Don’t You Become Episcopalian?
    They too openly ignore those clear statements of scripture, and they too ignore those already been settled, once already, and for all times, this issue that you hold so dear.

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